Schwa (Restaurant, Wicker Park)
Location: 1466 N. Ashland
Hours: Tues-Sat 5:30-9:30 (reservations by phone only)
I had heard some horror stories about Schwa before I went. Month-long reservations ignored because the chef wanted to see a concert; patrons denied their BYOB for over consumption, left midmeal and not even charged as their money was not worthy enough to be spent at the restaurant; even someone literally pushed out the front door checking on their reservation. If you sound like you’re too full of yourself over the phone while placing a reservation, you might be waiting a bit longer than the cool kids. Hip hop blares at conversation-destroying levels. This doesn’t sound like what I expected from a place named after the symbol that marks an unstressed vowel sound (ə). But I had also heard the good stuff: fine dining for the non-fine dining crowd — a casual, laid-back atmosphere, no suit or jacket required. If you bring some PBR for the cooks, they’ll create a dish around it. Sold.
Based on the facade, this place is easy to miss. I probably would’ve passed it up if I hadn’t seen my friends outside. We walk in to the 26-seat restaurant and the whole establishment –kitchen and dining area included — are about half the size of my apartment (and I do not have a big apartment). This place is tiny, but comfortable and intimate without feeling intrusive. The crowd was hip, in the sense that the blaring metal and rap/rock didn’t seem to turn anybody off. The walls are a simple two shades, with a Rothko gradient and obscured mirrors lining the ceiling. You can see directly into the kitchen to view what chef/owner Michael Carlson is currently crafting, or if he manifests frustrations with knife throwing.
Our BYOB drinks are taken to the fridge in the back (there’s $2.50 corkage fee per person). We were asked if we wanted the nine course $110 prix-fixe meal or three courses for $55. Our choice was obvious: we weren’t here to go half-way. After they prepared our evening, we began with an amuse bouche — a play on the traditional Manhattan cocktail: cherry-covered chocolate chased with a vermouth/whiskey mix. Off to a good start.
I have to skip ahead a bit here because this cannot wait. The Quail Egg Ravioli. Eaten in one bite and swimming in truffle butter, the dish made me unable to not slurp the remaining butter. Perfectly decadent in every meaning of the word. Phenomenal to say the least, and I can understand why it brought the mom of a friend of mine to tears. But for me, it was immediately one-upped by the following dish: Chicken Liver Risotto garnished with crispy shallots, a dab of honey and a blackberry purée. This is the stuff that’ll top a Last Meal list. Clearly, one of the more impressive things about Schwa is its range of cuisine. Hamachi Sashimi matched with a maple syrup crust was followed by Wild Boar and trail mix. The fusion of cultures and flavors never tastes crowded and it’s often surprising how well seemingly opposite ingredients combine into a glorious flavor explosion.
By the end of the meal, the consistent and near perpetual refilling of drinks had begun to take its effect. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the S’mores: braised short rib in a mole sauce and graham cracker crumbles with marshmallow, served in a dish resting on a glass container filled with the scent of campfire smoke. Dishes like these are what can make the act of eating so delightful — capturing all five senses, not just taste buds. The Cheese course involved Chimay in a pretzel crust, topped in Chimay foam and a mustard skin.
The only missteps for me were when the dishes became overly nostalgic. The Potato Soup was supposed to taste like the baked potato bar at Wendy’s (of which there is one three blocks from the restaurant) and for me wasn’t ideal. Neither was the Roe, passion fruit gelée and vanilla foam that was supposed to taste like Fruit Loops when combined. If the server had never said anything, I may have found the taste more endearing, but I couldn’t submit to the intention that it was supposed to taste like that. But hey, I’m just a curmudgeonly dude that can’t acknowledge that I used to have a childhood, and despite Anthony Bourdain’s vehement opposition to the concept, my mind sometimes wins over body.
A word to the wise: refrain from spending too much time on the cell phone. Hold off on the picture texts to jealous friends. But hey, when you eat here, you want to show off. You got in. They didn’t and they won’t. For a place like this, the experience and mythology is almost more important than the food. Almost. The food was genuinely incredible. If not deserving of the highest sensual praises, then at the very least for their creative efforts. The inspirations from multiple culinary traditions marinade into something entirely contemporary and unique. And although you may think small portions may not do it, they add up: we all left satiated and left desiring of nothing.
Food like this can only be created by someone as neurotic, obsessive, fearless and passionate as the dishes he puts out. I urge you to read Carlson’s brief yet fascinating bio to learn more about his educators, struggles and peculiarities. The final word: only go here if you are willing to embrace the full experience: the loud music, the unfamiliar food, an eccentric chef, the near absurd atmosphere of lower case ‘f’ fine dining. If you have any dietary restrictions or aren’t that adventurous when it comes to food, steer clear. But if you have no problems spending the buck and a half, are open-minded and looking for an experience beyond just a meal to scarf down, try to get a reservation here: call early, call often.