Saturday, June 23, 2012

Schwa: 6-21-12

If you don’t know about Schwa, this GQ article is great, and the Wikipedia articles on chef/proprietor Michael Carlson and his restaurant are surprisingly detailed.  One thing that the GQ article nails is Carlson’s generosity and kindness.  From the time we walked through the doors, we were treated like old friends despite having never dined there before.

Before I had time to say a single word or sit down, Carlson said “Hey what’s up, man?  Brian, right?” and gave me a hug (no high fives allowed at Schwa).  Going to Schwa was like going to a dinner party thrown by your best friend who happens to be a world class cook.  We were eating some of the best food I’d ever had (I’d put it at #2 behind DiverXO) in the most unpretentious, casual, and fun setting.

They traded jokes and stories with us.  They donned luchador masks at one point.  They blasted the Notorious B.I.G., Michael Jackson, and other great classics over the sound system.  They brought us back to hang out with them in the kitchen.  They shared some of their wine and beer with us.  They started a strobe light dance party.  It was surreal.  As an entire package, the meal at Schwa was the best meal of my life by a large margin.

Many of the dishes had flavor combinations that sounded odd but worked so beautifully.  Other dishes were fantastic riffs on classics.  In all cases, the creativity, thought, and care that went into each dish was of the highest level.

Chocolate Cherry Manhattan – The amuse.  What looked like a chocolate-covered maraschino cherry was actually cherry-flavored chocolate.  The faux cherry swam in little pool of cocktail.

Orange Coriander Soda – This served as a chaser to the Manhattan.  It was very refreshing and aromatic.

Pig Face Cassoulet Salad – The salad course.  I found it pretty hilarious that Schwa took a rich, heavy casserole and made it into a salad course.  Despite being called a salad, there weren’t that many greens on the plate.  It consisted primarily of beans, so perhaps the “salad” descriptor was meant to convey that it was a bean salad.  Regardless, I didn’t find this dish as heavy as traditional cassoulet and the pig face was very flavorful.

Baked Potato Soup – The soup course.  This was described as an homage to the Wendy’s baked potato bar.  The potato formed the base of the soup and was garnished with a chive puree, bacon, bacon puree, sour cream, truffle, and a long strip of amazing gooey choose from Utah.  It tasted like the greatest baked potato ever and reminded me of the “hot potato, cold potato” dish at Alinea.

Quail Egg Ravioli – An extra course.  Somewhat of a Schwa signature dish.  A perfectly cooked ravioli filled with a runny quail egg yolk.  The ravioli was glazed with butter, herbs, and I believe truffle oil.  Rich, velvety, buttery, earthy.

Celery Root Tortellini with Celery, Green Apple, & Truffle – The pasta course.  This was my favorite dish of the night.  It was also the most interesting dish of the night in terms of flavor combinations.  The celery and green apple went so well together while the truffle added a big savory note.  The tortellini were served atop a green apple reduction.  The green apple reduction was perfect because it was a great substitute for something like tomato sauce: both are acidic and sweet.  The reduction reminded me of Spaghetti-O’s sauce.  I should note that I love Spaghetti-O’s.

Fruit Loops – The roe course.  Blis steelhead roe with passion fruit gelee, pickled papaya, and violet foam.  Yes, it smelled and tasted like fruit loops with roe.  No, it was not gross.  It was amazing.  When I stopped to think about the combination, I wondered why I’d never seen something like this before because it makes complete sense.  The tartness and sweetness from the passion fruit work as a great foil to the saltiness and brininess of the roe.

Oyster with Oatmeal – An extra course.  Carlson invited us back into the tiny kitchen to chat while he prepared this dish.  The oatmeal sort of looked like vomit, but that didn’t matter at all because the single bite of oyster with a bit of oatmeal and some type of fruit was outstanding.  There was a great contrast between the briny and earthy flavors.

Salmon with Pink Lemonade, Grapefruit & Truffle - The fish course.  Sous vide salmon with (if I recall correctly) a pink lemonade gelee, candied grapefruit rind, and truffle.  Nothing wrong with the dish, but nothing too exciting either.  It boiled down to a well cooked piece of fish with some citrus.

Curry-Crusted Foie Gras with Kumquat – The offal course.  Foie gras was shaped into a small ball and coated with an intensely aromatic curry powder.  I can’t remember how the kumquat was prepared, but I’m guessing a jam or puree.  The foie gras and kumquat combination I immediately understood, but the addition of curry is why the guys at Schwa are geniuses and I’m not.  It just worked.  After much pondering, I came to the conclusion that kumquat and curry went well together because coriander and citrus are a natural pairing.  Coriander is in curry powder and kumquat is a citrus.

Pheasant with Popcorn & Bourbon – The meat course.  Confit pheasant leg and roasted pheasant breast served over a popcorn/bourbon sauce topped with popcorn and popcorn foam.  I understood the pheasant and bourbon pairing after having bourbon chicken countless times at mall food courts, and the combination of popcorn and bourbon almost reminded me of caramel popcorn.  This was an interesting dish and no doubt tasty, but I wasn’t wowed like I was with most of the other dishes.

Rice Krispies Treat with Horchata – An extra course.  As far as I could tell, a traditional preparation of a Rice Krispies treat. It may have had spices such as cinnamon to compliment the excellent horchata, but I honestly can’t remember.  Much later, I realized how natural it was to pair a Rice Krispies treat with horchata: both are made from rice.  Much, much later, I learned the Rice Krispies treat was made from dried parsnip flakes and the horchata from parsnip milk.  The fact they were able to get the texture of a Rice Krispies treat from parsnip was very neat.  I typically love desserts that feature root vegetables, and learning that this was parsnip-centric dessert made me love Schwa even more.

French Onion Soup – The cheese course.  Imagine a lollipop where instead of hard candy there’s a pie crust.  Inside the pie crust were caramelized onions and cheese.  It tasted like French onion soup in pie form.

Dr. Pepper – The dessert course.  Dr. Pepper was deconstructed into a dessert consisting of some type of ice cream, vanilla foam, carbonated prune, prune puree, cherry sauce, a short bread cookie, and other things I can’t recall.  When eaten all together it tasted like Dr. Pepper.  How could I tell?  Because they served it with a glass of Dr. Pepper.

Hoosier Mama Chocolate Chess Pie – An extra “course.”  During the middle of service, a delivery from Hoosier Mama Pie Company arrived for the kitchen.  At some point during the meal, Carlson brought one of the pies out and plopped it down on the vacant table next to us and commanded that we eat the pie made by what he described as the best pie makers in the world.  I trusted his expert opinion.  After finishing the Dr. Pepper, we went to work on the pie.  As I said, Michael Carlson is a very generous person.

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