September 14, 2015

I had always wanted to go to was one of those Chicago restaurants that I wanted to try but never tried hard enough to get a reservation. Typically, scoring a reservation at Schwa is tough. They only accept reservations via phone and are notorious for not answering the phone, or not clearing their voicemail so you can leave a message. Fortunately for us, the BF was able to fairly easily make a reservation via phone for a Saturday night. This was for a special occasion too, my birthday!

Chef Michael Carlson's restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. I had heard so many stories about it that I didn't know what was myth and what was fact. The restaurant is located on a random strip of Ashland, between North Ave. and Division, and if you blink you might miss the unassuming storefront. There are about 12 tables and a staff of about eight who run both the back and front of the house. It's extremely casual too. Jeans are perfectly fine and the staff runs around in shorts, t-shirts, and Crocks. The vibe is nothing like I've ever experienced before: loud hip hop and rap music plays over speakers in the corner and the dining room is no-frills black and white.

Schwa Restaurant
The BF and I arrived for our reservation and were the only people in the restaurant for a few minutes. Schwa staggers its seatings each night so the kitchen isn't trying to make the same dish for every table at once.

Dining Room
I had heard it was customary to bring the staff a bottle of booze, preferably Jameson. We were glad we brought a bottle of Jamo because every table brought the staff something to drink. We presented our gift upon being seated and promptly received a thumbs up from the chefs in the kitchen which we were able to view through a small window connecting the kitchen and dining room. Were we treated any differently than if we didn't bring something? Probably not, and we weren't given any extra courses or discounts like we'd seen in previous reviews and posts about Schwa. Did the staff drink our Jamo while preparing our meal? You bet!

Schwa Restaurant
Customary Jameson Offering
Schwa is BYOB with a small corkage fee per person. We were told to bring two bottles for our meal which ending up spanning three hours because it was 12 courses! Schwa stores your booze in the kitchen and pairs it with each course. We started with a bottle of 2011 Blanc de Blanc from Frank Family Vineyards, a bottle we'd picked up on a trip to Napa earlier this year.

As we listened to Lauryn Hill's "Doo-Wop (That Thing)" over the speakers, we were presented with our first course, a cocktail course simulating three popular bourbon cocktails. A wooden plank with three hooks carried tree-shaped felt pieces (similar to those Christmas tree air fresheners), each with the aroma of a bourbon-based cocktail including a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Mint Julep. In the two glasses was Four Roses bourbon on the rocks, and black tea aged in bourbon barrels. After inhaling the scent on the felt, we took a sip of the bourbon to simulate the taste of that cocktail. The idea here was to emphasize how much our sense of smell impacts our sense of taste. 

Schwa Restaurant
Cocktail Course
Our first food course was a take on the Japanese street food, takoyaki, which are fried dough balls with octopus. The Schwa version featured grilled octopus with pickled carrot to simulate ginger, and wasabi pea to simulate wasabi. The octopus was tender and flavorful.

Schwa Restaurant
Grilled Octopus
Next was the dish Schwa is most famous for. Like the Hot Potato Cold Potato dish at Alinea, Schwa typically serves the quail egg raviolo on every menu. The dish is served without utensils so you basically pick it up and slurp it down. The raviolo is covered in a decadent truffle butter sauce with shaved pecorino and black truffle. It was a truly rich bite and was absolutely wonderful.

Schwa Restaurant
Quail Egg Raviolo
The second pasta course was a handmade pappardelle with  ricotta-stuffed squash blossom, tomato and zucchini. It was the perfect summer dish featuring beautiful, fresh produce. The pasta ribbons were tender and delicate and I enjoyed the squash blossom, the first I'd ever eaten!

Schwa Restaurant
One of the most interesting presentations of the evening was a slate plank topped with pine purée, black garlic, black quinoa, snails and roe, marinated moss, and dehydrated mushrooms. This dish was supposed to simulate if you were scavenging along the bottom of a forest floor. I'd say they hit that on the nose. There was so much variety in this dish that my taste buds were dancing from all of the textures and flavors.

Schwa Restaurant
Forest Floor
Our first seafood course was a play on Wisconsin fish and chips featuring tempura fried walleye, blackberry purée, fried blackberry, fava beans and a fried cheddar cheese curd. I wish I had an entire bowl of those melty fried cheese curds! This dish had beautiful pops of color from the favas and blackberries as well.

Schwa Restaurant
Wisconsin Fish & Chips
The next seafood course was very interesting! It was an oyster enveloped in a 7-Up orb with housemade Pop Rocks and an edible Japanese flower that tasted like seawater. We took a bite of the oyster ball and chased it with the Pop Rocks which added a sweet and crunchy balance to the oyster's saltiness.

Oyster and Housemade Pop Rocks
At this point in our meal, we switched to our second bottle of wine, another bottle from our Napa trip, a Robert Sinskey POV 2010 in the Bordeaux style.

Our next course was one of the heaviest of the evening, foie gras poached in mulled wine with rolled oats, pickled cranberry, and maple brittle. This easily could have been a dessert. It was warm and spiced, and reminded me of a crumble. No, it wasn't the prettiest plate, but it sure was tasty.

Schwa Restaurant
Poached Foie Gras
Our last course before our cheese course was grilled pheasant beautifully plated with pineapple, prickly pear, and corn foam. I'm not a big fan of pheasant but I did enjoy the variety of flavors and the plating of the dish. The BF on the other hand, loved it.

Schwa Restaurant
The cheese course was one of my favorites because it featured one of my favorite cheeses, Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove. I loved that they used Humboldt Fog cheese and turned it into a cheesecake with a watercress purée.

Schwa Restaurant
Humboldt Fog Cheesecake
The first dessert course was super interesting but definitely not my favorite, an unagi (eel) ice cream, watermelon Jolly Rancher ice, and togarashi spice. The BF and I were not feeling the savory unagi ice cream, but the ice tasted just like a watermelon Jolly Rancher (the best kind!).

Schwa Restaurant
Unagi Ice Cream & Watermelon Ice
Last, but definitely not least, was the most interesting dish of the evening, a play on the childhood treat, "Ants on a Log." This dessert featured peanut butter creme brûlée, rum raisin gelato with a candied ants shell...yes you read that right, peanut dust, caramel and celery purée. I really enjoyed this, and, to be fair, we both had no idea we ate ants until after we were done eating (we were happy about that). The dish was accompanied by a small shot of jelly soda that of course paired well with the peanut butter in the dessert. I loved how fun and playful the dessert was!

Schwa Restaurant
Ants on a Log
Schwa Restaurant
Jelly Soda
Overall, I'm happy we got to enjoy the Schwa experience. It's very difficult to compare our meal to any other fine dining restaurant we've been to like The French Laundry or Alinea because Schwa doesn't fit into any particular category. We loved being able to enjoy such an elevated meal in such a casual setting. At Schwa anything goes, from jeans to suits, and everything in between. We also enjoyed the 90s rap and hip hop music and the chill kitchen staff. I'd recommend Schwa to anyone looking for a truly unique dining experience with no expectations and an open mind. This is not the place for non-adventurous diners or those looking for white-glove service.

I'm giving Schwa 4 ghosts out of 5.

1466 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
Schwa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 comment

  1. Schwa is all about the food! I have been to Schwa 3 times and I continue to talk about an amazing, stand out disk from each experience. I doubt I will ever forget the white chocolate egg shell that was the vehicle for an amazing dish with tiny eatable flowers. (As an aside, I can't tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday!)

    Every course amazingly well though out with every detail perfected!


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