Back in high school, my buddy Eric and I started a T-shirt business, riffing on the New York Giants' star placekicker of the mid-'80s, Ali Haji-Sheikh. Our slogan: "I'm a Sheikh Freak!" Eventually, the Sheikh freaked—after catching wind of our unauthorized entrepreneurship. I haven't mixed business and buddies since. But sometimes this particular formula works just fine. At the innovative West Village Japanese joint Sumile, for example, rising-star Josh DeChellis recently passed the baton to his high-school pal, former sous chef Christian Schwaiger—largely because DeChellis needs to focus on his latest place, Jovia.
DeChellis is not out of the picture completely: He remains a partner and drops by several times a week to consult on the menu. But this is Schwaiger's kitchen now, and the first thing he did was change the menu. Instead of offering an array of $14 dishes—designed to be consumed like tapas—the kitchen now prepares appetizers, entrées and desserts.
Schwaiger is selective in his takeover. The decor hasn't changed: Guests still traverse a long, straight line to the 60-seat main dining area, which has retained the low, arched ceiling that gives the feeling of being in the belly of a snug cruise ship. While the typical entrée runs about $30, all but one are still available as a $14 tasting. And the dishes continue to combine unusual ingredients—like horseradish consommé (which surrounds braised gulf shrimp) and quinoa (which accompanies fig-glazed Peking duck)—with traditional French culinary techniques. Schwaiger might have picked these up when he worked with Gray Kunz at Lespinasse.
Some of DeChellis's better dishes have been tweaked rather than replaced: The Dungeness crab with caviar now has a coating of pear gelée, rather than green yuzu gelée (ten bucks says you wouldn't have noticed). And the egg custard makes use of fragrant matsutake mushrooms, asparagus and yuzu rather than porcini mushrooms and clam dashi. Of the new dishes, I especially liked the way the grilled octopus played off the sweet slices of pickled cucumber and the pairing of duck (slathered in a fig glaze) with brussels sprouts brûlée.
Occasionally, Schwaiger displays too light a touch, rendering the flavors wishy-washy. The bland hot pot with skate, bok choy and lotus needed seasoning, spices…something. The pork slices were even more dull, and the addition of melted romaine, mushroom and a shrimp ragout didn't help matters. Even Schwaiger's tapioca-and-citrus tart seemed punchless despite its wasabi mousse—compared with DeChellis's crowd-pleasing sesame-paste gummy bears in raspberry sauce, which remains on the menu.
For better or worse, Schwaiger doesn't appear to be forging new ground as much as reinterpreting his predecessor's menu. Sumile was so blindingly original when it opened that Schwaiger may find it tough to fill DeChellis's shoes. Nobody ever said going into business with your buddy was easy.