Could I Have Been Wrong About Schwa on Menu Monday

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September 7, 2009 at 9:38 am

Rob Gardner

Last week I broke my Schwa maiden.  I had no intention of writing about Schwa on the Local Beet until I got near the end of our procession of courses, some strawberry soup.  It did not matter that the meal included  such seasonal treats as corn, zucchini, and beets (pics of much of what we ate can be found here), I focused, like the obsessive dork that I am, on the strawberries  and an earlier course involving peas.  Just because Schwa was a fun and enjoyable experience did not mean I could not take them to task for their lack of local.  Then, super-restaurant insider Ellen Malloy asked in our comments, “Rob. Did you ask Michael about the strawberries and peas? Or did you make an assumption they weren’t local?”

Notice I’ve been avoiding responding to that question.  Do I have a real good answer for Ellen.  Did I ask?  Well, I did not so much ask as express my disappointment to the chefs, and one of the chefs, not Michael, did confess that the dish was about to be gone from the menu–Shchwa’s just returned from a little hiatus and this was clearly a time of transition for them.  I just, not so wisely, ran with the assumption that peas and strawberries could not be local as I have not seen them for ages in my CSA box or at the various markets and stores I attend.  Except there Saturday at Green City Market, at the Nichol’s stand, where I was paying for my Cox Orange Pippin apples, boxes of strawberries. 

Even before then, when I was trying to figure out how to respond to Ellen, I knew that Nichol’s has been growing a late season strawberry.  I also knew that peas were possible if a farmer did a second planting, although I knew of no one doing that around here.  I have to say then, that I was wrong about focusing on the local-ness of Schwa’s offering, especially as it is clearly possible that the strawberries in the strawberry soup could be local.  Let me then instead do what all writers do when wrestled into a corner of dubious reporting.  Change the argument.

Should Schwa have used peas and strawberries on their menu on the first day of September.  Hell no!  Who cares the locality of the products.  Strawberries and peas speak of s different time of year for me, and they seem off-putting on a menu at the end of summer.  I think I mentioned that the pea dish itself was so-so in flavor, but I will confess that the strawberry soup tasted just fine.  Listen, if I cannot say nice things about a place, can I write about restaurants in the first place?  And everyone else has such nice things to say about Schwa.  Me, I say it’s fun and not seasonal enough.

Then, I go for my anniversary to Katsu and revel in the most non-local meal imaginable, with blue fin tuna to boot.  What in the name of Michael Pollan am I doing.  Do I have any shred of credibility left on this Menu Monday?  Should I not have focused on the three kinds of heirloom apples I got this weekend, the pile of chili peppers that gets bigger and bigger.  Could I not talk about the summer butter from Nordic Creamery that should be giving everyone a reason to go to Green City Market.  How ’bout warning you all to get your last fix of peaches as their season is about to go kaputsky.  Those things may matter more to all of us living the local life, but if I’m wrong about Schwa I want to make sure I say that.

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5 Comments

  1. Jori S. says:

    Ok, now I REALLY don’t get why you wrote the Schwa piece last week!!! You tear into Carlson for not using enough local, yet a week later you CHOOSE to have dinner at Katsu? While Katsu is undeniably the best Japanese restaurant in the city with the freshest and tastiest sashimi around, they’re definitely not serving you Great Lakes sustainable whitefish sashimi. You even responded to my original comment with, “Still, I am on a mission, and I cannot let things like brilliance get in my way.” Some long mission for local you were on there?! Just saying….

    BTW, enjoyed some more fraises des bois this past Saturday…from Seedling at GCM! LOCAL!!!

  2. art says:

    I think there are two things here that would make for an interesting discussion.

    First of all, does a restaurant have to be local to be good? And if they are not local and sustainable, are they subject to criticism for not playing by someone else’s rules of what a good restaurant is? I’m thinking of extreme places like Schwa or Alinea or simple places like a Cuban restaurant, a sushi place like you mention or the ballpark.

    Secondly, I think it would be interesting to discuss how balance fits into a local and sustainable lifestyle. On the one hand, this lifestyle is extreme. As with any extreme lifestyle the person who lives it is under a lot of pressure to adhere to. And that person, like yourself is under the microscope of the public eye for what you write just as public places that you write about are under the microscope of your local and sustainable journalistic eye. I guess my loaded point is, what would a perfect world where local and sustainable has reached its apex–be like? Would it be a “balanced” world? Would we be balanced individuals where there would never be a fear of falling off the wagon by having to purchase or being tempted to purchase something that wasn’t local or sustainable?

  3. Tom Keith says:

    Seems to me it’s all about expectations. At Katsu (or my favorite sushi place, Kuni’s) I don’t expect locally-grown uni. I don’t buy locally-grown lemons, or locally grown coffee (although I’m a big fan of the locally roasted coffee from Casteel). That’s not “falling off the [locavore] wagon”. That’s just being practical.

    But the Schwa website says “Schwa supports local growers and sustainable production.” That sets up certain expectations that Schwa might not have lived up to. (Whether they actually did or not, I don’t know, since I don’t know where they sourced their strawberries or peas.)

    To address the bigger issue, I don’t think Rob’s approach or lifestyle is extreme in any way. It’s simply putting some real thought (and action) into the benefits of eating locally whenever it’s practical. It’s not that tough, unless this time of year you habitually get your veggies from Jewel or Dominick’s, rather than your local farmers’ market.

    My 2¢

  4. Ellen Malloy says:

    Well, thanks for responding, Rob, I write as I enjoy some peas from my garden. I don’t have any strawberries, I must confess, mostly because my yard is undergoing a massive transformation this summer and I sorta, well, let the dog take over the strawberry patch. I do have strawberries, though, that ripen at different times of the year in my patch. They all don’t ripen in June.

    That said, I have a particular twitch that develops when restaurants play the local, sustainable, blah, blah, blah card and they aren’t the real deal. So, I am with you on the general concept of where you were going with your post…

    But this all reminds me of a tweet I posted in January. I was flummoxed because I was stupid enough to order a tomato and eggplant tart in winter. Your response was that the restaurant was wrong in having it on the menu.

    I don’t agree with this whole line of thinking at all. Restaurants (all companies) sell what we buy. We buy tomato tart in January, they are gonna sell it. That is their job.

    Our job, as consumers, is to be thoughtful about what we buy, where and when. So, your job, really, at Schwa was first to ask the chef about the dishes in question, if you feel that strongly about it, and then to not eat them if they didn’t feel right to you. By eating them, you perpetuate the cycle, no matter what you write on your blog.

    To comment to Tom: Sorry I think you’ve presented a slippery slope that is also known in some circles as hypocritical.

  5. art says:

    hold the phone…

    “Schwa supports local growers and sustainable production.”

    I did not know this. I will have to add another point to my original response about how many places are using the local card as a marketing tool. If they serve food out of it’s peak season can they still support local growers and sustainable production? Of course, but in my opinion, that statement carries a lot of responsibility and shouldn’t be used lightly. What’s the harm in just taking it off the menu? Just like, I’m sure there are a lot of producers out there whose names are all over menus that they have never sold to or don’t sell to anymore.

    So, they didn’t really adhere to their own standards. Unless the peas and strawberries were not conventional and indeed grown locally on a sustainable farm. I must have missed the local and sustainable disclaimer in your first piece.

    But just like they are being scrutinized for falling below the bar that they have set for themselves so are the rest of us.

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