Dinner at Schwa

I broke down and did something I never expected to do: I forgave chef Michael Carlson for all his sins.

It was somewhere between course four and five that I finally relented. It was between my first taste of

    • caramelized lobster nuggets smeared in a lima-bean puree with glazed ramps

and my last forkful of

  • turmeric-wrapped chicken-liver mousse with beer foam and a peanut-butter brûlée spread.

I forgave all of them. His lack of aim with an open bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. His “What’s up, homeboy?” greetings. His dribble-and-smear, food-as-art platings. All forgotten. All forgiven. All pardoned because every once in a while, great food can absolve even the most deadly of service sins.

Others, justifiably so, might not be as merciful. If you’ve ever attemptedóattempted being the key word-to make a dinner reservation at Carlson’s Bucktown restaurant, Schwa, you know you’ve got better odds of scoring Oprah tickets.

It is bar-none the hardest reservation to get in Chicagoland.

A breakfast of shad roe, cofeegelee candied capers and buckwheat polenta

This is due, in part, to A) Carlson’s innate talent, B) a recent, stunning profile in GQ, which documented Carlson’s Dr. Jekyll-like descent into drugs after cooking a landmark dinner for a group of famous chefs in October 2007, and C) the most inefficient reservation system ever conceived.

I’m being too generous. The hallmark of Schwa’s reservation system is not inefficiency but total indifference. I don’t think Carlson cares a lick if you ever get a chance to try his

  • beet risotto with horseradish foam or quail-egg ravioli,

which is a shame because at times his creations are the perfect blend of playfulness, classically trained skill and culinary abandon.

Turmeric wrapped chicken liver with rutabega beer form and peanut butter

English pea soup with green pea hummus

The reservation system is a lottery. You call. You get an answering machine. You leave reservation request. Then Carlson decides whether or not he’s going to call you back. Could be a week or a month. Or he could stand you up completely. It’s the restaurant equivalent of trying to date a Parisian supermodel.

Every foodie in the city has a story about getting jilted by the guy, which has imbued his tiny BYOB restaurant with an aura of exclusivity and status. As does the hierarchy-free service system, in which Carlson and his four sous-chefs each play the dual roles of server and chef.

And yet you’re likely to fall in love with Schwa (the term for a neutral vowel sound in an unstressed syllable) once you sample Carlson’s three- or nine-course tasting menu ($55 and $110, respectively), the quality of which explains why some of the greatest chefs in the world, including Ferran Adri‡, Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, convened in Chicago to sample his cuisine in 2007.

 

Taleggio coggled egg with powdered honey

By stacking a tower of

    • buckwheat polenta flapjacks, coffee gelee, candied capers and shad roe,

 

he brilliantly compresses all the flavorsóalbeit slightly twistedóof a Sunday morning breakfast into one course. Ditto for the aforementioned

    • chicken-liver mousse with beer foam and peanut-butter brûlée spread,

 

which splices together the leftovers you might find in a frat boy’s fridge into an homage to the saltiness of peanut butter, the hoppiness of beer and the sweetness of rutabaga.

But I found Carlson’s simplest creations to be the most effective.

  • His study in peas, a demitasse of pea soup, English-pea hummus and mentholated foam, showcased the symphony of different notes a single pea can yield,

while his simple

  • Taleggio-coddled egg with honey and his mini duck confit club sandwiches, complete with Brussels sprouts and a roof of duck breast,

were so perfectly prepared that you can’t help but admire the man’s skill and restraint.

Lavendar cones of white chocolate ice cream topped with dribbles of bacon bitters

So by the time Carlson sent out

    • tiny lavender cones of white chocolate ice cream topped with dribbles of bacon bitters,

I didn’t care about being stood up three times and waiting two months. A good date’s a good date. Once in a while, the chase is worth the catch.

Schwa
1466 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago
773-252-1466