Friday, October 27, 2006


I'm not alone in thinking that the food at Schwa is as good as any restaurant in the city. (Even Alinea.) Chef Michael Carlson was named one of Food and Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs for 2006, and Chicago Magazine named him Best New Chef as well. And the restaurant received three stars from Phil Vettel at the Chicago Tribune.

What makes all this a little unusual is the setting. Schwa is a tiny restaurant - just 26 seats. It's located on the edge of Wicker Park, on a stretch of Ashland that's not exactly what one would call "gentrified." (If you're having trouble finding the restaurant, just look for the neon palm trees from the tire rim place across the street.) It doesn't have a liquor license, or even any glassware other than tumblers for BYOB. The staff is minimal - Chef Carlson and Sous-Chef Nathan Klingbail, one server, and a dishwasher.

But what it's lacking in amenties, it makes up for in fabulous food and a funky atmosphere. The music is a little loud, the decor is minimalist, and the chefs are making your food and delivering it right to your table. It ends up being a very intimate restaurant.

Okay, enough with the background, on to the food. I apologize in advance for the photos - the lighting in the restaurant is very indirect and pretty dim, and these required quite a bit of post-processing to be useable. The real thing looks much better!

Amuse: Candy Apple
A little unusual to have something sweet as an amuse, but it was certainly a seasonal way to get things moving!

Panzanella: tomato, brioche, basil
This deconstructed riff on the classic bread salad was quite complex. Elements included (peeled) heirloom cherry tomatoes, a brioche bread pudding topped with a tomato sorbet, basil puree, caramelized fennel puree, and some shaved fennel. And some parmesan and basalmic too. The picture doesn't at all adequately express what a beautiful plate this was. And interesting - there were bits that didn't work really well for me (like the bread pudding), but the concepts were all really neat.

Prosciutto Consomme: melon, arugula
Another riff on a classic dish, this time cantaloupe wrapped with prosciutto. With prosciutto is actually the only way I can really tolerate melon, but even given that limitation I liked this dish. There was regular prosciutto, and some delightfully crispy prosciutto, and melon in various form. And the consomme, of course. Yum.

Quail Egg Ravioli: ricotta, brown butter, parmagiano reggianno
Schwa's signature dish, and in a dead heat for my favorite dish of the night. The raviolis are filled with ricotta cheese and a quail egg yolk. For best results, put the hole ravioli in your mouth and bite down, so you don't lose any of that luscious yolk. The brown butter sauce, parmesan and crispy sage leaf just push it over the top. This is the dish that makes me (and everyone else) regret that Schwa doesn't serve bread - you want something to collect the rest of that buttery goodness. BYOB = bring your own bread?

Illinois Sturgeon Caviar: avocado, cauliflower
My other contender for dish of the night. There's an avocado puree in the bottom of the dish, topped by a cauliflower puree, some finely chopped cooked cauliflower and a scoop of caviar on top. Simple, but soooo good. The flavors just combine beautifully.

Lobster: potatoes, gooseberries, lavender
Butter poached lobster, potato puree, roasted fingerling potatoes, and swiss chard, all topped off with a lavender emulsion (ie. foam). Pretty good. The roasted fingerling potatoes had the nicest texture.

Sweetbreads: rhubarb, humboldt fog
I'd never had sweetbreads before, and this was a great way to try them for the first time. Crispy veal sweetbreads and piece of red wine braised rhubarb, with some sort of sauce and a streak of creamy Humbolt Fog goat cheese.

Bonus Course: eggplant confit
This was an extra, not on our menu. Just a single bite. Pretty tasty, and I don't even like eggplant!

Beef: raw, pickled, braised
Bad picture, so I'll map it out for you. In the lower right on top of the cube, there's beef tartare topped with a raw quail egg. Yum. Below it on the plate is a smear of yuzu honey - out of this world, and a good combo with the tartare. In the center is a pickled beef tongue, with a garnish I can't recall. In the upper left is a lovely braised beef short rib, with a sweet potato puree beneath it. Great dish.

An unusual take on the cheese course, this was a single spoonful of Morbier risotto. The green is summer savory (oil, I think), and there are dehydrated peach chips on top. Tasty, and interesting combination. The risotto texture was perfect. We liked this a lot, because as good as risotto is, typical portions on restaurant menus are often too large when served in conjunction with a lot of other food. (The lobster risotto at Tru is a notable example.)

We had two different desserts, but the picture of the other one is REALLY bad, so you only get to see the strawberry-olive shortcake. Strawberry-WHAT? Yep. It was a little odd, but also tastier than you might think (and I say this as someone who's not so fond of olives). Nicoise olive shortcake, strawberry sauce, strawberry and olive oil ice cream, basil sauce, and some candied olives.

Our other dessert was better - a two chocolate brownies, one topped with a pie pumpkin sorbet, and the other with a pumpkin puree, with chocolate sauce, and pumpkin seeds and some creme fraiche. Very nice, seasonal dessert.

Wine: Since Schwa is BYOB, we couldn't do a different wine for each course, or we would have been staggering out of there! We brought a half bottle each of a red and a white wine. The white, which we drank from the amuse through to the lobster, was A & F Boudin, "Domaine de Chantmerle,' Chablis, 2000. This started off decidedly odd, with this weird kind of appley thing on the palate that had us wondering if the bottle was corked or something. Fortunately, that mostly blew off. Any failings in the Chablis were made up for in the red, however - a 1991 Ridge Monte Bello that was major big yum. As I said previously, Schwa provides only tumblers for wine, so if you're a wine geek, you'll probably want to bring your own glasses. (Tip for travelers - borrow some from your hotel!)

Because there are so few staff, the arrivals for the evening are staggered, so you might presume from the empty tables that the restaurant is underappreciated. But in fact, it's one of the hottest reservations in Chicago right now, with weekends filling up months in advance, and weeknights not much slower. The general feeling among Chicago foodies is that it's only a matter of time before Chefs Carlson and Klingbail get wooed away to something bigger and better-funded, so if you want to appreciate the intimate and exceptional simplicity that is Schwa, don't delay!

1466 N. Ashland
Chicago, IL 60622


ulterior epicure said...

tammy, thanks for the post. Tell me that's not a block of ice holding the caviar?!?

Tammy said...

Nope, not a real block of ice - it's some sort of glass block - probably started life as a candle holder.

It gets used again in the beef presentation, turned upside down with the tartare on top.