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Little Kitchen, Big Food

Behind the Counter

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Schwa

1466 N. Ashland

773-252-1466

Charlie Trotter has famously compared his creative process to the improvisations of a jazz musician; Moto chef Homaro Cantu finds inspiration in everything from laser technology to M.C. Escher labyrinths. But ask Michael Carlson how he got the idea to pair butter-poached lobster with gooseberries, chard, and an emulsion made from lavender tea and the answer's a bit more prosaic: "It was just so dope we had to do it." In Carlson's kitchen, flavors are "dope" and dishes are "awesome." Of his signature quail egg ravioli--ethereal pasta wrapped around a rich, almost raw yolk that explodes like egg-flavored Freshen-Up gum on first bite--he says, "It's ridiculous, . . . but it's cool."

Carlson, the 31-year-old chef and owner of Schwa, opened his 28-seat restaurant in the former Lovitt space last fall, and in a kitchen the size of a Wicker Park bedroom has been honing a progressive American cuisine that's surprisingly creative and refined. A Glen Ellyn native, Carlson dropped out of the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago about eight years ago to learn to cook the old-fashioned way, doing a series of "stages"--brief apprenticeships--over the course of three trips to Europe. Most recently he did a stint at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's English temple of "molecular gastronomy" (which also has a ridiculously tiny kitchen). "That was awesome," he says. "It was the first time I got to use liquid nitrogen." Before that he spent almost two years at Spiaggia under Paul Bartolotta and a year and a half at Trio with Grant Achatz, who says he knew as soon as Carlson walked in the door that he had chops.

"He has a great blend of the intense hard-core cook--the in-the-trenches line cook--a true love of food and cooking, and a creative personality," Achatz says. "He never hesitated, never said no, and was always hungry for more, no matter what it entailed. . . . For me at the time there was nothing more comforting than looking over the line and seeing Michael--you knew his stuff would be tight."

Carlson was working as the sous-chef at Lovitt and considering an offer from Achatz at Alinea when Lovitt owners Kristin and Norman Six decided to move to Washington State and offered to turn the Ashland Avenue storefront over to him. Schwa opened September 14 with Carlson and sous-chef Nathan Klingbail, whom he'd met at Trio, in the kitchen. Brittanie Wiegel, a veteran of Vong and Aubriot, replaced Carlson's original partner Keri Putney as the front-of-house manager and sole server in November. ("She's dope," says Carlson.)

Guests in the modest dining room can watch Carlson and Klingbail in action through a window in the rear wall. The pair share the space with a three-door reach-in fridge, a six-burner stove, and two narrow prep counters hemmed in by towering stainless steel racks piled with sauce pots, roasting pans, and sparkling white china. A busy young guy named Marco cleans cook- and serviceware by hand. Schwa doesn't have a dishwasher, or an ice machine, or for that matter a liquor license, in part because there's nowhere to put a wine cellar--or glasses.

But despite the challenges of working in a small space, Carlson and Klingbail are turning out some seriously big food combining classical and contemporary techniques. The pork entree, for example, pairs juicy slices of pale tenderloin wrapped in plastic and poached in a pot on the stove (a sort of DIY sous vide) with a dark caramelized roll of belly that's been braised for up to 12 hours with red wine and mirepoix. "Nothin' new about that," says Klingbail, "but it's dee-licious." The belly and tenderloin are plated with smooth, warm sauerkraut, golden raisins soaked in sauternes, and burdock root or salsify and topped with strips of house-made bacon that's been baked between two Silpat trays, then tossed in a dehydrator to crisp it up and concentrate its smoky flavor.

The beet salad is a study in the possibilities of beets: wedges of roasted and pickled red and golden tubers with a swoosh of powdered beet. Dressed with a brilliant green parsley leaf puree, a parsley root puree, and foamed goat cheese, it's vibrantly geometric; as the juices blend on the plate the flavors combine to create a mouthful far more complex than the component parts. In the pumpkin and chocolate dessert, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin puree, a dab of pumpkin oil, toasted pumpkin seeds, and creme fraiche gang up on a poor defenseless chocolate brownie.

The influence of kitchen scientists like Achatz and Blumenthal shows in surprising flavor combinations, like an amuse that pairs a toasted cardamom-dusted marshmallow skewered by a dehydrated carrot chip with a shot of carrot juice topped with cardamom foam. A palate cleanser of sunchoke-raspberry parfait transforms the fibrous vegetable into a rich custard sweetened by a thin layer of berry puree. Served in a tiny wobbly glass and dressed with a single sunflower sprout, it's improbably reminiscent of raspberry cheesecake.

Since September the restaurant's been open every night except Sundays, and the trio's been putting in 100-hour weeks: Carlson and Klingbail show up at 8 AM, and no one goes home before midnight. Last month they closed the restaurant for a week and fled to Cabo San Lucas for some R & R; they're now closed Mondays as well, which they hope will give them more time to play around with the menu, though the trade-off for the breathing room is a bit of a bummer. On Mondays earlier this winter the little dining room was lousy with industry people on their night off from spots like Trotter's, Alinea, and Moto. "It's the only time we got to see our friends," Klingbail says.

An eight-course Valentine's Day tasting menu at Schwa is sold out, but for around $85 Carlson and Klingbail are willing to prepare a tasting menu by request most nights. A la carte meals run around $50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Werner.

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