SCHWA- chicago’s tiny piece of culinary heaven

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The day before I went I received this advice:

don’t get too drunk :)…  so you can enjoy the food

and don’t talk too much..seriously just focus on the food :)

Then my friend who I went with emailed me this:

I just spoke with a friend who went to Schwa a few weeks ago and he had 2 pieces of advice:

(1) Don’t wear anything that you don’t want to have dry cleaned;

(2) Bring a bottle of Jamison to take shots with Carlson and the rest of the staff (although I will hate myself tomorrow for this decision, i’m on it).

What happened that night completely rocked my world and was best summed up in haiku form by another one of my friends

“Fuck you”, Chefs at Schwa
You’ve ruined food for me now
Nobody else compares…

DISCLAIMER:The experience I had at Schwa was unlike anything I have ever encountered in my life. I am going to try and explain what happened that night but unfortunately did not take notes so it will not be as detailed as I would like.

To talk about Schwa, you must begin at the beginning and that is trying to get a reservation(http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2009/07/toughest_reservations.html).  This journey started about 8 months ago when I drove past and noticed the restaurant for the first time. I had remembered hearing how good it was 3 years ago.  So in my grandiose thinking I called up and left message.  I wanted a reservation for 10 for the next available time.  At the time, I had no idea that the dining room only sat about 25 but I figured they’d get back to me either way. After a few days and still no word back, I did some research and realized that I was basically shit out of luck. So I called again and again planning on making a smaller reservation for  2 or 4.  Over the next seven months, I called about 3 times a month and all I got was that the message box was full.

I had given up hope until one day out of the blue, my friend has an article up about the Chef, Michael Carlson, (http://www.gq.com/food-travel/alan-richman/200901/chicago-michael-carlson-schwa-charlie-trotter) on her g-chat.  It was a good omen, so I immediately called and got through, it was the most panicked reservation I have even made in my life.  It was akin to being a freshman in high school and Lyla Garriety

was talking to me.  It wasn’t really a conversation but more of a dazed and confused meandering between two people.  I had no control over what I was saying except, “reservation for four please.”

“When would you like to come in?”

“Reservation for four please.”

Finally my survivals skills kicked in and I completed my reservation. That done, the only thing left to do was get the wine.

Two days before I was supposed to go in, a funny thing happened, I was at Lush on Chicago Ave (http://www.lushwineandspirits.com/) talking to a guy about going to Schwa and what wines I should get. Then my phone rings and I realize it’s someone from Schwa.  I am thinking this is obviously to confirm my reservation. Nope… they are returning my message from 8 months ago.  I stupidly said that I am coming in and didn’t make another reservation (F Me) and they were like oh yeah your phone number looked familiar.  Unbelievable!!! At least they have a system, even if it takes a little time, they do get back to you.

Alcohol instructions:

For four:  2 whites and 2 reds – The wine should be on the lighter side for both red and white.

We chose Champagne (Ferrari Perle, an Italian sparkler, and Simchic Radikon  which is made from a grape called rebula and is a Slovenia white). For the reds, we went with a Bordeaux that no one seems to remember and a Pinot Noir that was great (J Winery, Russian River Valley). All the wines ranged from $25-$40.

Also, bring something for the Chefs as stated above, we also brought a bottle of Jamo.  Jamo was good and safe but the next time I go I think I am going to bring something a little more creative.

Finally the day arrives, the reservation was for the late seating (9 pm) and we were told to arrive no earlier than 9 (there is no room to wait at the restaurant and there is really no place to go and wait nearby).  When we walked into this overheated (because the kitchen is open) small space that fits no more than 25 we are eventually greeted by a nonchalant fellow who asks us about our reservation and eventually seats us and takes our wine.  The meal will take about 3-4 hours and we knew this so it was time to sit back and enjoy.

I am just going to go over the highlights, because I didn’t take notes.

Before I get to that, I want to make something very clear about the level of quality of this meal… this meal was  off the charts.

Their bad was great, their great was better, and their best was out of this world.

The meal:

We started out with a palate cleanser—a bloody Mary infused shot.  Light and simple…what a bloody Mary should be.

Instead of the crab, which is now on their website menu, we had an octopus and prosciutto dish– if anyone knows what it was called please let me know.  Either way the octopus was braised to perfection and the prosciutto was crisp…delicious in both texture and taste.

The apple pie soup- a savory sweet dessert that wasn’t.  It was surprisingly everything I thought it would be and yet nothing I had quite experienced.

Biscuits and Gravy—my God did this smelled amazing!  The experience was about the food and taking it in with all five senses, and my nose loved this course about as much as my mouth.

The last thing I want to talk about was my favorite course which is not on the online menu. It was a short rib with marshmallow, graham cracker, and chocolate.  It smelled of campfire and tasted like nothing I have ever had before.  It was a sweet meaty recollection of my youth and I am thankful that I was able to savor it.

A few things of note:

The music is loud – either hip hop or heavy metal—but  you don’t really notice it because the food is so damn good.

Go to the bathroom. You will go through the kitchen and see the cooks working their tails off.

There are two people who describe the food to you, one is almost incomprehensible.   Add that to the wine you are drinking and shots you may be taking and it is a fun time just trying to figure out what the beautiful piece of artwork on the plate is.

You will drink someone else’s booze.

It’s a small space and you will converse with the strangers  around you.

This is great place to bring a date, but I wouldn’t call it romantic.

$110 is a bargain

You and your clothes will smell like a campfire and the next day you will smell your clothes and smile.

To conclude:

Schwa is food centric, FOOD ABOVE ALL.  From the reservation,  to the service, to the music, everything is about the food.  You come for the food and at Schwa, the food is the only thing on the forefront of everyone’s mind. SO THE FOOD IS AMONG THE BEST and everything else is well—just  uniquely Schwa.

THANK YOU CHEF MICHAEL CARLSON FOR DOING WHAT YOU DO

Schwa on Urbanspoon

So what is Larder? Fat maybe…

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So yeah I have been away for more than sometime but you know shit happens.

After taking a good four month hiatus I have decided that I would get back in the swing of things and start writing some more.

Today Topic:

The Butcher and Larder This place is well awesome, a little bit pricey, but even a little bit more well, awesome. Maybe its because I didn’t grow up in a time where butcher shop were much more prevalent or maybe its because I don’t live in BFE(the middle of nowhere).   But I love this place, a place I can go and get the highest quality meat. A place where I am encouraged to buy a rabbit, try a kidney, or enjoy a heart (all very delicious). The one thing I have always said about the meat I eat is it always seems to taste better when you know

the animals name, well here I am pretty sure they would be able to tell me. The pig, rabbit, and various steaks I have had here were top notch and I feel like I am more satisfied because I know the animals were properly raised. Its a complex I am pretending to buy into by spending more and more money on better quality food.

But I will tell you what at the Butcher and Larder it is really worth it. If you don’t believe me try a pork chop from there.  If that doesn’t satisfy you, I don’t know what will.

So please do yourself a favor and Head over to the B&L and grab yourself something you can slap on the grill.

 

Side notes:

LARDER         : a place where food is stored : pantry  … would have been much sweeter if it meant fat!

For more good reading on the place  check out http://www.foodrepublic.com/2011/07/19/chicagos-most-ethical-butcher-shop

Whiskey warms the heart on a cold night

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SNOW DAY 2011, there is nothing that really compares to the anticipation of unanticipated time off. Reminiscent of our childhood, all of us  in  Chicago were holding our breath and sitting by the TV waiting, anxiously, for our “ school “ to scroll across the bottom of the screen and it happened( sorry to those who actually had to go to work, if you were taking public transportation I bet it was quicker than usual). The overjoyed masses of Yuppies now had to find something to do with themselves for the next 24 hours (besides the obligatory shoveling).

This is where whiskey is key, bourbon being my poison.   Sometime ago I went to a local liquor store looking for a nice bottle wine to drown a long, long day of work in.  About a half hour later, the store clerk had convinced me that bourbon was the way to go.  Ever since, I have always had at least one nice sipping whiskey available for all such occasions.   In the best case scenario,  you will find me outside on my deck, with a glass of Bourbon in one hand(neat), a cigar in the other, and a smile on my face.

I do not smoke in my house and there was no way I would have dared to venture outside after 7pm during the Thundersnow, so it looked like this endeavor would be without a key element, nonetheless I grabbed my bottle of Booker’s and carved my little piece of Midwest heaven (Midwest heaven= pork chops in the oven, bourbon in the hand, and a good old best of nine series of Euchre).  Whiskey warms the soul like no other liquor can and I plan on heading over to Lush and doing a full-on whiskey review.   So look for that in the upcoming weeks. Thank you Snowzilla 2011 for giving me a second to sit back and enjoy the moment, and a strong glass America’s finest.

On a side note: I just feel I need to make a small shout out to those people complaining about being stuck on Lake Shore Drive—

I don’t feel bad for you.  You knew how bad it was supposed to be for the past four days,  you are acting like your mom told you not to touch the stove because it was hot, and then you used the stove to brace yourself on the way to the cookie cupboard, burnt the crap out of your hand and now are complaining about how your mom isn’t properly taking care of your burnt hand.  EPIC FAIL!

90 Miles and running!

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 90 Miles Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon
For lunch today, my friends and I decided to try out 90 miles Cuban Café in Logan Square.  A good Cuban place should always be a prerequisite on any person’s rotation of regular restaurants.  I am happy to say that 90 miles will join my rotation.  Lunch was delectable and simple like Cuban food should be.  That’s the thing that I admire most about Cuban food — its unpretentious straight-forwardness.

I had a Cuban sandwich (roasted pork, bacon, Swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard) which is by far the most popular sandwich on the menu.  There is just something about the combination of mustard and pickle on this sandwich that makes me fall more in love with it, with every bite.   So simple, yet effective, no wonder why it is their most popular sandwich.  One of my friends went with the Guajirito (steak, romaine lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, Swiss cheese on green plantains).  He enjoyed it, but the plantains left little room for error and it did get a little messy.

Overall, the food exceeded our expectations for a solid price (about$ 6.50 a sandwich and an extra $5.50 for rice and beans if you want it) and left us full and satisfied.

A quick note on the service from my friend, (which was no frills but very good) I liked the fact that they didn’t have ice coffee but he was smart enough to know that coffee + ice = ice coffee.  It’s amazing how many places can’t figure that out.

The place is a small 12 seat dine-in spot that has expanded by making its outside seating accessible during the winter.  There’s a quirky charm to it that you notice before you walk in.  They are playing what I assume to be Cuban music in the background and it just adds to the decor.

On the weekends they have a brunch buffet ($14.95), which looked amazing.  With a short order cook in hand, we all agreed that we would have to come back soon to try it out.  If you are looking for Cuban food and are in or around Logan Square I highly recommend you stop by 90 Miles Cuban Café to get your fix.

Casbah Cafe: an unexpected delight

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A quick shout out to the Casbah Café (Lebanese and Moroccan) in Lakeview. I unexpectedly went there this past weekend and am glad to say that it is one of the better Middle Eastern places I have been to in the City.  It’s a little on the expensive side for Middle Eastern, but not untypical for the City. (Oh, how I wish Pita Inn had a Chicago location).

Either way, I would recommend this cafe, and especially the Ginger Carrot soup. We ordered the appetizer platter and everything was pleasing and they put pomegranate seeds over all of it which offered a nice contrast in flavors. I would also recommend the chicken maragaz (which is grilled chicken over cous cous with a mango chutney sauce).  It was very tasty and the contrast of sweet and savory really worked well again. Overall, the meal felt light, but filling.   The space itself is small and cozy. The service was good and it felt more like you’re dining at someone’s home.   If you ever find yourself in Lakeview and are looking for a good Middle Eastern meal, I would stop in the Casbah Café.

There is more than just corn south of Chicago?….. ACQUAVIVA Illinois’ finest (and only?) winery

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For the wine selection last Friday on our trip to MC Restaurant and Lounge, my friend brought a wine she bought from a local winery. Let that sink in a second, “local winery,” doesn’t really feel natural to say living here in the greatest city in the world. Acquaviva is the name of the winery, and to say I was flabbergasted that such a place could exist is an understatement. I know very little about wine, but from what I thought I knew, I was sure she was mistaken that a place like Acquaviva even existed. Needless to say, my inexperienced palate was pleasantly surprised and the Frontenac did not disappoint. It is a bolder wine, Acquaviva calls it the “Illinois zinfandel,” which became more and more palatable the more I let it breathe (or more of it I drank). I am not a huge fan of bolder wines, but I can definitely see myself making the hour or so trip to this paradoxical 40 acre strip of Illinois’ little Napa valley.

What I am listening to right now… beware there is some cussing.

Embrace your inner 3 year old!

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I know this has absolutely nothing to do with BYOBs in Chicago, but it is a great Ted Talk and well worth a look, if you have 20 minutes. Carpe Diem!

MC Restaurant and Lounge: brings a little Vietnam to Wicker Park

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Before we get started, please vote on where I should go next:   

Great Lakes (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/business/smallbusiness/14sbiz.html) a pizza joint that in 2009 was named the best  pizza in the country by GQ , Tanoshii where the chef Sushi Mike has been featured on both Chicago’s Best and Check Please! , or should I go to Cosina Grill (http://chicago.metromix.com/restaurants/article/byob-buzz-cosina-grill/1519324/content) which comes highly recommended by a friend.


 

Alright, now to my review of MC Lounge and Restaurant in Wicker park.

 

http://mcrestaurantandlounge.com/

 

I want to make it clear that I have very little experience with Vietnamese food, however I am pretty well versed in Thai food, and for the most part it seems very similar.

Warning: IF YOU DON’T LIKE CILANTRO THIS MIGHT NOT BE THE PLACE FOR YOU

I love cilantro and welcomed my almost entirely cilantro infused meal (I’m sure they will happily make anything without cilantro if you ask).

The meal :

 Spring Rolls w/shrimp(4pcs)– nice and light with a phenomenal spicy peanut sauce

Pho soup – this soup started out ok, I didn’t quite understand that I needed to dump all the sauces on the side (hoisin and a flavorful hot sauce), basil, and bean sprouts into the soup. Once I did the soup really took shape and was probably my favorite part of the meal .

Orange Chicken—Very good orange chicken flavor, however it looked crispier than it actually was which  was a little was disappointing.

Basil Curry—Coconut based curry which reminded me more of an Indian curry than a Thai curry. It wasn’t what I expected but it didn’t disappoint.

Crispy Banana—This dessert was a fried banana and cookie dough ice cream. I wouldn’t exactly say I understood the pairing however both on their own were good but together they were a little confusing.

The wine:


Our vino was a red from Aquaviva that used a Frontenac grape.  It was produced here in Illinois and I will have a quick follow up post that goes into more detail about that.

Things I like about MC:

The Spring Rolls and Pho

They Deliver.. check their website for details

They are pretty reasonable… $23/person with tip for basically 2.5 courses

Very friendly and our waitress seemed very knowledgeable

Things they might want to work on:

The timing of our meal was not great, which led to our orange chicken sitting on our table for a bit while we finished our Pho.  This is probably why it was not as crispy as we’d liked.

The decorum is not very warm and they have icicle lights spread throughout the restaurant which I don’t quite understand.

My recommendations:

Give it a try, the food is solid and staff is very friendly.

Overall: 10 of 15 forks

Food: 3 forks out of 5

Good value for what you’re paying

Ambiance: 2.5 folks out of 5

Needs a little work

Waitstaff: 4.5 out of 5

This seemingly family run business is nothing but nice to everyone

Bar recommendation nearby: The Exchange (http://chicago.metromix.com/bars-and-clubs/lounge/the-exchange-bucktown-wicker-park/1653143/content) think Violet Hour, same prices just a little less stuffy.

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