Wednesday, March 14, 2012

schwa - chicago, il
1466 n. ashland avenue
chicago, il 60622

to say that eating at schwa requires a bit of work from the diner is an understatement to say the least. with its maddening reservation process, sketchy location, and history of last minute cancellations, one could easily assume that schwa simply isn't worth the effort. while i am still struggling to come to grasps with the whole experience, i will open this post by stating that now that it is all said and done, i would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

for carrie and i, our schwa adventure started back in mid 2011 when we began randomly placing phone calls here and there. i knew beforehand that getting somebody to actually answer the phone at schwa was a small miracle, and that the voice mail box at the restaurant was perpetually full. this proved to be the case, and after a few weeks of calling, we lost interest. trying again here and there over the coming months, it wasn't until february 2012 that i really dedicated myself to finally getting a hold of them. making calls daily at different points in the day, i was able to get through on a friday right at 12pm cst. asking for the earliest available time on march 13th, i was given a 5:30pm table for two.

fast forward to the big day, after checking into our hotel i received a somewhat anticipated cancellation phone call from schwa with the excuse of two staff members being fired used. it is fairly well documented that scwha is known to cancel at the last second with issues with the building or staff cited as the reason. rumor has it that the real reason for the cancellations is a hung over chef/crew, and that tuesday is actually the most notorious day for service at schwa to be shut down. knowing all of this ahead of time, i had a backup reservation booked at blackbird, and we were luckily able to reschedule with schwa for the following evening.

so how is a restaurant in the seedy part of wicker park with this kind of reservation process/cancellation history worth anybody's time? how can a restaurant even operate in this manner and still be in business? the answer is simple, the cooking of chef/owner michael carlson is THAT good. while certainly a bit of an odd ball, carlson's background speaks for itself. the chef has a strong background in italian cooking coming from training in italy as well as at spiaggia in chicago and has also worked alongside modernist masters grant achatz at trio and heston blumenthal at the fat duck. in 2005, grant achatz offered carlson the job of sous chef when he opened alinea, but was turned down as carlson opted to go out on his own instead, opening schwa. in the years following, the popularity of carlson's 26 seat byob grew to epic proportions, with a six page spread in gq magazine touting schwa as "the most revolutionary restaurant in america". although admitting that his average hourly income is around $6 per hour, carlson has stayed true to the restaurant he loves, turning down numerous buyout and expansion propositions. with all of this considered along with human nature to want what is rare or hard to attain, it is really no surprise that schwa receives and estimated 100 requests per day for its 26 seats.
with nothing planned in between our brunch at southport grocery and dinner at schwa, carrie and i browsed the lakeview area for awhile before deciding to head over to wicker park and locate the restaurant. not realizing just how shady the area was, we actually spent about an hour of time sitting in our car before venturing into k-mart to use the restroom (not recommended!!!). walking up to the broken down store front of schwa praying silently that they would actually be open, we pushed open the door and were met by thumping bass and an empty dining room. there is no front of the house staff at schwa, with the chefs serving as the receptionists, hosts, and servers. after standing awkwardly for a moment, we were noticed by carlson himself who sent out one of his cohorts out to greet us. given the choice of a table up front or along the back wall, we handed over our two half bottles of wine (oregon pinot noir and austian gruner veltliner) along with a bottle of buffalo trace for the kitchen (boozy gifts are a schwa tradition) and grabbed the table upfront which provided a better view of the kitchen.

with the music pounding (mostly rap...aesop rock, pos, atmosphere ect.)and another set of diners arriving, carrie and i waited at our table for a minute or so before the chef who initially greeted us came out to get us oriented on what was to come. confirming our lack of dietary restrictions, we were asked if we had any time constraints as carlson had a few extra courses planned for the evening. upon stating that we were up for as many courses as the team was willing to serve, we noted that we were planning on driving back to st. louis immediately following the meal. "we will try not to get you guys too inebriated," was the chef's response, and with an apology for canceling on us the night before, we were on our way. i will note here that while i did enjoy the vibe at schwa, once the room started to fill up the noise of the diners along with the loud music and excited chefs did make for a somewhat distracting dining experience. courses as complex as those at schwa really need ones full attention to completely appreciate, and at times i found my focus shifting from my food to the surrounding chaos.
our first taste at schwa was called the red hook. this is carlson's take on a manhattan consisting of cherry covered chocolate and a shot of bourbon.
following the red hook was a basil coriander soda with edible flower petals.
for the meals first actual course, carlson served up his interpretation of an old school french peasant dish. here we have cassoulet with pig's head, ear, white beans, and tomato.
our next course was delivered to the table with a question. "are you familar with wendy's baked potato bar?" caught off guard somewhat, i replied that i was (lie) and was told that the fast food staple (?) in question was the inspiration for this course. on the edge of the plate we have bacon jam, crispy potato skins, sour cream, and a long strand of salty cheddar cheese. the soup was a rich and silky smooth potato. while this may seem basic, this was an example of a basic grouping of ingredients being executed perfectly. when a chef takes items and flavor combinations that i am used to having in my everyday life and elevates them to such a ridiculously high level, that is true skill in my eyes.
arriving next at the table was an off the menu item that is probably schwa's most famous offering. while i think that most guests get this course (especially those who bring booze for the crew), i have heard reports of it not being served and was excited when it was set before me. pictured above is the famous quail egg ravioli with ricotta cheese, brown butter, and white truffle. we were told to let it cool for a moment or it would "burn our lips closed" and then eat it in a single bite. with thoughts of grant achatz black truffle explosion running through my head, i followed the instructions and was treated to one of the best bites i have had in some time.
coming after the restaurants signature was another pasta dish, tortelloni with crab apple, celery, and shaved black truffle. what i remember about this course (aside from the dish being hard to eat out of) is perfectly cooked pasta with sweetness from the apples mixed with earthy truffle flavor. making my first trip back to the kitchen after this course to use the restroom (a single toilet for both staff and diners), i was warned by carlson to watch my step entering the small room but tripped anyways.
returning to my seat, i found the above utensils waiting and was told by carrie that they were handmade by a friend of carlson. as beautiful as they were, the small spoons were somewhat hard to use, and i actually found myself using my fingers a few times. every menu at schwa seems to have a roe course, and our meal was no different. this was suppose to be a play on fruit loops, and along with the fish eggs was a ball of fried dough similar to a hush puppy, a passionfruit gel with a jello like consistency, and a violet foam. i have no idea how this resembles fruit loops nor do i understand how anyone could even consider putting all of these components together on one plate. with that said, this was absolutely mind blowing. the salinity from the roe somehow worked with the dough, fruit flavors, and violet foam creating a truly genius dish.
still floored from the previous course, it was at this point that carlson himself made his first appearance at our table. apologizing profusely for the previous night's cancellation, he thanked us for our generosity (i assume meaning the bourbon we brought the staff) and understanding before describing our next course. simply listed on our menu as salmon with grapefruit and pink lemonade, this was another unbelievable dish. aside from stating that the lemonade was made with sumac and that more shaved black truffles were used, i am not really able to say much about this course as it really must be experienced first hand to understand!
tumeric ice cream with mustard salted caramel. if ben and jerry's had this it would be in my freezer on a regular
after the ice cream came a piece of seared foie gras encrusted with apricot and cocoa nibs served with a curry sauce.
so we were instructed to eat from the spoon first and then take the shot, but otherwise i am unable to comment on this.
the meals final savory offering was pheasant with flavors of bourbon. due to the loud music and carlon's frantic personality, i was a bit lost during his description of this dish. from what i gathered, the pheasant breasts were plated with ingredients that represent those that are used to make bourbon.
bridging the gap between sweet and savory was a "cheese" course. this is a schwa staple, and is basically a pretzel puff with chimay beer cheese. creamy, salty, crunchy, and delicious to be sure.
rice crispy treat with a horchata shot.
for the meals final course, we were served what chef carlson considers a deconstruction of dr. pepper flavors. served with an actual can of what carrie considers to be her favorite soda, this was an interesting dessert for sure. i wish i could say more about it, but like many of the dishes at schwa, words cannot accurately describe the flavors.

returning to the table after a final trip to the kitchen to use the restroom where i was again thanked enthusiastically by carlson for my generosity and flexibility, i found the bill waiting. even though i knew going in that those who are canceled on often receive a discounted meal, i was absolutely shocked by what i was asked to pay. the bill listed the normal price of $115 per person plus tax, but then said minus "sorry" (cancellation) and minus "thanks" (bourbon?) with a total of just $80 written. leaving a tip worthy of a bill five times greater than what we were charged, we thanked carlson and crew and promised we would be back someday. after stopping into jewel for monster energy drinks for the drive, carrie and i returned to our car relieved to find it unharmed and set out on our five hour journey back to st. louis.
Schwa on Urbanspoon

southport grocery and cafe - chicago, il
3552 n. southport
chicago, il 60657

a stop at southport grocery and cafe was originally part of the plan for last october's one night chicago jaunt, but after a great meal and a bit too much wine at vie the night before, carrie and i overslept and began our day of eating around noon with lunch at naha. not wanting to make the same mistake again, we decided to make a late breakfast at southport our only meal of the day before our 5:30 dinner reservation at schwa.
with the two of us really starting to get the hang of driving in the chicago area, we made the twenty minute drive from hotel felix to the lakeview neighborhood where southport is located, and walked into the small cafe/gourmet grocery around 12:30pm. with the temperature in the low seventies, seating was available both inside and out, and we hesitated for a second before defaulting to our standard of eating inside. with the flux pavilion remix of "cracks" playing overhead, we were seated at a two top near the small open kitchen in the rear of the restaurant. southport offers a full menu of both breakfast and lunch items all day long, and are best known for their cupcakes and bread pudding pancakes.
 to drink, i had my first ever beermosa (beer and orange juice) made with bell's oarsman ale. being a rather tart beer with a low alcohol content, the oarsman ale lent itself well to such a drink, making this a favorable beverage.
with my original plan of having the smaller tasting order of the brisket and gravy as my starter dashed as they were sold out for the day, i opted to comprise my meal of sweets and sweets alone. kicking things off with the highly hyped red velvet cupcake, my excitement level was high and i was not let down in the least. the cupcakes are kept in a refrigerator to ensure optimal freshness and texture, and the red velvet option was an exercise in pure decadence. had the weather been cooler, we would most certainly have ordered a few to go to eat on the car ride home later that evening.
for the main portion of my meal, i knew going into the meal that southport offered single pancakes, and stuck with my plan of ordering one bread pudding pancake as well as one cupcake pancake. beginning with the offering that brought us to southport in the first place, the bread pudding pancake topped with cinnamon sugar butter and served with vanilla anglaise was rich, gooey, and definitely worth the trip! moving on to the cupcake pancake (made with the same batter as their cupcakes) with vanilla sugar butter and wisconsin maple syrup, all i can say is it was good but paled in comparison to the bread pudding.
carrie definitely has a penchant for savory breakfasts, and as such stayed away from sweets all together at southport. this typically works out well for me as she is never able to actually finish what she orders, allowing me to get a taste of the sweet as well as the savory. pictured above is the chorizo omelet with arugula, goat cheese, and a side of red mashed potatoes. this too was excellent, with the potatoes being unusually good.

fully satisfied, the two of us paid at the counter per southport's standard procedure, and hit the streets with roughly four hours to kill before our insanely anticipated diner at schwa. southport has been on my radar for a great while now based solely on their bread pudding pancakes, and while the pancakes were worthy of the hype, everything else was damn good as well. if a breakfast place this good existed in st. louis i would be there on a monthly basis.
Southport Grocery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

blackbird (2) - chicago, il
619 west randolph
chicago, il 60661

 after a relatively easy drive from st. louis to the windy city, carrie and i checked into the hotel felix (free parking for hybrids!) and made our way to the streets with rick bayless's xoco as our destination. not two blocks into our stroll, the phone call i was dreading came. two weeks prior, we had finally scored a reservation to chef michael carlson's restaurant schwa, an establishment widely considered as one of america's toughest tables to book. not only are reservations at schwa difficult to attain, but the crew is known to cancel reservations at the last minute with excuses like issues with heating/cooling/plumbing or the firing of staff often being used. luckily, schwa was able to give us a reservation for the following evening, opening up this night for another meal! knowing ahead of time what i was possibly getting us into in regards to schwa, i had already booked a backup reservation at blackbird, and jumped at the chance to have two outstanding meals in as many nights.

blackbird is executive chef paul kahan's flagship restaurant in a family that also includes avec, the publican, big star, and the violet hour. the current chef de cuisine is david posey, a culinary institute of america graduate who prior to blackbird spent much time with genius chef grant achatz at both trio and alinea. the restaurant's modern american cuisine has been met with much praise over its almost fifteen year existence, most recently garnering a michelin star in the red guide along with a four star review from the chicago tribune. this would mark carrie a i's second visit to blackbird, having previously visited the restaurant for lunch during one of our first serious chicago food trips back in 2010.
arriving at the restaurant via taxi right on time for our 6:30 reservation, we entered the award wining thomas schlesser designed restaurant and were promptly led to our table at the banquet running the length of the dining room. while seating is somewhat tight and the atmosphere more boisterous than your normal "fine dining" establishment, blackbird's interior is one of my all time favorites as the sleek and minimal design of the space really appeals to me. i will take this opportunity to note that the dress of the other patrons varied significantly, with men in both suits and t-shirts. my choice of nice jeans and casual blazer was perfect, and is what i would recommend for those not wanting to feel either over or under dressed.

diners at blackbird have the choice of ordering al a carte or partaking in a reasonably priced ($110) tasting menu featuring nine proper courses along with an amuse bouche and sorbet. wine pairings with the tasting are also available for an extra $55. per are usual, we went for the tasting and tacked on the pairings for good measure.
for bread, a hearty whole grain bread was served with a smooth butter seasoned with sage and tarraggon. this was the same offering as our last visit to blackbird, and was certainly enjoyable.
for cocktails, i ordered the blackbird orange, made with tempranillo, new orleans spiced rum, rare tea cellars sicilian blood orange, and a clementine. carrie selected the luna sea, which was plum wine, campo de encanto, sparkling wine, pickled ginger, and plum nectar. for the first time ever, after tasting each others drinks, carrie and i actually decided to switch as we both vastly preferred the others selection.
the amuse for the night was a celery root custard with sea beans and cucumber vinegar. the custard was almost like a panna cotta in terms of texture and was nice with the firm sea beans. a glass of champagne was served alongside this offering with the disclaimer that it was meant to also go with the first proper course of the meal.
arriving moments after the custard dishes were cleared away was a a confit of baby octopus with fennel, chestnut, lime, and chili. this was easily the most tender octopus i can ever remember having, and while its flavor was great on its own, the sweet flavor of the fennel along with the tart lime and heat from the chili threads really made every bite a different experience. saying that this course started things off on the right foot would be an understatement!
although course number two was certainly the meals least appealing visually, chef posey's take on butternut squash soup did not disappoint in the slightest. here we have a foam of smoked char filled with roe and topped table side with a butternut squash soup made with peaches and stout. with instructions to blend it all together before eating, carrie and i both loved the sweetness provided by both the squash and peaches contrasting with the smoky char. as if this wasn't enough, the salty orbs of roe popping here and there really made this a complex soup. a lovely vouvray was served with this course.
for our third course, we were served slow poached shetland salmon with smoked panisse, soy-maple braised onions, fresh raisins, and paprika. paired with a pinot blanc from alsace, this was another hit. the expertly prepared fillet was perfectly tender and flavorful, and was really enhanced by the plates other ingredients, most notably the delicious soy-maple onions.
with a good ten minute break coming in between courses, the salmon was followed up by chorizo crusted sauteed barramundial a carte as their entree, and after tasting it i am confident that nobody went home regretting their decision. the chorizo crust gave the fish a nice bit of heat and crunch on the outside, while the interior was firm, meaty and full flavored. the pears and little neck's were really just a bonus to me. wine for this course was a full bodied chardonnay.
moving away from seafood, the placement of the next course was somewhat atypical, but certainly not unwelcome. served with a sweet sautere, course number five was a torchon of sonoma valley foie gras with sunflower seeds, parsley root, and spicy pickled lime. rich, fatty, and unctuous as expected, the foie was fabulous eaten alone, but even better when paired with the meaty sunflower seeds. while the spicy pickled lime was interesting for sure, i did not particularly care for it in this dish as it muted the flavor of the foie instead of complimenting it.
for the first of two heavy meat courses, a dry aged prime striploin was brought to the table. plated with rosefinn potatoes, spring onion, miners lettuce, and smoked bone marrow, the beef was enjoyable but overall this course was probably the weakest savory of the evening. a bold chateauneuf du pape was poured here.
for our seventh course and final savory offering of the meal, we were treated to a part of the pig that i do not believe either of us have ever sampled. pictured above is braised pork collar with sunchokes, burnt leeks, kumquats, and horseradish caramel. paired with a cote du rhone, the collar reminded me of beef short rib somewhat in terms of texture and fat content, while the flavor was decidedly pork. at this point, the only nuance to this dish i can accurate recall is the citrus from the kumquats, which was definitely interesting mixed with the heavy meat.
the sorbet was grapefruit with yogurt mousse and kasha. the sorbet itself was astringent as expected, but tempered nicely by the mild yogurt. the kasha added a nice bit of texture to the fray while reminding me of my breakfast cereal.
our first proper dessert came in the form of chestnut mousse with persimmons, caramel meringue, and perigold truffles. having reviewed the al a carte dinner menu prior to our meal, this was one dessert than certainly caught my eye. while i found the flavor and texture of the persimmons to be kind of "blah", the smooth chestnut mousse, caramel meringue, and earthy shaved perigold truffles worked together to provide a unique dessert.
closing with a somewhat more traditional dessert, our final course was soft valrhona chocolate with pistachio pain perdu, buttercream, and candied beets. this was a great dessert with the beets adding an interesting dimension to the mix. on a disappointing note, it was never mentioned that the wine paring did not include dessert wines, and we were never really given the chance to rectify this or even order coffee until it was too late.
 with a pair of olive oil madelines arriving at the table along with the check, carrie and i settled the bill and opted to make the twenty minute walk back to our hotel as the weather was beautiful. conversing casually about the meal, we determined that what we were served at blackbird was a pretty serious bargain considering the number of courses, portion sizes, and food quality. one would be hard pressed to find a better tasting menu for $110 or less in any city in america. when phil vettel of the chicago tribune prognosticated that blackbird would be promoted from one to two michelin stars in the 2012 guide (it wasn't), i thought back to my lunch in 2010 and raised my eyebrows. having now experienced chef david posey's tasting menu in full, i really feel that even though michlin claims it is just what is on the plate that counts, if the room and service were a bit more traditional for a "fine dining" establishment that such a thing most likely would have occurred. i have no doubt that carrie and i will return to blackbird, and i recommend it to both fine dining veterans and those who want to experience a world class meal without all the pomp and circumstance of places like everest, tru, trotters, ect.