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December 06, 2006

Schwa Redux

And while we're on the subject of edible presents, my birthday was a couple of weeks back and my ladylove chose to celebrate it by arranging an encore presentation of our favorite stop from the Summer of Fine Dining. Once again, an absolutely fantastic meal. Schwa is now a tasting only affair (not that I'd have it any other way), so we went full boat yet again and I came away at least as impressed as I was on our first visit.

For a place with no actual service staff (the chefs run the front as well), they do a damn fine job with service. Though the reservation was under a completely different name, the fellow who greeted us immediately recognized us from our first visit over three months ago. After a Schwa-like laid back welcome, he quickly asked if we'd had any of the menu items on our previous visit. When we pointed out that the five courses at the heart of the menu were exactly the same as last time, he offered to mix in a few new dishes that we hadn't had yet tried. Mind you, this isn't a larger establishment with two or three tasting menus plus a la carte selections, yet they still made substitutions on three courses so that we only doubled up on two. One of the other chefs later told us they were happy to do it... they wanted to give us the opportunity to try some new dishes... and I only hope we made our appreciation clear.

Dominic Armato
Though I've mentioned it before, the lighting at Schwa is really, really dim. Really dim. It's a seriously dark restaurant. As such, be kind... photos are tricky, and what you see here has been heavily Photoshopped to make it presentable. In any case, Carlson started us off with an interesting little amuse that combined chocolate and beets. On the left was a golden beet and dark chocolate "truffle", with a bit of beet powder and some crispy little bacon bits on top. On the right, a beet shot with a dollop of white chocolate ganache and a bit of bacon fat on the rim. I adore beets. But I have to confess, I'm not yet totally sold on beet and chocolate as complementary flavors. The truffle wasn't a beet flavored chocolate, but rather a chocolate flavored beet. The vegetable was the primary ingredient. I liked that he played the beet off dark chocolate on one hand and white chocolate on the other, and I'm always appreciative of dishes that push the boundaries between savory and sweet. It was both tasty and interesting, but I can't say it's one I'll miss if I don't see again. Much like our first visit, however, the meal took off immediately after the amuse.

Dominic Armato
Next up was another excellent salad. This time, it was composed of marinated white anchovies, thinly sliced green apples, celery and batons of braised celery root, a green apple and olive oil puree and a pile of wispy microplaned Manchego cheese. Also, as with the caramelized fennel puree from our last visit, he grounded the salad and gave it an earthy dimension by adding a celery root puree that lined one side of the bowl. It's an approach I love. While salads tend to be either/or affairs that hit one end of the light/earthy spectrum, the two Carlson salads I've had thus far cover the full continuum. This isn't easy to do. There isn't much challenge in throwing together a bunch of light, sweet fruits or a pile of starchy root vegetables, but to marry the two is tricky, especially when you're throwing in some piscine pungency to boot. It was a really tasty little number that reflected what I'm starting to see as Carlson's style -- unusual combinations of disparate flavors that complement each other without getting lost in one another.

Dominic Armato
With our third dish, the folks at Schwa sang a little ode to their neighborhood. They called this dish their elote soup, which is a wonderfully descriptive title if you're familiar with the Mexican vendors who roam the surrounding streets selling boiled or grilled ears of corn, slathered in margarine or mayonnaise and sprinkled with chili powder. The dish captured both the flavors and the casual feel of the eloteros' carts. It was a simple but smoothly sweet, velvety corn soup in a cup rimmed with a cilantro puree. On the plate were salty popcorn kernels, some shredded cheese, grilled fresh corn kernels, mayonnaise, a touch of chili powder and a dollop of an intensely sweet and sour lime reduction. The fun presentation, intentionally or not, also served a worthy purpose. It's impossible to compose a bite that incorporates all of the elements, so you're forced to take a bite here, a swig there, pop a kernel here, dip in the lime reduction there... and as a result, every bite has the same flavor profile, but features a different element of the dish. Eating the dish was like listening to a song while futzing with the graphic equalizer, maxing out a different band every few seconds. It was a little goofy, anti-highbrow, and very enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
Okay, I got lazy and ganked this photo from the last Schwa post. This was one of the two dishes we doubled up on, and I'm supremely glad we did. Carlson's ravioli with bufala ricotta, fried sage, brown butter and liquid quail egg center have inspired a seemingly endless array of sexual metaphors on the food blogs and bulletin boards, and it's no wonder why. On this particular evening, he pushed it even a little further with the more than welcome addition of freshly shaved white truffle. But while the dish was fantastic last time, it was absolutely perfect this time. I have a notion that my ravioli might have been ever-so-slightly overcooked last time out... supremely delicious, but lacking the incredible eggy gush that pushes it over the top. This time, I got the gush... and it got me.

Dominic Armato
One of my favorite dishes from our last trip was a caviar course, and I enjoyed this one even more. In keeping with my string of firsts at Schwa, this dish was my first impression of arctic char caviar. Though it seems corny to say so, I think the best way I can describe it is to say that salmon : arctic char :: salmon roe : arctic char caviar, which is to say it's reminiscent of its pinker and more intensely-flavored cousin, but more subtle. Here, it was mixed with a chilled celery root and pear puree, and topped with a pink peppercorn and sugar tuille. The tuille effectively mimicked a torched sugar crust, allowing the dish to evoke creme brulée sensibilities without requiring the use of a torch, which would undoubtedly do unfortunate things to the delicate caviar below. Again, Carlson is playing with savory and sweet, taking dessert-like creams and sugars and playing them off a bold, salty, fishy caviar, then throwing in some intense spice for good measure. This was really a beautifully composed dish, both in terms of flavors and technique, and it was probably my favorite of the evening.

Dominic Armato
Here, I opted to forego the lobster from our previous visit for a new sturgeon dish. Let me tell you, this was a torturous decision. That lobster still haunts me. But I was determined to try new dishes, and I'd make the same choice again. No, this wasn't the drop-dead amazing dish that the lobster was, but it was quite delicious, and my first experience with sturgeon (other than the roe, anyway) to boot. The sturgeon was pan-seared, paired with persimmon and batons of Jamon Serrano, dual purees of persimmon and chestnut, and the occasional red-veined sorrel leaf. I hate to gloss over the dish itself, because it really was delicious, but I was mostly surprised by the sturgeon which is a really unique fish. When first slicing, my ladylove and I both feared it had been overcooked, but these fears proved unfounded. It's an extremely dense and firm fish, but it's positively juicy. Biting into this sturgeon elicited a rush of sweet fish essence that was reminiscent of biting into an extremely ripe piece of fruit. It was almost dripping. Since this was my singular sturgeon experience thus far, I can't say whether this was the result of nature or nurture, but I'm anxious to find out and I'll be watching for sturgeon elsewhere.

Dominic Armato
Next up was the other duplicate dish, the crispy sweetbreads with wine-braised rhubarb and Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Having written about this dish before, I won't go into full detail again, but I did make two observations this time around. First, like the ravioli, this was even better on our second visit. The sweetbreads were crisper, the flavors were sharper... it just felt like these guys were really hitting their stride and getting every minute detail just right. Secondly, while eating the dish this time I started thinking about the fact that when it comes to organ meats, chefs often go to great lengths to eliminate or lessen some of the more intense organ-ey flavors and smells, usually by soaking the organs in milk or through some other form of pre-treatment. The thought occurred to me that the funky, intense Humboldt Fog bleu was almost like the right hand "look over here" maneuver, distracting from any pungency that might be left in the beast. This may or may not have been intentional, but I got a chuckle out of it either way. And if I was being fooled, I was more than happy to play along.

Dominic Armato
A little off-the-menu spoon arrived before our main course (if a ten-course taster can be said to have a main course), and it was simple and lovely. The spoon contained a small bit of scallop, some chanterelle mushroom, more of the coveted white truffle and a couple of leaves from a brussels sprout. Scallop, mushroom and truffle couldn't be a more classic (and devastatingly effective) combination, but I thought the inclusion of the slightly bitter and pungent brussels sprout was a nice little twist that added a layer of complexity and made the spoon just a little more special. It also left me pining for white truffles, which I still feel as though I haven't really tasted since Louis XV a number of years ago... *sigh*

Dominic Armato
The menu's beefy zenith was actually a trio, raw, pickled and braised. Though there were multiple components, each was surprisingly minimal, though quite delicious. First up was a bit of beef tartare, topped with a quail egg yolk and accompanied by a smear of yuzu emulsion. We weren't sure how it was supposed to be eaten, but it was small enough that we opted to pick up the faux ice cubes and do them as a shot of sorts. It turned out to be a good call. It was intense and one-dimensional, giving me a moment of "yow, that's a little much" before the citrus chaser cut through the richness and rounded out the flavor. The pickled item was a slice of beef tongue, topped with a tiny bit of cucumber. The term pickled is perhaps a bit misleading. There was vinegar present, to be sure, but only in a very subtle sense. Muscles that get a lot of use develop a very intense flavor, and like the heart, the tongue is one of the most intensely flavored muscles in a cow's body. It was very minimally treated, with the acid and cucumber acting as a very light foil to the supreme beefiness of the tongue. This was beef flavor at its purest, tender but potent. My favorite of the three. Last up was braised short rib, extremely dark, caramelized and very, very salty with a heavy soy sauce seasoning and a light and almost creamy sweet potato puree accompaniment. I thought the seasoning was almost a little too aggressive on the meat, but I dug it nonetheless, and I thought the pairing was a very nice one.

Dominic Armato
In lieu of a traditional cheese course, Carlson instead chose to serve a spoon filled with a cheese risotto. The cheese in question was Morbier, a somewhat pungent cow's milk cheese with ash veins. It was accompanied by a summer savory puree and some paper thin dehydrated apple slices that were crumbled over the top. I thought it was a delightful alternative to a traditional cheese course. The risotto was quite toothsome which, combined with the crispy apple, made for a nice textural contrast to the inherent creaminess of the Morbier. It could be argued that it was nothing more than a repackaging, but I thought it was a delicious repackaging that wasn't the least bit gratuitous. There's a part of me that would've enjoyed a full bowl, but that part of me was shouted down by the part of me that thinks palate fatigue would set in about midway through. One bite is just right.

Dominic Armato
We were each served a dessert, and we switched midway through. The first was another sweet/savory crossover that worked olives into a sweet context. The base of the dish was a crumbled olive bread that I thought almost resembled a scone. This was topped by some olive oil ice cream, a strawberry cream, basil puree and little bits of crispy candied olive. I thought it was spot on. It absolutely stayed in the dessert realm, but the olive components added just enough savory funkiness to keep it edgy and interesting. And it was delicious! Again, the disparate flavors didn't blend so much as they happily coexisted. Made me happy, anyway.

Dominic Armato
While the final dessert was beautifully made and quite delicious, it was almost disappointingly commonplace. To be absolutely clear, however, this was simply because the previous eleven dishes were so unusual that number twelve was strikingly traditional in comparison. Though I'm afraid I missed the finer details of the dish, pumpkin explosion would get the point across. Pumpkin cake, pumpkin puree, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin caramel, candied pumpkin seeds... there may or may not have been some olive oil ice cream as well, and there may or may not have been some chocolate involved. In any case, even if it wasn't up to Carlson's usual standards when it comes to creativity, it was absolutely up to his standards in terms of deliciousness. A dessert fan who was stretched a little too far by the rest of the menu could absolutely hang his or her hat on this dish and go home happy. Of course, I was already happy, but I enjoyed it all the same.

While this second trip didn't hit the incredible high of the lobster dish for me, I think it was a stronger menu overall. And, as mentioned, the execution on the duplicate dishes just seemed a little crisper this time out. I keep telling friends, just call them and take whatever you can get. Unless I misunderstand their answering machine, starting January 1st they're switching to a M-F schedule. Not only does this strike me as really odd, but it will also make that Friday night reservation twice as coveted as it already is. If you keep waiting for the perfect night, calling, then calling back, then leaving messages, then calling back... it just isn't going to happen. Schwa is worth planning around. Give them a call, take whatever you can get even if it's three months out, mark it on your calendar and plan around it. Really, just go. The place is so unique, and the opportunity to catch an emerging star so rare that you're just going to end up kicking yourself forever if you don't get around to it.


Dom - are those white Chinese soup spoons I see in the cheese course??? =) Ah, the burden of being ahead of your time....

Hey, I'm happy to see them at Schwa. It was when they cropped up in one of Martha's rags that I was ready to hang myself :-)


On the last dessert, it was pumpkin ice cream and creme fraiche. Definitely sour to the olive oil ice cream's bitter.

Creme fraiche, of course. That's what happens when I wait too long between eating and sitting down to write... the impressions are clear as day, but some of the details get fuzzy... thanks, Ed :-)

Wow... that looks delicious. Your pictures are always amazing. My friend and I are making a long list of tasting menus we have to try... and every time you post one, I always end up shooting it her way.

One of my fondest memories as a kid was when my Jewish grandmother would make Passover dinner, with tongue being one of the main dishes. Now, my friends cringe whenever I say how fondly I remember tongue.

Just thought I'd share :)

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