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August 06, 2006


When you're a food geek, there are few things more exciting than watching a four star chef emerge from your own backyard.

Okay, so the powers that be haven't given Michael Carlson the fourth star yet, but it's just a matter of time. Schwa is an unobtrusive little hole in the wall that is home to some very, very great things, and it won't be long before everybody knows it, though plenty of people already do. As much as I'd love to be the one breaking the news that the little neighborhood joint a few blocks away from my home is going to be the next nationally recognized hot spot, the truth is that I waited a little too long to drop in. Schwa isn't even a year old, and already Carlson's been named one of 2006's Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine, following closely in the footsteps of Grant Achatz, under whom he worked for a while at Trio. I believe that was roughly when the lead time for reservations cleared the two month mark. So back in early June, having already put it off for 3-4 months, I finally bit the bullet and decided to just call and take whatever they'd give me. In landing a Saturday night spot two months out, I think I got lucky. I just wish I'd done it sooner.

Across the street is an ostentatious rim shop, and in the glow of its neon-lit fake palm trees, Schwa looks more like an abandoned storefront than a bastion of fine dining. From reading the interviews with Carlson, however, you get the feeling that this is exactly how he wants it. It's a restaurant that seats, by my count, 26 in a tiny, lively dining room that's separated by a glass window from an even tinier kitchen that can't be much larger than 15" square. The joke these days is that we name all of our new restaurants in Chicago after punctuation marks, but there's meaning behind the use of the un-vowel. The schwa, depending on who you ask, represents an unstressed vowel sound, symbolic of Carlson's unstressed approach to fine dining. The entire restaurant is run by five fellows, 80% of whom wear some form of mohawk or fauxhawk, and the background music fits the look. It's a BYOB establishment (with a modest $5 per table corkage fee) that offers tumblers in lieu of stemware, and the sous-chef will frequently finish dishes and walk them right out to your table. But the loose and laid-back service belies an incredible attention to detail on the other side of the window. Carlson offers two menus, a $60 prix fixe with a couple of options per course, or a $100 tasting that covers nine or ten courses. The direction we chose to go shouldn't come as a surprise. As usual, the blow-by-blow is after the jump:

Dominic Armato
As mentioned, photos were more than a little difficult in such a dim space, but hopefully these will give you a sense. The amuse was a bit of lychee, topped with microplaned walnut and paired with a cool Earl Grey tea that had been touched with a little yuzu and some type of flower, the name of which I missed (though I believe it was supposed to be a common component of Earl Grey). While the tea was a really nice, refreshing start (especially given that the space appears to be cooled by a single wall unit), I can't say the lychee and walnut was doing much for me. Though I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, this opening tempered my excitement somewhat. But whatever concerns I had were quickly put to rest.

Dominic Armato
The amuse was immediately followed by a wonderful spring salad composed of a myriad of ingredients, including shaved fennel and asparagus, strawberries, fava beans, fava and strawberry purees, goat cheese, saba, and a mysterious brown puree that I thought was the key to the dish. The salad was beautifully composed, wonderfully balanced, fresh and light and delicious. Saba was the first of a few ingredients that were new to me on this particular evening (a rare treat!), and in searching online I've seen it alternately referred to as a grape reduction, a vinegar similar to balsamic or synonymous with vin santo. I didn't get a pure enough taste to get a good sense, but the "vinegar similar to balsamic" characterization seems most plausible, working from memory. The key, however, was the U-shaped brown puree you see hiding on the left side of the dish. When I asked our server what it was, he replied that it was caramelized fennel, but I think he may have thought I was referring to the U-shaped crispy fennel chip sticking out of the goat cheese immediately next door. The brown puree was earthy and seemed almost yeasty, but I couldn't put a finger on exactly what it was. In any case, it took the salad and gently grounded it, without holding back the otherwise light and sweet qualities.

Dominic Armato
Next up was a fun little riff on prosciutto e melone. Carlson spent a great deal of time in Italy, and it's clear that this is a variation driven by love for the classic. It pairs the traditional chilly version with a hot repackaging of the same ingredients. The thinly sliced prosciutto and cantaloupe cascade from a small cup filled with a hot prosciutto consommé, all sprinkled with some baby arugula sprouts. The prosciutto e melone was as simple and delicious as a good prosciutto and melone should be. The consommé was wonderful, porky and salty and intense, and an unusual hot contrast to the traditionally cold elements. The dish had a nice finish as well, with two marble-sized cantaloupe balls sitting in the bottom of the cup that had steeped in the consommé.

Dominic Armato
Here, I think the already delicious menu took a distinct step up into the realm of fantastic. Carlson's quail egg ravioli has become something of a de facto signature dish, not the wildest and wackiest in his repertoire, but the one that lingers in people's memory. Again, he draws on his Italian experience, serving a pair of ravioli in a fried sage and brown butter sauce, filled with bufala ricotta and a liquid quail egg, and topped with a touch of Parmigiano Reggiano. The liquid egg filling is the singular non-traditional move, and it's a stroke of genius. It takes an already wonderfully rich dish and pushes it right over the top in most welcome fashion. And though it may seem a small detail, I adore the fact that the sauce is nice and salty. There are few things I appreciate more than a chef who isn't shy about using salt, and they are, sadly, rarer than they should be.

Dominic Armato
The awesomeness continued from there. Next up was an Illinois sturgeon caviar, sitting atop an avocado puree, a sweet and slightly sour cauliflower cream, and a small pile of miniscule cauliflower florets. I will admit to not being a caviar expert. I've eaten quite a bit, and I can certainly tell a good one from a bad one, but I'm not well-versed on the fine points. So I was delighted to discover that we apparently produce some pretty damn fine caviar right here at home. The cauliflower was such a perfect accompaniment to the caviar, I can't believe I've never seen it before. It worked in similar fashion to a more traditional crème fraiche pairing; a light, creamy puree with a natural sweetness that was made more interesting by the vegetal quality. The avocado rounded out the flavor and added another layer of richness, and the florets added more textural interest. It was a very unusual caviar treatment that worked spectacularly well.

Dominic Armato
And then I was absolutely floored. Over the years I've discovered that when I encounter a dish that's so unusual, so enthralling and so perfect that it borders on a religious culinary experience, my natural manly instinct is to start laughing. The last time a dish made me laugh was April of 2005 when I had the incredible Moi with fennel confit at Pahu i'a. Before that, I believe it was another lobster dish at Jean-George circa 2003, so you get a sense of how frequently this occurs. I suppose describing my reaction as laughing is putting it charitably. Giggling is probably closer to the truth. In any case, the lobster dish was full-on giggleworthy. The dish contained chunks of butter-poached lobster, sitting on a potato puree and accompanied by slices of roasted fingerling potatoes, some Swiss chard, gooseberries and a lavender foam. The combination was the kind of bold, pure, intense flavor that creates a total sensory overload. I think I left my body for a minute or two. A dish this intoxicating is a rare, rare treat.

Dominic Armato
Though a dropoff is unavoidable after a dish like the lobster, the excellence continued with the sweetbreads. I was thrilled to see sweetbreads on the menu. They've been on my absolutely must try list for the past 5-6 years, but I've been patiently waiting for the perfect opportunity, saving my first taste for an establishment where I know they'll be prepared well. As such, while I have no basis of comparison when it comes to sweetbreads, I feel I can safely say that this was a great dish. The sweetbreads were accompanied by a bit of wine-poached rhubarb, a smear of Humboldt Fog goat cheese and a bit of fresh slivered rhubarb salad. The sweetbreads were delightful. They had that indescribable rich organ-ey taste, but unlike liver, which smacks you over the head with it, the sweetbreads were lightly crisp on the outside, pleasantly chewy in the middle and very subtly flavored. The Humboldt Fog, which had a light pungency almost reminiscent of a bleu, played into the sweetbreads' organ flavor, while the tartness of the rhubarb in both forms cut through their richness. Very nicely conceived, and beautifully executed.

Dominic Armato
Next, we received an off-the-menu amuse intermezzo of sorts, in the form of a bit of eggplant confit with pickled daikon and dried, candied daikon flakes. As I told my ladylove, this is the amuse that I wish had led off the meal. I've mentioned this before... it's a philosophical issue and a matter of preference, but I'm of the opinion that amuse has to really pop. When you have such a tiny taste that's intended to wake up your palate, I think a potent jolt is far more effective than a subtle warmup. This spoon popped. It was clean, light, potent, amusing and delicious... and then it was gone.

Dominic Armato
Our final savory course was another invention that threw in an unexpected and brutally effective curveball. The chef who served it to us announced it as Schwa's "steak and eggs". A playful yet cleanly executed repackaging, it took both grilled slices of ribeye and veal cheek confit and paired them with light, fluffy scrambled eggs, some Swiss chard, a light grating of summer truffle and taleggio cheese, and... the curveball... a healthy shot of urban honey. Without the honey it would have been a gussied-up yet very tasty standard, but the simple addition changed the entire complexion of the dish, making it both lively and unique. It was yet another unusual pairing that somehow seemed so natural, it was hard to believe that I'd never seen it before.

Dominic Armato
Our first of two desserts struck me as more of a transitional dish than a full-on dessert. Recently, I've spent a lot of time musing about desserts that straddle the line between sweet and savory, challenging traditional ideas of what comprises the ideal sweet finish to a meal. As such, this really couldn't have caught me at a better time. It was a sunchoke puree topped with raspberry jelly and a small sunflower sprout. The green, vegetal quality of the sunchokes playing against the sweet, fruity jelly sat it squarely on the fence and positioned it as a great transition between the previous meaty, savory dish and our final dish, which was as dessert as dessert gets.

Dominic Armato
Of course, I can appreciate a dessert dessert as well, and the chocolate dish was just that. It was a simple and rich but light chocolate cake with a bit of chocolate ganache and sweetened bufala ricotta, served alongside a chocolate shake. It seemed straightforward and delicious until I got to the shake, when I noticed there was a pungent flavor that was extremely familiar, but which I couldn't quite put my finger on. It worked beautifully, and though I knew the mystery flavor well, I suspected that it was the unusual context that was throwing me off. I finally caved and asked, after which I slapped myself. Truffle... of course. So the dessert played on the dual meaning of the word, but the pairing was anything but gratuitous. In the shake, it acted as an upscale malt substitute, lending a delicious funky pungency and aroma. Again, a total surprise that seemed so obvious in retrospect.

The level of my appreciation should be fairly obvious at this point. Schwa is an absolutely brilliant restaurant. To put it in context with the Summer of Fine Dining, I'll compare it to the last stop on the tour. Though Carlson is often lumped in with Grant Achatz, I don't think that comparison is at all fair. He seems to have picked up a thing or two from working with Achatz, to be sure... their menus are both playful and whimsical, and they both seem compelled to push the boundaries, turning out delicious new flavors. But where Achatz inhabits an intellectual realm, Carlson's approach seems much more visceral, putting together flavors that just work, and then making them sing. His dishes are positively intoxicating. That Carlson is this good, this young in the first year of his first restaurant is kind of scary. It's true that he didn't exactly appear out of nowhere. He's paid his dues, to be sure. But as spectacular as Schwa is, I can't shake the feeling that it's just the beginning. I really believe the only reason it isn't being directly compared to the four star stalwarts is because it's hidden behind a dingy storefront, there isn't a designer on staff and your wine isn't poured by a grand sommelier. But I adore this approach. There's nothing I'd love more than to selfishly horde this little neighborhood gem, occasionally throwing on a shirt, pulling a bottle of wine off the rack and wandering over for some world-class cuisine. But Phil Vettel has predicted, and I have to agree, that it probably won't be long before Carlson moves on to bigger, classier, more expensive things. Right now, my only hope is that he takes his time and then sticks close to home when he eventually moves on. As it stands, I really believe that one of the best restaurants in the country is a five minute walk from my front door, and I hope it stays that way as long as possible.


Another splendid post. The Sunchoke puree dessert sounds great. As a pastry chef, this sounds like a great first dessert course. I may try to make something similar soon. The last time I tried sweetbreads was also in Chicago, up the street from Schwa, when I worked at Green Dolphin St. I have never heard of saba either, I must try it soon.
Great to know about this place in my old hood (ten years back) now I have another reason to visit this neck of the woods besides Dusty Grooves.
The flower with the earl grey tea was most likely the flower of the bergamot orange.

Keep up the beef posts. My vote is still with Johnnie's till I return to try some of the joints that are new to me. I am embarassed to say that Buona Beef is also a fav, but obviously lacks the "shack" and "ma 'n' pa" appeal. We can't get giardinare out here in san Francisco. But I guess it's a fair trade for our California produce ...almost.

Thanks, Roger!

The flower in question could have been that of the bergamot orange, but if so, then it goes by a different name. I don't remember what they called it, but it wasn't bergamot :-)

Johnnie's is totally on the schedule for the Beef-Off... I'm on the fence about Buona, we'll see. And I've lived in California... as much as I love my giardiniera, I'll take your produce, thanks :-)

It all looks and sounds sooooo delicious. The pictures turned out really good. Thanks so much for the review.

We ate there a few days after you. In the amuse, the flower used was bee balm. We grow it in the backyard. It's a member of the mint family.

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