Just Eat It

Every time I eat a fried oyster from now on, I’m going to think of Tool. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a better association than, say, food poisoning, or John Mayer. But it is kind of weird to associate beer-battered seafood with slightly disturbing art-metal.

The reason for this odd connection is a dinner I recently enjoyed at Blue 13, a contemporary American restaurant in Chicago. The premise of the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dinner” series is simple: each week, the restaurant chooses a band or group of bands (e.g., Kings of Leon, Jimmy Eat World, The Bands That Shaped the ’90s), and then creates a menu inspired by certain songs. The theme for my dinner was “The Bands of Lollapalooza ’09” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Silversun Pickups, Tool, Cold War Kids, TV on the Radio and Coheed and Cambria – with a track from each band paired with a different course.

This was how I came to be eating three different types of beer-fried oysters while listening to Tool’s “Sober”. Hey, at least they didn’t choose “Prison Sex”.

I was intrigued by the prospect of this dinner for many reasons: It was the closest I’d get to a “Top Chef”-style challenge; it gave me a chance to get more well-acquainted with some of the bands I was about to catch during the weekend-long fest; and it combined two of my favorite things: food and music.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between these two pleasures a lot lately, ever since I wrote an article about the Taste of Chicago (a week-long ode to gluttony in Chicago’s Grant Park) in which I suggested the best food booths to hit before catching the various musical acts hitting the stages (see “Eat to the Beat”, Centerstage, 19 June 2009). What began as a lighthearted piece really got me curious about how specific foods can enhance or detract from a musical experience, and vice versa. As my waiter at Blue 13 put it, taste is known to be affected by both smell and sight – but where does hearing come in, in this pleasurable experience?

Actually, sound tends to intersect with the other senses surrounding food a lot – and I’m not talking about all the songs there are about food (my current favorite: King Khan’s “Took My Lady To Dinner”). From low-key luncheons with string quartets to endless soundtrack loops at corporate chains, music is an ever-present part of the dining experience. Much of the time, what’s important isn’t what you’re hearing but the fact that there’s something to fill the awkward silences that might arise while you’re chewing.

Things take on a more purposeful tone at some eateries, where the music can help to reinforce the authenticity of the food; ethnic restaurants are a good example of this, with mariachi bands in Mexican joints and polka acts accompanying dishes of schnitzel and spaetzle in German beer halls. It’s unclear whether the sound of real Moroccan music can make a diner’s tagine seem that much more authentic, but it probably doesn’t hurt – especially if there’s a belly dancer involved.

Continuing the authenticity trend, there’s BBQ and blues. The combination of smoked meats and anguished growls is something I’ve seen regularly around Chicago, and I’d bet the relationship has a lot to do with recreating the culinary traditions of the Mississippi Delta where the music began.

It’s debatable how deep these relationships run. You probably won’t encounter an accordionist at a soul-food restaurant anytime soon, but you’ll find a lot more than brisket and ribs at a blues fest. However, the standards become more rigid as you go up the dining scale. For example, you wouldn’t want to play a Muddy Waters record at a dinner party featuring caviar and champagne. In fact, at a high-falutin’ event like that, you probably wouldn’t want to play anything that would do more than politely blend into the background. Memorable music is not typically high on the list of priorities for upscale caterers.

This applies to fine-dining restaurants, too, where you’re unlikely to hear anything beyond some soft jazz or classical tunes (music generally associated with the finer things in life). The unspoken message: if the food is good, your attention should be focused on it, not what’s playing on the sound system.

Not all upscale establishments see things this way. Take Chicago’s Schwa, for example. It’s nearly impossible to get a reservation at this tiny restaurant in the Wicker Park neighborhood, due in part to its being named one of the top eateries in the country, but also due to the fact that the chef/owner, Michael Carlson, is the one who’s answering (or not answering) the phone – in between cooking, waiting tables and doing everything else that goes into running a restaurant basically all by yourself. It’s no wonder that Carlson closed the spot for about a year due to exhaustion. If you’re lucky enough to get through, or to leave a message on a day that the voicemail box isn’t full, you might be able to snag a table for a few months down the road.

After all the buildup, you’d probably expect a quiet, reserved, even pretentious experience. Instead, you’ll spend a decent portion of your meal being wooed by the Wu-Tang Clan – or whatever music (mostly hip-hop) that Carlson and his sous-chefs are into on that particular night. It’s not played at frat-party levels, but it’s enough to let you know that you’re not in an average four-star eatery. The music choice is reflective of the fact that at Schwa, you’re totally at the mercy of your hosts in all aspects of the meal; this is a tasting-menu only place, so your experience is pretty much completely dictated by the whims of the chef – and that includes your soundtrack.

If you want predictability, you don’t come here. You come here for eccentric dishes like pad thai noodles made from thin strips of jellyfish. The music perpetuates a downscale image for what is, in fact, a pretty pricey place (and there’s probably a little more premeditated “cool” involved in this than I’d like to believe), but it also does a good job of preparing diners for the meal they’re about to experience.

Another Chicago chef who plays with the taste/sound dynamic is Graham Elliot Bowles, whose eponymous restaurant is known for its playful creations (foie gras coated with pop rocks, spicy buffalo chicken with Budweiser bubbles). As diners explore this whimsical fare, they’re entertained by a mostly-’80s soundtrack, plus a few of the chef/musician’s own original songs. Further branding himself a “rock star chef”, Bowles recently ran a booth at Lollapalooza, serving up lobster corndogs and truffle popcorn alongside booths serving the usual festival stuff: gyros, sausages, pizza, fries. He sold 8,000 corndogs by the end of the weekend.

Chefs like Carlson and Bowles have made great strides in taking haute cuisine off its pedestal and introducing it to crowds who might before have been a little intimidated by it – and that success is in some way due to their willingness to step outside the common expectations of what foods go with what kinds of music. Blue 13’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dinners” attempt to accomplish something similar, attracting a new audience for the food by associating it with something a lot of people know: rock music. While this makes perfect sense given the owners’ background in the music business, it doesn’t make it a particularly easy sell. It’s tough to market something as “rock ‘n’ roll” at this point without seeming cheesy – just ask the Hard Rock Café.

When I first looked at Blue 13’s web site, I was a little skeptical that these guys could pull it off. With an emphasis on the chef’s love of tattoo art and the promotion of “rock ‘n’ roll chic American cuisine” like Steak and Eggs on Acid, I was worried that the place could come off as trying a bit too hard, like the bar down the street from me that allowed graffiti writers to decorate its facade. But as soon as I stepped into the tastefully decorated dining room, I could tell that this wasn’t the case.

While our themed dinner did include some of the groan-inducing puns that lesser restaurants use regularly (The Silversun Pickups’ “Well Thought Out Twinkles” was turned into “Well Thought Out Twinkies”, a goat cheese-stuffed brioche “Twinkie” served with watercress salad and spiced strawberry sauce), the food was executed at a much higher level. I’ll take the wasabi potato croquettes that came with the lamb racks in the “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing” dish (inspired by TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me”) over Hard Rock’s seasoned fries any day.

I didn’t always see the connection between the song playing on the sound system and the food in front of me, but the dinner did make me reconsider the burger-and-booze associations I had with rock music. This newfound pleasure is going to make my concert outings a hell of a lot more expensive.