Thursday, August 20, 2015

Schwa (8/06/15)

Exactly a year ago, Adam and I lunched at Bar Sajor and met friends for dinner at the Walrus & the Carpenter, on the first day of a delicious Seattle long weekend.  We've stuck closer to home this summer, but we did do a fun Midwestern swing the week before last -- three nights in Chicago, two in Madison.  (And we're going to Komi tonight, so I can't complain too much!)  Luckily, we scheduled our Chicago dinners -- EL Ideas, Grace, and Schwa -- in what turned out to be the right order.  Exactly two weeks ago, we ended at Schwa.1

The box-like restaurant was empty when we arrived a few minutes before our 6:00 reservation.  (With its loud, all-rise soundtrack, the tiny space feels a bit like a set for a claustrophobic music video.)  One of the chefs meandered out of the kitchen to seat us, asked our water preference, and took our wine bottles back to the kitchen.  (Four and a half, in keeping with the recommendation when I made the reservation of "at least a bottle a person."  This is a restaurant that appreciates booze; Daragh gifted the kitchen with a bottle of Irish whiskey when he arrived.)  The contrast to Grace's dark, ridiculously formal stuffiness, the super laid-back atmosphere was a welcomed change and a harbinger of a fun night.   

First up, an array of damp, fragrant felt air freshener trees.  I'd expected them to be some sort of cracker when they first came out of the kitchen, but it turned out we got a booze amuse.  We were instructed to taste the bourbon and the bourbon infused tea (excellent) while smelling each tree in turn.  The air fresheners were scented with the flavors of a Manhattan (cherry), Old Fashioned (orange), and Mint Julep (mint) to affect how we experienced the drinks (a slight but noticeable effect).  A fun game, but everyone but Daragh wisely didn't finish our whiskies.  (I think Daragh's life philosophy is "leave no booze behind."  Between my half-drunk bourbon and the Selosse Substance with which we'd started, I was already feeling the alcohol.) 

An almost spherical "pancake" was served with eggplant (D got octopus), carrots, and peas, and garnished with a bit of visual sleight-of-hand -- sous vide and pickled carrot "ginger" and pea and horseradish "wasabi."  Very playful and tasty, sweet and sour. 

A non-course pasta shot -- we weren't given utensils, instead told to shoot it -- of a single quail egg raviolo, pecorino, truffle, and butter.  Buttery rich deliciousness.  

Next up, a full pasta course: tagliatelle, burrata stuffed squash blossom, squash, lemon balm and/or basil, anchovy cream, green tomato gel, candied pine nuts.  Classic, elegant combinations done playfully.  Nice lemoniness, loved the tomato gel and anchovy cream.  You can't really tell from the photo, but the plates included some of the tiniest, most adorable whole squashes I've ever seen.  (At the kitchen's suggestion, we'd gone ahead and opened the half bottle of Latour, which went well with the richness, but Adam was the only one smart enough to save some of his glass to see how it opened (very well) over the entire meal.)

To this point, we'd been enjoying the food -- the kitchen is obviously skilled and delightfully cheeky --  but nothing had floored us with its creativity.  Then we got what is probably the best snail dish I've ever eaten: snails, snail roe, minuscule mushrooms, quinoa, and pickled ramps.  Really excellent, earthy but with great sweet acidity.  (GIF-like image was auto-created by Google from my various photos, which I find both cool and creepy.) (We weren't given a menu; I've captioned photos when our dishes match the current menu available online.)
Flavors of Forest
Pine, snail, moss, mushroom

Fittingly for our next-day departure for Madison, the next dish was a play on a Wisconsin fish fry: walleye, blackberry and fava purees, fried cheese curd, cheese powder, maitakes, malt vinegar powder.  Interesting flavor combinations and textures, and I enjoyed it -- I have never met a fried cheese I didn't enjoy -- but overall probably our least favorite dish (of a very delicious meal).    
Fish Fry
walleye, maitakes, malt vinegar, fava, blackberry

Then the chefs' whimsy was back in full force: a beautiful oyster and borage flower 7UP sphere, over a bed of lime, lemon, etc. poprocks to substitute for the soda's lost effervescence.  Very fun and cool.
7 up

Scallop poached in mulled wine, grains, cranberries, maple brittle. We could definitely taste the mulled wine on the scallop.  Would make for excellent breakfast oatmeal, with great acidity from the cranberries.  (By now we had two bottles of Laville Haut-Brion Blanc open, both of which were in very good shape.  We preferred the '85 to the younger-tasting '83.)  
Scallop [Foie gras]
mulled wine, oats, maple, pickled cranberries

Our last savory course was another high note: cobia, a corn poblano tamale, plum, corn, pineapple, tequila fluid gel, tangerine lace (a citrusy-herby flavor, which my notes record as "green thing").  The vividly purple smear tasted like plum BBQ sauce (delicious).  Outstanding modernized Mexican flavors -- smoky, sweet, with a bit of a bracing hit from the tequila dollops.

It was at the departure to dessert that Schwa really stood out from Grace, which declined precipitously with the wtf presentation of a miniature vanilla ice cream cone.  (That post is next up.)  In contrast, Schwa gave us an awesome plated cheese: a tiny slice of Humboldt Fog cheesecake, nasturtium puree, and cubed apricot in moscato.  A layer of nasturtium ash through the cheesecake cleverly mimicked the cheese's ash vein.  Beautiful on the plate and the palate.  (Somewhere in here we opened our last bottle of wine, a Vouvray that we'd feared would be too sweet from internet descriptions, but was surprisingly interesting and bridged savory-to-sweet well.  It would also be a more-interesting-than-Riesling complement to spicy Asian food.)  
humboldt fog, fermented apricot, nasturtium

We were blown away by the pre-dessert: watermelon Jolly Rancher granita and unagi ice cream.  Tasted exactly like it sounds, a completely unexpectedly great combination.  (Is it a chef thing to want to combine candy and luxury proteins?  I vaguely recall a scene in Heat where Mario Batali whips up foie gras in Starbursts sauce.)  Really interesting and awesome.  
watermelon, togarashi

As I'm wont to do by this point in a long (boozy) dinner, I dug into dessert before remembering to photograph.  Celery, rum raisin, raisin ice cream, caramel, peanut butter.  A fantastic grown-up take on the classic childhood snack.  (My notes read: "Ants on a log!!! Ants?"  I thought it was mentioned that they used actual ants (a la Noma?), but I couldn't swear.)  The Vouvray, which I'd thought tasted raisiny on first sip, paired very nicely.  
Ants on a log
peanut butter, celery, raisins, rum

Dish for dish, I'm not sure whether it or Grace had the better food, but Schwa definitely gave us the more enjoyable experience.  The chefs who ferried the dishes to the table were personable and informative, their wine service (contrary to what some internet reports had suggested) was professional (they chilled the wines, kept our glasses filled, suggested where to open different bottles, and even dug out -- it had to be unwrapped from its packaging -- a half-bottle decanter for the red) and ridiculously cheap at $10 for the table.  The Michelin reviewers won't agree, but I'm always going to prefer this sort of kitchen-directed, laid-back, fun vibe to more formal service.  More than three hours, many bottles of wine (and a bit of bourbon) later, we reluctantly left in search of after-dinner cocktails.  (Ending up at the Violet Hour, which was excellent.)

A few more hours after that, we returned to our hotel to find that turn down service had put together this pillowcopia:

1 What's with Schwa's name?  Was it, as I speculated/hope to be true, that the chef is poking fun at Alinea? ("Your restaurant name is a typographical character?  Well, mine is a sound.")  The person we asked denied it, but didn't have an actual explanation beyond some vagueness about the chef's liking the name.  On a future trip, we'll aim for a later reservation in the hope that the staff will sit down with us for a drink at the end of service (as has apparently been known to happen), and maybe we can ask again.
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