Friday, November 5, 2010

Schwa, Chicago IL

If you’re reading this site you are likely aware of Schwa, Chef Michael Carlson, the obscure reservations system, and even the GQ Article that vaulted the restaurant above other temples of molecular gastronomy as “The Most Revolutionary Restaurant in America.” Hailed by some as a genius, some as an artist, and some as a mad scientist or simply a madman there is no doubt in Carlson’s pedigree – classic Italian training both in Italy and alongside Bartolotta at Spiaggia paired with training in molecular cuisine with Achatz (while at Trio) and Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. What may be in doubt, however, is the seemingly nonchalant, renegade, or downright annoying process of getting to eat Michael’s cuisine.

Calling on the last day of September in hopes of getting a seat for the weekend of my visit in November I was shocked when Carlson actually answered the phone at 12:30pm Ohio time. Sounding a bit perplexed by my question of “Did reservations for November open up today?” he responded “Um, yeah” and proceeded to take my number (no name) and date/time of reservation. After a quick read of the BYOB policy he said “peace, see ya on the 4th” and the line went silent. Wanting to make sure my reservation was legit I tried to call back a couple times in October but always reached their full voicemail box….then on November 2nd I got a call from Mathew to confirm – 6pm – again, no name was requested.

Flash forward to November 4th - 4:00pm the phone rings as I’m browsing in Crate&Barrel – it is Matt again. “Bro, man, we’ve got a problem.” A problem with the building…we’re cancelling service tonight…we also just had two people quit…we’re really sorry…we’ll make it up to you…any date you like…etc. Explaining that I was in from out of town he stated he would “call the chef and get back to me in ten minutes.” That call never came. Frustrated I called back and met that same familiar voice recording over and over…eventually after approximately 20 calls (and 35 minutes) Matt again answered – I explained I was the guy from Ohio and got a “Oh, s&%$ man, I forgot.” To this point I’m still uncertain as to whether he forgot to call or forgot I even existed – the whole conversation was very disjointed and full of “um,” “bro,” and “dude” but regardless he told me that they were going to open up “early” the next day to get us in – when I asked for a time he told me 7:00pm and again read the scripted BYOB policy. A quick scramble to swap my Bonsoiree reservation and things seemed, at least for the time being, set.


Having just whetted my appetite with my sister and her friend at Great Lake we made the quick trip to North Ashland and found the restaurant looking just as I’d seen in pictures – certainly not the portrait of haute cuisine. Receiving a text message from my friend Dave that he’d be there around 7:05 I bid my companions farewell and entered the restaurant – the darkest dining room I’ve ever seen, completely empty, and Redman and Methodman blaring – I laughed and thought back to my experience at Ko…the music, the setting/neighborhood, the reservation system…everything felt a bit familiar. Standing in the middle of the room for a few moments I watched the motion of the kitchen – Carlson hand cutting pasta through the illuminated window suddenly looked up and motioned to one of his colleagues, Matt, who came out to the dining room and said “hey bro, can I help you?” Introducing myself I was met with a “cool, cool – the dude from Ohio, right – I thought we said 7:30?” Knowing for fact he’d said 7:00 but largely unconcerned he led me to the two-top closest to the kitchen where I would sit for approximately 10 minutes before Dave arrived – water was filled and I was left to listen to Wu-Tang, Ozzy, Mastadon, KRS One, Tupac, and a progression of loud music while watching the small team of three (Matt, Matt, and Michael) work the kitchen.

Arriving with wine, Dave was greeted quickly and the bottle was taken back to the kitchen. Not recalling what wine Dave brought I’ll note that glasses were kept full throughout the evening and Matthew even opened up some of the wine in the kitchen to pair a Pinot Noir with the lighter courses. Still the only full table in the restaurant both Matt and Michael visited the table to welcome us and service began quickly. Without going into too much detail I will note that throughout the evening service was excellent despite the fact that the chefs were also the servers and although there was a lot of slang and mumbling the plates were delivered with extensive description of ingredients, technique, and inspiration – the team also went out of their way to learn about diners (asking what dishes/ingredients worked or didn’t, inquiring about our jobs and interest, etc.)


Without further ado – while I’m sure some of my descriptions are lacking an ingredient or five (the menu I was given at the end of the night listed 3-4 ingredients per plate) the meal started off with the night’s amuse - Clarified Bloody Mary with spicy tomato, pepper, and pork. Similar to Alinea’s Thai Distillation this simple shot was exactly what you’d expect from the title – hot and savory, smooth and refreshing. Interestingly when Matthew saw me snap a picture he offered the advice “don’t worry if you wanna use flash dude, it’s pretty dark in here.”

With the soundtrack blasting Busta Rhymes our first course arrived – “Octopus - Pineapple, Macadamia Nut, Char.” Featuring supple slow boiled octopus that lacked any semblance of chewy/rubberiness cascaded across the plate atop smears of burnt pineapple and macadamia nut puree the flavor of the cephalopod was nicely complimented by the sweet and nutty admixtures. Adding complexity and texture would be thinly sliced pan seared arctic char, shaved nori, baked yucca chips, and micro greens while dots of aged Sherry vinegar lent a savory finish.

When course two arrived we were still enjoying our three:two server/chef:diner ratio and Carlson delivered the plate himself. Titled “Elote – Corn, Lime, Cojita” the plate featured Warm corn soup made with “mayonnaise and cilantro pudding” and a side salad consisting of charred corn, lime puree, chili spiced popcorn, and cojita cheese. Interestingly using the lime to adhere the cup to the plate we were instructed to eat this “however you like” and after a taste of the soup – a fantastic flavor/texture best described as cornbread veloute – I proceded to add bits of corn, cheese, and lime to the admixture which produced more nuanced flavors. All in all my least favorite course of the meal, but a successful take on the popular Hispanic street food which the course was named after.

It was with course three that the soundtrack switched from Rap to Metal, loud and heavy either way, and more patrons began arriving…as a matter of fact, the restaurant went from empty to full almost immediately at 7:45pm and we chuckled as a few patrons were turned away despite bringing boozy gifts for the kitchen. With service slowing only slightly the next plate was one of Carlson’s more famous options - “Tagliatelle - veal heart, huckleberries, honey.” Featuring a spiral of hand cut pasta snaking up the edge of the bowl and topped with chopped veal heart, whole huckleberries, Tellagio cheese, honeyed veal demiglaze, shaved black truffles, and arugula this course once again showed off Carlson’s fondness for sweetened proteins. Tender and al dente the pasta itself was beautiful but the star of the show was undoubtedly the manner in which the sweet gravy enhanced the savory offal. This course and its follow-up were the only courses where I truly wished there was bread service at Schwa as I would have loved to sop up every drop of the sauce.

Our next course would be offered as a “bonus” and true to rumor when a later table requested the dish they were told it could not be accommodated as the kitchen had “run out.” As much a signature as anything at Schwa, Carlson’s famous Quail Egg Yolk Ravioli with Buffalo ricotta, brown butter, white truffle, and Chive was every bit as good as the rumors. Likely influenced by his time at Trio with Achatz (who was then perfecting Black Truffle Explosion) the Ravioli was served solo and we were instructed to let it cool a moment and then eat it in a single bite. Bursting in the mouth and potentially the only dish of the evening lacking substantial sweetness I’m going to go out on a limb and say I enjoyed this even more than Achatz’s fabled dish – the texture of the molten egg yolk was simply one of the best mouth-feels I can imagine and the brown butter/white truffle combination was divine on the palate.

Returning to the menu, course four was an interesting dish of opposing flavors that worked much better than one would expect. Titled “Roe – Watermelon, Violet” the course was served in a rounded bowl and featured Steelhead Roe floating in a semi-solid watermelon gelee and topped with viola flowers. On the edge of the bowl rested a curl of watermelon rind and on the plate balancing the rounded bowl was a bit of tempura steelhead roe. Taking my first bite of the dish I was instantly struck by the hefty flavors of watermelon – a flavor so strong it almost tasted artificial like Bubbalicious – but on mastication a pleasant salinity broke through as the caviar burst on the tongue and the overall effect was something like tapioca pudding in texture and with the aroma of violet the course seemed to serve as a palate cleanser to both the tongue and the nostrils. Not to be forgotten, the rind was cured and somewhat vinegar-sweet while the tempura roe was intensely briny and crisp.

For our fish course, “Halibut – Anchovy, Black Garlic, Zucchini” would arrive as the largest portion size of the meal. With easily 3 ounces of broiled and seared Halibut centering the plate the day boat fish was perfectly flaky and tender. Seated amidst crispy garlic chips, grilled zucchini, sprigs of lavender, and drizzles of sesame oil the fish was additionally paired with three distinct smears – sweet black garlic, tangy Greek yogurt, and subtly briny white anchovy puree. Tasting the fish with each component provided a different experience and although diverse in scope each item served to highlight the protein without distracting from the others.

Course six would be another familiar face on the Schwa menu – “Biscuits and Gravy – Sweetbreads, Red Eye Gravy, Mustard.” Described as a tribute to Michael’s southern grandmother the dish featured three plump and crispy sweetbreads with characteristic creamy centers juxtaposed with three tiny buttermilk biscuits from his grandmother’s recipe. A lovely start, the plate was next supplemented with bitter braised mustard greens, fibrous Chinese black beans, ground pink peppercorns, micro-arugula, miniature pearl onions, and coffee spiked redeye gravy. With each flavor playing a part in the entirely southern feeling dish I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the spiciness of the gravy – it was appropriate for the dish, but required nearly a whole glass of water on my admittedly un-southern tongue.

Our main course, arriving during a particularly loud and profanity laden track by Nas, would be one of Carlson’s more recent creations – a dish detailed as “S’mores – beef mole, graham, marshmallow, campfire.” Having to walk through the kitchen to get to the restroom I’d seen this course being prepped earlier in the meal – or at seen Carlson taking the Wagyu from the sous vide bag and shredding it. Featuring Wagyu short ribs in a cocoa nib mole that literally melted on the tongue, the dish was topped with crumbled graham crackers, a creamy graham cracker puree, and black cardamom marshmallow all placed in a cone. With the cone resting in a smoking vessel we were instructed to lift the cone and eat with a spoon while the campfire smoke poured forth. Again pairing intense sweetness with a traditionally savory dish I can say that of all the creations I experienced at Schwa this is probably the most memorable – it was a truly beautiful and on par with the Tagliatelle for best of the night. As an added bonus the dish included an ounce of Gran Marnier consommé as a “sidecar” – intensely boozy with hints of orange and cinnamon, another intriguing palate cleanser.

The night’s cheese course would prove to be small, intense, and unlike any other cheese course in my experience…no surprise, all things considering. Titled “Pretzels and Beer” the course featured a small pretzel gougere stuffed with Chimay Cheese and topped with Chimay Beer Foam sitting on a puddle of Mustard Paint. A single bite, a flash on the palate – first mustard, then beer, then a creamy lingering finish. While I’m a fan of neither mustard nor beer neither of them were overly potent when compared to the cheese and I still wonder how Carlson managed to form a pretzel that dissolved on the tongue.

For our dessert course we received the dish I’d expected, “Celery Root – Banana, Chocolate, Caramel.” Featuring a pool of sweetened celery soup with slowly melting white chocolate mousse at its base and a disk of celery root cake at the center the cake itself was next topped with a shard of white chocolate while a rum roasted bruleed banana doused with salted caramel sat alongside. Topping the dish with Banana leather and clover I have to say that the cake itself was almost too celery for me – someone who eats celery frequently and loves the flavor – and my friend did not enjoy it at all. The key to this dish, however, seemed to lie in combining everything at once and taking a bite – the bitterness of the celery, the sweetness of the banana, the smoothness of the chocolate, and the salty caramel forming a unique flavor that tasted something like heavily sweetened matcha.

With the place jam packed and the decibel level rising as people enjoyed their beverages of choice (yes, even the guy who brought the case of PBR) Michael and Matt both visited our table once again to thank me for adjusting my schedule to accommodate the issues of the night before – “we really wanted to cook for you guys, but sometimes s#@% just happens – it’s awesome that you could make it.” Thanking them we were told we could hang out as long as we liked as they had no more reservations for the evening – they even offered to pour us some beer which we politely declined. Arriving with the check and a copy of the menu Matt said “seriously guys, we don’t f#$& up – whenever you’re ready” and opening the check we found that we’d been given half off the tab. Leaving a $75 tip for the awesome evening we thanked the crew once again and made our way to the street.

A bizarre restaurant and experience in all ways it is really hard to sum up what Schwa “is” in the grand scheme of restaurants when looking back on it. The best comparison I can offer up is the one I assumed going in – Momofuku Ko. Obscure reservation system, off beat location, “come as you are” dress code, blaring music, and obscure ingredient pairings that somehow work. With that said, the bar stools, snooty attitude, excessive price tag, and NO pictures policy at Ko speaks to a restaurant that doesn’t care what you think – they believe it is a privilege to experience their vision. On the contrary, quoting Michael Carlson himself, “We cook food we want to eat in an environment we want to eat it in” and “Our game plan is the same game plan as every night. We're making 30 people happy." On November 5th 2010 Schwa made me very happy and it was absolutely worth the effort.


Rich said...

What a hilariously wonderful experience! I can only imagine what the Michelin people would write down as they sat there listening to the gangster rap and being addressed as "dudes."

uhockey said...

I get the idea we'll find out in a few days.

They gave Ko 2 stars.....

Zephram said...

Now that the stars are out, with Schwa receiving 1, how would you compare it with Ko food-wise? Given that I've read Michelin (Naret) state that (grading) is all about the food, is it fair to say Ko is that much better?

uhockey said...

The ingredients were more esoteric at Ko. The food was better at Schwa.

Renée said...

So glad schwa left a great taste in your mouth too. It was my favourite spot of 2009 (albeit the reservation was a tough one; thankfully no drama).

I was a little scared that they wouldn't be recognized by Michelin due to the (lack of) service (and ambiance), but I found the break from standard refreshing.

Absolutely would not hesitate to try it all again.

uhockey said...

Curious Renee - why were the lights on at your visit - any idea?

750 mL said...

Uncanny. I had almost exactly the same experience last night. Not only most of the dishes--the exact same situation with the rebooking and the half-off. You and I also tipped exactly the same (minus a bottle of Turgy I brought to drink in the kitchen).

Zephram said...

Hi Mike, I'm headed to Chicago in January and already have reservations for Alinea and Schwa (fortunately, the process was not nearly as harrowing as yours). Any suggestions for lunch for the family? For some context, last time I took them to Frontera. Happy Holidays!

Kung Food Panda said...

I was really bummed I didn't get a call back from Schwa for my last trip to Chicago. I even called 2 months ahead. Hopefully I'll have better luck next time around. Looks like you had a great meal!