Schwa. In 2009 GQ declared it to be “the most revolutionary restaurant in America”, and it is one of the most exceptional fine dining experiences in Chicago. It’s also one of the most difficult restaurant reservations to score in Chicago, and I finally got in. Years ago, I had a co-worker who was determined to get a reservation at Schwa. The problem is that they don’t take reservations online, and they aren’t known for answering their phone. He called several times a day for a month before they answered. My experience was different. I was very lucky they picked up the first time I called, and I got a reservation for 4 people one month out.
Schwa is a multi-course fine dining experience comparable to dining at Alinea – but at a lower price and without all the showmanship. At Alinea I felt like I was a patient being observed (the staff writes everything down – including if you leave any food on your plate). At Schwa I felt like I had been let in on a secret. The small space, with only 26 seats, is understated and intimate.
One thing that really impressed me about Schwa was that I thought the food was just as exceptional as Alinea’s, but their team is so much smaller! There were only four staff members working at Schwa. I would also describe Schwa’s food as being more accessible. Alinea’s cuisine can be so out there that their staff has to explain how to eat it. Regardless, both dining experiences are strictly for open-minded food lovers.
Both Alinea and Schwa offer only chef’s tasting menus. You discover each course as it is presented. Alinea presents 16-18 courses for $210, while our 11 course meal at Schwa was $130 per person. Alinea offers wine pairings, and wine by the glass or bottle, on top of the dinner price. Schwa is BYOB and they recommend bringing one bottle of wine per person since the meal will take about 3 hours.
At the end of your meal at Alinea you are presented with a printed menu describing the meal. Schwa doesn’t do this, so this blog post isn’t going to be an easy one to write. Here we go. Oh, and heads up, I was trying to be discrete, so I used my iPhone, and the lighting wasn’t great, so these photos aren’t my best work.
The first course played with our senses. First a wooden racks with three pieces of felt shaped like car air fresheners were placed in front of each of us. Next the server placed a glass of bourbon, and a glass of bourbon iced tea on the rack, and he explained that the felt was scented like classic bourbon cocktails, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Mint Julip. We were instructed to smell each of the pieces of felt while sipping the drinks to explore how it changed the taste of the drink. It was a great way to demonstrate how scent impacts taste, and a playful start to our meal.
Next we had strips of leek each filled with smoked trout, trout roe, or fried potatoes, topped with small potato chips. This dish was all about texture, and I enjoyed the contrast of the chips and roe.
The third course was our favorite: a single quail egg raviolo shooter. This was phenomenal. Definitely the best thing we tasted all night. As you bite into the raviolo the warm quail yolk fills your mouth in the most delightful way. I could have eaten these all night.
A scallop noodle with scallop jerky, brussels sprouts, and balsamic came next. It was conceptually interesting, but anything served after the raviolo shooter was going to be a let down.
The caviar course had a grapefruit gelatin topped with caviar. I loved the grapefruit gelatin, but thought that it slightly overpowered the caviar.
Then there was an oyster shooter course, which I forgot to take a photo of.
And then a fish course that I just can’t remember the details of. My mind seems to have fixated on the courses I loved, of which there were plenty.
The taste of Schwa’s take on pork and beans reminded us of hot dogs (and we mean that in a very good way). Pork was rolled in fried pork rinds, and served with bean puree. It perfectly walked the line between high brow and playful. We loved it.
Our second meat course was lamb two ways: lamb belly and fillet. I hadn’t tried lamb belly before but it was rich and flavorful and tender. Such a treat.
Then we moved on to a cheese course with a take on goat cheese cheesecake (at least that is what I thought it tasted like).
A palate cleanser in the form of a sudsy lemonade came before dessert. First we were all handed small glasses of liquid and told not to drink them yet. Then the server came over with what looked like a box of dish detergent. Each of us was handed a small scoop with some mix in it, and were told to pour it into the liquid which became purple and foamy and it tasted like a mild lemonade.
Our meal ended with a deconstructed rocky road, which reminded me of the deconstructed dessert at Alinea. Ice cream, chocolate, and cake were all presented separately giving us the option to appreciate each taste on its own, or to combine them.
I thoroughly enjoyed Schwa – it’s one of those restaurants that you always hear wonderful things about. Since Schwa’s price point is considerably lower than Alinea’s it is a nice way to try out a conceptual fine dining chef’s tasting. I will definitely be going back.
Schwa’s address is 1466 North Ashland Avenue. Reservations are required and can be made only over the phone.