We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! | Bleader

Monday, March 12, 2007

We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!

Posted By on 03.12.07 at 09:28 AM

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". . . these fighters sit down around a table where they are first served 'Drum Roll of Colonial Fish' then some "Raw Meat Torn by Trumpet Blasts.'"

Say what you will about the excesses of celebrity chefdom, I'm happy to live in a world where people will pay $300 to see Mario Batali sonorously narrating those words from The Futurist Cookbook, accompanying a new music sextet's playful, jarring, and discordant performance of Aaron Jay Kernis' La Quattro Staggioni dalla Cucina Futurismo ("The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine").

That was the scene early Thursday evening at Flatfile, where the hometown ensemble eighth blackbird was raising funds to launch a concert series at the Harris Theater. The gallery's folding chairs were filled with musical patrons and curious food nerds like myself eager for a look at Molto Mario, but perhaps more anxious about the five-course dinner at Blackbird to follow (OK, I was anyway).

The intentionally lowercased eighth blackbird, which takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, has been around for 11 years, the last seven of them in Chicago. You'd think with all the love they've received (The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, tons more), they'd have a higher local profile, but that's not the case. "We're trying to change that," said pianist Lisa Kaplan, who invited me to the event. 

Kernis, who was in attendance, based the piece on Marinetti's delightfully absurd, but scary, late Italian Futurist text that proposed "a complete revolution in the nourishment of our race," part of which, sweet mercy, involved a repudiation of pasta. This wasn't the first time the group had performed the piece with Batali. They did it five years ago at Lincoln Center, with dinner at Lupa afterward, and have remained friends ever since.

Batali played his role with mock gravitas, looking, in his chef's whites and orange clogs, like a giant bearded pumpkin. He barely broke character to utter such lines as "Each mouthful is divided from the next by vehement blasts on the trumpet blown by the eater himself" or, after the musicians broke in with a series of barnyard noises, declaring that they "seduce all the beasts of springtime."

Afterward he climbed aboard a trolley with the audience for the short ride over to Blackbird, sitting in the back and chatting amiably with guests about his dinner at Schwa the previous night (he liked it). The menu prepared by Batali and Paul Kahan was supposed to be inspired by the piece but that seemed a stretch. (Click on the thumbnails below for pics of the dishes.) The first course was a poached egg with salt cod (colonial fish?), sea beans, and green garlic broth. Next was homemade orecchiette (memorably detailed in Bill Buford's Heat) with broccoli rabe pesto. Third was beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles (a sensational dish, on the menu at Babbo). Next, braised pork belly and knackwurst 'choucroute' with fingerlings, crunchy sauerkraut, and celery root puree, a pretty plate brought around by a surprising blast of vanilla in the puree. Desert was toasted cornbread with blood oranges, medjool dates, and Sicilian pistachio ice cream.

Music and food should always be this much fun.

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