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Long Trip Report (Schwa, L2O, Blackbird, Primehouse, Frontera, Sunda)

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Night 1: Schwa (or the Food God’s deux ex machina)

At around course five (or was it four?), the front door creaked open, the light from the outside world illuminating a man holding…pizza boxes? Well, I suppose even the chefs of the renowned restaurant, Schwa, have to eat something. But who would have guessed that a restaurant - serving some of the most creative, exquisite food I’ve ever eaten - would choose pizza for their evening snack. You see, I have nothing against delivery pizza. In fact, I’ve been known to dial up my local Pizza Hut every now and again. No, what I was more taken back by was what led my Dad and I this restaurant, on this day, to that moment where the pizza man made his delivery. Two weeks ago, I made an eventual failed attempt to get a reservation for a Thursday night at Schwa. I was certainly disheartened, but happily substituted Great Lake Pizza in its place and thought nothing more of the matter…until Wednesday afternoon – the day before my previous failed reservation date. In a moment of what I can only deduce to be divine inspiration, I decided to call Schwa. I don’t know if I thought I had more than the smallest of chances to score a reservation for the next evening (especially after being told they were closed for an event on that day when I called 2 weeks prior). After two rings, I was met with the friendly, relaxed voice of Chef Carlson who said that he did, in fact, have an opening for 2 people the next evening. But…I thought…Two weeks ago…Nevermind. Don’t ask questions, just go. And go we did.

Like much about Schwa, its location is a bit of an oddity. Housed in the Hispanic section on North Ashland, the 26-seat restaurant is adorned with nothing more than a few dimly lit light bulbs, metallic ceiling tiles (I believe for the acoustics), and 2 speakers. We were greeted and seated by Chef Michael Carlson’s brother. Though we would be served by nearly every one of the 4 chefs there – including Michael himself – his brother would be the “front of the house” man. Neither my Dad nor I were in the mood for wine, so we opted for tap water. Of course, when given the choice between 3 and 9 courses, we decided on the 9-course menu. Though, it seemed that many of the past 9-course menu items make their way to the 3-course, perhaps in an attempt to phase them out (i.e. The pork, beet risotto, and apple pie soup were all recently moved from the 9 to 3 course menu).

Regardless, the food began coming out shortly after our decision was made. Carlson does have an order to his menu. Dinners always begin with an amuse, then followed by his takes on a salad, soup, pasta, roe, fish, offal, meat, cheese, and dessert. I apologize if I can’t remember what was in each dish since each had at least 6-10 components.
Amuse: “Essence of Bloody Mary” – A shot glass filled with liquid that had the appearance of a pale white wine, but the intense flavor of tomato, pepper, spice, and perhaps a hint of bacon (?). Reminded me very much of Alinea’s “Distillation of Thai Flavors” in its concept. A perfect palate awakener.

1st course: “Octopus, pineapple, macadamia” – I believe the chef stated that the octopus was boiled for hours, and it sure tasted like it. Five of the most tender pieces of octopus I’ve ever had were placed in a wave-like pattern along a rectangle shaped plate, each topped with nori dusted yucca chips. On the plate was our first meeting with one of Chef Carlson’s signatures: The Smear. This dish had two excellently flavored smears: A burnt pineapple and a macadamia nut smear (I’ve never used “smear” so much in such a short time frame. I’ll try to use my thesaurus). Also on the plate were micro greens dressed with a pineapple dressing and dots of the most intense aged sherry vinegar I’ve ever tasted. According to Michael, it was aged 20 years in oak barrels in Michigan. This offered a great acidic contrast to the sweet nuttiness of the rest of the dish.

2nd course: “Elote” – This was the chefs’ take on the classic Mexican street food of grilled corn rubbed with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, and spicy chili. According to Matt, one of the chefs/servers, elote is served up and down North Ashland, and the crew began brainstorming ways to make this into a dish of its own after trying one a few days ago. The result of that brainstorming session was one of the most delicious, corny soups I’ve ever had (and I mean that in the best way possible). A small cup was filled with charred corn soup with cilantro. It was rich, and very creamy. To the right of the soup was a nice salad of charred corn kernels, cojita cheese, a garlic mayo, and spicy pieces of popcorn. Used as the glue to hold the soup cup to the plate was a nice lime puree that lightened up the soup but also served as a palate cleanser for going between the spiciness of the salad and the richness of the corn soup. One of my favorite things about not only this dish but also our entire meal was their “mix and eat” playability with their courses. As will be noted in later courses but first seen in this one, diners are encouraged to play with their food and discover the flavors for themselves. Putting the spicy popcorn and lime puree in the soup completely changed the flavor – not necessarily for the better or the worse, but simply an evolution of the dish into something altogether your own.

3rd course: “Tagliatelle with veal heart, huckleberries, black truffle” – Wow. I’ve read about this dish from other reports, but I was still blown away by the umami savoriness of the dish. Hand-cut tagliatelle, which we were told was cut an hour before we were served it, was placed in a swirled fashion climbing the side of the bowl. Throughout the pasta swirl were huckleberries and veal heart., and the entire dish was topped with shaved black truffle…never a bad thing. The bottom of the bowl contained 2 liquids. The first – my favorite – was a tellegio cheese imported from Italy. This wasn’t any ordinary cheese, however. According to Matt, the cows were not given water during the day and were essentially dehydrated. This gave the milk a more concentrated flavor, and I certainly couldn’t argue with him. The cheese was oh-so rich and went perfectly when mixed with the second liquid, which I believe was a huckleberry sauce, but I don’t quite remember. We were given a spoon with direct instructions to slurp up the leftover juices after the pasta was consumed. For those, like myself, who have never had huckleberries before, think a smaller version of a blueberry. The pasta was perfectly al dente and had that chewy give that only fresh pasta can have. I could have eaten a whole bowl, but I was assured the best was yet to come.

Free course: Ravioli stuffed with Buffalo ricotta, goose egg, aged parmesan regianno, topped with brown buttershaved summer white truffle. Michael’s brother delivered this to a guest saying, “This will melt your face off.” My face was thoroughly melted.

4th course: “Bottarga, chocolate, polenta” – Another dish that, by looking solely at the ingredient list, had me shaking my head in disbelief that the flavors would work in harmony. After the dish, I was still shaking my head in disbelief, but this time at how wrong I was. Set before us was a bowl of creamy polenta. Normal enough, right? Yes, but above the polenta was a “bridge” of chocolate extending past the ends of the bowl. The chocolate was sourced from a small producer in Venezuela and was extremely cocoaey and bitter on it’s own. Atop the chocolate were 3 nickel-sized chunks of blue cheese from a small farmer in Wisconsin (at which time Michael’s brother made a joke that all people from Wisconsin are crazy and cannibalistic, but make great cheese. I, being a Wisconsinite, disagreed on the cannibalistic part). Sharing space with the blue cheese were slivers of bottarga (cured fish roe). We were once again encouraged to smash the bridge of goodies and mix it into the creamy polenta. Again, wow. All of the buds on my tongue were dancing to this funky mélange of flavor. Each bite would be a surprise. Creamy and pungent blue cheese in one bite, bitter cocoa and smoky bottarga (kind of had a smoked salmon flavor) in the next, all held together by perfectly cooked grits. Who knew? Michael Carlson, I guess.

5th course: “Day-boat Halibut, carrots, marshmallow” In a close race with the Bottarga for the most unique plating of the night, the 3 or 4 oz filet of halibut rested on a sweet date puree. Enrobing the entire piece of fish was a frothy carrot puree, with 2 yellow heirloom carrots on its right and left flanks. On the far left and far right sides of the plate, crispy shallots lay atop a puree of something I cannot remember to make a flavor eerily similar to the traditional green bean casserole (which was the chef’s intention, by the way). Where this dish really takes a Carlson turn into left field is the long stripe of toasted, homemade green cardamom marshmallow. The marshmallow, by some kind of sorcery, provided a great aromatic element that made the dish very bright and refreshing. My only qualms were that it was a touch too sweet. Carlson has an affinity for sweetness in his dishes, but the heirloom carrots, carrot foam, date puree, and marshmallow were all sweet things. The fish, by the way, was cooked perfectly. In the moment, I thought the dish to be somewhat overkill on the sweetness level, but when taking it in consideration with the whole meal – and especially the following dish – it all seemed to fit.

6th course: “Biscuits and Gravy” – In stark contrast to the sweetness of the halibut, this dish was 100% savory and rich. His grandmother, who lives in South Carolina, influenced Carlson’s take on biscuits and gravy. In fact, the house-made biscuits were not only his grandmother’s recipe, but the flour they use is sourced directly from the same kind she uses in South Carolina. Because the three biscuits were so small (about the size of a bouncy ball), they were more dense and dumpling-like than flaky. But, this made them excellent vehicles to sop up the coffee-accented red eye gravy, fermented black beans, braised mustard greens, and sausage gravy. Up to this point, this dish sounds very traditional. However, I doubt Carlson’s grandmother used sweetbreads in her recipe. Yes, 3 perfectly fried nuggets of offal goodness dotted the plate. Crunchy on the outside but creamy on the inside, Carlson sure knows how to prepare a thymus gland.

7th course: “Waygu beef” – Our final primary savory course was expertly cooked (likely sous vide style) waygu beef. If you like your beef ultra-rare, as I do, then this was nirvana. In fact, I would have been fine with just a few ounces of that succulent cow, but then I would have missed the invigorating parsley puree that lightened the dish and the crispy fried brussel sprouts that added a good earthy crunch. But what’s this? Little orange gems? I bite into one and what can only be described as “the taste of the ocean” burst across my palate. Shad roe, one of the culinary signs that spring is upon us, are the eggs of river herrings (source: Wikipedia). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but this seemed to be a sort of surf-and-turf. In between bites of minerally, rich waygu beef would be lustrous pops of ocean cleanness. Oh, and I forgot to mention that a good shaving a black truffles were sprinkled in just to seal the deal (Truffle counter is up to 3 courses)

8th course: “Beer and Cheese” – Chimay monks, normally known for their beers, also happen to make excellent cheese. Instead of washing the rind of the cheese with salt, they use beer. This cheese was melted into a fondue and filled into a croquette-sized pretzel ball. Chimay beer foam and a mustard crisp completed the reinterpreted version of this classic flavor combination.

9th course: “Celery root custard, white chocolate, banana” – It seems only fitting that in a meal full of sweet savories, we end on a savory sweet. In the center of a bowl lay firm textured, yet incredibly creamy custard. It has the consistency of a well-made flan. By itself, the custard had a strong celery taste with a unique saltiness, which proved a perfect match for the sweet sous vide banana, white chocolate mouse, and salted caramel sauce. Again, everything seemed to go together despite what my preconceptions taught me.

As the pizza deliveryman left the restaurant completed his journey, I wondered if it wasn’t some half-hearted jab by fate of what our night could have been. I’ll probably never know why I called back the day before, let alone how I was able to obtain a reservation, but I didn’t much care anymore. During our entire 3-hours of dining, the service was excellent and attentive. No, there wasn’t any bread service, and, yes, we ate 4-star food to the sultry sounds of Tupac and death metal, face-melting guitar riffs. But the passion of the chefs was evident in their hospitality and genuine thanks to our dining with them that evening. Never before has a restaurant experience felt so much like dining in the chef’s home. In the words of Chef Michael Carlson, “We cook the food we want to eat in an environment we want to eat it in.” And thank goodness, because the restaurant world is all the better for it.

**More to come in the next few days!**

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  1. Great report - looking forward to future installments!

    1. Nicely done - you need pictures if only so I can see what the hell "Bottarga, chocolate, polenta" looks like - sounds amazing.

      The entire experience (layout, music, obscure reservations system, and even desserts) sound very akin to Ko.

      Look forward to further reviews.

      http://uhockey.blogspot.com

      22 Replies
      1. re: uhockey

        It compares with Ko except that Schwa wouldn't bitch at you if you take pictures in the restaurant.

        1. re: mountsac

          I've never heard of Ko. Is it a restaurant in Chicago?

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Momofuku Ko is a 2-star restaurant in NYC.

            1. re: mountsac

              I've heard of it. People call it "Ko", huh? Okay, gotcha... (Thanks!)

              So Momofuku Ko is like Schwa...

              1. re: nsxtasy

                It is similar in that they use unique flavor profiles (the celery ice cream, for instance), blast Rage Against the Machine and 2-PAC, and have an obscure reservations system with a very stripped down approach.

                From what I've read about Schwa the two are very un-alike in that the people at Schwa seem to care about their customers whereas Ko treats you like it is a priviledge to be there. I want to visit Schwa - I'd never go back to Ko unless someone else was paying and going through the reservation hassel.

                http://uhockey.blogspot.com

          2. re: mountsac

            That makes it vastly superior - and its cheaper. :-)

            http://uhockey.blogspot.com

          3. re: uhockey

            Thanks! I was really wanting to take pictures of the dishes, but the room was really dark and my iPhone (my only camera at the moment) takes poor images that wouldn't do the food justice. I've been meaning to purchase a better camera, but I spend all of my extra money on restaurants :(. I think they call that a catch-22.
            Anyway, if you go to Schwa's website (www.schwarestaurant.com) and click on the "Menu+Experience," you will notice 10 thumbnail pictures on the right hand side of the page. Each of these pictures will bring up a video of a dish being constructed. The Bottarga dish is on the second row from the top on the far right hand side.
            Just for reference, the pretzel/beer dish is on the 3rd row from the top on the far left side, the Tagliatelle dish is on the second row on the far left side (above the pretzel), the sweetbreads biscuits and gravy is on the 3rd row in the middle, and the celery root dessert is the only one on the 4th row. Sounds confusing, but I hope this helps!

            1. re: pastry634

              Fantastic - thanks!

              http://uhockey.blogspot.com

              1. re: pastry634

                So I gotta ask - when you originally booked at Schwa, did they even take a name? We've got reservations coming up and the total non-chalant attitude cracked me up. "Yeah man - uh-huh - whats you're phone number? How many people? What time you want to eat? Any restrictions or allergies? Cool, call us a couple days in advance if you can't make it." No name taken, just the number of people and restrictions. :-)

                We're planning on a concert after the meal (5:30 seating, concert starts at 9:00pm.) Are portions "large" - I can eat for hours but my sister who is going with me doesn't want to be "Stuffed" Also, do they do a bread service with the meal - I like bread as a palate cleanser. If not, probably will have to take a neutral non-water beverage.

                Cheers.

                http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                1. re: uhockey

                  Hey uhockey, sorry for the late reply. When I originally booked Schwa, they did take my name. They are very chill about the whole reservation process (some would say too chill), and even told me, "Make sure you guys dress comfortably, it's f****** hot here." They did ask us about restrictions and number of people, as well as told us that they are a BYOB place. I wouldn't worry about it. They probably don't have a lot of people coming in at 5:30, so they'll know who you are. If you don't know what you are bringing yet, I would recommend bringing whatever you would drink. Even if, as I believe you are doing, you are not planning on drinking, bringing the kitchen a case of brew or really anything alcoholic is always appreciated :)
                  In terms of portion sizes, it is "small" in terms of average restaurant portions, but 9 courses adds up quick. We were full by the end of the meal but not stuffed. Carlson packs a lot of flavor into small bites. There is no bread service. You will sit down, tell them you want the 9-course menu (you get a choice between 9 and 3...you will want 9), and then they bring out the amuse and it begins.
                  Another final note: Do not ask for the quail egg and brown butter ravioli. I'm not sure if you know this, but this has been known as their signature dish. They consider it a "surprise" dish that will be brought out in addition to the 9 course menu, and they have been known to not bring it out if you ask for it. Sit back, enjoy the rap and rock beats, and let Carlson and his crew take care of you. I've read your blog and it sounds like we have similar tastes, so it's safe to say you will have a great time!
                  If you have any more questions, feel free to ask away.

                  1. re: pastry634

                    Groovy, thanks. :-)

                    Good note on the quail egg - I know some ask and some don't - and yeah, he suggested "in layers" because it'll be cold outside but "balmy" inside.

                    http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                    1. re: pastry634

                      "Do not ask for the quail egg and brown butter ravioli ... they have been known to not bring it out if you ask for it."

                      Seriously? I know they're eccentric and don't follow conventions in a lot of areas, but this sounds like the behavior of a petulant 6-year old. ["You can't make me. You're not the boss of me!."]

                      1. re: chicgail

                        I don't believe that Carlson's attitude mimics that of a 6-year old. The course is meant to be a surprise that breaks up the meal. If a customer is asking for it and expecting it, then it isn't much of a surprise.

                        1. re: aburkavage

                          I agree with you - but I also see chicgail's point.........The French Laundry serves the gougeres, salmon cone, 9 courses, one mignardise (creme brulee or pot du creme), the tier of candies, and the macadamia nuts to every diner......but I guarantee you they would NEVER refuse to do Coffee and Doughnuts if someone asked......

                          http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                          1. re: uhockey

                            But then the French Laundry has a kitchen staff of two dozen also. LOL

                            1. re: oysterspearls

                              What's the size of the staff got to do with it? If they're planning to "surprise" ALL the patrons with the ravioli course, they must be staffed and prepared to make that happen.

                              Anyway, it doesn't sound like the ravioli course is such a well-kept secret anyway at this point.

                              1. re: oysterspearls

                                They have 2 at the dessert station.....

                                and I again agree with chicgail.

                                http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                                1. re: uhockey

                                  Don't take me wrong as I don't agree with the ravioli course also, if its true. Though comparing the French Laundry staff to the three or four at Schwa is comparing apples and oranges. The mise en place at the French Laundry is decided upon and prepped way before service starts. How many perks and gifts are also considered. You can trust when a diner inquires about the Coffee and Donuts the station is not whipping up batter in the middle of service. It's calculated before service.

                                  Note the link below. If accurate and Carlson makes 20 ravioli a night and runs out he can't make more once gone. Which makes me question the whole notion of refusing those who ask.
                                  http://forkmylife.blogspot.com/2010/0...

                                  1. re: oysterspearls

                                    Whether it's true or not, it does make for great legend.

                                    1. re: chicgail

                                      Completely agree. It's just a nice topic of conversation when they bring it out "O, and here's the special course that isn't on the menu, but we only give to certain people who don't ask for it." As the diner, hearing that makes you feel good, which is truly what they are all about at Schwa.

                                      FWIW, I thought the pasta on mine was a little overcooked and one of the less memorable dishes of the night!

                  2. re: uhockey

                    Also, I would highly recommend a feature Chicagoist did on Chef Michael Carlson. Several of the dishes we had were listed, and you can really get a feel for his restaurant philosophy and vibe: http://chicagoist.com/2010/03/15/deta...

                    1. re: pastry634

                      That's a great video...if you aren't excited to eat at Schwa after that, I don't think you have a pulse.

                      "Our gameplan is the same gameplan as every night, man. We're makin 30 people happy."

                  3. Day 2: David Burke’s Primehouse

                    Last year, our burger trip took us to Kuma’s. While very good, putting it at the end of a 5-day caloric catastrophe (in a god way…) was not very smart. By that time our palates were exhausted and our stomachs pleading for mercy. To avoid such events this time around, we scheduled our burger as early as we could. I’m sure glad that we did, because this was unlike anything I have tasted in patty form.

                    We arrived at 11:30 and were immediately seated. Literally being the only two people in the dining room at the time, service was expectedly quick, helpful, and friendly. My dad and I each started with the soup of the day: A beer and cheddar soup. Shortly thereafter, our soups arrived with a complimentary side of their delicious assiago popovers. OK, with the near 100-degree heat outside, this wintery dish might have sounded unappealing. But it really hit a savory–spot with me with its classic sharp cheddar and yeasty beer flavor that harkened back to my childhood in cold Wisconsin winters. What really kept me going back for more bites was the little kick of spice (maybe cayenne?) that would creep up after every spoonful. The popovers, which arrived steaming hot with a crackling exterior, served as an excellent way to sop up the cheesy remnants at the bottom of the bowl.

                    Soups finished, our two “Burkers” arrived. This isn’t any normal burger, however. These are 8-9 ounce patties of 40-day dry aged prime beef. Now, just for a little perspective, to my knowledge I have never had dry-aged beef before, let alone 40-days. And I am now regretting the number of years that have passed where it was not in my life. The burger was cooked a perfect medium-rare and had the most luscious, funky, intense beefy flavor I’ve ever had. Each bite I would go in expecting the ground beef I was used to and was surprised of the complexity I came away with. Not only that, but the texture was amazing as well. The patty was obviously hand formed, but the meat had what I can only describe as a “pull.” The meat wouldn’t just crumble away from its original form, yet it wasn’t tightly packed and tough. Quite simply, it didn’t feel like I was chewing a burger so much that it felt like I was chewing a steak. This likely has something to do with the coarseness of the grind they use, but whatever it is, I hope they keep doing it.

                    According to our waiter, the beef is only lightly seasoned with salt and pepper - letting the meat stand on its own. I found this kind of odd, considering the burger is topped with garlic spinach, crispy shallots, and bacon mayonnaise (literally bacon mixed in with mayonnaise). The condiments were meant to replicate a steakhouse experience. I usually consider myself a burger purist and rarely add more than some onions and mustard. However, I have to say that it all really worked well together. The fried shallots offered great texture, and the spinach and bacon mayonnaise wasn’t globbed on in overkill amounts and instead worked with the beef to make this not only a burger of well-prepared ingredients but also of surprising creativity. The toasted potato bun was also a pleasant surprise. Being used to the flimsy potato buns of super markets, one of my biggest worries was that this juicy burger would create a bun that was a soggy shadow of its former self. Instead, it was firmer than expected, almost cibatta-like sturdiness without the unpleasant chew. On the side, we received a mountain-sized pile of shoestring fries topped with assiago and truffle oil. The fries by themselves were unremarkable, but the cheese and truffle oil made them addicting starches to snack on in between burger bites.

                    After our meal, we were able to visit the butchering and aging room below the restaurant. Inside was the very friendly butcher who explained to us the process the meat goes through from delivery to plate. After it is carved and the differing cuts separated, the meat is placed into an aging room. The smell of the room was certainly pungent with hundreds of pounds of meat and mold doing their magic. He showed us the back wall of pink salt from the Himalayan Mountains and told us that it not only dries the air out, but also it flavors the meat in a distinct manner. Thus, if we were to purchase 40-day dry aged meat from another establishment, it will taste somewhat differently from Primehouse’s because of the salt sourcing. The butcher then showed us some aging ducks and quail, stating that they are “experimenting” with aging different kinds of meat. I’ve only seen these types of operations online or on TV, so I thought the whole experience was fascinating.

                    I must admit, after my first encounter with dry-aged meat, I have feelings of both joy and sorrow. Joy that my world of what meat can taste like has substantially increased, and sorrow that it will be sometime before I can experience it again. But, if I had it all the time, it wouldn’t be so special. This is a rich, filling meal for even the most insatiable carnivores. But if you get the chance, I would certainly try what has become my favorite burger experience.

                    -----
                    David Burke's Primehouse
                    616 N Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: pastry634

                      Both reports were tastefully done. It was as if I were there experiencing the offerings with you and your dad. Cheers!

                    2. Dinner 2: Blackbird

                      In deciding where to go for Friday night’s dinner, it was really a toss-up between the two Kahan restaurants that we haven’t been to yet: Blackbird and Publican. What was a big factor in making the decision is the fact that I am still 5 months away from 21 years of age and thus would not be able to sample some of Publican’s fine beers. But, really, when Blackbird is the choice you are “left with,” things are that bad.

                      After a day’s worth of walking the Primehouse burger off, we arrived at the restaurant a little before 6:30. The one word I would use to describe the décor and style of Blackbird is: Modern. In contrast to the homier, wood-covered style of its neighbor, Avec, Blackbird is a sleek white and black with contemporary art and designer outfits for the staff (No, really). When we arrived, the room was mainly filled with businessmen and women ending their week with a nice cocktail from the bar, and only a few of the tables were occupied. We were led to one of the many tables against the left wall. Now, Blackbird is a very small place for the volume of people they serve a night. The tables are very close together. So close, in fact, that to take my seat against the wall, the table had to be pulled out and pushed back in. When both of the tables next to ours were empty, this was little more than minor inconvenience. However, as the night wore on both of the tables became occupied and servers began navigating the restaurant at a more hurried and frequent pace – both of which makes for a very awkward moment of getting out from my seat. With my only major complaint aired, I think it’s time to move on to the definite highlights of the evening.

                      We began with an amuse of braised lamb belly with watermelon and spicy roasted peanuts. Though the whole thing was eaten in no more than two bites, this was one of my favorites. It was a small glimpse at how Blackbird treats its food – high quality, often unique ingredients that are simply prepared in their own right and brought together in sophisticated combinations. Here we have rich, sweet, and spicy. A classic profile in a not so classic interpretation. I would have ordered an entrée size of this dish! Following the amuse, we were presented with our drinks and some bread and butter. My dad ordered a seasonal cocktail that I took a sip of and really enjoyed, but I can’t quite remember what it was. I, on the other hand, ordered the house made lemonade that the waiter told us was actually Paul Kahan’s own creation at his home, so he decided to bring it to his restaurants. It had a fresh, tart lemon flavor with a good handful of mint leaves. Interestingly, mint in lemonade would make another appearance in our trip (but more on that, later).

                      For appetizers, we decided to each order our own and split a third. I went with the glazed veal sweetbreads with lime onions, tamarind, bee pollen, and fried chocolate. Always a sucker for sweetbreads, I thought these were fantastic. Unlike Schwa’s sweetbreads, which were deep-fried and crunchy, these were tender all the way through and glazed with a nice sweet syrup. The lime onions had the crunch and burst of acid of pickled cabbage, and the fried chocolate offered some savory relief in an otherwise sweet dish. The bee pollen came in the form of little purple and white flowers. Other than making the plate look beautiful, they gave the dish some unexpected floral hints. However, if the bee pollen was too easily overpowered by the other strong flavors on the dish and was too often lost. If sweetbreads are my weakness, foie gras is my dad’s. Thus, he happily gave in and ordered the roasted Hudson Valley foie gras with charred green garlic, black garlic, green almonds, and shrimp salt. I only got a taste of the foie gras, and I can happily report that it is still as unctuous as ever. As for the composed dish, he ate it with nary a complaint – which is always a good sign. For our shared appetizer, we ordered the Charcuterie plate with duck sausage and mortadella with almond yogurt, fennel, smoked almonds and lobster roe vinaigrette. While the mortadella tasted fine, the real star was the duck sausage. The sausage had a nice kick and a grind that still had distinguishable chunks of duck. The fatty richness of the meats was tamed by the combination with the cool and creamy almond yogurt, fennel, and lobster roe vinaigrette. This was my first experience ordering a Charcuterie plate, and I have to say I was not disappointed in the least.

                      Around 15 minutes after our appetizer plates were removed our entrees were delivered. I had heard many positive reviews on Blackbird’s preparation of pork belly and was dead set on making that my choice. However, the belly was replaced only a few days prior with a pork tenderloin. Though it threw me for a loop, I found a quick substitution: Aged pekin duck breast with porcinis, fava beans, and brown butter Worcestershire sauce. Did I mention I love duck? Too often, refined places such as Blackbird get a bad rap for serving stingy serving sizes at high prices. Therefore, it was to my delight when four large pieces of duck breast – cooked perfectly tender with crispy rendered fat – arrived atop a succotash of sorts of bright green fava beans and sautéed, earthy porcinis. Far too often I have had duck that had more fat than meat, and the fat was inedible because of its chewiness. Blackbird’s duck, while I wasn’t sure if I could make out the “aged” qualities of it, was one of the best preparations I’ve had. The fava beans were more al dente than I was used to, but offered a nice crunch and color contrast. Overall, this was a very successful dish, and one to which I will be comparing all future duck preparations. My dad went with the roasted Colorado lamb saddle (loin) with white asparagus, vermouth, fromge blanc, and spring pea falafel. He loved this dish. The lamb was cooked rare and had a nice sear on the outside. Strangely enough, I did try one component of the dish, and it was not the lamb, but rather a sample of the spring pea falafel. The falafel, more oval shaped than circular, had a very bright green color (sort of a color theme of our whole meal) and strong pea taste. It had a crunchy exterior and tender, crumbly interior.

                      Feeling that I was almost at my bursting point, knew that I had to march onward and try dessert, if not for me, than for those who will read about it. OK, so it wasn’t that heroic of a situation, but I was surprised by how full I was up to that point (eating a huge burger for lunch probably didn’t help matters, either). I ordered the Criollo chocolate with cupuacu, milk meringue, and tonka bean ice cream. To be honest, I had no idea what most of those ingredients were, but if it was chocolate, how could it be bad? After some Wikipedia research, I discovered that Criollo chocolate is sourced from the northern coastal range of Venezuala. It is also one of the most expensive and difficult kinds of chocolate to grow in South America. Cupuacu is a tropical rainforest tree similar to the cacao. In my dessert, the flavor of the pulp was extracted and used to flavor the chocolate that was spread across the plate. Tonka beans come from a species of flowering tree from the pea family. The bean itself was used in my dessert to flavor ice cream that was encapsulated within a hard chocolate shell. The flavor was very similar to vanilla but had some extra spice in there (Wikipedia says “almond, cinnamon, and cloves.”) Now that we have some of the terms defined, I’ll try and describe what exactly I ate. A long, rectangular plate was smeared with a bottom layer of the dark criollo chocolate. Nestled atop the smear was a row 3 chocolate balls. The farthest left was a solid chocolate ball flavored with the cupuacu dusted with a fruity powder (I want to say raspberry). In the middle was a hollow chocolate ball filled with the tonka bean ice cream. And, finally, the farthest right ball was filled with melted criollo chocolate. The milk meringue was ethereal light and melted in my mouth. It was drier than I expected and crumbled over the entire dish. After I finally figured out what was going on in my dessert, I really loved it. It was a sort of taste journey through the sensationally complex and rich criollo chocolate, and I really appreciated the way the chefs were able to highlight the chocolate and pair it with other flavors without masking it. My dad ordered the fried polenta with Klug Farms blueberries, lemon verbena, and smoked brown sugar ice cream. Again, I was only able to snatch a bite from this dish, but I really loved what I tasted. The polenta was marinated (I don’t know if this is the right word. Dipped?) in maple syrup, and the blueberries were plump and fresh. What I loved most, though, was the smoked brown sugar ice cream. It tasted exactly as it sounds, but even then it surprised me. It had that sort of sweet, smoky flavor of a good dry rub on ribs, and it was definitely a combination I had never thought of putting in ice cream form.

                      Blackbird was a fantastic dining experience. While it certainly didn’t change the way I thought about food, it does what it does better than any restaurant I have been to in some time. Each flavor was well executed, the service was very attentive and helpful, and the ambiance was lively and fun. I would love to go to this restaurant in each season just to taste what they can come up with next. So, we left Blackbird full and pleased, and we headed towards the theater for Inception. On a non-food related note, if you haven’t seen that movie, please do yourself the favor and do so!

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                      Avec Restaurant
                      615 W Randolph St Ste A, Chicago, IL 60661

                      Blackbird Restaurant
                      619 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL 60606

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: pastry634

                        ...when we went for lunch Paul Kahan himself delivered a dish to the table that I'll never forget - Roasted Hudson Valley foie gras with peaches, peppers, and tomatoes. It was the very essence of summer and the foie had the perfect balance between a seared prep and a pate......potentially the best cooked Foie I've ever had outside of L2o.

                        Sounds like a great meal.....and yeah, the film was superb.

                        http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                        1. re: uhockey

                          wow, in one long week in philly you ate in all the best places in town. impressive. carmans is a gem!

                          1. re: kathleen rose

                            Like my meals in Chicago, my meals in Philly were largely the recommendations of fellow Chowhounders. I only hope my experiences help others have an equally great dining expereince in the cities they visit.

                            Carman's was good. Modo Mio was a gem. :-)

                            http://uhockey.blogspot..com

                        2. re: pastry634

                          Pastry634 - you are a superb writer! I am so enjoying your reports and I wish that I could travel with you and your dad. Kudos!