Jalapeños are for amateurs. Habaneros are so five years ago. The current It girl among the chile cognoscenti is the bhut jolokia (also known as the naga jolokia), a ferocious capsaicin bomb from northeast India. How hot is the bhut jolokia? Chile heat is measured in Scoville units. A jalapeño can rate as high as 8,000 Scoville units, a cayenne pepper between 30,000 and 50,000, the fearsome habanero as many as 350,000.
The bhut jolokia has clocked in as high as 1,041,427 Scoville units.
Pointing out that this is three times hotter than the hottest chile most of us have eaten seems inadequate. For perspective, I like this fact: According to National Geographic, wildlife experts in India use bhut jolokia as an elephant repellent. So when I learned I could order chili seasoned with the bhut jolokia at the Shaved Duck, I penciled a visit into the first open date on my review calendar.
What's it like to eat something so hot? Well, that you're reading this is proof the bhut jolokia didn't kill me. First, though, to answer two other questions: Why is the Shaved Duck serving chili? And why am I revisiting it less than a year after my original review ("Quack Addict," July 17, 2008)?
The Shaved Duck opened last spring in Tower Grove East. Owner Alastair Nisbet of the Scottish Arms and chefs Brendan Noonan and Wes Johnson offered a small menu of hearty gastropub dishes — a scallop cut into a ribbon and then wrapped around a slice of bacon, a filet poached in butter and served with a marrow bone, duck confit, duck-fat frites — paired with one of the city's better beer selections.
I was a fan: "The food is prepared well and appealing, and depending on your mood, the restaurant as a whole can feel like a neighborhood spot or like destination dining." The duck-fat frites were among my top ten dishes of 2008, and Riverfront Times awarded it Best Beer Selection in a Restaurant.
Then, at the end of last year, a distressing rumor spread through the city's food scene: The Shaved Duck had closed. I shook my fist at this terrible economy and prepared an obit. But then Nisbet sent out a press release to report that the Shaved Duck was closed only temporarily. It would reopen in late January with a new menu, and without Noonan and Johnson.
The new menu jettisons most of the gastropub fare, save for the frites and the confit. In its place is a selection of barbecue, flatbreads and chili. Nisbet calls this "approachable, rustic" American cuisine. That's largely accurate — though you might want to approach that bhut jolokia chili while wearing a hazmat suit.
I tried the chili as part of the chili sampler, which brings roughly half-cup servings of the Shaved Duck's four chilis as well as what the menu describes as "fresh daily garnishes" — shredded white cheddar cheese, on my visit — and a shot of cold milk. (Milk — or any dairy product — rather than cold water is the best way to soothe a burning mouth.)
The ancho beef chili is the mildest of the four, barely registering any heat or, frankly, flavor. The white chili with smoked duck and jalapeños is much better, with a pleasant bite like a Mexican chile verde sauce and a nice depth of flavor from the duck. Next in terms of heat is a vegetarian chili with smoked tomatoes and peppers. Though the menu claims the presence of habaneros, I detected a strong chipotle flavor. The heat is strong, but bearable.
And then came the chili with beef, sweet corn and bhut jolokia chiles. Yes, it's hot, but before you start sputtering and sweating and reaching for that shot of cold milk, you can actually taste something, the richness of the beef underlain with the verdant, fruity chile and the corn's natural sweetness. My mouth did burn, and I certainly don't recommend this to chile novices — yet I would be lying if I said this was the hottest thing I've ever eaten. The burn dissipated quickly, leaving me teetering on the edge of the famed chile endorphin rush. Was the bhut jolokia more hype than heat? Or do I need to eat more of the chili to receive the full effect? Maybe if I could find a raw bhut jolokia....
Much of the new Shaved Duck menu is devoted to barbecue: the meats themselves and other dishes that feature them, like a baked potato smothered in pulled pork. Both baby-back and St. Louis-cut spare ribs are available; each is dry-rubbed and smoked for about eight hours. I ordered the spare ribs, which are served already cut into individual ribs — a no-no in my book, though this is a matter of style rather than substance. The meat was tender, the flavor straightforward and peppery.
The other meats I tried — pulled pork, pork loin and pulled chicken — were much the same. This is good barbecue, though it lacks the nuance of woodsmoke and dry-rub flavors you get from the very best barbecue. The sauces, served on the side, are disappointing, each tasting of their main ingredients (mustard, vinegar and tomato) but not much else.
Two flatbreads brought very different results. One with pulled pork, apple, white cheddar and bacon was a nice twist on barbecue pizza, balancing complementary flavors on a crisp, light crust. The second drowned that crust, duck confit and caramelized onions in too much of a too-strong horseradish cream. Even with the excess blotted, the flavors didn't mesh well.
As I mentioned, you can still order the duck-fat frites, though I'd swear they aren't quite as tasty as I remembered. They weren't piping hot when they arrived at the table, so the flavor of the fat had lost some of its appeal. You can also order half of a roasted duck. This looks just fantastic on the plate, the crisp skin a deep, deep golden brown, but my portion needed more seasoning. This comes with two rather plain dipping sauces, one hoisin, the other pineapple-mustard.
The beer selection remains strong, though in a place that prides itself on said selection, a list of suggested pairings would be a nice touch. Service was more scattered than I recalled, with longer-than-expected waits for drinks.
It's difficult to compare the original Shaved Duck to its second iteration — the two menus are so drastically different. Frankly, I preferred the cuisine of the original, but I still find the space charming, the food both good and a good value. And I'm thrilled that the place is evidently thriving: Weekends are crammed, and a Tuesday visit found me waiting for a table. Like the bhut jolokia chili, I just want a little more heat from something so hot.