Restaurants: Schwa

I read about the reopening of a restaurant called Schwa right after I moved to Chicago. It’s considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city, it’s BYOB, and nearly impossible to get a reservation. I knew I had to try it. After several phone calls – most of which took me straight to the full voicemail box – I finally got a call back. A few weeks later, my friend Katie and I were off to Schwa.

I came across this article about chef-owner Michael Carlson the day of my reservation. It talks about the circumstances around how the restaurant closed. Long story short: Charlie Trotter called him in the fall of 2007 and asked to reserve the entire dining room for him and a slew of famous chefs, like Thomas Keller and Wylie Dufresne.

“Characteristically, Carlson refused to allow Trotter to pay for the meal—dinner for twenty-two on the house. Then, with the pressure of the evening […], he went on a three-day binge. Alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy. […] He canceled all pending reservations for the restaurant, announced he was closing, and disappeared from public sight. “I did not know true mental stress until that day,” he says. He lacked the strength—and the money—to go on.”

Four months later, Schwa was back. His restaurant is full of eccentricities that make the restaurant wonderful but apparently difficult to sustain, both physically and financially. He only seats one party every half hour, which means that he never allows the restaurant to be at capacity. The restaurant only seats twenty-six. The chefs are the wait staff. They have no liquor license. We ordered the 9-course meal, and we got 12 courses (plus some free wine and beer). He says that the restaurant survives paycheck to paycheck, and I see why. Nevertheless, it was an incredible experience and I hope it stays open so I can go back!

I was nervous when I walked into the restaurant, for some reason. I thought it might be pretentious and people might wonder what we 20-somethings were doing there. Luckily, this was not the case at all; I felt like I was in Michael Carlson’s home kitchen. When we walked in, he graciously thanked us for coming and promptly poured us a glass of the Prosecco we brought. The restaurant was very small and basic looking, but I knew we were in for a treat.

Speaking of Prosecco, I should probably mention the wine we brought. Even though there were only two of us, we had read that Michael Carlson suggests bringing “something sparkling, a pinot blanc or a gruner veitliner, and a pinot noir or light-medium bodied red.” We brought three bottles, somewhat following these guidelines, and left it up to the chefs to pour whichever wine they thought was best for each course. I’m not a wine expert, but I tried to pick some that would be versatile with food. They turned out to all be fantastic.

Prosecco Veneto IGT Organic (Italy)
Vina Robles Red 4 2007 – Blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Tannat, Touriga Nacional (California)
Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose 2008 (South Africa)

Now, onto the food.

“Salad Course”: Hendricks Gin bubble tea
He took the flavors in Hendricks Gin (cucumber, rose, juniper) and deconstructed them. This honestly was way more delicious than it looks in this picture. It was a light, refreshing start to the meal. It was also fun to drink!


Red beet risotto with cave aged cow milk bleu cheese puree and horseradish foam
This was probably one of my favorite courses. There wasn’t much of the blue cheese puree on the plate but it was so intense tasting and went perfectly with the sweetness of the risotto and the light horseradish foam.


Pea soup with fresh peas, hummus, pea powder, and mentholated air
Who knew pea soup could be so delicious? I could have eaten a bowl of this for my dinner and been happy. Katie was writing notes down about what we were eating, and I now see that her description for this course was “pea soup (omg).”


Cauliflower tortelloni with birch-smoked cheese in cocoa consume
The cocoa consume sounded a little shocking, but the combination of that with the cauliflower and cheese was amazing. There were also some crunchy cocoa nibs on top. This went so well with our red wine. I was a happy camper.


Quail egg ravioli with brown butter and parmesan
This course also got an “omg” in Katie’s notes. We were instructed let the ravioli sit for 20 seconds before eating (so that the egg yolk sets a little bit), and then to eat it all in one bite. All I have to say is – wow. There was truffle, runny egg yolk, butter, and parmesan. That was quite a bite.


Whitefish roe with lemon, buckwheat-polenta cake, coffee gelee, and fried capers
As you can see, I forgot to take a picture before we dug in, so this is an action-shot. Again, this was a random combination of ingredients that worked perfectly.


Butter poached Maine lobster, toasted quinoa, pancetta, and fava beans
I’m from New England, and this was the best lobster I have ever tasted. The presentation was beautiful, too.


Chicken liver with rutabaga balls, turmeric broth, greens, and beer foam
This was good, but not our favorite course. The flavors were great but the liver was a little rich by itself. They told us later in the night that they usually serve some sort of brittle to add some crunch to this, but the heat and humidity that week made impossible to make. They did give us some great beer to go with this course which went perfectly.


Pennsylvania duck breast, duck confit, brussel sprouts, pumpkin smear, cocoa dust
Each bite of this was laid out perfectly with the duck confit on the bottom, the brussels sprout leaves in the middle and the seared duck breast on top. Again, it was absolutely delicious.


“Cheese Course”: Taleggio cheese, coddled egg, white truffle, and powdered honey
The little dish contained taleggio cheese at the bottom and coddled egg on top. I’m not sure where the white truffle was, but it was in there somewhere. We were instructed to take the spoonful of powered honey and stir it into the cheese and egg mixture. We did what we were told and the mixture turned into something with a fondue-like texture. It was such an odd combination, but it was certainly the best cheese course I have ever had!


“Dessert – Meat and Veg”: Candied veal sweetbreads, parsnip-ice wine-vinegar puree, passionfruit sauce, honeydew foam, and parsnip puree
I really felt like I was on Iron Chef with this course. Veal sweetbreads for dessert? It actually worked! They also gave us a glass of Muscat wine to go with our dessert.


We thought we were done at this point, but one of the chefs put down a tiny bottle that said “bacon.” Hmmm…

They brought over another “bonus” course, which was a red beet ice cream on top of a white chocolate cream in a lavender cone. They added some of the bacon extract on top of the ice cream. Amazing!

Who wants to go back with me??

Schwa on Urbanspoon

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