It’s a good day when Michael Carlson returns your call.
The owner and renowned chef at Schwa is notoriously elusive, even when it comes to taking reservations, and his restaurant’s voicemail system is regularly maxed out.
But Carlson will eventually return your call himself, and that’s when he asks you to swing by his place for dinner.
It’s a personal invitation — not a reservation confirmation. That’s because Schwa doesn’t seem to put the business side of its operation first. Instead, the primary focus is the realization of Carlson’s passion for flavor, color, and art — all of the things that make you want to eat just for the love of eating.
Sure, countless Chicago chefs have a passion for food that, no doubt, got them into the restaurant business in the first place. But business concepts refine their restaurants, and as a result, places like Moto, Tru, and L2o are polished to a gleam, and sell you an entire package.
Schwa is what you get when the art and artist come first, when pretense drops, and rough edges aren’t as carefully sanded.
Tammy and I found ourselves called to Schwa a few weeks ago with fellow foodie and pastry chef, Nick, in tow — all three of us rubbing our hands together gleefully at the thought of being at Carlson’s mercy for a few hours.
Enter Carlson’s world:
There’s a handful of tables in the dining room, a loyal, talented, tattooed, skeleton crew in the kitchen, and you, the honored dinner guest. The setting is so intimate it’s easy to imagine you’re dining in Carlson’s home. In fact, we recommend bringing him and the staff a “hosting gift” along with your BYOB selections — they like Belgian beer. Then, sit back, relax to the musical stylings of the Butthole Surfers, and enjoy the main event… the food!
The dizzying list of ingredients for each course we had was lost on me for most of the meal because of their collective impact. Every taste on the plate, every garnish, every color added a little something to the whole, creating a full-frontal assault on my taste buds in the best sort of way. The combinations, like curry and rootbeer, and Hendricks gin bubble tea, were fresh, creative, hard to describe, and impossible to forget. Whether you like what you’re eating or not, nothing is half-assed at Schwa, and even subtle flavors shine.
Carlson craves affirmation for his work that he shouldn’t need.
“How am I doin’?” he asked me, as I tasted some tiger fish, one of his new favorites. “Do you like it?”
My eyes practically rolled back in my head. Did I like it? No. I loved it! And the dishes I didn’t love, which were few and far between, I appreciated because I’d never tasted anything like them before.
“You’re gushing,” Tammy mumbled to me repeatedly, as inarticulate “wows” escaped my lips in between bites.
So what? It was well deserved.
Here are the facts as they stand. We went to Schwa for the first time a little over a year ago, and since then, I’ve looked back on it as one of the most fun, challenging, and simply spectacular dinners I’ve ever had. I have to admit that I was a tad worried that our return visit wouldn’t live up to those high expectations.
And It didn’t. It exceeded them.
For those who already know Schwa, this review is nothing new. I can only say that sitting at Carlson’s table, I was once again inspired by his creativity, his generosity, and his love for what he does. As I ate, I could feel my own pretenses (which every reviewer has) slipping, and our dinner table talk turning in interesting new directions. You can’t put a price on evenings like that.
Schwa is hands down one of the city’s best dining experiences and is still worthy of its Chicago Bites perfect 10. Come prepared to pay $110 for nine courses. It’s money well spent. So much so that I’ll take Carlson up on his invitation to dine anytime.
Our first visit to Schwa:
Chicago Bites Podcast #115
Online Buzz about Michael Carlson and Schwa:
The Local Beet
Time Out Chicago