Sky Full of Bacon

I can allow myself a small measure of self-congratulation for having sensed, when I went to Schwa two years ago, that it was one of those volcanically volatile expressions of creativity where matter was bound to collide with antimatter in a big messy bang sooner or later. (Note my title.) No, I didn’t predict the precisely public nature of the implosion— recounted superbly in Alan Richman’s article— but it had the feel of something that would have a season, then spin apart violently and irreparably, sending its members on to greater things, and giving a few of us the ability to say “Oh, did you eat his food when he was at Schwa? You didn’t? Oh, that was really something…”

Schwa did blow up, and then it reopened, with a new guitarist and drummer, a coat of paint and some nice pictures on the wall thanks to chef Michael Carlson’s girlfriend. And if the original Schwa existed in a fever of creative energy that couldn’t last, the new Schwa seems cooler and more calculated, with the confident assurance of the showman who’s cleaned himself up, cast off the second-rate material and knows how to deliver a precisely timed evening of rock and roll better than just about anybody:

The sense of imminent danger is gone and surprisingly, what Schwa now impresses you with is its delicacy, its refinement.  This may not necessarily seem like a compliment— Carlson wasn’t sure he felt it was, when we said it, and as if to drive home the point, “refined” was sneered at at one point on Top Chef last night— but it is one.  There’s new subtlety at Schwa, even when Carlson is deliberately being unsubtle, as at dessert, which he seems to view (then and now) as a place to probe your point of revulsion by combining sweets with something so strong it’s almost offputting.  (It did put off one of the four of us, but the other three loved it.)  Not to keep ragging on my December visit to Avenues (but I will anyway), but Schwa at little over half the price proved superior in nearly every way— pulling off the same tricks of powders and foams and smears of flavor across plates, yet doing so in a way that respected and preserved the original ingredients’ flavor and textures, and in combinations that opened your mind with the way they made you look at meats or vegetables freshly.  Two months later Avenues seems an indistinguishable blur of dabs and gels no longer recognizable as what they came from, but a year from now I’ll find inspiration in sunchokes and roasted orange or parsnips and caramel or a brilliantly purple beet risotto.

Here’s what we had, the most outstanding dishes bolded:

• Amuse of thinly sliced grapefruit on a honey gelato, with a hint of stronger things— garlic and truffle oil, I think.

Beet risotto, earthy and dramatically colorful, with a streak of taleggio cream adding lushness and horseradish foam (the only foam of the night, frankly, which had a noticeable flavor) adding a light hint of tartness and heat.  Oh, and snail eggs, which are a new new thing, figured in there too.  (They’re like pretty much any other caviar that isn’t top-drawer caviar.)

Sunchoke soup, a savory and robust soup (not that I could ever have said that its flavor was sunchokes) combined with finely shaved bits of sunchoke and roasted orange.  I’ve had sunchokes a lot at Mado lately, where they’re rustic and crunchy, which seems to suit them just right (they’re as unpretentious as potato chips); it was interesting to taste them taken in a completely opposite direction here, as refined as pickled ginger.

Pad Thai, made with amazingly supple and delicate slivers of jellyfish, contrasting beautifully with gritty little bits of peanut.  The showiest of his dishes conceptually, but it’s pulled off superbly.

• Quail egg ravioli, the signature dish of the original Schwa, still a marvel but no longer, to me, the most amazing trick he’s capable of.

• Arctic char roe.  Interestingly, the one dish I don’t really remember from last night— some “noodles” made of white asparagus were a lovely salad, but I can’t recall how the rest of it worked.

• Lobster with chestnut and persimmon, and prosciutto— this seemed like a real misfire at first, the lobster might have been a little overcooked but in any case the combination of lobster and pumpkiny persimmon was off, bad, wrong.  Once I kind of thought of it as two dishes, it worked much better— the lobster with a little chestnut puree was a good combination, the persimmon and salty prosciutto was an excellent one.  They just shouldn’t have been in the same bowl.

Pork belly in rutabaga broth, with rutabaga pearls and greens and a beer foam, with a thin piece of something brittle on top— this dish was supposed to be chicken liver, according to the menu, but nobody complained for long, it might well have been the best dish of the night.  The earthiness of the rutabaga and the soulfillingly tender and meaty pork belly combined beautifully, and the brittle— a fellow diner says peanut, I thought it was something else, like rutabaga— added just the right note of sweetness.

• Duck— duck breast atop duck confit with a little brussel sprouts in between, sprinkled with (I think) truffle salt and bitter chocolate.  This was a little bit of an “ennh” dish, would have been better either with more forward chocolate intensity, or just a nice big juicy piece of duck, not the precious little (and lukewarm by the time it reached us) morsels we got.

• Cheese— taleggio under a coddled egg with a layer of crisped honey on top.  This seemed about 3/4 there, okay as a palate cleanser, but not a wow.

Parsnip custard— this was the dessert that wowed three of us and repulsed the fourth, and I asked Carlson if that was somewhat typical of the reaction, which he suggested it was.  I was dazzled by how the almost tomatoey savoriness of the parsnip blended with, first, a richly sober caramel sauce, and second, a psychedelically bright passionfruit sauce.  (There were also some candied sweetbreads, which were almost forgotten next to all that.)  Along with the pork belly, probably my favorite dish of the night.

• Lime tuile with green curry ice cream and sassafras foam— another dish that pushes the dessert envelope, and in this case, he warned us first to eat the ice cream, then down the rest.  I didn’t find it as challenging (or quite as magical), though the lime cone was really nice and an idea worth stealing.

I said I expected that Schwa would last a season and then people would be on to other things; to a large extent that was true, and Schwa 2.0 is a new place, with many of the same virtues (not least, of course, the stunningly good value relative to other places in its class, of which there are a very small handful in town), but a different air that probably reflects Carlson’s life calming down and him finding a better groove to operate in at his restaurant.  Schwa has matured in all the best ways, smoothing off its rough edges but only enhancing its air of adventure.  (Did the music switch coincidentally from hiphop to bebop when an older party of four came in, or is Carlson even taking his guests’ musical preferences into account now?  That would be the real sign that the old Schwa is no more.)  In one of the best quotes in Richman’s piece, one of the cooks calls the group of them “a pirate crew.”  It’s a wonderful image, of topflight chefs beholden to nobody and cooking for their own raucous, pillaging, freebooting pleasure, but it leaves out what a smooth sailing ship the revived, revisited Schwa has become.