Tuesday, January 12, 2016 – Friday, January 15, 2016
Sensational Show at Schwa
Michelin-starred Schwa is among the nation’s most notoriously difficult reservations to secure, but on three nights in mid-January 2016, iconoclastic Chef-Owner Michael Carlson and his four culinary mavericks relinquished the entire eatery to Chaîne Chicago. The storefront entrance of this micro-restaurant may be unremarkable, but the impressive gastronomic performance inside proved unforgettable.
Each evening three 8-tops experienced quintessential Schwa: barriers between chefs and guests were nonexistent, earsplitting rock music rattled the walls of the austere interior, and without a pre-printed menu, each dish was a surprise enthusiastically described by stylishly inked chefs who double-dutied as servers. Schwa’s BYOB policy allowed guests to dig deep into their cellars and share rare beers and extraordinary wines—dominated by versatile sparklers and whites—that were poured into stemless glassware by attendees.
When Schwa first opened more than ten years ago, this unorthodox approach was completely foreign to Chicago’s fine dining scene. In the past decade, however, Chef Michael’s trailblazing model has been adopted by other Chicago Chaîne favorites like El Ideas and 42 grams. Although an older generation of diners may find Schwa’s unconventional style unnerving, everyone could appreciate the innovative gastronomy created in the tiny kitchen.
Dinner commenced with an interactive Bourbon olfactory “test” designed to sharpen smell and taste senses. Attendees were instructed to dangle one of three imitation car air fresheners in front of their noses while simultaneously sipping Bullet Bourbon or nonalcoholic smoked bourbon tea with yuzu. The scent of each tree-shaped freshener acted as a different mixer, magically incorporating itself into the beverage and changing the flavor profile into a classic Bourbon cocktail: Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Mint Julep.
Dinner followed with eleven gorgeously plated, flavor-packed offerings that unlocked the potential of diverse seasonal ingredients and displayed to guests why Schwa has been called “The Most Revolutionary Restaurant in America.”
Highlights included elevated takes on “sour cream and onion chips”—cylinders of scorched, fermented leeks filled with potato confit, cured trout and trout roe and covered with multi-colored potato chips and chive sticks; and “pork and beans”—braised pig face rolled in chicharrón accompanied by white bean and tomato purees, soubise sauce, bacon vinaigrette, poached and fresh cape gooseberries and finished off with tomato skins and oregano.
Science-centric dishes provided a touch of whimsy. A borage flower and kusshi oyster were encapsulated in a transparent orb of 7-Up that rested atop a two-part vessel; diners were instructed to “shoot” the sphere and then follow it with Pop Rock-infused “sand” in the bottom vessel that created lively carbonation on the tongue. A palate-cleansing course called “Laundry” involved mixing solid and liquid “detergents” that created a bubbly purple shot followed by a refreshing quenelle of honey-lavender sorbet. The chefs also created and served an amped-up version of Schwa’s signature course, quail-egg ravioli. The delicate pasta pillow was smothered in a Parmigiano-Reggiano cream sauce and covered with copious quantities of grated Perigord black truffle.
On the final day of Chaîne Chicago’s Schwa takeover, Bailli Mon Roldan thanked Chef Michael and his superb squad for hosting an epic three-day culinary concert before presenting them with a Chaîne plaque. To truly enjoy the Schwa experience, one must let go of fine-dining conventions and be immersed in a piece of performance art that engages all of the senses. The restaurant might be awarded another Michelin star if it substituted smooth jazz for blaring metal music, printed menus and did some redecorating. But Chef Michael possesses the uncompromising vision of a mad genius, and Chicago Chaîne was thrilled to participate in an authentic Schwa show.