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

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