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That's a good story. The guys who work there could not be more gracious or humble. Carlson never came out of the kitchen during my visit because he was cooking non-stop. I gifted the kitchen a really good bottle of bourbon, and they were so appreciative it was heartwarming. We offered to share our BYO wine, and they in turn brought us a can of beer that they thought paired better with a particular course than the juice in our glasses. I hope he never changes a damn thing.

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I've found that really anytime you go you're sharing your BYO wine with everyone in both the kitchen and the restaurant. Sure, you'll mostly get your wine. But if they think someone else's wine goes better with what you're eating then you'll get a glass. The moral of the story, IMO, is not to bring anything too special because odds are you won't have the bottle to yourself. Just sort of goes with the overall vibe of the place.

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The reservation was a pain. I think I may have accidentally stumbled upon a good way to go about getting it. This works, maybe:

 

1. Call well in advance mid-afternoon, get on a waitlist (they probably put everyone on a "wait list")

2. Call back the week before you go to ask if there's been any progress. I presume they'll confirm that you're on the wait list like they did me.

3. Call back the day before you, backup reservation somewhere else just in case, and ask if there's been any progress.

 

I think we hit the place on a "good night". Of course, Schwa is probably so offensive to certain people, and so alien to others, that there is no such thing as a good night. I don't think Carlson was there, though our reservation was late and he may have left. We brought them a gift of Buffalo Trace (the goal was Bellwoods beer but I didn't get the confirmation until I was almost at the airport). They appreciated that.

 

In a small way, Schwa is still a traditional restaurant. Food is coursed (we got 13 of them with four bonus courses, I assume because everyone gets bonus courses and because we were nice), there are table clothes (which almost seem like a joke), water glasses are filled (poorly, keep your wine glasses away), and women are served before men (there were four of us).

 

The music is mostly Stopped Music played very loudly. Lots of Wu-Tang, Meth and Red's Rockwilder brought the (back of) house down mid-meal, Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" made a cameo. The chefs serve the food. Wine, as you know, is BYOB. You will likely get a shot or two of Jame-o on the way to the bathroom which is through the kitchen. Pacing is hit or miss. There was a long wait between a couple of courses; some came bang-bang.

 

The food is complicated, modern and brilliant. Our menu was as follows, order is approximate:

 

1. Amuses "The Movie" - a sour gummy, pizza cotton candy (strange, interesting), an "inside out" nacho (not great), buttered popcorn soup with an orchid (very nice)

 

2. Sardines in a can with oil over flavours of hollandaise - the flavours of hollandaise was a "deconstructed" hollandaise featuring a brioche puree, sriracha chip, aged sherry vinegar, and some other stuff that I can't remember. It was pretty remarkable. Together, you got a strongly flavoured hollandaise but you could still identify each element.

 

3. Carbonate peaches, cheese, basil - a parlour trick but a very good parlour trick.

 

4. Egg yolk ravlioli with truffle - reminiscent, as our companions mentioned, of the black truffle explosion at Alinea. Excellent.

 

5. Tagliatelli with braised rabbit, foie gras, truffle and smoked huckleberry - fundamentally an unfair dish. You can't throw that much fatty, umami laden stuff together and have it not be great.

 

6. Lobster with flavours of a london fog - very herbal take on the lobster-vanilla theme. Beautifully cooked lobster.

 

7. "Panzanella" - yeast ice cream with pickled tomatoes. Vivid pallette cleanser.

 

8. Soup of green herbs and vegetables (celery, mint, parsely, etc.), sunchoke panna cotta, marinated cuttlefish - the amazing thing about the soup was how each flavour was distinct. You progressed from celery to mint and everything in between as you tasted it.

 

9. Candied pork belly with strawberries, beer and fava beans - a dish that didn't make much sense but worked.

 

10. Antelope with carrot, gingerbread and toasted marshmallow fluff - it was interesting in that the carrot and gingerbread mimicked the marshmallow, but ultimately it was too sweet and overwhelmed the antelope.

 

11. Shortbread and sweet pea ice cream sandwiches

 

12. Sea urchin ice cream with frozen blueberry in the middle (a surprisingly complimentary combination) over juniper beer - you smell juniper leaves as you eat the ice cream. I thought this was pretty amazing. The gimmick contributed to the dish (and, I guess, is therefore not a gimmick).

 

13. Yuzu sorbet with honeycomb - refreshing, great texture, excellent finish.

 

The meal was outstanding, one of, if not the best, modernist meal I've had. On food alone, they're operating at a two star level, and hitting three with some of the dishes. The service probably precludes more than one. The easiest comparisons are Ko and WD-50, though Schwa is better than either.

 

If you're going to criticize, Schwa is definitely subject to the criticism, typical of modernist restaurants, that's there more assembly than cooking going on. Compared to, say, Manresa, few proteins are cooked to order (it's sous and sear), almost all the elements are labour intensive but pre-made. Of course, the presentations are highly labour intensive. Is this a problem? I don't think so, but I see where some people object to this.

 

Some may also think the flavours are too loud. And, with the accompaniments to the antelope or the dorito, they're probably right. Elsewhere, I can't make that comment. The loudness is a beautiful, surprising loudness - flavours don't drown each other out, but are readily identifiable, each bright and clear, the kind of dishes you bite into, smile and laugh about. This is not reflective, introspective cooking but cooking as a show of highly calibrated bravado. Compositions are daring but clearly very well conceived - the last words one should use to describe a dish of strawberry, beer, fava beans and pork belly should be "harmonious" and yet it is. Dishes are often referential, but, except for the first course, are not needlessly cheeky or jokey. The truffle courses were borderline unfair. Flavours don't overlap either - each of the 13 dishes had a distinct flavour profile. Almost every dish resulted in laughing at the table - how can something be this fundamentally good and so different from what came before it?

 

This is all, of course, if you can get around the style. We loved it, but we are probably predisposed to like the service and style. Immediately, I felt like I was at a dinner party or house party where the hosts were world class chefs - we all could talk and joke on the same terms. Not everyone is going to share those terms or be amenable to adapting to them. I don't mean that as a criticism; not every style is for everyone and this style exists at approximately one place in the world. It's as fun a fine dining restaurant as I can imagine.Everyone in the kitchen was helpful, friendly and, dare I say it, charming. Of course, it's a specific idea of fun and it's a specific idea of charm and it's an idea of fun and charm that's probably incompatible with some other things that you may want in fine dining. I loved it. If I lived in Chicago, I would be a regular

 

Price wise, at $110 this is an incredible value.

 

ETA: I should add - never saw a menu, doubt if there was one, and we opened the wine using their corkscrew and kept it at our table. They chilled the white for us and we just grabbed it from the ice bucket when it was cool enough.

 

ETA 2: wine is served in stemless tumblers, coats were on the back of our chairs.

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The reservation was a pain. I think I may have accidentally stumbled upon a good way to go about getting it. This works, maybe:

 

1. Call well in advance mid-afternoon, get on a waitlist (they probably put everyone on a "wait list")

2. Call back the week before you go to ask if there's been any progress. I presume they'll confirm that you're on the wait list like they did me.

3. Call back the day before you, backup reservation somewhere else just in case, and ask if there's been any progress.

 

I think we hit the place on a "good night". Of course, Schwa is probably so offensive to certain people, and so alien to others, that there is no such thing as a good night. I don't think Carlson was there, though our reservation was late and he may have left. We brought them a gift of Buffalo Trace (the goal was Bellwoods beer but I didn't get the confirmation until I was almost at the airport). They appreciated that.

 

In a small way, Schwa is still a traditional restaurant. Food is coursed (we got 13 of them with four bonus courses, I assume because everyone gets bonus courses and because we were nice), there are table clothes (which almost seem like a joke), water glasses are filled (poorly, keep your wine glasses away), and women are served before men (there were four of us).

 

The music is mostly Stopped Music played very loudly. Lots of Wu-Tang, Meth and Red's Rockwilder brought the (back of) house down mid-meal, Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" made a cameo. The chefs serve the food. Wine, as you know, is BYOB. You will likely get a shot or two of Jame-o on the way to the bathroom which is through the kitchen. Pacing is hit or miss. There was a long wait between a couple of courses; some came bang-bang.

 

The food is complicated, modern and brilliant. Our menu was as follows, order is approximate:

 

1. Amuses "The Movie" - a sour gummy, pizza cotton candy (strange, interesting), an "inside out" nacho (not great), buttered popcorn soup with an orchid (very nice)

 

2. Sardines in a can with oil over flavours of hollandaise - the flavours of hollandaise was a "deconstructed" hollandaise featuring a brioche puree, sriracha chip, aged sherry vinegar, and some other stuff that I can't remember. It was pretty remarkable. Together, you got a strongly flavoured hollandaise but you could still identify each element.

 

3. Carbonate peaches, cheese, basil - a parlour trick but a very good parlour trick.

 

4. Egg yolk ravlioli with truffle - reminiscent, as our companions mentioned, of the black truffle explosion at Alinea. Excellent.

 

5. Tagliatelli with braised rabbit, foie gras, truffle and smoked huckleberry - fundamentally an unfair dish. You can't throw that much fatty, umami laden stuff together and have it not be great.

 

6. Lobster with flavours of a london fog - very herbal take on the lobster-vanilla theme. Beautifully cooked lobster.

 

7. "Panzanella" - yeast ice cream with pickled tomatoes. Vivid pallette cleanser.

 

8. Soup of green herbs and vegetables (celery, mint, parsely, etc.), sunchoke panna cotta, marinated cuttlefish - the amazing thing about the soup was how each flavour was distinct. You progressed from celery to mint and everything in between as you tasted it.

 

9. Candied pork belly with strawberries, beer and fava beans - a dish that didn't make much sense but worked.

 

10. Antelope with carrot, gingerbread and toasted marshmallow fluff - it was interesting in that the carrot and gingerbread mimicked the marshmallow, but ultimately it was too sweet and overwhelmed the antelope.

 

11. Shortbread and sweet pea ice cream sandwiches

 

12. Sea urchin ice cream with frozen blueberry in the middle (a surprisingly complimentary combination) over juniper beer - you smell juniper leaves as you eat the ice cream. I thought this was pretty amazing. The gimmick contributed to the dish (and, I guess, is therefore not a gimmick).

 

13. Yuzu sorbet with honeycomb - refreshing, great texture, excellent finish.

 

The meal was outstanding, one of, if not the best, modernist meal I've had. On food alone, they're operating at a two star level, and hitting three with some of the dishes. The service probably precludes more than one. The easiest comparisons are Ko and WD-50, though Schwa is better than either.

 

If you're going to criticize, Schwa is definitely subject to the criticism, typical of modernist restaurants, that's there more assembly than cooking going on. Compared to, say, Manresa, few proteins are cooked to order (it's sous and sear), almost all the elements are labour intensive but pre-made. Of course, the presentations are highly labour intensive. Is this a problem? I don't think so, but I see where some people object to this.

 

Some may also think the flavours are too loud. And, with the accompaniments to the antelope or the dorito, they're probably right. Elsewhere, I can't make that comment. The loudness is a beautiful, surprising loudness - flavours don't drown each other out, but are readily identifiable, each bright and clear, the kind of dishes you bite into, smile and laugh about. This is not reflective, introspective cooking but cooking as a show of highly calibrated bravado. Compositions are daring but clearly very well conceived - the last words one should use to describe a dish of strawberry, beer, fava beans and pork belly should be "harmonious" and yet it is. Dishes are often referential, but, except for the first course, are not needlessly cheeky or jokey. The truffle courses were borderline unfair. Flavours don't overlap either - each of the 13 dishes had a distinct flavour profile. Almost every dish resulted in laughing at the table - how can something be this fundamentally good and so different from what came before it?

 

This is all, of course, if you can get around the style. We loved it, but we are probably predisposed to like the service and style. Immediately, I felt like I was at a dinner party or house party where the hosts were world class chefs - we all could talk and joke on the same terms. Not everyone is going to share those terms or be amenable to adapting to them. I don't mean that as a criticism; not every style is for everyone and this style exists at approximately one place in the world. It's as fun a fine dining restaurant as I can imagine.Everyone in the kitchen was helpful, friendly and, dare I say it, charming. Of course, it's a specific idea of fun and it's a specific idea of charm and it's an idea of fun and charm that's probably incompatible with some other things that you may want in fine dining. I loved it. If I lived in Chicago, I would be a regular

 

Price wise, at $110 this is an incredible value.

 

ETA: I should add - never saw a menu, doubt if there was one, and we opened the wine using their corkscrew and kept it at our table. They chilled the white for us and we just grabbed it from the ice bucket when it was cool enough.

 

ETA 2: wine is served in stemless tumblers, coats were on the back of our chairs.

Schwa is like having a very unpredictable boss and never knowing the mood he/she will be in. I've been 5 times and each time as been very different. Doing your homework and research before going is essential, as its not for everyone.

 

Glad you enjoyed!

 

Edited. So glad you did not bring Jamison. No doubt they have a stash that will last until 2062.

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