Dinner at Schwa is probably more fun when youre 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--theres 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 weve 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 Carlsons infectious enthusiasm (dude!), have always been and will no doubt always be part of Schwas charm. But the food is better than ever. Carlson and his 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, yet the results are surprisingly unprecious: bite into a cube of toasted brioche injected with hot, concentrated banana puree and its your taste buds that respond, not your inner chemist. Currently three- and nine-course prix fixe menus are on offer, but good luck reaching anyone to make a reservation, much less find out details. Standouts on my last visit, though, included 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 was 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" dont quite live up to their promise, the overall experience is as polished as ever. Theyve 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.
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