Saturday, November 25, 2006

Schwa de Vivre - Chicago - Schwa

10:01 Wednesday morning found me punching numbers into my cell phone, cadging a new reservation at Schwa, Chicago chef Michael Carlson's hot and intimate storefront amazement. Less than twelve hours earlier I had been finishing dessert under Carlson's command. I had been away last year when Schwa opened to squeals of delight and unaccented schwa-y sighs.

Carlson is a graduate of the Grant Achatz school of dining as aristocratic amazement and has worked with Hester Blumenthal at England's noble Fat Duck, but Schwa has a different vision. Cooks fantasize opening a small boîte for the pleasure of a small circle of friends. And some few do. Michael Carlson is one. Schwa is a 28-seat restaurant in what some high-toned folk have labeled a "dodgy" stretch of Western Avenue (an ungentrified area of Chicago's West Town). The restaurant is situated in a pleasant-enough storefront, although sniffers might deduct points for decoration as some did for the late lamented Matsumoto (and seated by the radiator, my hot flashes were not only from the passion of the kitchen). Music piped courtesy of local white rappers, the melodic preference of the staff. Schwa's soundtrack is many leagues from Le Cirque.

The staff consists of three cooks, a helper, and a server, although everyone, including Chef Carlson (and Sous Chef Nathan Klingbail), carried plates. With two set degustations (including the eleven course menu I selected), the staff had a firm idea of their evening tasks. With the price of the full menu at $100/person (comparable to Moto or Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park in New York), savings from their modest rent is not passed on. Schwa is not a restaurant that is unaware or ashamed of its skills. (Schwa doesn't have a wine list, and the corkage fee is a wildly, trippingly modest $5.00/table).

Carlson's cuisine owes much to Achatz and other culinary modernists, although Schwa not as showy as Alinea or as antic as WD-50. I was struck by Carlson's use of negative space. As with minimalism in art, the emptiness directs attention. If the food was molecular, some plates could have used a microscope (OK, a magnifying glass). The pictures tell the tale. When I arrived home after my eleven-course banquet, I prepared a snack.

Let my phone call serve as evidence of my esteem. Michael Carlson among the most compelling and original chefs cooking today, an artist to watch. The opening of Schwa is a significant culinary event, dividing the decorator from the cook. As one who has groused at the "Disappearing Chef Syndrome," it is comforting to see Chef Carlson laboring at his stove. This is a chef who unlike some Iron Chefs doesn't need a map to find his restaurant. Should you find a hair in the soup, test for Carlson's DNA. Had not Alinea opened in 2005, Schwa is a dream personally sauteed and souffled.

Still, the critic's code of ethics prevents me from claiming that my meal was the brightest of the year (I ate at Per Se three times; Schwa was an improvement over one of those meals). Some dishes were sublime, splendid, and spectacular, some soared, and a few were good. Throughout the meal, a diner realized that there are some luxe touches that only a capacious staff can provide. Schwa's perfection was in the combination of astonishing food in its tight sphere - the diner's faith in the craftsman's touch.

Chef Carlson saved the worst for first. The amuse was two small candied apple balls, sprinkled with fleur de sel. The salt was startling, but the apple was more Coney Island than Midtown. Modest, but not deceptively so. I began to muse about hype.

Schwa Photos 001

Happily the salad course set things right. Chef Carlson composed an engaging salad with white anchovy, apples, celery, celery root, and Manchego cheese. With its bold flavors, subtle colors, and unassuming ingredients, it could have been an homage to Charlie Trotter. It was a dish that owed more to the new American cuisine that Trotter has been linked to than to the revolutionary fervor of molecular dishes. The salad was a blissful, bright introduction to Schwa's range.

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For soup, we were treated to a theatrical set-piece, Prosciutto Consomme with Melon and Arugula, a dish perhaps inspired by the vertical cuisine of Alfred Portole at Gotham Bar and Grill. Stacked languidly, as if 2x4s left by a casual carpenter, were two thin shaved slices of ham, one crispy and one smoked and thinly cut. The neighboring cup of bullion proffered the purest essence of ham. The fresh melon and arugula flakes were bit players in this moist and porcine drama.

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Carlson's Quail Egg Ravioli is that rare act of inspiration that could qualify a chef for a Genius Award. My companion asked if he could skip the rest of the menu and be served a heaping bowl. The ravioli was served with ricotta, brown butter, parmigiano reggianno, and as much white truffle as Caligula would need for a month of orgies. Here was a dish that channeled Thomas Keller, while knowing how much truffle to perfume the quail egg before a defibrillator was required. Be still my beating heart! Carlson has created the most erotic recipe this side of Tampopo, lush, gooey, musky, preposterous, and very, very opulent.

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Looking at "Illinois Sturgeon Caviar with Avocado and Cauliflower," one might imagine another Keller inspiration. It wasn't quite. Serving Illinois Sturgeon Caviar might satirize our desire to eat local at all cost. This was roe that serves in a pinch. The creamy cauliflower was a more joyous match than the avocado.

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The butter-poached lobster was a surprise, off-the-menu entry, and it was the first of Carlson's minimalist, molecular dishes. The lobster was served with sauteed gooseberries, potatoes, and Swiss chard napped with a lavender emulsion foam. The lavender brightened the shellfish with its flowery floral overtones. In the past year, I have had some remarkable lobster dishes, and this lobster can be inducted into the club. By placing pieces of the lobster on the rim of the plate, Chef Carlson engaged in frame-breaking, emphasizing how much of the plate was unused and how airy his presentation. This was another glittering combine.

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On the printed menu Nantucket Bay Scallops were scheduled to be served with the gooseberries, lavender, and potatoes. Instead we were served scallops with white truffle (again, happily), chanterelles, and Brussel Sprouts. This was a one spoon dish (silverware that owed much to Alinea), but it was a terrifically powerful spoonful. The mushrooms, sprouts, and truffle created a dish that captured the mind of mid-November.

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Chef Carlson was surely teasing us with his composition of Sweetbreads, Rhubarb, and Humboldt Fog Cheese. In the middle of a platter was a small pile of thymus, smiling like a goiter. As if emphasizing the embodied origins, a smear of rhubarb red and foggy white flowed from the organ meat. The presentation was characteristic of the Carlson aesthetic, although the dish, tasty in each part, seemed too carefully calibrated, lacking a warm heart.

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For the main course, we were served "Beef: Raw, Pickled, and Braised." The trio of servings were petite, and their placement on a spacious plate emphasized their bulk - three bites and on to the next course. The raw was tartare with (I believe) quail egg, served on a plastic "ice cube," accompanied by squibs of sesame oil and yuzu. The yuzu was a surprising match. I have bitten my tongue on many occasions, but never had such a pickled bite. Braised short rib was served with a sweet tomatillo puree, and was delicious, if not shockingly so.

Schwa Photos 009

"Cheese" was another heroic single bite. A spoon of al dente risotto, tart apple and Morbier cheese (a semi-soft, ash-filled cow's milk cheese) was suffused with flavors that revealed a gustatory harmony. The apple cut through the creamy and rich rice and cheese. Like other bites, this might have been followed by a train of other bites. Just as the first sip of wine does not perfectly predict one's ultimate pleasure, one-bite tricks produce similar vexation. The first bite alerts the diner what to evaluate, compare, and combine. Dishes need time to breathe and breed.

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Our two desserts were less compelling that the main courses. I wasn't fond of the olive shortcake with olive oil ice cream and strawberry mousse. It's sweetness had an off-taste. The plate was startlingly pretty, but not divine on the tongue. Chef Carlson's chocolate brownie with pumpkin seeds was a more satisfying construction, but not filled with the possibilities of memory. It was a fine brownie. Were it permitted, I would have selected other confections.

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Michael Carlson matters for our culinary future. He is blessed and limited in his locale. How much better he can get in his current location, and should we wish that he has a drive for improvement. Some dishes were a little off and some might have been tweaked or expanded, but the idea that we were eating food this stunningly satisfying in a little storefront on the West Side of Chicago made us brave adventurers with Carlson a bravura guide. I admit - sheepishly - that I award the idea of Schwa a solid four stars with its food at three-stars-plus. But that night I was where the action was - and where the action might not be for long. Does Chef Carlson owe us a sumptuous showplace with a corps of cooks readying an elaborate mise-en-place or does a heady gig more than suffice? I'm not taking chances. My morning-after routine is to schedule a future repast.

1466 North Ashland
Chicago (West Town)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Moto 4.0 Chicago

Jay Jacobs, the former New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, wrote of what he termed the “home-field advantage.” As applies to dining, it is the “Cheers” phenomenon, the place where everyone knows your name. And an advantage is to be had. These restaurants provide social comfort and the assurance that any problem will quickly be set right. My upscale Chicago go-to place is Moto. Moto is where I bring friends whom I really wish to impress with the possibility of cuisine

Dining at Moto is not for everyone, and perhaps is not for many. A diner who wants to stick a toe in molecular cuisine should choose the snappy and accessible Butter. But Moto provides an unforgettable and joyous evening. And, unlike so many other establishments, the entertainment is dancing on the plate and in the twinkling of eyes. I never have so much fun as when I dine on Fulton Market Street. The other grand molecular establishments - Alinea, for one – have a seriousness of purpose, absent at Moto. And, happily for diners, their price points are different (if $300 can be differentiated from $400 for the full show – less expensive for smaller menus).

Chef Cantu’s problem – or perhaps it is our problem – is that at times he seems constrained by his techniques. One feels that he has set his challenge as what dish can he make using one of his Tom Swift toys, rather than beginning with the conception of the dish and then discovering the method. Some dishes were spectacular creations, but others were modified versions of previous efforts. We were served an edible menu, dippin’ dots, nitrogenated fruit, fish cooked in a box, pizza and salad soup, liquefied Krispie Kremes, packing peanuts - greatest hits, but with the danger of soon becoming same old, same old. At his best, Chef Cantu serves remarkably evocative dishes, but at times his ideas are cramped. And as dearly as I love Moto, his genius does not shine as consistently as Trotter or Achatz. Still Cantu regularly provides a cuisine of amazement, a Cuisine Agape, distinct from what has been labeled as Molecular Cuisine. At least in the West Loop, shock and awe triumphs.

Our group of four decided on the Grand Tasting Menu. This is not the choice that I would have preferred. Once one knows the range of Chef Cantu’s abilities, he seems more accomplished working on the larger plates of the five-course menu. However, my three companions were Moto-virgins, and we selected the twenty course tour.

Moto (and other similar outposts) does not make a course-by-course evaluation easy. The menu is designed to misdirect diners: “ITALIAN food” (the pizza and the Caesar salad soup); “Chili-Cheese Nachos” (the final Ben Roche dessert with frozen mango, milk chocolate, diced kiwis and candied tortilla chips); and “Synthetic Champagne” (apple cider and verjus). The servers announce the ingredients, but in the rush, this scribe could not inscribe the complexity of the dish.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time (and although I would have enjoyed the hefty version on the five course menu), the dish that I best recall is “Rabbit and Aromatic Utensils” (utensils with a sage tassel). The dish was served with several preparation of rabbit, scarlet runner beans, white truffle power, and puffed rice. The serving was too small for its intensity, but it was a brilliant combination. A second astonishing dish was Maple Squash Cake – a squash soufflé with maple flakes and cider sauce and diced bacon. It was one of the most complete and integrated dishes I have enjoyed at Moto. The “main course,” a perfectly cooked Lamb Chop with stone-ground mustard, braised cabbage and ground kielbasa, revealed Chef Cantu’s skills in a recognizably traditional preparation, Passion Fruit and Crab, perhaps owing something to Wylie Dufresne’s attempt to create noodles of everything, was remarkable with a surprising, herbal Japanese shiso sauce and buttered popcorn puree. The Hamachi and Nitrogenated Orange worked as well – or perhaps better – than when the citrus was paired with lobster, and the Bass baked tableside had a lovely paprika smokiness. The Chili-Cheese Nachos, although a conceit, was the most impressive of the five desserts.

I find Chef Cantu’s ice creams are less appealing; the least stirring dish was Jalapeno ice cream, too salty, served with toasted quinoa. The goat cheese snow with balsamic vinegar was quickly passed over. Tonight’s doughnut soup was bubbly. I preferred the velvety version I was served at my first meal.

At the first dinner (our seven-and-a-half hour banquet referred to in Time), I commented on the wonder of the wine pairing. Since then, Moto has a new wine director, Matthew Gundlach, and I had been less impressed with the pairings, but tonight was splendid. The vintage Quebec beer (Unibroue 2005, Chambly) was eye-opening. Also notable was a 2004 August Kesseler Spatlese Riesling Rheingau, a 2004 Huia Pinot from New Zealand, and a honeyed Austrian Meinklang 2001 Trockenbeeren. We quaffed memorable dozen with only a single unimpressive pour (a 2001 Susana Balbo Brioso Mendoza). The Martini library, a set of colorful cocktails served in plastic pipettes, was an odd, giggly curiosity.

Like other diners, we were given a tour of the kitchen. Let me confess my misgivings. My guests (and I) welcomed meeting with Chef Cantu. However, this was an attempt to make the backstage a performance. Wearing goggles (and being warned not to remove them), we were to be wowed by technology. Yes, this was a memorable break, but perhaps distracted from the fact that we were there to eat and perhaps distracted the staff who were there to cook. This tension between cuisine and technology is the line that Chef Cantu must tread carefully.

Moto is a restaurant to treasure and to revisit. When I wish to persuade friends that some meals will never be forgotten this is where I take them. There are many worse things than to be known as the man from Moto.

Moto Restaurant
945 W. Fulton Market
Chicago (West Loop)

Martini Library
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Edible Menu
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Tasmanian Salmon, Daikon and Yuzu
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Italian Food (Pizza and Caesar Salad Soup)
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Maple Squash Cake
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Synthetic Champagne
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Goat Cheese Snow and Balsamic Vinegar
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Hamachi and Orange
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Passion Fruit and Crab
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Fall Fruits and Aged Sherry
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Baking Bass Tableside
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Bass Baked Tableside and Eggplant
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Rabbit (with Aromatic Utensils, not shown)
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Jalapeno, Cilantro and Avocado
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Quail and Persimmon (with Splatted Sauce)
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Lamb with Kielbasa
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Mac and Cheese (Lychee pasta)
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3 Cotton Candy Stages
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Flapjacks Prepared Tableside
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Peanut Butter and Jelly
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Banana Split Deconstructed
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Doughnut Soup and Pancakes
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Chili-Cheese Nachos
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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chefly Politics Chicago Copperblue

When chefs imagine themselves politicos, watch out. Bad enough that Arnold, Rosie, Mel, Barbra and Tom are on our case, but Grant and Charlie? Entering the new Streeterville restaurant, Copperblue, one finds - where mints are often stationed - a bowl of campaign buttons, advertising Chef Michael Tsonton's belief that Chicago's foie gras ban should be overturned, and Alderman Joe Moore, up there with Kim Jung Il on the axis of evil, should be routed in our municipal elections. Chef Tsonton serves "‘it isn't foie gras any Moore' duck liver terrine with pomegranate jelly, warm sweet pepper salad, cinnamon vinaigrette, and country bread," a concoction that reads as unappealing as Moore's resolution. We received an invitation to a fund-raiser sponsored Chicago Chefs for Choice to help defeat the bad guy Moore (November 17th: at Copperblue; $150 per). I had expected that chefs for choice were lobbying for fetuses on the menu, stem cells without the medical middleman.

Not to worry, chef. There still are kittens, tender when stomped as vigorously as if they were Cabernet. Societies (government, religions, ethnic associations) routinely decide collectively what foods are to served and which are to be avoided. That Chicago bans foie gras places liver in the same category as ortolans, absinthe, and the pancreas of supermodels. Food is morality on the plate.

Copperblue, recently opened near Chicago's Navy Pier, has received considerable buzz. The Tribune's Phil Vettel awarded the restaurant three stars, suggesting that foodies place the restaurant their culinary map. For those visiting Navy Pier or the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Copperblue, located in a nearby apartment building, should be on the map. Visitors to the pier were limited to Riva, a seafood house, which provides competently prepared food among the fast food and casual cuisine choices.

The claim that Copperblue is a three-star restaurant did not accord with my recent visit with some friends ($90/person, including cocktails, wine, three courses, tax, and tip). Copperblue is one of the least prepossessing luxe restaurants in town. One can spy the ductwork, not part of Eurostyle industrial decorating, but a result of the obdurate limits of its physical space. The paintings by Cleveland artist Paul Schuster, depicting the theme of "work and play," were pleasant enough in their heartland-friendly style.

Service was fully competent, although I was startled by how casually the waitstaff were outfitted. Stuffy they were not. For a mid-range restaurant one could not complain about shirts not fully tucked and outfits seemingly from the back of the closet, but if Copperblue wishes to compete with nearby Tru or Les Nomades, the staff must appear professional as well as be professional.

And the food. Chef Tsonton (and his chef de cuisine Victor Newgren) revere Mediterranean cuisine, the flavors of Iberia, the Midi, and the Casbah. Even when I enjoyed the creations, I felt that a bit more plagiarism might have sparked the plate. Tsonton and Newgren divide the appetizer and entree menus into "work" and "play." It is difficult to ascertain their division - or for the server to explain it. Dishes closer to a molecular, modernist cuisine seem to be considered play. But lamb kidneys in alfalfa with mustard cream is "work" while a "simple salad with a warm oven roasted fall vegetable ‘crepenette'" is play. The best predictor of whether a dish was work or play was whether an ingredient was in quotation marks (a nasty little habit I blame on Thomas Keller). No dish in the work category used quotation marks, but all but one in the play category did, including the unhappy "it isn't foie gras any Moore." Punctuation has replaced gustatory vision.

As appetizer, my wife selected the season's soup, cream of artichoke (work), I chose "Smoked Squid-Scallop mousse ravioli, walnut gelée, Tellicherry pepper cream" (play), and a friend opted for "‘ham & these' crispy saffron and Spanish ham rice croquettes with sofrito fondue" (play). [Sofrito is vegetable accompaniment, a Spanish cross between mirapoix and salsa]. The artichoke soup (with a soupcon of sofrito) was righteously smooth and intense. Creating silky cream soup is a skill that every fine chef must have, and Tsonton and Newgren do. While this was not the season that smoky artichokes are available at the farmer's market, it brought playful smiles all around. The ravioli was the highpoint of the meal. I loved how the squid mousse added a pungency to the mild scallop. Instead of sweet'n'sour, this was subtle'n'ardent. The plate was petite, more a tease in a ten course tasting menu than a main appetizer, but the artistry was evident. In contrast the croquettes, perched on thin rounds of apple, were pedestrian. Far more generous than the ravioli, my companion felt no desire to clean her plate, and I, the recipient of a croq, had no desire to help. The ham wasn't intense, and what the "heck" is "ham & these," a pun without flavor.

Entrees consisted of "ragout of lamb confit, artichokes, grilled fennel, fennel puree and sweet wine vinegar" (work) and "organic duck 2-ways: duck leg spice ‘ras el hanout,' roasted duck breast, candied cauliflower, kabocha squash, and vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam" (play). Surprisingly Chef Tsonton had removed his signature "lobster poached in butter and rue with herb-filled whitefish roulade and warm caviar gelée." That a new restaurant would excise a dish that had been receiving glowing evaluations seemed a strange choice. The lamb was a study of browns and greys, lacking in eye-appeal. Might this be what Chef Tsonton means by work? But the taste was pleasing throughout. I admired the play of fennel "two-ways" with the rich lamb. Perhaps work referred to the beige food, but not the flavor.

The duck leg was another highpoint, crisp and redolent of the souk. Spices might have been more intense, but the duck made the plate alive. In contrast to the leg, the duck breast was unmemorable (as were several crescents of Kabocha squash), sweetened by the joyously candied cauliflower. Today the claim to serve foam has such cachet that chefs claim it, even when a light sauce lacks foamy bubbles. Vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam falls beneath its own verbiage, more oddity than accomplishment.

The taste that I had of the "Mediterranean spearfish," poached with "popeye" olive oil [get control, chef] with piperade (Basque sofrito?), and warm spinach soup didn't impel me to try a second; it too was left unfinished.

Desserts proved disappointing, neither was finished. "Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Cream with Espresso Cake, Cappuccino Ice Cream, and Cinnamon Syrup" might have kept one up all night, but not because of delighted memories. It was bakery-average. "The Bosc" - a vanilla and Chardonnay poached pear with brown butter cream, puff pastry with amaretto ice cream was more successful, even if the puff pastry didn't measure up. Desserts seem an afterthought at Copperblue with the exception of the closing amuse, a nifty coconut tapioca pudding with chocolate crisp, more compelling than its sibs.

Copperblue has the virtue of location. When attending Shakespeare or an art fair at Navy Pier, Chef Tsonton's cuisine deserves consideration. Several dishes were compelling and delightful. The restaurant is worthy of two stars with its two-star prices. It is a notable new restaurant. But in its current incarnation, the restaurant seems unwilling or unable to be a premier restaurant (and here, of course, the price point matters). Perhaps Chef Tsonton is distracted by the politics of his larder, slighting the aesthetics of our plates.

580 East Illinois
Chicago (Streeterville)