Monday, March 17, 2008

Schwa and Frolic - Schwa - Chicago

Six of us visited Schwa last weekend. Typically Schwa limits its tables to parties of four, but on Saturday Michael Carlson called and informed me that because of cancellations, we could expand our table. We embraced his generosity.

I have been to Schwa four times, and have enjoyed my meal each time, but I felt that this evening Chef Carlson was at his most assured and confident and his happiest. There were fewer missteps, and – dare I say it – he looked more relaxed: more ready for beachwear than a hospital gown. This is how a career should be. While the interactions were never unpleasant, tonight there was a joy that had not been evident previously. Fatherhood does that (for awhile) and a few (four) friends.

Chicago boast numerous consummate chefs: kitchen artists who can create stunning meals: Trotter, Nahabedian, Liccioni, Bowles, Achatz, Tramonto, Bayless, Stegner, Joho, Kahan, Cantu. Michael Carlson is among that elite dozen. But his restaurant is not like any other. Unlike David Chang or Jose Andres, he does not pass food across a counter, but cooks and serves and scrapes the pots. I feel myself blessed to visit Naha, Trotters, Frontera every few years, but I want to visit Carlson each season. The fear at its opening was that Schwa was a mirage, a culinary unicorn: it couldn’t exist, and that someday – soon – I might kick myself for not making that last reservation. I kicked last October. Perhaps every chef wants – in fantasy – to do it all, but this is also the hope of the diner. It is nice to be greeted by Chef Trotter, but it is something else to show Chef Carlson that the parsley is misplaced (no parsley tonight!). Schwa is a divine chimera. If I had to choose a last meal in my chill cell, perhaps it wouldn’t be Carlson’s dishes I would first salivate after (except his canonical lusty quail’s egg ravioli), but if I were given a one-night reprieve it would be Schwa that I would visit, and explain to Ashley Dupree that I was engaged. What is remarkable is the creation within that small space on Ashland of a single, momentary community of cooks and diners. I like and admire servers, but let it be me and the stovemen. (I never fantasize about coolly-precise servers, no matter how cute, as long as there are hot cooks about).

I was struck by how carefully Chef Carlson separated and calibrated his flavors and textures. Carlson is less a chemist in the style of Cantu or Achatz than a literary critic: he likes to consider, rearrange, and interpret ingredients as they create a “dish.” His style is not precisely molecular, but it treats a dish as a text to be sliced and diced.

To start at the end. Desserts have been the weak link at Schwa. Pastry chefs have a language that most chefs speak only in pidgin – and the translation between the two accents may be rough as Sam Mason came to realize after receiving pastry encomiums at the sweet genius at wd-50, he was crucified when first opening Tailor in New York. With the small staff at Schwa, desserts seemed – well – half-baked. Not tonight. Dessert was sweetened candied veal sweetbreads with ice wine vinegar caramel, passionfruit culis, lavender foam, and a dehydrated parsnip chip. Although deconstructed dishes often have the disadvantage of being “a little of this, a little of that,” forcing diners to reconstruct the chef’s ideal in their clumsy way, this dish was compelling it its separation, not even considering the literary conceit of the punny sweetbreads.

Dinner began with a complex and refreshing amuse of grapefruit vesicles (cells) with honey sorbet, chamomile agar and black truffle shaving. (I credit both “CG” and “wino66” for these borrowed descriptions – the Schwa menu is telegraphic, as is the rage at molecular restaurants: this dish is labeled “amuse”). Here was a lovely combination that was sufficiently robust that the truffle was overpowered. The flavor was dominated by melodious honey sorbet and tart grapefruit. The meal began and ended with the kitchen’s sugary touch.

The first course was notable for a brioche that will reside in any bakery hall of fame. We were served pickled Jonah Crab, a slice of dehydrated banana (the dehydrator works overtime at Schwa), batons of celery, celery root and a celery root puree. What was heroic, however, was an unprepossessing cube of brioche injected with hot banana liquor that didn’t just melt but exploded like Carnival. It is a challenge to explain a sensation that is as much tactile and olfactory as gustatory, but it was stunning: doubly mouthwatering.

This appetizer was followed by soup: a potent rich and salty beer cheese soup, made from Chimay washed cheese, served with a freshly made soft “pretzel hole” and a dehydrated mustard chip and an herbal smear. If not as stunning as the previous course, it was intense and intensely satisfying.

Now Chef Carlson returned to a trio of greatest hits. First, Pad Thai: jellyfish with thai flavors. It is a cute conceit and certainly flavorful as a small bite, but it was not a dish that I craved a second time, even though I had enjoyed it previously.

This was quickly followed by the Schwa Pine Cone (I am not certain if I have had precisely this recipe): sea urchin ice cream on a maple syrup flavored cone with some pine essence. The uni ice cream was a lovely palate cleanser, even if the cone was sweeter than necessary and needed a more dramatic pine essence.

Finally the quail egg ravioli. Still fantastic after all of these months. Brilliant. Erotic. Tampopo.

The artic char roe with pumpernickel coins, Meyer lemon puree and rutabaga consommé has been criticized for being out of balance with too strong a pumpernickel presence. Perhaps Chef Carlson has dialed back on this pungency or perhaps I just enjoy marked tastes, but I found the flavors and textures compelling and well-modulated: a remarkable take on caviar-and-blini. This deconstruction revealed true culinary bravado.

Kona Kampachi sashimi with galangal crisp, Lime gelee, maple mousse foam, salsify batons, and daikon disks was wonderful in all ways that a dish can produce wonderment in our firmament. Another deconstruction, this Japanois-inspired, and a very fruitful – reprising the candied mid-March maple-syrup theme of the meal: not too sweet (although the meal was more heavily weighted toward sweetness than some chefs might have dared).

The greatest revelation of the evening was the liver and onions. In a city in which liver has come to mean foie gras undercover: Chef Carlson presented a simple preparation with a disk of calves liver perched on a scoop of onion risotto. What not to like? With liver this sweet and rich, why pine over foie gras? Why duck into liver speakeasies? A dill smear decorated the side of the bowl with small cubes of bayleaf gelee, crispy shallots and pickled cipollini onions. Liver and onions rules!

Our final main course was antelope loin and leg, served sous vide, with butternut squash and white chocolate foam. Perhaps this dish suffered by its placement after the superb kampachi and amazing liver. The antelope was pleasant, the chocolate foam was well prepared, but by this course I wanted a miracle, not pleasure alone.

Our cheese course – once a memorable one-bite pungent (epoisse) cheese risotto, a signature dish of Chef Carlson - was tonight a small wedge of Humboldt fog goat cheese (with a truffled ash layer) and graham cracker crust. It tasted like Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese. Let the kitchen take a breather. And then dessert.

This was not only the most triumphant meal that I have had at Schwa, but the most fun. I revere the Jonah crab appetizer, the Kampachi, the liver and onions, and the Candied Sweetbreads, and, always, the ravioli. But I will mostly prize the experience of being served by a staff that seemed at their ease, having fun, and playing with their food and their admirers. Each hour of joy is a benediction.

1466 North Ashland