Restaurants & Bars

Chicago Area Trip Report

Long Trip Report (Schwa, L2O, Blackbird, Primehouse, Frontera, Sunda)


More from Restaurants & Bars

Restaurants & Bars Chicago Area Trip Report

Long Trip Report (Schwa, L2O, Blackbird, Primehouse, Frontera, Sunda)

pastry634 | | Jul 17, 2010 03:22 PM

Night 1: Schwa (or the Food God’s deux ex machina)

At around course five (or was it four?), the front door creaked open, the light from the outside world illuminating a man holding…pizza boxes? Well, I suppose even the chefs of the renowned restaurant, Schwa, have to eat something. But who would have guessed that a restaurant - serving some of the most creative, exquisite food I’ve ever eaten - would choose pizza for their evening snack. You see, I have nothing against delivery pizza. In fact, I’ve been known to dial up my local Pizza Hut every now and again. No, what I was more taken back by was what led my Dad and I this restaurant, on this day, to that moment where the pizza man made his delivery. Two weeks ago, I made an eventual failed attempt to get a reservation for a Thursday night at Schwa. I was certainly disheartened, but happily substituted Great Lake Pizza in its place and thought nothing more of the matter…until Wednesday afternoon – the day before my previous failed reservation date. In a moment of what I can only deduce to be divine inspiration, I decided to call Schwa. I don’t know if I thought I had more than the smallest of chances to score a reservation for the next evening (especially after being told they were closed for an event on that day when I called 2 weeks prior). After two rings, I was met with the friendly, relaxed voice of Chef Carlson who said that he did, in fact, have an opening for 2 people the next evening. But…I thought…Two weeks ago…Nevermind. Don’t ask questions, just go. And go we did.

Like much about Schwa, its location is a bit of an oddity. Housed in the Hispanic section on North Ashland, the 26-seat restaurant is adorned with nothing more than a few dimly lit light bulbs, metallic ceiling tiles (I believe for the acoustics), and 2 speakers. We were greeted and seated by Chef Michael Carlson’s brother. Though we would be served by nearly every one of the 4 chefs there – including Michael himself – his brother would be the “front of the house” man. Neither my Dad nor I were in the mood for wine, so we opted for tap water. Of course, when given the choice between 3 and 9 courses, we decided on the 9-course menu. Though, it seemed that many of the past 9-course menu items make their way to the 3-course, perhaps in an attempt to phase them out (i.e. The pork, beet risotto, and apple pie soup were all recently moved from the 9 to 3 course menu).

Regardless, the food began coming out shortly after our decision was made. Carlson does have an order to his menu. Dinners always begin with an amuse, then followed by his takes on a salad, soup, pasta, roe, fish, offal, meat, cheese, and dessert. I apologize if I can’t remember what was in each dish since each had at least 6-10 components.
Amuse: “Essence of Bloody Mary” – A shot glass filled with liquid that had the appearance of a pale white wine, but the intense flavor of tomato, pepper, spice, and perhaps a hint of bacon (?). Reminded me very much of Alinea’s “Distillation of Thai Flavors” in its concept. A perfect palate awakener.

1st course: “Octopus, pineapple, macadamia” – I believe the chef stated that the octopus was boiled for hours, and it sure tasted like it. Five of the most tender pieces of octopus I’ve ever had were placed in a wave-like pattern along a rectangle shaped plate, each topped with nori dusted yucca chips. On the plate was our first meeting with one of Chef Carlson’s signatures: The Smear. This dish had two excellently flavored smears: A burnt pineapple and a macadamia nut smear (I’ve never used “smear” so much in such a short time frame. I’ll try to use my thesaurus). Also on the plate were micro greens dressed with a pineapple dressing and dots of the most intense aged sherry vinegar I’ve ever tasted. According to Michael, it was aged 20 years in oak barrels in Michigan. This offered a great acidic contrast to the sweet nuttiness of the rest of the dish.

2nd course: “Elote” – This was the chefs’ take on the classic Mexican street food of grilled corn rubbed with mayonnaise, cotija cheese, and spicy chili. According to Matt, one of the chefs/servers, elote is served up and down North Ashland, and the crew began brainstorming ways to make this into a dish of its own after trying one a few days ago. The result of that brainstorming session was one of the most delicious, corny soups I’ve ever had (and I mean that in the best way possible). A small cup was filled with charred corn soup with cilantro. It was rich, and very creamy. To the right of the soup was a nice salad of charred corn kernels, cojita cheese, a garlic mayo, and spicy pieces of popcorn. Used as the glue to hold the soup cup to the plate was a nice lime puree that lightened up the soup but also served as a palate cleanser for going between the spiciness of the salad and the richness of the corn soup. One of my favorite things about not only this dish but also our entire meal was their “mix and eat” playability with their courses. As will be noted in later courses but first seen in this one, diners are encouraged to play with their food and discover the flavors for themselves. Putting the spicy popcorn and lime puree in the soup completely changed the flavor – not necessarily for the better or the worse, but simply an evolution of the dish into something altogether your own.

3rd course: “Tagliatelle with veal heart, huckleberries, black truffle” – Wow. I’ve read about this dish from other reports, but I was still blown away by the umami savoriness of the dish. Hand-cut tagliatelle, which we were told was cut an hour before we were served it, was placed in a swirled fashion climbing the side of the bowl. Throughout the pasta swirl were huckleberries and veal heart., and the entire dish was topped with shaved black truffle…never a bad thing. The bottom of the bowl contained 2 liquids. The first – my favorite – was a tellegio cheese imported from Italy. This wasn’t any ordinary cheese, however. According to Matt, the cows were not given water during the day and were essentially dehydrated. This gave the milk a more concentrated flavor, and I certainly couldn’t argue with him. The cheese was oh-so rich and went perfectly when mixed with the second liquid, which I believe was a huckleberry sauce, but I don’t quite remember. We were given a spoon with direct instructions to slurp up the leftover juices after the pasta was consumed. For those, like myself, who have never had huckleberries before, think a smaller version of a blueberry. The pasta was perfectly al dente and had that chewy give that only fresh pasta can have. I could have eaten a whole bowl, but I was assured the best was yet to come.

Free course: Ravioli stuffed with Buffalo ricotta, goose egg, aged parmesan regianno, topped with brown buttershaved summer white truffle. Michael’s brother delivered this to a guest saying, “This will melt your face off.” My face was thoroughly melted.

4th course: “Bottarga, chocolate, polenta” – Another dish that, by looking solely at the ingredient list, had me shaking my head in disbelief that the flavors would work in harmony. After the dish, I was still shaking my head in disbelief, but this time at how wrong I was. Set before us was a bowl of creamy polenta. Normal enough, right? Yes, but above the polenta was a “bridge” of chocolate extending past the ends of the bowl. The chocolate was sourced from a small producer in Venezuela and was extremely cocoaey and bitter on it’s own. Atop the chocolate were 3 nickel-sized chunks of blue cheese from a small farmer in Wisconsin (at which time Michael’s brother made a joke that all people from Wisconsin are crazy and cannibalistic, but make great cheese. I, being a Wisconsinite, disagreed on the cannibalistic part). Sharing space with the blue cheese were slivers of bottarga (cured fish roe). We were once again encouraged to smash the bridge of goodies and mix it into the creamy polenta. Again, wow. All of the buds on my tongue were dancing to this funky mélange of flavor. Each bite would be a surprise. Creamy and pungent blue cheese in one bite, bitter cocoa and smoky bottarga (kind of had a smoked salmon flavor) in the next, all held together by perfectly cooked grits. Who knew? Michael Carlson, I guess.

5th course: “Day-boat Halibut, carrots, marshmallow” In a close race with the Bottarga for the most unique plating of the night, the 3 or 4 oz filet of halibut rested on a sweet date puree. Enrobing the entire piece of fish was a frothy carrot puree, with 2 yellow heirloom carrots on its right and left flanks. On the far left and far right sides of the plate, crispy shallots lay atop a puree of something I cannot remember to make a flavor eerily similar to the traditional green bean casserole (which was the chef’s intention, by the way). Where this dish really takes a Carlson turn into left field is the long stripe of toasted, homemade green cardamom marshmallow. The marshmallow, by some kind of sorcery, provided a great aromatic element that made the dish very bright and refreshing. My only qualms were that it was a touch too sweet. Carlson has an affinity for sweetness in his dishes, but the heirloom carrots, carrot foam, date puree, and marshmallow were all sweet things. The fish, by the way, was cooked perfectly. In the moment, I thought the dish to be somewhat overkill on the sweetness level, but when taking it in consideration with the whole meal – and especially the following dish – it all seemed to fit.

6th course: “Biscuits and Gravy” – In stark contrast to the sweetness of the halibut, this dish was 100% savory and rich. His grandmother, who lives in South Carolina, influenced Carlson’s take on biscuits and gravy. In fact, the house-made biscuits were not only his grandmother’s recipe, but the flour they use is sourced directly from the same kind she uses in South Carolina. Because the three biscuits were so small (about the size of a bouncy ball), they were more dense and dumpling-like than flaky. But, this made them excellent vehicles to sop up the coffee-accented red eye gravy, fermented black beans, braised mustard greens, and sausage gravy. Up to this point, this dish sounds very traditional. However, I doubt Carlson’s grandmother used sweetbreads in her recipe. Yes, 3 perfectly fried nuggets of offal goodness dotted the plate. Crunchy on the outside but creamy on the inside, Carlson sure knows how to prepare a thymus gland.

7th course: “Waygu beef” – Our final primary savory course was expertly cooked (likely sous vide style) waygu beef. If you like your beef ultra-rare, as I do, then this was nirvana. In fact, I would have been fine with just a few ounces of that succulent cow, but then I would have missed the invigorating parsley puree that lightened the dish and the crispy fried brussel sprouts that added a good earthy crunch. But what’s this? Little orange gems? I bite into one and what can only be described as “the taste of the ocean” burst across my palate. Shad roe, one of the culinary signs that spring is upon us, are the eggs of river herrings (source: Wikipedia). Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but this seemed to be a sort of surf-and-turf. In between bites of minerally, rich waygu beef would be lustrous pops of ocean cleanness. Oh, and I forgot to mention that a good shaving a black truffles were sprinkled in just to seal the deal (Truffle counter is up to 3 courses)

8th course: “Beer and Cheese” – Chimay monks, normally known for their beers, also happen to make excellent cheese. Instead of washing the rind of the cheese with salt, they use beer. This cheese was melted into a fondue and filled into a croquette-sized pretzel ball. Chimay beer foam and a mustard crisp completed the reinterpreted version of this classic flavor combination.

9th course: “Celery root custard, white chocolate, banana” – It seems only fitting that in a meal full of sweet savories, we end on a savory sweet. In the center of a bowl lay firm textured, yet incredibly creamy custard. It has the consistency of a well-made flan. By itself, the custard had a strong celery taste with a unique saltiness, which proved a perfect match for the sweet sous vide banana, white chocolate mouse, and salted caramel sauce. Again, everything seemed to go together despite what my preconceptions taught me.

As the pizza deliveryman left the restaurant completed his journey, I wondered if it wasn’t some half-hearted jab by fate of what our night could have been. I’ll probably never know why I called back the day before, let alone how I was able to obtain a reservation, but I didn’t much care anymore. During our entire 3-hours of dining, the service was excellent and attentive. No, there wasn’t any bread service, and, yes, we ate 4-star food to the sultry sounds of Tupac and death metal, face-melting guitar riffs. But the passion of the chefs was evident in their hospitality and genuine thanks to our dining with them that evening. Never before has a restaurant experience felt so much like dining in the chef’s home. In the words of Chef Michael Carlson, “We cook the food we want to eat in an environment we want to eat it in.” And thank goodness, because the restaurant world is all the better for it.

**More to come in the next few days!**