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nick.kokonas

Schwa - Chicago

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I had the pleasure of visiting the recently opened Schwa last night. In my mind, it is the modern, Chicago answer to Paris' chef-owned tiny bistros... though the food is anything but bistro-like.

Chef-Proprieter Michael Carlson along with Sous Chef Nathan Klingbail pretty much do everything. They cook, present food, clear dishes, and do so with both manic energy and calm professionalism. One waitress and one dishwasher are in constant action as well.

Schwa is tiny -- 26 or so seats in one small room. The kitchen is very visible from the dining room. It is BYOW and currently does not have plans for a liquor license. Be aware of this, and bring some wine since this is food worthy of a wine accompaniment.

We put ourselves in the chef's hands and had a wonderful tasting. Both Chefs worked with Chef Achatz at Trio, and some influence is apparent... but the style is a departure from Trio and there is definitely an acccent of upscale Italian flavorings in many of the dishes.

For example, an exceptionally flavorful quail egg ravioli with brown butter, ricotta, and parmegiano was simply presented (though anything but simply made) and perfectly flavored. Also done as well as any ultra-fine dining Italian restaurant was a lemon, artichoke, and shrimp risotto.

A proscuitto consomme was clear and rich in flavor, with both fresh and dehydrated prosciutto.

The heirloom tomato salad featured rich tomatoes, all peeled except the green zebra, with a zesty tomato sorbet.

All in all, this was a very, very fine meal, well above many well known restaurants.

Be aware that what you come to Schwa for is food, not atmosphere. The room is pleasant, but small and nothing is terribly luxurious. It is because of this that I make the comparison to a cramped Parisian bistro -- a recent meal at L' Epi Dupin was jostled from my memory midway through this meal. At the same time, these contrasts are what often are called "charm", and because the cooking is so solid, one cannot help but think that Schwa will be a hard seat to come by in the near future.

Hats off to Chef Carlson and his "team".

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Nick,

Thanks for the report. We tried to go last weekend but couldn't get in either Friday or Saturday. Everything I've heard about it has been great and I can't wait to give it a try.


-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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Thanks, Nick, for the report. It's great to hear that things are clicking at Schwa. I think a lot of folks have been eagerly awaiting this; ever since Lovitt announced it was closing and changing hands (to Carlson, et al).

=R=


"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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my language geek side can't help saying that I love the name! I wonder how many people appreciate it?


Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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my language geek side can't help saying that I love the name!  I wonder how many people appreciate it?

Then your language geek side would probably like Alinea, too ... (Chef Carlson worked with Chef Achatz).

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We went to Schwa last night and had a fantastic dinner.

The restaurant is very small and intimate with an open kitchen in the rear. As Nick mentioned, they're putting out outstanding food with probably the minimum staff you would want working: chef, sous-chef, dishwasher, 2 waitresses (one of whom also owns the place).

The menu is divided into three sections: two sections of starters, and one main courses.

We each ordered one dish from each section and found it to be the right amount of food. Although, as usual, my tiny girlfriend was a lot more full than I was at the end of the meal (which isn't to say I was hungry, I just wasn't ready to explode like she was).

We started with the proscuitto consomme and the white anchovy salad. The consomme was a delicious clear broth that was, for lack of a better term, very proscuitto-ee. It was served with melon, dry proscuitto and fresh proscuitto. Very simple and clean tasting. The white anchovy salad was another great way of starting the meal. The anchovies had been marinated in olive oil and had a very delicate, not a all fishy or salty taste. The salad was made up of celery root, apples, and machengo cheese.

From the next section we had the seared foie gras and the soft boiled egg. The foie gras was served with a roasted (?) peach as well as some sauternes jello. Was it gelee? Who knows, but it was great whatever you want to call it. The foie was cooked perfectly and served on toasted brioche. The soft boiled egg was probably the star of the night. Firm on the outside and runny on the inside, the egg was served with a spoon full of caviar, some creme fresch, and whipped potatoes. This was a great take on some classic combinations.

For our mains, I had the lamb and my girlfriend has the quail egg raviolis. I've only had egg filled raviolis at one other restaurant and that was in Florida. Ever since I first tried them I haven't been able to figure out why more restaurants don't serve them. They are just a great mixture of flavors and textures. The raviolis and Schwa were no exception. The lamb was tender and not at all gamey. Served with soybeans, miso and chinese brocolli it was delicious, but just ever so slightly too fatty.

Last night there were only two dessert options. We elected the roasted banana and charred pineapple with ginger custard. Keeping with the theme of the rest of the food, just a very clean tasting dish and an understated finish to the meal.

When we walked in for our 8:00 reservation the place was virtually empty. When I asked the owner what was going on, she said that they were having trouble with no-shows and were considering no longer taking reservations. I hope that doesn't happen because once word about the food at Schwa gets out, people will be lined up down a semi-shady stretch of Ashland to get in.

Good work, and good luck!


-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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I wanted to follow up on a message I posted to the white truffles in Chicago topic with a report on our second dinner at Schwa this past Saturday night.

First the food is as good if not better than the last time we were there. Unfortunately, the restaurant was only half-full at best throughout our meal (and we were there for about 3 hours). Schwa may have the worst location in the city, so it is up to us to spread the gospel and keep this place going. They are serving really special food and it would be a shame to see Schwa go away. Hopefully they were just quiet because of the weather.

The menu was mostly unchanged from the last time we were there. The most significant addition is a tasting menu options ($70) which you can upgrade to include white truffles (supplement is $30...hmmm, next installment of Thursday night truffles? :wink: ). At the moment they are serving a homemade tagliatelle with parmigano-regianno and shaved white truffles. Simple and delicious. I had one of the new main courses, which was pork tenderloin cooked sous vide served with a house cured pork belly, sourkraut and raisins. Outstanding.

Dessert is still a choice of two dishes, but one is now chocolate (a brownie served with pumpkin ice cream), the other was an upside down pineapple cake with ginger cream. Both were very good.

Following dessert the kitchen sent out an experiment. The top of an apple with holes poked in it. Sticks were in the holes and at the end of each stick was a little ball of carmelized apple. What was it called? (Wait for it...and, all together) Carmel apple! A fun little treat to end the night.

So, once again a great meal at Schwa, a restaurant that certainly deserves a larger audience than it appears to be getting.


Edited by jesteinf (log)

-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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It may be that they want to pace the arrival time & number of diners so as not to stress the kitchen.

On my last visit to Chicago in November I tried to book a table (for a Thursday I think), and it was fully booked. So at least on some nights it is busy.

Thanks for the writeup anyway. It strengthens my resolve to try again next time I am in town.

-- Harry

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SCHWA!! A wonderful restaurant that is a gem of a find. Every report in this forum echoes my kudos for this amazing dining experience. This tiny, superb dining spot is unique in Chicago. The chef has enormous talent and can challenge the best of Chicago's more celebrated chefs.

Michael is one of the most adventuresome , creative chefs we have encountered. Our opinion is that Schwa should become a home for food lovers who are wine and food savvy people. This UNIQUE destination is without equal in CHicago. We will be champions of Schwa's enduring, ongoing abilities. Thank you Michael for a marvelous meal that has no equal in Chicago. You are a unique talent that has yet to be truly appreciated. Your advocate, Judith Gebhart

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Well, thank god for the electric palm trees across the street from Schwa: Its front is so unassuming that I'd have passed it by a dozen times if I didn't know it was there. Seriously, so little light peeks out from the restaurant that I thought it might be closed. Well, the neighborhood is hardly conducive to getting walk-in business, but seriously, letting out a little light onto the street would have been nice...shuttered is the best word I can use to describe what Schwa looks like from the outside.

On the other hand, once you go in, the place is charming. Minimalistic decor but with enough warm touches that it feels cozy. The dining room cannot be more than about 500 square feet, most of it taken up by good looking 2- and 4-tops. At the end of the dining room is a window through which part of the kitchen can be seen, striking a good balance between an open and a closed kitchen.

I took my little sister out for dinner, she is 16, a highly critical eater, and a vegetarian to my omnivore. We ordered two tasting menus at $80 apiece, a $110 white truffle menu is also available. Given the chefs' skillful use of black truffles during this meal, I'd guess that the latter would be terrific.

As a prelude, I found Schwa's use of plates to be creative and well judged, I'm a big fan of unusual place settings and Schwa did a great job.

- We started out with an amuse of carrot juice, cardamom foam, served in shot glass on a small, wavy plate. On the side was a carrot chip and a bruleed cardmamom marshmallow. Lovely. My sister especially liked the marshmallow.

- Next was a salad of granny smith apple, celery, celery root puree, apple puree, and white anchovies (sans the latter for my sister.) Fresh and attractive, but overall not terribly exciting. A bit of vinaigrette, some oil, and some micro greens would have been nice.

- A spoon with a bit of raddish, some eggplant confit, and pickled crosnes was served next. A well conceived dish that I enjoyed. Even my sister, who hates eggplant ("I'm going to eat this like it was medicine") liked it.

- Up next, a beautiful dish of prosciutto, sliced melon and arugula, draped over a cup of prosciutto consomme (tasted like good chicken stock infused with the ham) with melon balls. For my sister, the same plates, but in her case, white peruvian beans, roasted peppers, and a few other items. Sorry, I'm working off of memory here. She virtually licked the plate clean, which I think is the highest compliment one can give a dish.

- Next up, beets, both roasted and pickled, red, orange, and, I think, candy stripe. Parsley puree, parslee root puree, goat cheese foam, excellent spanish olive oil. Also what looked to me like reduced beet juice and beet powder. Again, we both cleaned our plates till nothing was left. My only criticism here is that while goat cheese foam is fun, its also pretty tasteless. Real goat's cheese would have been nice.

- Next, quail egg ravioli with ricotta. Brown butter, fried sage. I'm unsure about the cheese. These were good, a rich dish at a point in the meal where richness was appropriate. The quail egg yolks were still completely runny. While interesting, as well as very technically competent, in execution, this dish was oddly simple. I would have loved to have seen the dish lightened a touch and something interesting added into the mix, for example, a lighter, more modern sauce, such as a very airy emulsion of sage and fava beans.

- Next - surf and turf for me. A absolutely frankenhorkin diver scallop, black truffles, braised veal cheek, black trumpets, turnips, parsnip puree...a beautiful dish that achieved the ideal where the various different elements amplify each other. For my sister, tofu, leeks, date-miso puree, mushrooms and what looked like kale. Good stuff.

- After that, a wonderful dish of what I think was pork loin, probably cooked sous vide, braised pork belly, saurekraut and golden raisins. What seemed like a reduction of the braising liquid was at the bottom. No idea what was in it but it tasted like veal stock, red wine, and maple syrup. Delicious. My sister got a dish of seitan, peanut sauce and a few other items. It was lovely to look at and she liked it.

- Next up, a great little transitional item: Raspberry jelly on a sweet sunchoke custard, served with a sunflower sprout. The latter tasted wonderful, and the combination of raspberry and sunchoke was oddly appealing. This was served in attractive little shotglasses with bottoms rounded out, so the glasses sit at a tilt. Interesting glasses that I've seen and liked before.

- After that, honey-honeydew melon sorbet, a small quenelle served on little dimpled plexiglass (?) cubes. Well placed cleanser, but a little heavy on the salt.

- Finally, an upside-down pineapple cake, served on sliced of bananas that I think had been oven-roasted in their skin. Alongside of it was some custard that neither of us saw the point to or liked very much. A bit of lime sorbet would have been much appreciated instead, as we were both quite, quite full at this point. Still, custard aside, the cake was quite good.

Disappointingly, no chocolate - we were told that if we wanted chocolate as part of the tasting menu, we can ask for it, as the tasting menu is put together a la minute by the chefs.

So, in conclusion, I liked this place a lot and recommend it. Its rare to eat food of this level in such close quarters to the chefs who cook it. It all felt very personal. The food itself is of a very high caliber and lack of chocolate notwithstanding shows an understanding of ergonomics, presentation, texture, pacing, etc. The only criticism I can muster is a slightly heavy-hand overall with the salt, and a slight lack of balancing acid. I'm sure the cuisine will become better and more focused in the future.

Go there and check it out.

P.S. Schwa is byob, with no corkage that I am aware of. Everyone but us had wine and beer on their tables...bring good wine, the food deserves it.

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Thanks, noam, for the detailed write-up. Schwa is on my short list of places I really want to hit in 2006. Your post just scooted it up the list a bit.

=R=


"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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Ditto.

Schwa (and of course, Heat) may be next on my dining schedule.

Trevor.

-Kendall College


Edited by KendallCollege (log)

eGullet Ethics Signatory

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Noam - glad to hear another positive review of Schwa, which has become one of my favortie spots in Chicago. The pork dish is killer (they cure the belly in house).


Edited by jesteinf (log)

-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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Thanks, noam, for the detailed write-up.  Schwa is on my short list of places I really want to hit in 2006.  Your post just scooted it up the list a bit.

=R=

Keep scootin' it ronnie, and bring a bottle of savennierres or haut cotes de nuit with you. I have been three times and the consistency brings me back. I am in san francisco at the moment but plan to dine there on the fourteenth upon my return.


"mmmmm purple" Homer Simpson

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I had an excellent and inspired meal at Schwa this weekend.

We sat near the pass and watched chef and proprietor Michael Carlson as he led his crew in the kitchen. Even from our vantage point directly below the pass, the high level of organization in the kitchen was immediately apparent. The cooks moved like clockwork, repeatedly crossing through each other’s trails without collison. We could see stacks of mise -- neatly labeled and lined up in small plastic containers. Every once in a while, chef Carlson would look up from what he was doing, lean toward the pass, and ask a patron how something was or thank them for coming. When the occasion arose, he’d come out of the kitchen to serve a dish or grate the finishing touch atop of one.

Schwa’s space itself is cozy -- in a minimalistic sort of way. It is essentially one relatively small, nearly-square room with the aforementioned pass and a doorway which connect it to the tiny kitchen. While the dining room itself borders on stark, the pale green paint on the walls provides a gently soothing vibe. And, in spite of the small space, the tables are not crammed on top of each other. There’s room to stretch one’s elbows and the chairs are plenty comfortable.

The amuse was terrific; a ribbon-like carrot chip bejeweled with a tiny toasted cardamom marshmallow. This was served with a shooter of sweet, delicate carrot juice topped with delicious foam (sadly, I cannot remember how the foam was flavored). The transition from the street to the seat had been fast. As I savored the chewy finish of the carrot chip and felt it dissolve away in my mouth with the marshmallow, I forgot about the outside world and turned my attention to the promising menu and thoughts of what was to come.

My first dish was a salad of white anchovy, granny smith apples, celeriac, celery and Manchego. I loved how the flavors and textures worked together in the salad. The sweet elements would have been compelling enough on their own but the pungent savory note of the anchovy kept pushing me forward; allowing me to experience some less familiar attributes of the other ingredients, which are foods which I eat with some frequency. This was as real door-opener.

I also tasted the salad of red and golden beets, pickles (radishes, I think) and creamy goat cheese. I loved this salad too. I’m a big fan of beets and these were delectable. Their sweetness was foiled perfectly by the pickle and both elements were unified wonderfully by the smooth and creamy goat cheese. The plate itself, painted with a few delicious and colorful sauces, was stunningly prepared.

The hits just kept on coming. The risotto with shrimp and sunchoke was an absolute clinic on how to make the dish. Every component was perfect, including the opiatic meyer lemon puree which flanked it. The risotto itself was perfectly creamy yet still possessed that tender “bite” which is all-too-often absent in a poorly-cooked rendition. This was nowhere near that category. The shrimp were tender and flavorful and the sunchoke was a sublime accompaniment for it. The depth of flavor here was amazing. I’d love to know the details about whatever stock(s) was used to make the risotto because it is rarely this delicious.

Next up was a delicately-breaded, soft-boiled egg served with IL sturgeon caviar and potato puree. This was another compelling dish. The egg was, again, perfectly cooked. The potato puree was rich and buttery -- with a proper amount of salt -- and the caviar provided an excellent top note. Here, I wish that I’d had some bread to mop up because I find it almost painful to leave soft-cooked egg yolk on the plate. I tried the best I could to get it with my fork and was even considering using the tiny ceramic caviar spoon to scoop it up when I decided to let it go. Portions at Schwa are pretty big so I understand why there is no bread service. On the other hand, chef Carlson’s tremendous sauces had all 4 of us wishing, at various points throughout the meal, for a bit of bread to sop something or another up.

Chef Carlson was kind enough to send out, for all 4 of us at the table, servings of his tremendous quail egg-filled ravioli. These were absolutely AMAZING. The ravioli were perfectly tender and filled with soft-cooked quail egg and ricotta. They were drizzled with brown butter and topped with grated parmigiana reggiano. Oh, and somewhere in there was a wonderfully pungent hit of truffle, which sent this dish from perfect to perfectly over the top.

An intermezzo of raspberry puree and sunchoke custard came out next. This was nice. The raspberry was sweet and tangy and sparkled on the tongue. The custard muted the sweetness and set us up nicely for our main courses.

My wife ordered the inventive Surf and Turf which consisted of tender, braised (?) veal cheek, a mammoth and perfectly seared scallop, brussel sprouts and shaved black truffle. The flavors were intense and the presentation was beautiful. It was enlightening tasting the truffles alongside the 2 distinctly different headliners on the plate. I loved this dish and could not decide which element of it was my favorite.

I ordered the astonishing Pork belly which was a delicious study in pork. The thick slice of rolled belly was soft and caramelized on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside. Served with the belly were several soft slices of pork tenderloin cooked en sous vide, thin planks of crispy bacon, perfectly plumped golden raisins and chef’s home-made sauerkraut. The dish was served with an intense reduction-type sauce. This plate was, in my eyes, the best one of the night. Each component, right down to the raisins, was sensational. And what a treat it was to be served that distinctive home-made sauerkraut. I just love details like that. Thank you sir, may I have another?

Pineapple upside-down cake with bananas, and shooter of ginger custard was as good as it sounds. Again, all the components worked together. The sweet bananas, tangy pineapple and tender cake created a synergy of their own and the creamy and aromatic custard tied it all together wonderfully.

The perfectly chewy and fudgy brownie stuffed with crème fraiche and topped with pumpkin ice cream was stellar. Served alongside it was an intense schmear of pumpkin pie puree, a few salty toasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of pumpkin oil. What a tapestry of flavors and textures! I was surprised by how well all these components worked together. I’m not usually much of a pumpkin fan but we finished this off completely.

Before we left, chef brought out what could best be described as miniature caramel apple orbs. These were small balls of crisp and tart granny smith apples, served on lollypop sticks and then coated with a sweet caramel crust which contained tiny bits of nuts. Popped into the mouth and eaten in one bite, these were the best caramel apples we’d experienced in a long time. The coating cracked like candy and the tart sweetness of the apple followed it perfectly. It reminded me, at least in spirit, of Grant’s now-retired PB&J amuse.

Schwa was, in a word, excellent. There were countless moments throughout our meal which made it perfectly clear to us just how much care was being put into the preparation of our food. That’s what you get at a place like Schwa (not that I know of many others). The concepts are ambitious and inspired but they work primarily because of the care and passion being poured into the place. Everyone at Schwa from chef Carlson to sous chef Nathan Klingbail, to manager Britannie Weigel cares passionately about their work. And with a chef who has a culinary vision like chef Carlson’s, it’s easy to see why everyone at Schwa is so dedicated. Talent like his is extraordinary. In some circles, he’s already considered a star. It won’t be long before everyone in town (and beyond) knows who he is.

=R=

Schwa

1466 N. Ashland Avenue

Chicago, IL 60622

773 252-1466


"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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Great report, Ron! The meyer lemon was opiatic, huh? You might not want to let people know about that - the restaurant might get shut down and then how would the rest of us get our fix? :raz::biggrin::rolleyes: Seriously, nice report. Schwa is definitely on my short list next time I come to Chicago for my Alinea habit.


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.

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Ron:

Couldn't have said it better myself. And now, come to think of it, I don't have to try!

One dish after another amazed and intrigued. Service was friendly and interactive; the staff has its synergy down to a science. It's nice to be able to relax after the first course or so, knowing you're in good hands.

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Just a note to add to the raves. We dined at Schwa Friday night and were completely Schwa-ed by the experience. It was everything mentioned in the above reviews.

Two points not previously noted:

1. No one mentioned how cool the electric palm trees were across the street. We parked a a side street on the east side of Ashland and had to walk right by them on our way to the restaurant. It was pretty surreal.

2. Brittanie mentioned that Chef Carlson is working on a new menu. Let's hope that he incorporates some of our current favorites into the new menu.


"the only thing we knew for sure about henry porter was that his name wasn't henry porter" : bob

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just read the Chicago Reader article about schwa; wanted to congratulate the crew; we had our christmas staff party there and the food was really really good. hope to have the opportunity to go again soon. anyhoo, good job dudes.

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I'm in! Wow, dinner on Saturday night...and truly blown away. Even with all this write up's, we were still surprised by the food (based on how the restaurant looks!)

The egg yolk ravioli is truly spectacular and special. They are moving it to the appetizers with the menu change we were told...good thing..I think a main course of 9 ravioli would by way too rich!

The food was tremendous and complex as stated above...but we were also wowed by the small touches and samplers: we also started with the cardomom marshmallow with the carrot juice & cardomom broth shot.

The palate cleanse or raspberry purre on top of sunchoke puree with sunflower sprout was so unusual, unexpected and unbelievable.

We got the "treat" aftweard of a melon ball of apple coasted in a crispy sugar coating - yes, the caramel apple.

Great stuff...

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I'm in!  Wow, dinner on Saturday night...and truly blown away.  Even with all this write up's, we were still surprised by the food (based on how the restaurant looks!)

The egg yolk ravioli is truly spectacular and special.  They are moving it to the appetizers with the menu change we were told...good thing..I think a main course of 9 ravioli would by way too rich!

The food was tremendous and complex as stated above...but we were also wowed by the small touches and samplers:  we also started with the cardomom marshmallow with the carrot juice & cardomom broth shot.

The palate cleanse or raspberry purre on top of sunchoke puree with sunflower sprout was so unusual, unexpected and unbelievable.

We got the "treat" aftweard of a melon ball of apple coasted in a crispy sugar coating - yes, the caramel apple.

Great stuff...

I know I am all over the Heartland forum but I want to be heard about the sensational abilities of Michael Carlson and Nathan Klingbail who inhabit the tiny kitchen of Schwa and guarantee an extraordinary dining experience for every visitor. Listen to all the other recorders of Schwas' talents. This is a dining destination like none other in Chicago. Be advised that these talents are going to be overworked for a long time. They are exceptional. Every educated diner will be ecstatic for this is a true dining find. Judith Gebhart

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Another great dinner at Schwa last night. We did the tasting menu with 2 other couples and had a great time. There were a number of new menu items last night that we hadn't had yet (bean soup, veal cheeks, seared duck breast & confit), and all were hits. The biggest hit of the night, IMO, was a new dessert item...the truffle milkshake. I tried to get one to go, but no luck.


-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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One more thing I forgot to add...

Brittanie mentioned last night that they read eGullet all the time and they are extremely appreciative of all of the support they've gotten from members here.

To the crew at Schwa - keep up the outstanding work. You guys are all dope! :wink:


-Josh

Now blogging at http://jesteinf.wordpress.com/

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