Wednesday, October 24, 2012

elizabeth - chicago, il
4835 n. western unit d
chicago, il 60625

between a soccer store and a tire shop on a very unassuming stretch of north western avenue in lincoln square is a virtually unmarked door. people pass by it everyday likely thinking nothing of it or assuming it is a vacant space. those in the culinary know, however, are quickly realizing that behind that door is one of chicago's most exciting new dining destinations. the restaurant is called elizabeth, and is chef iliana regan's first establishment. prior to opening elizabeth last month, regan worked in some of chicago's finest restaurants (trio, alinea, tru, schwa, l2o) in both front of the house and kitchen roles before starting what she called one sister in 2010. one sister was an underground dining project where chef regan severed strangers multicourse meals out of her small lakeview apartment. this is how she met the investors who would help her to open elizabeth, which is named for her sister that passed away. regan's cooking can be described as modernist, but what really sets it apart is that a large part of what she serves she has grown or foraged herself.
there are three menus offered at elizabeth, owl, deer, and diamond. each one is a different length, has a different theme, and is totally separate from the others with no overlapping courses. elizabeth uses the same ticketing system as next and alinea, meaning that meals are paid for in full (minus alcohol) ahead of time. the price of each menu varies depending on the day of the week, ranging as low as $65 for the owl and as high as $205 for the diamond. seating at elizabeth is communal, with each menu having its own table of eight with one seating per table each night. service in the dining room is handled by a small team led by beverage director scott noorman, who prior to signing on at elizabeth spent time at trio, alinea, graham elliot, and several other chicago based restaurants.

after an unexpectedly long/stressful drive from our hotel in skokie, carrie and i arrived at the restaurant a few minutes past our seating time of 7pm rather then the 15 minutes early we thought we would be when we left. luckily easy parking was available right out front and we ended up being the first at our table to arrive. we had booked the restaurants longest menu, the diamond, and as such our table was the one closet to the kitchen. i knew the restaurant was small and that the kitchen was open, but did not realize just how close to the action we would be (the above pic was my view over my right shoulder). our table was soon filled with another couple and a foursome and after ordering a champagne cocktail each and a single wine pairing to share the meal began. i did my best at describing the courses, but given the complex nature and shear number of plates coupled with the fact that i don't take notes and the souvenir menu is not very detailed, many of my descriptions leave a lot to be desired.
apple pie and american caviar

to begin, a small glass containing apple flavored liquid, pie crust, and american caviar was placed before us. we were instructed to take it into our mouths all at once like a shot, but to be certain to chew and savor. the result was an interesting rush of sweet and savory flavors that helped set the stage for what followed.

carrot and chocolate
2010 conreria d'scala dei 'les brugueres' | priorat, spain

this was pumpkin seeds, a gel of some sort, and a pipette filled with a a dark chocolate flavored liquid. this was fun to eat but not overly exciting in flavor. this was the first of many courses that was served and explained by chef regan herself. the amount of thought and personality that is poured into each of her dishes was very evident in her presentations, and i throughout the meal hearing her speak was something i looked forward to.

salad sponge
2010 francois villard 'les contours de poncins | rhodaniennes, france

this was the first stunner of the meal. here we have an arugula sponge that was kind of like a souffle in texture topped with both goat milk and sunflower sorbets. also present were two different types of honey (one quite granular) and a few herbs and flowers. this was an incredible combination of sweet and vegetal flavors presented in textures unlike anything i have ever had.

round pancake

next was a small round pancake with topped with malt vinegar powder and filled with a bit of goat cheese. this was rather bland overall with just a small hint of tang from the cheese present. perhaps mine had less cheese inside than typical?

2010 franck peillot | bugey, france

a course served within a terrarium has become a staple in chef regan's repertoire, and dates back to her days cooking diners out of her apartment. i believe each table was served a terrarium course with different ingredients inside. aside from an "edible soil" of some sort, i do not really remember much about this course except that its flavor was definitely more unique than it was delicious.
foraged mushroom and juniper

matsutake mushrooms with juniper powder and cinnamon custard. matsutakes are known to posses characteristics of both pine and spice, and as such chef regan decided to serve them with ingredients that mirrored those qualities. this was tasty for sure, but i did find it difficult to know when i was tasting mushroom and when i was tasting the custard or the powder.

foie gras and homemade brioche

this was a new dish that we got to be the first guinea pigs for, and wow was it good! here we have foie gras with beets, radishes, and a strip of wonderfully soft un-toasted brioche. inside the foie was a sweet fruit sauce (raspberry i believe) that ran onto the brioche when i cut into the liver. no official wine pairing was set for this course, but scott poured a sweet dessert wine that worked beautifully with the combination of sweetness and salty savor.

oatmeal dashi

another shot, this time it was an oatmeal dashi with chia seeds. the main thing i remember here is a brown sugar sweetness.

apple cider, sunchoke, and loup de mer
2010 de falco fiano di avellino | campania, italy

following the dashi was a showstopper featuring apple cider gelatin, sunchoke puree, and a wonderful piece of loup de mer. 

shrimp noodles

shrimp noodles with toasted kale and parmesan. a single delicious bite.

oyster and parsley
2010 bodegas eizaguirre txakoli | getariako txakolina, spain

what i remember is that the oyster was a kumamoto and the wine was a txakolina with pronounced lime flavor that was served in a tumbler with vertical sides. 

lobster, liver, and flowers
1992 kalin cellars reserve | potter valley, california

served on a piece of slate, lobster with duck liver sauce, red potato, and squash arrived next. unfortunately everything here aside from the liver sauce was surprisingly bland, with the lobster lacking the sweetness i was hoping for. this course was served with the oldest white wine i think i have ever had, a twenty year old sauvignon blanc.

hand course
la cigare manzanilla | sanlucar, de barrameda, spain

placed directly onto our hands by chef regan, this was a roll of prosciutto with some other ingredients inside. intense salinity with a smack of lemon is what i remember tasting. very fun and very delicious. 

hamachi and fermented leek

plated with some flowers and a fish sauce caramel, the hamachi was excellent but it is the wonderful pungency of the fermented leeks that is sticking out in my mind right now. This was a great dish all the way around.

roe and white chocolate

served on a shot glass that released a smoky aroma from inside upon being lifted, this was a sweet and salty one biter than also may have had just a touch of spice to it. was it ginger perhaps?

duck pho
2009 azelia 'vigneto punta' | langhe, italy

although listed on our menu as duck pho, we were verbally told that it was chicken consomme with pho spices by chef regan as she personally filled each of our owl mugs table side from a cute little tea kettle.

heart, celery, and pickled onion
2008 tensley 'lea' rose' | santa barbara, california

this was deer heart and it was awesome.

deer bresaola

deer jerky with greek yogurt and gooseberries. i was in the restroom when this course was dropped and chef regan made a point to come over and fill me in on what i missed.

dry aged ribeye
2009 vietti 'perbacco' | langhe, italy

for the meals largest course, a dry aged ribeye with beef tongue, parsnips, and a few other components was served. this was a rather straightforward course that ended the savories on a high note. the beef was perfectly cooked and full of flavor and the tongue was also excellent.

feta and herbs
imbue vermouth | oregon

for the first of the dessert courses we had feta sorbet with herbs and something else that i can't recall. i remember really liking this course.

bacon ice cream cone

bacon ice cream with koval whiskey butterscotch in a black pepper cone.


to finish, a beet marshmallow and a ginger chew wrapper in paper were presented. chef regan told us to eat the marshmallow first as the flavor and texture of the chew would stick with us for awhile. this definitely held true as the intense spice from the ginger lingered on my palate all the way back to our hotel.

going into the meal, i was certainly excited, but had some reservations about elizabeth. was i trying the restaurant too early? was the concept of three separate menus too ambitious? would carrie and i be comfortable dining with strangers at a communal table? would it be worth the relatively high price? to be perfectly honest, these concerns completely vanished within the first half hour at the table, and i ultimately came away from the experience happier and more satisfied than i could have ever expected. while each of the 22 presentations wasn't incredible from a taste standpoint, most of them were, and the dishes that weren't at least offered up new ingredients/flavors/combinations or were simply just fun to eat. also, considering the small staff size and incredible number of different dishes prepared nightly (almost 50!), i am amazed to report that aside from maybe some under seasoned lobster there were really no technical issues as everything arrived perfectly cooked and at proper temperature. it is also worth noting that the kitchen was a mere eight feet behind me at most, and not once did i hear any any clatter or commotion. aside from a few breaks in between courses that were longer than optimal, the kitchen at elizabeth is operating at a level that is stunning for a restaurant that has been open for just a month. as for the service, carrie and i were very impressed with the way scott noorman handled the room and the wine. while it was very clear that the man knows a ton about wine, he went about things in a very friendly and down to earth manner. i especially appreciated the way he made a point to include us in the conversation about wine even though i am sure it was quite obvious that we were the least knowledgeable at the table on the subject. 

i usually end my posts by stating if i would return to a restaurant or not. sometimes the question is hypothetical as an actual return in the near future is often not practical for geographic or monetary reasons (plus my list of restaurants in this country to try is impossibly long) . i want to be clear here that this is not one of those times when i am speaking hypothetically. our overall experience at elizabeth currently ranks in my top ten meals of all time, and when viewing the meal as a composed work only my two visits to alinea and an extended tasting at l2o were better as far as chicago restaurants are concerned (individual courses at schwa and avenues were as good/better than elizabeth's best). the fact that elizabeth has only been open a month is unbelievable to me, and i cannot wait to return next year at some point to see if chef regan's cooking reaches even higher heights.
Elizabeth Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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