Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More than a vealin'

I ate veal heart last week. And, like Carrie White's mother remembering Carrie's father, I liked it. I liked it!

Mind you, I didn't know I was going to eat veal heart. The Schwa menu promised this darling vegetarian combo

cauliflower, coco [sic] nibs, curry

for the pasta course, but when mad genius Michael Carlson delivered the dish to our table, he charmingly blurted, "Yeah, I fucked up the menu. Pardon my French." (I am not being sarcastic. There aren't that many people whose profane blurts I find charming, but he is one of them.) What we got instead was

veal heart, huckleberries, taleggio, yuzu

Merely typing the word "veal" gives me a frisson. It's an old taboo for me; all I can think of when I contemplate the word is a bleating, liquid-eyed calf crammed into a minuscule pen, unable to move and thereby unable to develop muscle, so its flesh stays pale and pink and tender. I wouldn't buy veal, wouldn't cook veal heart on a dare; I lack the nerve to confront the more outré organs of even fully grown animals in the sanctity of my own kitchen. But, dammit, if Michael Carlson puts it in front of me, I am going to eat it. He says that his food costs hover around 60 percent (restaurants run by actual businesspeople aim for about half that), so I'm confident that he is not going to buy sad veal. I decided that the veal calf whose heart lay precisely diced in front of me had lived a full springtime life gamboling about in green fields, having its fuzzy forelock combed by some descendant of Fern Arable who simply couldn't find the right arachnid in time.

The veal heart was, of course, delicious. Tiny cubes of slightly chewy dark-red meat and wee, so-purple-they're-black huckleberries were strewn over a perfect coil of house-made pasta—it might have been a single yard-long noodle, actually—nestled into a golden pool of honey-yuzu gelée and stinkily molten Taleggio, all sprinkled with greens so small they might have been tenderly snipped from the head of a Chia Pet. And did I mention the VEAL HEART?

“We take what’s intimidating and make it palatable,” Michael Carlson told an interviewer. “We like to educate, to challenge. We want nervousness, anticipation, but most of all we want conversation, because that’s what makes a meal great.”

Melvin and I have been to Schwa twice now, and we're still talking about it.

The other courses last week:

[no menu description: Kumamoto oyster shooter, oatmeal, almond milk]

pine, mushroom, plantain

apple pie soup
cheddar, savory, chestnut

green curry, rootbeer

tiger fish
watermelon, red pepper

extra nom[no menu description: quail-egg ravioli]
corn, patron, cilantro

zucchini, garlic, borage

[no menu description: a hot little pretzel encasing molten salty cheese]

[no menu description: concord grape soup, black pepper ice cream, microbasil]

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shack-a-Lacka TWO

There are charlatans, there are frauds, and then there are people who simply want you think that they might be one or the other but are actually fantastically self-aware, knowing, and far more sly than I can ever hope to be. One of these people is Ricky Jay. Another, maybe, is Bill Kim, guiding spirit of the Urban Belly and Belly Shack, where we went this weekend for a late lunch.

But first Ricky Jay. Jay is one of those people who is extremely well known in the circles that he is extremely well known in. He's on the cultural fringe in only the way that a man who has been in dozens of movies, has been profiled at length in The New Yorker, and has had a long-running Off-Broadway show can be. His primary shtick is legerdemain and the history thereof—he doesn't just show you a good card trick, he gives you the pedigree. What makes him more alluring than the Amazing Historical Mumford is his air of menace and the way he systematically knocks away the seeming supports of his tricks, only to pull them off all the same. There's a description of this in the New Yorker profile that Watson and I reference now and again: Jay slowly gives more and more control of the trick to his mark, asking each time, "Is that fair?" In the end, the mark has been allowed to open the pack of cards, cut them, and shuffle them, only to hand them to Jay who deals out four aces off the top, answering his own question as he does so, "I. Don't. Think. So." (If this were not a food blog, I would go into detail about his subtle "rotten dice" ruse, in which he professes that celluloid dice decay in the same way that old film stock does; to those who believe this, I say only: consider the source, not to mention the venue.)

Anyway, Jay was in town for a few days last week, doing a new one-man show that may or may not be heading to New York. It's a loose affair and, as with all of Jay's endeavors, it afforded the audience the illusion of free will. (The one truly inspired moment came when an audience member, instructed by Jay to cut a deck of cards in preparation for another bout of wizardry, asked, "Why?" Even Jay couldn't keep a straight face at that.) His piece of resistance was a memory feat in which he alternately recited a Knight's Tour of the chessboard, quoted Shakespeare, solved cube roots, and sang field hollers. You heard me, field hollers. For the Knight's Tour, he used a chess grid on a blackboard with all the spaces numbered. So the audio track to the feat went something like "Three hundred and eighty nine [a cube root]; five, sixteen [Knight's Tour moves]; I gotta woman who move too slow [field holler]; this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory [Shakespeare, like I have to tell you]," repeated until the Tour was complete. All of which led up to his concluding shout, "BOOM-SHACK-A-LACKA; two!"

And with that thin thread finally established, here we are chatting about Belly Shack, which was our return visit to the empire of Bill Kim. As with second marriages, this was a triumph of hope over experience. Underwhelmed the last time around at the fancier of his operations, we went to Kim's "sammich" joint with considerable reservations. And let me just say that, as a "sangy" guy, the affectation of "sammich" has never sat well with me. But you can't tell people what to say, any more than you can tell them what to eat. Oh, wait, Kim basically does the latter, with his minimal menu—five sandwiches, two salads, a few sides, a case of drinks, and some soft-serve ice cream. Yeah, soft-serve ice cream—another instance of a big-deal cook doing something "fun" (foie gras Pop Rocks, anyone?) to show that he's not all hi-falutin' or nuthin.

The space is weirdly shaped and jammed underneath the Blue Line tracks at Western and Milwaukee, but the vibe was much less stressful than Urban Belly's. Watson went for the Korean barbecue sandwich, which she liked, while I—a veritable portrait of ignorance as usual—opted for the boricua sandwich. This turned out to be primarily tofu and greens smushed between a couple of fried plantain slices, not at all unlike a jibarito. It was a somewhat oily mess but vastly more delicious than anything we'd had at Urban Belly. The accompanying peanut sauce was a sticky delight, too. We also went for two sides: the bland kimchi (which also came as a side with the barbecue—thanks for the heads-up, staff!) and the star of the meal, roasted squash with "pho spices," which we're pretty sure is just five-spice powder. Now that was delicious, if seemingly crazy-easy. We sat in the sun, ate contentedly, and then shared a cinnamon-caramel soft-serve that Kim dished up himself.

So yes, Bill Kim's redeemed himself in our eyes, somewhat. And if at heart he's a guy whose main interest is soft-serve ice cream, that's OK with me. But he's managed to convince some people that he's a culinary prestidigitator of Achatzian proportions (albeit one working more at the low end of the hi-lo game). He's that about as much as Ricky Jay is an up-and-coming Olympic gymnast. The difference is, Jay might yet convince me.