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The reopening of Schwa?


ulterior epicure
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Schwa and Frolic - Schwa - Chicago

Six of us visited Schwa last weekend. Typically Schwa limits its tables to parties of four, but on Saturday Michael Carlson called and informed me that because of cancellations, we could expand our table. We embraced his generosity.

I have been to Schwa four times, and have enjoyed my meal each time, but I felt that this evening Chef Carlson was at his most assured and confident and his happiest. There were fewer missteps, and – dare I say it – he looked more relaxed: more ready for beachwear than a hospital gown. This is how a career should be. While the interactions were never unpleasant, tonight there was a joy that had not been evident previously. Fatherhood does that (for awhile) and a few (four) friends.

Chicago boast numerous consummate chefs: kitchen artists who can create stunning meals: Trotter, Nahabedian, Liccioni, Bowles, Achatz, Tramonto, Bayless, Stegner, Joho, Kahan, Cantu. Michael Carlson is among that elite dozen. But his restaurant is not like any other. Unlike David Chang or Jose Andres, he does not pass food across a counter, but cooks and serves and scrapes the pots. I feel myself blessed to visit Naha, Trotters, Frontera every few years, but I want to visit Carlson each season. The fear at its opening was that Schwa was a mirage, a culinary unicorn: it couldn’t exist, and that someday – soon – I might kick myself for not making that last reservation. I kicked last October. Perhaps every chef wants – in fantasy – to do it all, but this is also the hope of the diner. It is nice to be greeted by Chef Trotter, but it is something else to show Chef Carlson that the parsley is misplaced (no parsley tonight!). Schwa is a divine chimera. If I had to choose a last meal in my chill cell, perhaps it wouldn’t be Carlson’s dishes I would first salivate after (except his canonical lusty quail’s egg ravioli), but if I were given a one-night reprieve it would be Schwa that I would visit, and explain to Ashley Dupree that I was engaged. What is remarkable is the creation within that small space on Ashland of a single, momentary community of cooks and diners. I like and admire servers, but let it be me and the stovemen. (I never fantasize about coolly-precise servers, no matter how cute, as long as there are hot cooks about).

I was struck by how carefully Chef Carlson separated and calibrated his flavors and textures. Carlson is less a chemist in the style of Cantu or Achatz than a literary critic: he likes to consider, rearrange, and interpret ingredients as they create a “dish.” His style is not precisely molecular, but it treats a dish as a text to be sliced and diced.

To start at the end. Desserts have been the weak link at Schwa. Pastry chefs have a language that most chefs speak only in pidgin – and the translation between the two accents may be rough as Sam Mason came to realize after receiving pastry encomiums at the sweet genius at wd-50, he was crucified when first opening Tailor in New York. With the small staff at Schwa, desserts seemed – well – half-baked. Not tonight. Dessert was sweetened candied veal sweetbreads with ice wine vinegar caramel, passionfruit culis, lavender foam, and a dehydrated parsnip chip. Although deconstructed dishes often have the disadvantage of being “a little of this, a little of that,” forcing diners to reconstruct the chef’s ideal in their clumsy way, this dish was compelling it its separation, not even considering the literary conceit of the punny sweetbreads.

Dinner began with a complex and refreshing amuse of grapefruit vesicles (cells) with honey sorbet, chamomile agar and black truffle shaving. (I credit both “CG” and “wino66” - from LTHforum - for these borrowed descriptions – the Schwa menu is telegraphic, as is the rage at molecular restaurants: this dish is labeled “amuse”). Here was a lovely combination that was sufficiently robust that the truffle was overpowered. The flavor was dominated by melodious honey sorbet and tart grapefruit. The meal began and ended with the kitchen’s sugary touch.

The first course was notable for a brioche that will reside in any bakery hall of fame. We were served pickled Jonah Crab, a slice of dehydrated banana (the dehydrator works overtime at Schwa), batons of celery, celery root and a celery root puree. What was heroic, however, was an unprepossessing cube of brioche injected with hot banana liquor that didn’t just melt but exploded like Carnival. It is a challenge to explain a sensation that is as much tactile and olfactory as gustatory, but it was stunning: doubly mouthwatering.

This appetizer was followed by soup: a potent rich and salty beer cheese soup, made from Chimay washed cheese, served with a freshly made soft “pretzel hole” and a dehydrated mustard chip and an herbal smear. If not as stunning as the previous course, it was intense and intensely satisfying.

Now Chef Carlson returned to a trio of greatest hits. First, Pad Thai: jellyfish with thai flavors. It is a cute conceit and certainly flavorful as a small bite, but it was not a dish that I craved a second time, even though I had enjoyed it previously.

This was quickly followed by the Schwa Pine Cone (I am not certain if I have had precisely this recipe): sea urchin ice cream on a maple syrup flavored cone with some pine essence. The uni ice cream was a lovely palate cleanser, even if the cone was sweeter than necessary and needed a more dramatic pine essence.

Finally the quail egg ravioli. Still fantastic after all of these months. Brilliant. Erotic. Tampopo.

The artic char roe with pumpernickel coins, Meyer lemon puree and rutabaga consommé has been criticized for being out of balance with too strong a pumpernickel presence. Perhaps Chef Carlson has dialed back on this pungency or perhaps I just enjoy marked tastes, but I found the flavors and textures compelling and well-modulated: a remarkable take on caviar-and-blini. This deconstruction revealed true culinary bravado.

Kona Kampachi sashimi with galangal crisp, Lime gelee, maple mousse foam, salsify batons, and daikon disks was wonderful in all ways that a dish can produce wonderment in our firmament. Another deconstruction, this Japanois-inspired, and a very fruitful – reprising the candied mid-March maple-syrup theme of the meal: not too sweet (although the meal was more heavily weighted toward sweetness than some chefs might have dared).

The greatest revelation of the evening was the liver and onions. In a city in which liver has come to mean foie gras undercover: Chef Carlson presented a simple preparation with a disk of calves liver perched on a scoop of onion risotto. What not to like? With liver this sweet and rich, why pine over foie gras? Why duck into liver speakeasies? A dill smear decorated the side of the bowl with small cubes of bayleaf gelee, crispy shallots and pickled cipollini onions. Liver and onions rules!

Our final main course was antelope loin and leg, served sous vide, with butternut squash and white chocolate foam. Perhaps this dish suffered by its placement after the superb kampachi and amazing liver. The antelope was pleasant, the chocolate foam was well prepared, but by this course I wanted a miracle, not pleasure alone.

Our cheese course – once a memorable one-bite pungent (epoisse) cheese risotto, a signature dish of Chef Carlson - was tonight a small wedge of Humboldt fog goat cheese (with a truffled ash layer) and graham cracker crust. It tasted like Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese. Let the kitchen take a breather. And then dessert.

This was not only the most triumphant meal that I have had at Schwa, but the most fun. I revere the Jonah crab appetizer, the Kampachi, the liver and onions, and the Candied Sweetbreads, and, always, the ravioli. But I will mostly prize the experience of being served by a staff that seemed at their ease, having fun, and playing with their food and their admirers. Each hour of joy is a benediction.

Schwa

1466 North Ashland

773-252-1466

www.schwarestaurant.com

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We had the pleasure of eating at Schwa last night. We had the same menu as gaf did and I have to agree with everything he wrote. It was magnificent from start to finish.

The standouts for me were, as per the menu, "Stone crab/bananas, celery, coriander," his "pad thai" (a little different than his previous versions. THe noodles are made of jellyfish, I think), the Kona Kampachi was out of this world, the amalgam of flavors (the sharp taste of raw fish against the maple) was something to savour, and the "Antelope, butternut, white chocolate" was, for me the miracle that gaf did not find. The antelope (my first time eating antelope, I think) was cooked sous vide accompanied by a ragout that was absolutely fantastic, mix that with white chocolate and I was in culinary heaven.

After the delectable cheese course, dessert was the candied sweetbreads with an element that I do not see in Gaf's description. It was a wonderful parsnip custard that played very well with the very sweet sweetbreads.

It was a wonderful culinary evening. I too have dined at Schwa before many times and this time it was as good if not better than before. Chef Carlson and his team (Gaetano Nardulli, Jonathan Ory and Mike Noll with intern JD Plotnick) deliver a top notch gastronomical experience.

Thanks,

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Any particularly good times for calling for reservation? I tried several times, but got the full voice mailbox.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Any particularly good times for calling for  reservation? I tried several times, but got the full voice mailbox.

doc, I'm beginning to feel as if I'm the only one who's actually spoken with a live person at schwa since it re-opened. I would echo lenski and advise calling early afternoon (CST).

When I called to cancel my reservation, I left a message. Thankfully I called a little more than a week in advance to cancel - they called a couple of days before my reservation to confirm the cancellation. Patience, I suppose, is the key. I know that doesn't make it easier for an incoming out-of-towner who likes to have his dining ducks in order. :wink:

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

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I would have left a message, but the voicemail inbox was full. I'll try again. Thanks.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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  • 2 weeks later...
How far in advance are they taking reservations?  One month?  Two?

Not sure. I kept calling over a 4 day period until I spoke with someone. I called around 3:30 and spoke to a human and snagged a reservation 60 days in advance.

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Not sure. I kept calling over a 4 day period until I spoke with someone. I called around 3:30 and spoke to a human and snagged a reservation 60 days in advance.

OK! If they take reservations 60 days in advance, I'll try 90 days in advance and see if I can get it. The worst that can happen is that they tell me to call back a month later, and I have plenty of time to do that!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've found that randomly calling between 10am and 1130am seems to have the best timing. At first I had tried calling during open hours to no avail. Since calling earlier, I've placed two reservations over the next 30 days and edited the times with fair success. I almost think the voicemail is an affectation rather than a used function.

They do tend to have earlier availabilities if you're flexible to their open seats and cancellations. If you're in position to swing over there on short notice, then I'd suggest repeat dialing them every 20 minutes or so in the late morning. I'm looking forward to getting there.

Encased Meats!!!

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

There are rumors on lthforum that Schwa is closed again. Given that I have reservations for mid-June, I'm nervous. Any news on this front?

"Degenerates. Degenerates. They'll all turn into monkeys." --Zizek on vegetarians

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  • 3 weeks later...

We had the opportunity to dine at Schwa a couple of weeks ago and all I can say is WOW!

From the Anchovy/Banana/Celery dish to the Beer Cheese Soup with accompanying Belgian Beer to the Pad Thai to the Kampachi/Lime/Maple dish, Chef Carlson's precise flavor combinations were right on and incredibly delicious. However, the Lamb Brains/Morels/Nasturtium dish was the highlight of the evening. It was close to perfection as we have ever experienced. This is about as close to Andoni Luis Aduriz style of cooking that we can get here in the states.

The under-pretentious atmosphere of the restaurant along with the genuine warmth of the staff make this one of our new favorite restaurants in the US.

Hat's off to Chef Carlson and his team.

BTW, we dined for our 5th time at Alinea two nights later and although these restaurants are polar opposites in many respects, we thought Schwa blew Alinea away on many levels.

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Just came back from Schwa. Wow.

My Lamb Brains/Morels/Nasturtium dish had a quail egg and it was outstanding. I think the antelope is also another outstanding dish.

I had a three-anchovies concoction served on an offset spatula. The last anchovy had a "menthol" taste...like in cigarettes they said. Amazing.

They are still serving the sweetbreads with the parsnip custard and the lavender foam. Incredible.

l

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  • 3 weeks later...

In case I will be able to reach someone on their phone (calling from germany...) and get a table for mid-september, I have a question (similar to the one in the Moto-thread):

Can anyone comment on the 3-course-menu? (It's too sad that they don't offer something in between the 3 and the 9 courses)

And it seems that Schwa is a rather casual place, right?

Thanks

Best

kai

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I think you have to go for the 9-course at "Schwa." It is not that filling, the portions are extremely balanced and some of the courses have an amuse-like size. I honestly think that you would be missing out a great experience with just the three.

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