I criticized the Tribune's Phil Vettel for dinging the extraordinary Matsumoto for lacking a few ordinary accoutrements such as nicer-than-takeout chopsticks; as if in response (no, I don't really think that) he prefaces his review of Schwa by pointing out that it lacks a few of the niceties of the standard high end dining experience, but makes it clear you'd be a fool to get too hung up on that:
Phil Vettel wrote:The conservative in me says to keep the star rating low, and to wait for Schwa's dining experience to improve. But you know what? It's never going to happen. Within the next couple of years, some major investor is going to wave a stack of bills under the nose of chef/owner Michael Carlson, and he and Schwa will be gone. Or the restaurant will be transformed into something with four-star aspirations (eminently attainable, from what I've eaten), and foodies who knew the restaurant when will brag, "I dined at Schwa when the entrees were only $28!"
I still don't quite agree with his priorities-- I ate four-star food last night, and had four-star service in the ways that matter most, even if the place doesn't have four-star air conditioning-- but I find this a much healthier attitude.
Still, before I went there, I admit to some paradoxical trepidation of my own about Schwa's lack of refinements, philosophical if not culinary in nature. If one of the best new restaurants in Chicago was managing to make its name by ignoring the niceties and saying "It's only the food, take it or leave it," were they upping the Restaurant Seriousness arms race to dangerous new levels? I've written before about how the serious restaurant experience has started to become as hushed and sober as the art gallery experience, showmanship is a lost art, themes are for Disneyland, fun is for tourists. If Schwa, where the food is mostly brought straight out by the chefs as they finish it, made nice glasses and adequate waitstaff seem like distracting frills or frilly distractions, how much longer would we have tablecloths in nice restaurants? Or chairs?
But if my imagined Schwa was an ascetic experience with a Cromwell-like chef eyeing balefully us to make sure we ate with the proper devout attitude, I soon realized that there was a much more recent and agreeable precedent for Schwa's combination of just-acceptable setting and electrifying food. Back in the 70s, when downtown Chicago theater meant yet another chance to see Gordon McRae in the permanent touring company of Carousel (I think it's still out there, in Kuala Lumpur or maybe on Neptune), you might have taken the Halsted bus to a ratty old building in dicey Lakeview and sat down on mismatched seats in a "theater" where black paint covered a lot of sins. No curtain concealed the set, which looked like a stoner's apartment after a party. The audience was an odd mix of scruffy young people and well-dressed folks, not all of whom were sure what they were doing there. The lights would go down, two odd-looking kids would come out-- one tall and balding with a lisping voice, the other smaller and a little weaselly, indistinguishable from a bagboy at Jewel. And then John Malkovich and Gary Sinise would start beating the crap out of each other in Sam Shepard's True West, and you weren't sure if this was the best play you'd ever seen, or if they'd turn on you before the evening was over.
Alas, Chicago theater doesn't have that kind of cocktail-chat, culture-vulture cachet any more, but Chicago food does; and so Schwa, in 2006, turns out to be the dodgy neighborhood storefront experience that everyone has to have, the ticket that's impossibly hard to get (we heard them say, by the way, that September reservations are about to open). No, you won't get Riedel stemware, but don't think for a second that the performance isn't a hundred times more disciplined, precise and accomplished than devons-- I'm sorry, I mean dozens-- of chichier places that have opened recently. The kitchen at Schwa (visible in an open window) moves at breakneck pace like a precision ballet, the service was easygoing yet obviously learned (the place is BYO, but our waiter sized up the assortment of bottles we'd brought and quickly made intelligent choices about which would best serve the courses ahead), and with only five staff members, chefs included, serving 10 or 12 courses to each of 15 or 20 diners, dishes arrived on a near-clockwork schedule and there was not a misstep in the evening. (Once I thought I caught one of the chefs stopping in the doorway as he realized he was delivering our next course before the previous one had been cleared. I should have known better, it was headed for another table and ours followed a few moments later, to a clear table.)
And the food? We'll get to pictures in a minute, but this was extraordinarily accomplished food, clearly descended from Grant Achatz (whose one post here was touting Michael Carlson before Schwa opened*), but more sensuous and less scientific; Achatz opened my eyes several times, at Schwa I wanted to close them and just luxuriate in the sensation, or maybe put a cloth over my head, like Mitterand dining on ortolans, and be enswirled by the aromas.
Okay, let's see what we had, particular standouts are bolded:
An amuse-bouche of a toasted marshmallow with a bit of dried or fried carrot sticking out of it, washed down by a carrot-cardamom lassi. Savory drink, kid-food ingredient-- a course straight out of the Chicago food playbook.
White anchovy draped over a bowl spread with (almost invisible) celery-root puree and manchego cheese, and a small apple and celery salad.
Fennel, fava bean and strawberry salad with assortment of cheeses and purees to play with. Susan had a mild panic attack after the somewhat lengthy list of ingredients was recited, not knowing the exact way to eat this:
We would soon relax and just go with the sensual flow of the flavors without worrying too much exactly what they were (which is why this report will be a bit vague at times).
Prosciutto-- raw and crispy-- and melon, with a prosciutto consomme. Although this looks a bit like a Keller or Achatz non-dish, the lush Euro-American meatiness of it seemed unlike anything we'd had at Trio, for instance, and the clearest sign of how Carlson is taking their inspiration and making it his own. The first one that made us want to close our eyes and just steep in it.
And the second one that made us want to do that was the thoroughly justly praised quail egg ravioli. As the waiter observed, sexual metaphors are pretty much inescapable with this one. I'll leave it at that.
You know the joke about getting the family history of your fish these days? This turns out to be not just Iranian but Iranian-American caviar, Iranian sturgeon raised in Michigan, on a little puree of artichoke or something, I forget. (Amusing note: the cup was glued to the plate with a dab of very stiff mashed potatoes.)
"I want to send this scallop to Devon Seafood Grill so they know what a scallop is next time." --G Wiv. With morels and a lemon lavender sauce, absolutely lovely and perfectly cooked.
Duck breast and confit, shaved sunchokes, kumquat jelly to dip in.
I forget what this little one-bite thing was, I think it was radish-based, oddly enough-- radishes on radish puree with radish gelee or something.
Beef ribeye with scrambled eggs and taleggio, and a little dab o' super-tender pork belly. Who'd have guessed that scrambled eggs would be the key component of one of the most dazzling dishes? But this steak'n'egger was just fantastic, tender blood-red beef with silky eggs and a hint of stinky cheese. Plus, they're not dummies, they sent us a decent-sized portion of beef just at the point when we were starting to wonder if, good as it was, we'd need to make a run for hot links and rib tips afterward. No such need.
Sweet-savory radish-based palate cleanser in a little glass which, oddly, has a bump on the bottom so it won't sit flat.
Gooey dark chocolate cake with some glob of cheese, white truffle shavings, and a truffle vanilla milkshake. Susan was a little put off by other flavors getting in the way of her chocolate, but I thought it was a brilliant use of real truffle, not oil, to take chocolate orgiastically over the top in that way that somebody was thinking of when they said that French cooking exists on the borderline between ecstasy and revulsion. One second the milkshake was like drinking a spare tire, the next second it was mindblowingly lush.
To sum up: Schwa good. Go there. September opens up soon, though as I noted in an earlier thread, what worked for me in getting the last open slot in June, apparently, was just saying "Please please please, when the heck can you fit four of us in?"
* When the subject of the posting about food on the Internet came up, our waiter asked, "Oh, you're from eGullet?" (Achatz posts a lot there, so no surprise that's their frame of reference.) We told him just for that, we were going to call the restaurant Scylla when we wrote about it.
1466 N. Ashland Ave.