The Gist: “Elevated Ideas,” a dining concept from the least likely of chefs – Phillip Foss, a man who didn’t even think to take up cooking until after high school, yet oddly a man who has cooked not only in multiple highly regarded restaurants but also on multiple continents in a career that can only be described as random – from fine dining in Tel Aviv to private chef gigs in Florida and at least half a dozen stops in between, the most recent of which included a meatball food truck in a city where food trucks are frowned upon.
The Why: Because passion always seems like a good reason to visit a restaurant, and without even considering the favorable reviews it would be impossible to say EL Ideas lacks passion and in a city where some of the hottest tickets in town are entirely formulaic, turning out the same menu for months at a time with scripted service to boot there was something about EL Ideas that struck me as being both original and authentic.
The Reservation: Much has been made of the reservation policy at EL Ideas in the past, a sort of e-mail lottery system that didn’t make much sense to anyone, but just prior to our visit this system underwent a change and although still a tough reservation, the process is now simplified to making a call or sending an e-mail a month or so in advance listing your party size and desired date – reportedly they’ll get back to you in under 24 hours but for myself it was more like 24 minutes.
The Space: The restaurant is in the ghetto and according to my friend not entirely easy to get to via public transportation – even the website describes it as being in a back alley – and as such it is probably best accessed by car, particularly considering the free parking (a rarity in Chicago.) That noted, once you get inside things take a considerable turn for the best, a 16 seat gem of a dining on the verge of a kitchen with nothing to hide – ingredients, utensils, chefs, and even the business side and stock rooms openly visible throughout.
With dinners all starting at a set time, I’ll note that arriving early is a good bet as tables are offered first come, first serve and though there isn’t a bad seat in the house, some offer better lighting while others allow more focus on the kitchen and myself opting for the best lit table of the group I sat down to white tablecloths, sturdy chairs and tables, and quality serviceware appropriate for the high detail of plating as well as the BYOB aspect of the restaurant necessitating a variety of glasses. With the brick walls decorated with a single painting plus a chalkboard of drawings from Aqua Teen Hungerforce plus cork curtains on the windows the scene is decidedly minimalistic, and music is provided by an eclectic Ipod playlist ranging from Phil Collins to Hip Hop.
The Service: Perhaps the most interesting (and awesome) aspect of a meal at EL Ideas besides the food – there aren’t really any servers. There is a maitre d’/host who deals with water, wine, and clearing plates but each dish is presented by the chefs themselves followed by the music being turned down so the chef responsible can describe the dish, its inspiration, and any other salient notes. Often delivered with biting wit, especially those from Chef Foss, I particularly loved how all tables received the dishes at the same time thus keeping the surprise factor high.
In addition to the above, a bonus aspect of a meal at EL Ideas is that the diner is not only welcomed to the kitchen, but invited to be there at any time, and additionally encouraged to help with plating and serving his/her course. Truly an outside the box idea, it was literally a chance to be ‘in the kitchen’ and all three chefs were cordial, conversational, and happy to describe ingredients, techniques, and any other random bit of trivia (related to food or not) while busily plating 16 dishes and preparing aspects of multiple other courses as well.
The Food: $135 Tasting Menu. 12 Savories, 2 Sweets. House filtered water, Coffee/Tea included. BYOB.
Gin and Juice – Oyster/Cucumber/Botanicals: Presented in a glass along with a spoon by Chef Foss and reportedly inspired by “one of the great poets of our generation – Snoop Dogg,” the first dish would set the tone for the evening in terms of the degree of complexity we were about to experience. Featuring a briny Kumamato Oyster on top of a pickled cucumber swimming in a gin and crème de violet cocktail infused with cucumber juice the first flavors of this dish were bitter and brine, but adding substantial complexity both in terms of flavor and texture the addition of a candy stripe beet marinated in champagne vinegar, citrus blossoms, coriander blossoms, cucumber blossoms, viola, and finally a pink peppercorn candy gave the dish a sort of vegetal tinge that on swallowing dissipated into a cool floral essence. Complex to be certain, though certainly not my favorite dish of the night my only bicker would be that I think it would have been better served as a single shot as my last bite was largely just alcohol and cucumber.
Roe – Katsuobushi/Tapioca/Coconut: Our second plate of the night was again from Chef Foss and, well, it came with a surprise. Consisting of briny char roe, dried and cured smoked Bonito, tapioca pearls cooked down with coconut milk, and garnishes of radishes marinated in yuzu and ponzu, soy pudding, plus wasabi leaves this course was delivered with no flatware, but instead a promise – a promise that we would want to (and have to) lick it off the plate. Again a complicated plate with the roe and bonito flake nicely balanced by the sticky milky notes of the tapioca I particularly enjoyed the use of yuzu and aged soy to bring up the sweetness level a touch while the wasabi added the slightest hint of heat and while some may have found the whole licking aspect off-putting I personally thought it hilarious, one of the many times that evening I found myself smiling and laughing not at, but with a serious restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Black Bass – Black Rice/Black Garlic/Black Radish: The first dish presented by someone other than Foss and featuring a very obvious theme of black plus “Kumquats…um…because they’re delicious!” this plate would prove to be one of many stunning classic-technique driven dishes of the night with the bass itself supple and moist with crispy scales adding contrast while a bed of tender forbidden rice seasoned lightly with olive oil and black salt provided a toothsome and nutty flavor well balanced by razor thin slices of radish and kumquat plus a smear of black garlic.
Cauliflower – Botarga/Anchovy/Potato: Dish four, at least to myself, seemed to be the least inspiring of the evening and when it landed in front of me my feelings didn’t really change…until a took a bite. Presented by Foss and described at length, what seemed to me like it would be overly briny and fishy actually turned out to be not only bold, but balanced and interesting. Beginning at its base with cauliflower florets cooked sous vide in lemon and olive oil and subsequently topped with a slightly acidic and pleasantly sweet “cauliflower Bolognese” seasoned with chopped anchovies the cauliflower component of this dish simply sang while the addition of crunchy croutons, boiled potatoes, an anise hyssop blossom, sliced white anchovies, and a large piece of briny cured tuna roe all harmonized nicely. Strongly vegetable focused and using proteins as garnish it reminded me of things I saw at Eleven Madison Park only weeks earlier…a compliment to be sure.
Brussels Sprouts – Grits/Kale/Horseradish: Another vegetal dish, this one from Kevin, would arrive on the heels of Cauliflower and like its predecessor here too we would see animal as a garnish. Like the bass a much less elaborate preparation than the dishes from Foss, “Brussels Sprouts” again focused on texture with two forms of sprouts – sous vide and caramelized, two forms of Kale – flash fried and raw, plus pork cracklins, creamy grits, and a dash of horseradish to bring it all together.
Apple – Peanut/Bacon/Thyme: Plate six, a dish “based on my favorite snack of apples and peanut butter…plus bacon, because why the f$%k not” would arrive next from Phillip Foss and in a meal filled with inspired combinations this was perhaps the most notable as the chef opted to serve up his snack in the form of a ball of sour Granny Smith sorbet over top of peanut butter spiked with bourbon barrel aged soy sauce, crumbled peanut brittle, parsnip marmalade with julienned apples, thyme leaves, and crispy bacon. Cold and sour, creamy and savory, a bit of crunch, and a well placed shock to the palate transitioning us to the heavier courses that would follow.
French Onion – Upside Down: Another Kevin dish, and a serious wallop of flavor this dish took the concept of a French Onion Soup and literally turned it on its head by making the soup itself of Emmentaler cheese infused with a smoky notes and subsequently adding caramelized onions, nutmeg, soft nuggets of brioche, and finally a crispy brioche crouton at the center. Rich and dense, it was only a hint of what the next five courses would bring (…note, don’t go to Yusho or anywhere else for ‘snacks’ before visiting EL Ideas.)
St. Patrick’s Day Special – Green Eggs and Ham: An impromptu dish served to commemorate the day of our meal this course featured a single egg poached in arugula juice served over a pickled ramp, a thick slice of boiled Benton’s Ham over creamed sunchokes, and candied blackberries as well as blackberry sauce plus fresh arugula in three small piles on the plate. Described not only as being related to the holiday but also as a sort of ‘breakfast for dinner’ concept by Chef Foss both Rich and I (and later the Chef himself on LTHForum) admitted that this course needed more work because although the ingredients were all things I enjoy, they simply did not ‘go together’ outside the theme and even then the blackberries seemed out of place. Baring in mind my comments above, this was also a sizable portion – the ham easily a couple of ounces, and again quite rich with progressively heavier dishes to follow.
Foie Gras – Celeriac/Meyer Lemon/Mustard: One of the more unique aspects of serving all plates simultaneously to a group of 16 was the ability to present foie gras in whole roasted form and using nearly two pounds of Hudson Valley bird the portion we received was generous and exquisitely creamy. Obviously not stopping at just the liver, this plate which was again from Chef Foss, balanced the unctuous liver with celery root in four styles of preparation – crisps, puree, julienned, and compressed – plus celery leaves, lentil salad, Meyer lemon confiture, white verjus gelee, plus black and yellow mustard vinaigrette. Clearly a very complicated plate with myriad tastes and textures traversing the plate I’ll note that while I could have done without the mustard, the bitter celeriac components playing point/counterpoint with the verjus and meyer lemon was splendid.
Kohlrabi – Sweetbreads/Lobster/Black Trumpets: From Kevin, course ten was another soup and at the same time another dish where vegetables took center stage while two inimitable proteins lent a supporting role. Served in a temperature sensitive manner with the steaming hot and foamy cream of kohlrabi cappuccino at the center we were instructed to push the accoutrements in, stir, and then enjoy – a procedure that created one of the most memorable courses of the evening – an aromatic masterpiece with the slight sweetness of the kohlrabi smoothly enhancing the flavors of mushrooms, shallots, steamed Maine lobster, and pan fried crispy sweetbreads while bits of crispy kohlrabi leaves added a slight bitter note on the tongue that dissipated on swallowing leaving behind the sweetness of the proteins.
Duck – Bok Choy/Shishito/Oyster Sauce: If you’ve already served me lobster, foie gras, sweetbreads, and a stellar egg dish the last step to making me swoon is probably to put a piece of duck on my plate and with the penultimate savory Kevin did just that with a piece of roasted duck breast served simply over top of sous-vide Bok Choy, Black Pepper Oyster Sauce, and Pickled Shishito peppers. Crisp on the outside with a minimal ribbon of fat juxtaposing supple flesh the duck was delicious while the mild peppers and poignant oyster sauce worked well to place the dish in an Asian frame of reference further reinforced by the tender bok choy.
Steak – Components of Bernaise: From the brain of Foss and one more step in my realization that when done right I can enjoy beef, our final savory of the evening presented a round of tenderAustralian Wagyu strip loin resting on a bed of pearl onions with a sort of deconstructed and manipulated sauce Bernaise spread across the plate including clarified butter powder, slow cooked egg yolk, lemon pudding, reduction of tarragon reduction and a touch of Dijon mustard. Imaginative and rich this was a great dish and while beef will never win my ‘best of the meal’ award, this was very nicely done.
Movie Snacks – Popcorn/Twizzlers/Raisinets: Another dish taken from Chef Foss’ favorite things, this dessert was all over the place and all the better for it. Featuring Black Popcorn, crumbled homemade Whompers and pretzels, and vine-ripened Raisinets, as the sweet and savory base and then topping it off with Twizzlers Ice Cream and Coca-Cola Foam this was not an elegant or subtle dessert by any means – just a sweet and delicious one, particularly the oddly delicious ice cream which sparked memories of those tasty red sticks after hockey games as a child and the intensely malty whompers.
Milk n’ Cookies – Chocolate/Capsule/Oreos: A far more refined dish than the first dessert, the last course of the evening was a lot of fun and having had the chance to watch Kevin put it together in the kitchen provided another degree of appreciation for the flavors and textures at hand. Beginning first at its base, the dessert started with a pair of cookie crumbles, half from house-made dark chocolate cookies and half from actual Oreos. Added next, two dollops of ‘sweet milk’ pudding from condensed milk were set to flank a sort of reverse Oreo truffle with a white chocolate shell overlying liquid chocolate on the inside. Last but not least, added just before delivery, was chocolate cookie ice cream and much like the dish beforehand this was a dessert evocative of memories from my childhood yet at the same time significantly more complex than sitting with a handful of Oreos and a glass of 2%.
Rare Tea Cellar and Ipsento Guatemala Monte Cristo Blend: With desserts finished and the soundtrack slowing down we were all invited to the kitchen to chat with the chefs once more and to help ourselves to coffee or tea, a collection of three options from Rare Tea Cellar, Decaf from Intelligentsia, or a French Press of Ipsento Guatemala Monte Cristo Blend – a bold and nutty roast from a local company I’d not heard of, but a solid cup of coffee with deep cocoa notes that worked well in the context of the final dessert.
The Verdict: One of my friends, a well traveled gourmand, says that the most important aspect of finding a dining partner is sharing the same ‘mouth’ – essentially that if you like the same things as your friend you’ll end up enjoying the same places. With that in mind, I can only say that while my life has been nothing like that of Chef Foss, if this meal is any indication there is no doubt that we share a similar palate and while not every course was flawless the majority were exemplary and many stoked memories, feelings, and emotions of happiness unlike all too many fine dining experiences. Adding in the bargain pricing, unequaled access to the kitchen, whit, and camaraderie of the evening I can’t wait to go back…to me EL Ideas is the most exciting restaurant in Chicago right now.