At some point during a recent meal at Schwa—between the pad thai and the arctic char roe, I believe—a chef came out of the kitchen with two small plates. As he explained that each plate held a lone quail-egg ravioli, I’m pretty sure I had the same reaction as everybody else who got the gratis course: relief that Schwa’s quail-egg ravioli days were not yet gone; relief that I could still indulge in Michael Carlson’s greatest hits.
I wish I could resist calling them that, or ignore the fact that the Schwa chefs look like they just stumbled out of a van straight from South by Southwest. But Schwa’s plight has too much in common with the quintessential rock & roll story to not talk about it in musical terms. There’s the almost instantaneous celebrity the restaurant acquired when it opened in 2005, the fanatic crowds that clamored for Carlson’s food, the awards that were quickly bestowed (a Food & Wine Best New Chef Award), the “breaking up” of the original team, the rumored excessive partying, the sudden collapse of the restaurant five months ago and, now, the return—the second album, if you will.
Happily, this is where the analogies to music start to weaken. Everybody knows sophomore efforts seldom hold up to debuts. But Schwa appears to have returned from its hiatus unscathed. The first dish of the progression, a plate that combined Jonah crab with roasted banana, celery and coriander, set the tone for the entire evening: The dish’s seemingly incongruous elements melded together perfectly, the bananas making the crab sweeter, the crab rendering the banana more savory. As with almost every dish Carlson creates, each element had a distinct purpose and was crucial to the end result. Kona Kampachi, for example, is paired with a tart lime custard and a sweet maple cream. Eat the fish with just one of them and the flavor is heavy and one-note; eat everything together and the result is harmonious.
Not every flavor combination is unusual, per se. While antelope (served both as a gorgeous loin, cooked sous vide, and a rich ragout) was indeed paired with white chocolate foam, which lent the dish a rich, buttery note, smoked arctic char roe arrived with pumpernickel blini, tiny spheres of rutabaga and lemon (pictured above)—all flavors that fit into an Eastern European framework. And two courses that involved cheese were refreshingly straightforward: A beer cheese soup (both the beer and cheese came from the Chimay facility in Belgium) was simple, pure decadence, served with a warm, soft pretzel on the side. And the restaurant’s take on Humoldt Fog, that famous, ash-veined cheese from California, involves mixing the cheese with cream and forming a new, milder slice of Humoldt, this one with a layer of truffles instead of ash. It’s not that cheese and truffles are any less fantastic than the other courses; it’s just less surprisingly so.
The food at Schwa was so delicious that the biggest surprise was when a dish didn’t work. For his “pad thai,” Carlson fashions noodles out of jellyfish and tops them with a fairly straightforward peanut sauce. But the sauce overpowered the flavor of the jellyfish, whose texture was overly chewy, and I couldn’t help but think “gimmick.” That, of course, is the risk with this kind of cooking: Any dish that doesn’t work will be dismissed as a silly trick. Luckily, most of Carlson’s dishes—even a dessert called “meat and vegetables”—avoid this fate. Just like that bonus quail-egg ravioli, the rich, meal-ending parsnip custard with crunchy candied sweetbreads and passion-fruit puree isn’t a trick. It’s a gift.