Some of you may remember that last fall I turned 30 and celebrated the occasion with an extended, excessive food tour of Chicago with one of my brothers. High on the list of places to go (but that we didn’t hit) was Schwa–simply for no other reason than it is next to impossible to get a table there. (The restaurant is tiny–just 26 seats–and almost every aspect of the restaurants, including reservations, is handled by the chef himself.) So imagine how pleased I was when last week I was unexpectedly offered a chance to dine there. Of course I jumped at the chance!
Brad + Teri–my dining companions. (I owe Brad for getting me a seat at the table.) The pictures that follow don’t really do the meal much justice. This being a small, very intimate space, I didn’t feel comfortable usual beast of a camera and instead opted to test out my tiny, new point and shoot. The camera didn’t fare badly (especially given that it’s smaller than my blackberry) but I had to use the flash (which I hate doing) to get any halfway decent shots.
Course # 1: The meal was kicked off with an amuse–a distilled bloody mary which was taken as a shot. (Sorry, no picture.) Then followed the first course. There was a lot going on in this first plate–octopus confit, shaved pineapple hearts, macadamia smear, tangerine greens. (I wasn’t taking notes and our menu that night deviated somewhat from the nine course menu currently posted on their website.) The octopus was really nice. Something about the confit process really changes its texture and mellows out its fishiness.
Course #3: the pasta course–tagliatelle with huckleberries, black truffle, veal heart, and taleggio. We were told that the milk for the taleggio was taken from cows after they’d been taken on a really long walk. The cows, parched from the long walk, yield a richer milk that is higher in fat content. The tagliatelle was light as air.
surprise/extra course: The kitchen was nice enough to throw in an extra course, a quail egg ravioli with brown butter. Similar to Alinea’s black truffle explosion, this was eaten in one bite.
Course #7: beef course–braised short ribs, dark chocolate mole, and marshmallow. The dish was suspended over a glass of hickory smoke and the effect really made me think of smores and campfires. This dish was Brad’s clear favorite. I found it a bit challenging. It was really, really rich and decadent and just on the brink of overkill on the sweet-savory combo. The coco nib apéritif accompanying it helped break things up a bit. I might have found the dish too overwhelming otherwise.
Course #8: beer and cheese course. I wish I remembered more about the individual components of this dish. It was a one-biter and had the tasted like a really spectacular cheese soup served in a bread bowl.
Nothing about this place is “typical” of high end dining. The space is small and a bit dark. Oddly, for a restaurant of this caliber, it’s also BYOB. We brought two bottles of wine (one red, one white) and the corkage fee is a modest $2.50/person. We also brought some beers to win over the kitchen staff. The music that night was a good mix of old school and underground hip hop. The service was laid back and jovial and it was clear that everyone working there was super excited about food and eating. A small window in the dining area looks directly into the kitchen and you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the restaurant’s lone bathroom. The chef stepped out at least a few times to check in on us and see how our meal was going.
All in all, a really great, really fun, really interesting meal and definitely among the best I’ve had in Chicago or anywhere else. I’d happily go back again, if I could ever get in.
Schwa: 1466 North Ashland Avenue