Advice About Schwa
Chowhound-mate and I want to get reservations at Schwa for our anniversary (October so maybe we stand a chance -- if we can reach them at precisely the "right" moment).
Here are my questions:
3-course or 9-course?
What's the difference in price between the two menus?
Is there enough to eat for the 3-course or will we want up stopping at LaPassadita for burritos after dinner?
What kind of wine(s) do we bring for pairings?
I finally got in to Schwa last week. Admittedly, it was a bit of an ordeal to get a reservation, but I can tell you that it was definitely worth the wait. As i recall, the 4-course was around $45 or $50 and I believe the 9-course is $105. My advice is to go for the 9-course menu.
When you consider the quality of the food and the creativity of the preparation and presentation the 9-course menu is an exceptional value. I've been to most of Chicago's best restaurants (Alinea, Tru, Trio, Ambria, Everest, Trotters, Blackbird, Spiagia) and Schwa ranks right up there with my most memorable meals. Chef Carlson is doing wonderfully creative stuff and you really should experience the full scope of his work. The portions seemed just right to me. I didn't leave there feeling stuffed and I certainly didn't leave hungry.
Regarding the wine, my suggestion is to download the menu online and then go to a knowledgeable wine store and ask for their input. I went to Binny's on Clark St in Lakeview and got two great recommendations for our meal. One word of caution though, I would suggest waiting until the last possible moment to download the menu. My reservation was on a Saturday evening and I had downloaded the menu earlier in the week. I got there only to discover that the menu had changed as of the pervious day. As it turned out it wasn't a major ordeal. The wines we brought still worked nicely with the new menu.
Schwa is unlike any restaurant of its caliber. It's all about the food there. The staff's expertise is definitely "back of the house". In between serving courses and bussing tables these guys are stirring sauces and culling ingredients in the kitchen. You will get more than adequate table service, but it won't be on a par with Tru or Alinea where a whole team of waiters is available to meet your every need.
Likewise, the whole reservation process is secondary to the food. From my experience, you will probably get an answering machine whenever you call. I would suggest providing them with several prospective dates for your reservation and asking them to call back with availabilities. They may not get back to you immediately, but you will hear from them. They usually don't accept reservations more than a month in advance and weekends get booked very quickly. Your best bet is to ask for a mid-week reservation 4-6 weeks in advance. I would also suggest providing them with a cell phone number where they're likely to reach you without having to resort to continual phone tag.
I know it seems like a lot of hoops to jump through, but you have to remember that this is an entirely different experience than Tru or Alinea. This is more like going to someone's house and having them cook for you. The food is amazing, but it's very casual and laid back. It's a unique concept and it's certainly not for everyone. I also have a feeling that it may not last much longer. Eventually chef Carlson will move on to a bigger place with a liquor license and all the bells & whistles you'd expect for this type of cuisine. I’m guessing It will also be a lot more expensive. When that happens you can bet there will be a lot of wistful reminiscing on Chowhound about the "old Schwa".
Call at about 3pm . . . my experience teaches me that's the best time. It's not uncommon for them to call you back a few days later. Be specific as to dates, times and number of persons in the party. Again, my experience teaches me that they are better in dealing with specifics.
I have made reservations twice and once I called and left a message, the next time I learned that you can get a hold of them if you call in the morning. I would do the 9 course - like drosa said, you want to experience the full scope of the menu.
My biggest piece of advice: Bring your own wine glasses!!!! We didn't know that the first time and had all this nice wine which wasn't nearly as good out of juice glasses. Sounds like a pain, but it is a really unique dining experience and well worth it.
You should get the nine course because you'll want to try everything, but I've never seen them not bring out two extra courses (quail egg ravioli included) if you order the three course, and I've left full on three courses. The three course is $55. I think the nine couse is $110 or so.
They don't answer the phone at night so call in the morning. Or beter yet go there in the morning if you live in Chicago. The door is always open and they are always there.