Schwa: I Was There When

The question being asked about Schwa by reviewers is, how can you be one of the best restaurants in a city like Chicago when you don't offer real waiters, or a wine list, or even proper stemware?

The question being asked about you by Schwa seems to be—how can you be serious about food if you're going to waste so much energy worrying about bourgeois comforts?

I admit, part of me was worried by what I'd heard about Schwa's lack of interest in the conventions of comfortable dining. If Michael Carlson is making his name by ignoring the niceties and saying "It's the food, take it or leave it," is he upping the Restaurant Seriousness arms race to dangerous new levels? The fine dining experience has 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 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 wasn't a misstep in the entire 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? This was extraordinarily accomplished food, clearly descended from Grant Achatz, 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. Here's what we had:

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. My wife 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.

Prosciutto-- raw and crispy-- and melon, with a prosciutto consomme. Although this reads 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.

You know the joke about getting the family history of your fish these days? The next 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.)

Duck breast and confit, shaved sunchokes, with kumquat jelly to dip in followed, and behind it came Bbeef 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.

Dessert began with a sweet-savory radish-based palate cleanser in a little glass which, oddly, has a bump on the bottom so it won't sit flat. Then came a gooey dark chocolate cake with some glob of cheese, white truffle shavings, and a truffle vanilla milkshake. My wife 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. One second the milkshake was like drinking a spare tire, the next second it was mindblowingly lush.

Perhaps bourgeois comfort isn't dead after all at Schwa, even if the fetish of nice stemware is.