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Ten Years Later, Schwa is as Excellent as Ever

After a decade of eccentric greatness, this restaurant is still eccentric—and great.

Photos: Anna Knott

In 2008, the food writer Alan Richman invited my wife and me to dine at Schwa. He was working on a story about the restaurant’s enigmatic chef, Michael Carlson, and needed more opinions on the experience.

I had never eaten at Schwa, but I knew all about the place. I knew that it was impossible to get into. That Carlson rarely bothered to answer the phone and often nixed reservations for shadowy reasons at the last minute. That the food was striking and unpredictable: prosciutto consommés, quail egg ravioli, and truffle milk shakes. That the spartan little room looked like it was decorated by college sophomores and the tiny kitchen somehow found space for Cryovac machines and immersion circulators. I even knew the liberal BYO rules, which hinged on bringing drinks for Carlson’s salty band of chefs.

Though I desperately wanted to say yes, the invitation troubled me. I guard my anonymity as a critic, and Richman had gotten to know Carlson personally. With the restaurant just 826 square feet and the chefs doubling as servers, I could not hide. Questions would arise.

I accepted anyway. I could keep my mouth shut for one meal and pray Schwa’s staff would be too busy noticing Richman to notice me.

A few hours before our dinner, Richman called.

“Do you mind if I bring one other person tonight?”

“Who?”

“Charlie Trotter.”

I did not dine at Schwa that night. My wife, who has no loyalty whatsoever, did. She came home at 1 a.m., drunk on Trotter’s magnificent wine and spouting tales of the astonishing food and conversation she’d shared with three world-class characters: Trotter, Richman, and Carlson. She’d bonded especially with Carlson over beers in the kitchen and found him to be brilliant and weird and delightful. In short, greatest night ever. “Bummer you couldn’t come,” she said, breathing candied sweetbreads on me before promptly dozing off.

Bummer, indeed. Richman wrote his story for GQ, a stunning piece of journalism in which Carlson spoke candidly about his drug use and apathy for the business end of his work. People loved it, partially because Carlson’s charm finally overshadowed his maddening indifference. “I never imagined a man so intractable and irrational could actually be so endearing and wonderful,” says Richman.

Needless to say, Schwa was booked for the next seven years, and I gave up. In the meantime, multiple Chicago chefs—most notably Phillip Foss at EL Ideas, Iliana Regan at Elizabeth Restaurant, and Jake Bickelhaupt at 42 Grams—adopted Carlson’s unorthodox model. In April, shortly before Schwa’s 10th anniversary, I took another shot and got in.

 
Forest at Schwa
Forest at Schwa

“What do you get for spilling paint in the garage?”

Carlson, a short and jovial 42-year-old in dad jeans and a baseball cap, is waiting for an answer. He’s even turned down the dining room’s earsplitting hip-hop, which on this Tuesday night had been barraging my Taleggio Rice Krispies Treat with f-bombs, c-bombs, and every other type of bomb imaginable. All 26 customers, including my wife and me, stare back at him. The evening’s first silence, it goes on forever. “Come on!” he says finally. “Judd Nelson? Breakfast Club? Man. They didn’t know it in the kitchen either.”

After shaking his head—I thought we were on the same wavelength here, people—Carlson cranks the music again and goes back to running dishes. The moment’s excruciating awkwardness would mortify most chefs, who hide at all times behind an unscalable wall of cool. But Carlson seems to enjoy the discomfort. I can see why Richman was captivated.

Only a jilted lover or misanthropic troll couldn’t appreciate Schwa’s offbeat alchemy. The first taste of the latest menu, an aggressive 12-course $140 blast, involves a ball of coagulated mustard that explodes with liquid pastrami and comes with a shot of celery soda. This confident opening salvo says, Here’s who we are, take it or leave it. Similarly jarring flavors and goofy ideas dart in and out of the proceedings, some faring better than others. The deconstructed gyros with overspiced and fatty lamb don’t much benefit from a tingly tzatziki powder or the hitchhiking pita purée.

But other offerings border on miraculous. Perfect hand-cut spaghetti alla chitarra juggles Brussels sprouts, dark chocolate, pickled veal heart, and cured roe, and what could be a Grade A shit show instead awakens long-dormant regions of your tongue and brain. A lobe of foie gras gets marinated in mulled wine and served with three discrete foils: a perfect buttery mound of steel-cut oats; bursting, vinegary pickled cranberries; and a Cadbury Crunchie–like maple crumb. Every bite is different, and Schwa fine-tunes flavors within an inch of their lives. Even the nonstop decibel assault changes the game, sensorywise. With your hearing essentially shot, your taste buds recalibrate, compensate, and ultimately heighten. It’s a peculiar feeling.

Nothing here quite qualifies as dessert. Nor does anything qualify as anything else, exactly. With the usual labels meaningless, Carlson empowers his crew to send out, midway through the meal, an oyster and flower encased in a mesmerizing orb of 7-Up with a plate of spices to add to the fizz.

A large part of the magic, of course, lies in the contrast between Schwa’s gloriously composed dishes and its overly familiar service. While being served a dish called Forest, a spectacular black slate with snails canoodling among pine, moss, flowers, fiddlehead ferns, tiny macerated enoki mushrooms, quinoa, and black garlic vinaigrette, my wife mutters something about being tired. “Hey, I could put meth in your snails to keep you awake,” jokes Carlson, alluding to the local legend that he periodically doses dishes with pharmaceuticals. Does he remember my wife? Who knows. We’re talking about a Michelin-starred chef who treats customers as though he used to sleep on their couches.

The BYO policy may be a bonus but also represents a bit of a conundrum: What beverage could possibly pair with unagi ice cream surrounded by watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher ice? Schwa shrugs off such questions. You like Schlitz? Then that goes perfectly. The egalitarian attitude undercuts any potential preciousness on the plate—Carlson’s way of saying, Yeah, I know it’s good, but let’s not make a big embarrassing thing of it.

EL Ideas, Elizabeth, 42 Grams, and the rest of the city’s tweezer-chef dinner parties obviously owe a debt to Schwa. Informal and creative affairs by any stretch of the imagination, they all qualify as slick and calculated when judged against Schwa’s ragged vibe.

I never imagined the restaurant would last 10 minutes, let alone 10 years. But a decade in, Schwa stands as an unlikely showcase of Chicago’s purest desire to excite and please the palate free of financial concerns, rituals, or creature comforts. To change any detail, even the flaws, would only serve to diminish an authentic experience at a moment when authentic experiences are in steep demand.

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