Every critic who steps off the elevators on the Trump Tower's 16th floor is going to have the pin already pulled from his grenade, braced for any hint of the Donald's trademark vulgarity. At least I know I did. But though the prohibitive prices and cheesy tunes piped through the sound system raised my hackles, the food at Sixteen is bewitching. It certainly confirms the reputation of chef Frank Brunacci, who launched his globe-trotting career in Melbourne, Australia, and went on to London's Les Saveurs and Ritz-Carlton restaurants in Atlanta and New Orleans. Here he offers at least one signature dish from his past, a vanilla-scented crab salad in a cylinder of rock melon (that's Aussie for "cantaloupe," Yank). Everyone I describe this to snirches, and maybe that's why the menu doesn't mention vanilla, but with the briny crab, the sweet melon, and the acidic pineapple dressing it makes for a novel harmony of clear flavors—unrestrained, sure, but not obnoxious.
That goes for many of Brunacci's presentations, from a lamb loin perched atop "forbidden" black rice and lightened with grapefruit and lemongrass accents to duck "Percik," a take on Malaysian roast duck splashed with a currylike cumin-and-carrot jus, to gauzy sheets of sunchoke-and-escargot lasagna, littered with black truffles that announce their arrival halfway across the dining room. It's recommended that you order desserts, by pastry chef Hichem Lahreche (who has a similarly impressive CV, beginning with a run at D.C.'s Citronelle), at the start of the meal—they're constructed like birds of paradise, particularly the monnaie du pape, a wafer protruding from a scoop of luscious milk sorbet with Drambuie gastrique.
There's the expected accumulation of little details that ought to convince big spenders their money is well spent here: our amuse of creamy white asparagus with mussels was worthy of promotion to a soup course. Bread service was a presentation of a choice of briochelike buns—one whole wheat, one flavored with orange blossom, another sprinkled with chia seeds (yes, like the pet). A staircase of French macarons, caramels, nougats, and other sweets comes free with coffee. And then there's the view, 120 degrees of which is spectacular.
But for those of us with more limited means, there are concerns—for instance, the overpriced wine list, housed in a hinged wooden cigar box, is hard to swallow (at $13, a glass of Joel Gott cabernet sauvignon costs just a little less than a whole bottle does at retail). And we ran into a few service issues in the bar lounge (room unattended, empty glasses unretrieved). Normally I wouldn't whinge about such things. But if you're going to put a restaurant smack in the middle of one of the greatest architectural air spaces on the planet and price it way out of the reach of most folks, the whole experience damn well ought to be perfect. —Mike Sula
Dinner at Schwa is probably more fun when you're not fretting over whether or not the chef is going to make you as a critic. In the teeny dining room—just 13 tables in front of a window to the kitchen—there's nowhere to hide, especially when the chef himself is one of your servers. Thankfully Michael Carlson seemed to have other things on his mind. "This has been the weirdest day," he announced at one point, brandishing a bottle of wine left behind by another table. "We had, like, 20 cancellations, so we've been drinking since five!" He then launched into a story about the provenance of his free-range antelope. Apparently, with 'lope meat, freshness is such a concern that the beasts are dispatched by sharpshooters from a helicopter and butchered on the spot.
Tableside narratives, delivered with Carlson's infectious enthusiasm (dude!), have always been and will no doubt always be part of Schwa's charm. But between the restaurant's abrupt closure last October and its hyper-hyped resurrection in mid-February, at least one thing has changed: the food is better than ever. Carlson and his new kitchen crew fuse cutting-edge culinary preparations—bay leaf gelee, sea urchin ice cream, translucent sheets of Thai ginger and mustard—to meticulously deconstructed presentations, but the results are surprisingly unprecious: bite into a cube of toasted brioche injected with hot, concentrated banana puree and it's your taste buds that respond, not your inner chemist. Standouts on the current $105 ten-course menu include an early dish pairing bites of quick-pickled Jonah crab with celery root puree and that banana brioche, and a rich, deeply satisfying soup of Chimay-washed cheese topped with Chimay emulsion and served with a warm pretzel knot, a swoosh of dill coulis, and the aforementioned mustard sheet. Then there's the antelope—as tender as rare Kobe sirloin and served in two preparations, sous vide and as a ragout. And while the arctic char roe (with almost-bitter little disks of pumpernickel and a stunningly sweet rutabaga consomme) may be a tad fussy, and flights of whimsy like the pad thai made with jellyfish "noodles" don't quite live up to their promise, the overall experience is as polished, or more so, as before the dramatics of last fall. They've even got wine glasses now, albeit of the stemless variety.
The best dish of the night? A daring dessert of parsnip terrine served with candied veal sweetbreads, passion-fruit puree, lavender foam, and an ice-wine-and-vinegar caramel. Salty, savory, sweet, and deliriously complex, it shoots for the moon and succeeds by confounding every expectation. Sort of like Schwa itself. —Martha Bayne
Other recent openings
Drew's Eatery 2207 W. Montrose, 773-463-7397
The Fifty/50 2047 W. Division, 773-489-5050
Jack Rabbit 4603 N. Lincoln, 773-989-9000
Masouleh 6653 N. Clark, 773-262-2227
Mercat a la Planxa 638 S. Michigan, 312-765-0524
Paddy O'Splaine's 2434 W. Montrose, 773-866-1825
Take Me Out 1502 W. 18th, no phone
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.