What’s Not Local at Schwa

September 3, 2009 at 8:11 am

Rob Gardner

A few days ago I entered probably the hardest restaurant to enter in Chicago, Schwa.  My dining companions were photo-ing away and scribbling notes on their menu.  There was so much going on with each dish, I could see the need to memorialize each course.  Still, I entered Schwa thinking it hardly fodder for the Local Beet.  So, my dinner was just a blur of mustard skin and pine flavors, root beer, and what the heck is a pork collar.  Then, we had strawberry soup several course after we had pea soup.  I said whoa.  What.  The Local Beet does not stand for such out of seasonality.  It’s blogs must be blogged, no notes, no pic’s be damned.

OK, I will tell you this.  Schwa is a fun restaurant.  As widely known amongst foodies, you get your food not from an enemy “front of the house” but from the same guys in back that cooked it.  And if you want to see what it’s like, back of the house, just go wait for the restroom and mingle.  A high tolerance for being around awestruck customers is a must for the Schwa staff.  Schwa also served some fun food.  We had candied sweetbreads (get it, sweet-breads), with popcorn to boot.  We had a highly delicious bite of pretzel.  We were also drawn back to our younger days with the dish of root beer flavors (and the house shot of root beer blows away Gale Gand’s).  As well, we were reminded that we are adults with their signature Hendrick’s gin composition.  Finally, on the plus side, Schwa is a tremendous value.  It is a clear example of why value and cheap are not the same thing.  When you get your hard fought reservation, you will get a good deal.

What you will not get, at least I did not get, was enough local food.  My dining companions have sampled most of the acclaimed restaurants in the world, from the 3 stars of France to the Spanish avante-garde.  They know their Arpege from their Astrance.  They corrected my pronunciation of Manresa (which in my mind was Mansrea).  I’ll say this for what’s worth.  They liked Schwa a lot.  One thing we argued, and it was a fun night of arguing but that’s neither here or there, is the notion of innovation and intellectualism in dining.  One of my friends feels that elite diners are most interested, or what they most seek these days, is that sense of modern, that sense of breaking away and doing new and special things in the kitchen.  In fact, the next day, my wife could not get her mind around the idea that innovation should be a higher priority than deliciousness.  I am not saying that he is wrong with seeking that out and getting sated by the ways Michael Carlson cooks.  What I am saying, what I said the other night, is that what I am seeking out, what I value are different.  My ethos, if you may is for local, for seasonal, for creating a sense of place in the dining room.  I am also about whole animal cooking and making use of different parts.  I know I’m a bit nutsy to begin with, but call me crazy, I do not want to see peas or strawberries on anyone’s menu come the first day of September.

I’ll tell you why Schwa used these things, or at least why I think they used these things.  Color.  The pea dish, a cup of pea soup and a side dish of cooked peas glowed technicolor green.  Our strawberry rhubarb soup almost looked like a pool of blood.  Schwa wants their food to assault all your senses.  Things gush in your mouth.  They smell odd.  They look intense.  I just do not think they need to do it at the expense of getting better ingredients.  It really is no coincidence that the pea dish was the worst of the offerings.  Or the beet ice cream (with a dropper full of bacon essence) the best.  Everyone should be going local, even the hardest restaurant to enter in town.



  1. Jori S. says:

    For starters, just this past Wednesday, I purchased fraises des bois–those amazingly delicious tiny wild strawberries–from Seedling at GCM. Local, right? So, who’s to say that’s not what Carlson used? He’s a junkie for anything rare and exotic…fraises des bois are right up his alley.

    Secondly, “Schwa is a fun restaurant.” FUN???? Fun is a 10 year old’s experience at Ed Debevics. “Schwa also served some fun food.” FUN food???? There’s nothing fun about his food…it’s not a 10 year old’s reaction to a candy-dipped ball of cheesecake on a lollipop stick. His food is innovative, sophisticated, and absolutely brilliant! 95% of the dishes (30+) I’ve had there are just PERFECT!

    I’ve had the privilege of dining at Schwa three times–the experience is like no other! Rob, did you happen to look through the glass covered cut-out in the wall and notice the passion, fire, and energy of Carlson & chefs? It’s like no other. Followed by the same excitement when they personally serve you each course!? How unique and amazing is that! I hope you have another chance to dine at Schwa, but this next time, put aside “local”, look araound, and just enjoy yourself…you’ll walk away amazed!

    Rob, your support of local and sustainable farming is admirable. My fridge is 80% stocked with produce, dairy, meat, and such from GCM. Many of the restaurants which I frequent are avid GCM shoppers, and use the whole animal. But, why discredit such talented chefs as Michael, Curtis, Grant, and Charlie because they don’t use local as much as Jason, Chris, Rob & Allie, and Paul(s)? Why limit someone’s art/passion to only what’s found locally?

    All in all, I don’t really get why you posted this? Why you chose to single out Schwa? In the grand scheme of things, there are FAR fewer restaurants which support local farming than do not support local farming. If you’re going to pick on someone, why not pick on a corporate giant, not an establishment that has a total of 4 – 6 employees–all of whom do what they love with great passion and energy for ‘pennies’.

  2. Rob Gardner says:

    Jori, thanks for the comments. Why cannot “innovative, sophisticated and absolutely brilliant” not also be fun? I’m pretty darn positive that Chef Carlson and his staff wanted it to be fun, both by serving what they served and interacting the way they interacted. I also noted above the deliciousness of many of the dishes, and I forgot to single out the cheese brule, another absolutely brilliant and successful dish (would have been my favorite until the beet ice cream came). I applauded the value presented by Schwa. It is one of the best deals in town. Still, I am on a mission, and I cannot let things like brilliance get in my way.

  3. Ellen Malloy says:

    Rob. Did you ask Michael about the strawberries and peas? Or did you make an assumption they weren’t local?

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