Today was Fran and my four year wedding anniversary – since our second year we've decided to not exchange gifts and just split a fancy pants dinner. “Technically” our anniversary dinner was had in January at Avenues, but I was able to acquire a reservation at Schwa on the actual date so why not? The restaurant is fairly dark and I doubt flash would be appreciated, so forgive the quality of the photos.
Some folks have posted incredibly detailed reviews on a Chicago food message board so I'm stealing some of their descriptions.
(red grapefruit with honey sorbet and chamomile agar atop a cold glass "ice cube")
The first thing I thought was “refreshing” - a burst of citrus.
stone crab, bananas, celery, coriander
(Crab, both “straight” and pickled, accompanied by a slice of dehydrated banana, batons of celery, celery root and a celery root puree. cube of brioche injected with hot banana liquor)
I like crab and this was solid – the interesting part was the cube which when you put it in your mouth and bite down on had a creamy banana explosion.
beer cheese soup, chimay, pretzel
(cheese and beer made by a Belgian monastery, accompanied by a tiny pretzel ball and dill pickle puree and a dehydrated mustard chip)
The mustard chip was just that – the pretzel ball was unbelievably good, and the beer cheese soup was so good it was probably the most unhealthy thing I've had in years.
(Traditional noodle dish with a peanut puree and jellyfish as the "noodles")
You wouldn't think anything of this if they didn't tell you the “noodles” were actually strips of jellyfish. The peanut sauce was excellent, but just traditional – the jellyfish tasted a bit saltier than say, a rice noodle, but I'd say this was more a novelty (though an excellent and delicious one)..
arctic char roe, pumpernickel, lemon, rutabaga
(Tiny slices of pumpernickel, candied mustard seeds, and miniature balls of rutabaga with the roe on a Meyer lemon puree, all accompanied by a rutabaga juice shooter)
This one....I took about twenty minutes on this dish alone. Every bite and sip was an explosion of flavor. I'd say this was the highlight of the meal.
quail egg ravioli
(off menu: ravioli with cheese and brown butter with a quail egg yolk in the middle)
In a word, rich. I'm not a fan of eggs but this absolutely worked.
(sea urchin ice cream on a maple syrup flavored tuile with some pine essence)
Thankfully this did not have much taste of sea urchin. There was, if I remember correctly, a lavender gel in the middle of the cone that was extremely intense. Good stuff.
kona kampachi, galangal, lime, maple
(three slices of kampachi accompanied by lime gelee, a galangal crisp, and a maple foam, batons of salsify, and tiny slices of (pickled?) daikon sprinkled with cayenne)
True story: a chef we had not previously seen delivered this plate to our table and I momentarily thought he must have been working around a hot oven and forgot to wear deodorant – there was a strange funky odor lingering the air. It wasn't him – it was the dish. Once that initial shock wore off, this wound up being pretty good. The fish was excellent and tender and the maple foam was sweet and light.
morels, nasturtium, lamb brains
(small cubes of lamb brains accompanied by morels and a mushroom foam)
Yes, lamb brains – the three little pods are brains, they amount to about half, so between the two of us we ate one whole brain. A little bit crispy on the outside, and a somewhat custard like middle. It was strange...I'm in no rush to have brains again.
antelope, butternut, white chocolate
(a rectangle of butternut squash separated antelope prepared two different ways: tenderloin sous vide and a stewed ragout. Accompanied by white chocolate mousse and macadamia puree)
Up to this point, I thought this meal was fantastic though I wasn't sure if it lived up to the hype – this one sold me. A small square of butternut squash as fine, the white chocolate foam was good, but the antelope – unfreakingbelievable. The ragout had a sort of stroganoff feel, and the sous vide was just unique. Incredibly good and venison like – I'd go back for this.
(A tiny slice of savory cheesecake made from Humboldt fog blue cheese with black truffle ash atop a graham cracker crust).
Pungent and thensome. If you don't like blue cheese, forget it.
(Parsnip custard, maple syrup and lavender foam. Dabs of passionfruit and candied sweetbreads)
I am a fan of sweetbreads but they so do not work candied – imagine a candy coated piece of meat...the first bite is “that's interesting” and the rest is “this is sick.” The parsnip custard was great and one of those liquids was an icewine reduction which was amazing.
There you are!
Okay, here's what you gotta know about Schwa.
Reservations are a pain in the ass to get. Seriously. I left three voice mails and got no reply, called many times to reach a full voice mail box and finally got through with a bit of luck and cunning. If you're flexible, the trickiest part is getting to talk to a person about the reservation, but once you do you can almost certainly get something. The fact that it's so difficult turns a lot of people off – others will tell you it's part of the experience.
No waitstaff, no host or hostess – the waitstaff are the chefs. The head chef, Michael Carlson works the room, but if you expect exceptionally polished, borderline snooty service, forget it – expect to be asked something like “how are you cats digging the food?”
If you get in, and are dining, you can't talk them into opening the reservation book – people tried and failed.
That being said....
The chefs are all friendly and seem genuinely excited about the food. Chef Carlson was on top of the room, our water and wine glasses were never empty and meal was paced perfectly.
The food is top notch...among the best in Chicago, but almost certainly the most laid back, relaxed, and unpretentious atmosphere.
Finally, they are BYOB – which, in my opinion, is a great thing – when you look at the wine markups at most restaurants that $35 bottle you can bring from a shop would've easily run you $100 if it was on a wine list.
I'd recommend Schwa especially since when you consider they don't have a wine program, this is the best (relative, mind you) deal in terms of ultra high quality food in Chicago. Be patient and don't let the reservation process drive you nuts – you'll be glad you did.