Monday, May 26, 2014


I had said last year, after trying some truly world class restaurants in London and Paris, that I really needed to hit some of the high end restaurants in Chicago.  At that time, I had thought that Alinea was out of reach and was aiming for a few of the small and truly innovative places in town that were one step above underground supper clubs.  The places that I was aiming for were Schwa, Goosefoot, El Ideas, and Elizabeth.  Since I made that list, 42 Grams has opened and fits into the same "genre" and Elizabeth is the first of these that I managed to get a reservation for (and dine at).  Elizabeth is located in a small storefront in Lincoln Square.  There is a small sign on the door, but even with that, I wasn't sure I was going into the right place.  After I walked into the entryway and through the curtain hanging in front of the door, I saw that I was in the right place.  The space is very small with seating for 24 and the kitchen is in the dining room.  So, if you were facing in the right direction, you could see the chefs assembling the dishes.  There were 6 tables for two, and 3 tables seating four.  The tables and chairs were all mismatched, but the furniture was predominantly wood.  The floor was cement painted brown to match the wood and there were many owl figures throughout the room.  There was one shelf in the dining room that held many owls and the restaurant's Michelin Star.  There is no menu published online for Elizabeth.  Going in, I knew that the menu had a significant foraged element to it so I expected to see quite a bit of plant life, but other than that, I was going in more or less blind which I really didn't mind.  

For our first course, we were presented with several elements.  It was pretty complex but it was also beautifully presented.  The first element was a petri dish (on a wooden coaster) with Chilled Pea and Mint Gel with Turbot, Snail Roe, served with a Mint Tea "Shooter" in a Disposable Pipette.  The tea could either be added to the gel or swallowed as it was and I did both.  Everything about that dish was lightly flavored.  It had a pea and mint flavor, but it was pretty light.  The turbot, like most white fish, had a mild flavor, the snail roe was more a textural element than adding a specific flavor, and the mint tea, while it had a definite mint flavor, was definitely not overwhelming.  The second element was presented in a terrarium and while I liked it, I don't really remember all of the elements.  Everything in the terrarium was edible.  I do remember the Pickled Ramps, the Maple Cream, and the Clover, but I don't remember what the "Dirt" was made from.  I do remember that it tasted good and that it was a bit dry, but that's all I remember about it.  For the last element of the first course, we were presented more tea.  It was a Mint Tea infused with Sassafras.  I wish that I had gotten a picture of the infuser because it looked like a piece of antique lab equipment.the tea was in a round bottomed flask that, when heated with a bunsen burner flowed up the neck of the flask and emptied into an upper chamber filled with Sassafras Root.  After the tea flowed into the upper chamber, it was served into owl shaped coffee mugs where we enjoyed them.
 The next course was decidedly simpler in presentation, arriving in a single dish.  It was called Ramps and Day Lilys and had a green gel in the bottom, which was topped with 3 different cubes, one of which was a potato, Steelhead Roe, and a Clover Leaf and Flower for garnish.  It was very good even if I don't remember all details about it.   I remember the textural differences of the cubes, one was kind of creamy, one was gel-like, and one was a fried potato.  The gel was oniony and went well with the saltiness of the roe.
The next dish was a one bite wonder with what I thought, kind of a humorous presentation.  We were again brought out the wood coaster on which was placed a rock with our next course.  It was Wild Rice and Bear which we were supposed to eat in one bite from the rock without utensils.  We essentially had to wolf the bite off the rock.  It was very flavorful and very good.  There seemed to be a spice of some sort in this.  There was a savory flavor (probably from the bear) and the rice was very toothsome.
The next dish had several things going on and I really don't remember everything about it.  There were some Plant Based Noodles in an Agar Gel with Mustard and Violet Blossoms and a leaf that I am remembering (possibly incorrectly) as mint.  I remember that there were a lot of textures going on and while there were several flowers, the flavor was not overtly floral.
With our next course, we talked briefly with Chef Iliana Regan and learned that her training was in chemical engineering which may very well have explained the references to scientific equipment in the previous courses.  The next course was a longtime dream of several people that kind of became a joke because it wasn't happening.  Farming Shrimp around the Great Lakes had been talked about for years, but up until very recently, no one was able to make it happen.  Recently though, someone has successfully been able to farm shrimp in Indiana (indoors), and this is what we were served.  The Shrimp was fairly large, tempuraed, and sprinkled with raspberry powder.  The batter was light and fluffy, as tempura batter is and the shrimp was very flavorful.  The Raspberry Powder added a tartness to the dish.  It was very good, although I probably would have liked it more had the shrimp been shelled.  Shrimp shells are edible and they do add a crunch to the dish, they can be a bit difficult to eat.

The next course was another simple bite that was served on a large spoon.  The spoon was essentially a spoon that is used for eating soup in Asian dishes.  As this was essentially an Asian dish, it fit.  It was Shrimp Noodles with shrimp flavored Lo Mein noodles and a vegetable that I think was Daikon.  In any case, the noodles were chewy and had a good shrimp flavor and the daikon added some crunch to the bite.

The next dish was essentially a space to relax and think about where we have been and where we might be going.  We were brought a very nice vintage tea cup and saucer with a few baby mushrooms in the bottom of the cup.  They then came out to fill the cup with Mushroom Tea.  I like mushrooms and this had a lot of mushroom flavor as might be expected.  It was nice to slow down for a minute and sip some very good tea in some nice looking cups.
The next course kept the mushroom theme and ended up being one of my favorite dishes.  It was a Fried Maitake Mushroom with Clover and Creme Fraiche served on the side.  The mushroom itself was moist, tender, and flavorful.  The breading that helped helped maintain the mushrooms moisture was crispy and flavorful, and the Creme Fraiche added a sour element that just complemented the mushroom.
One of the design elements that I hadn't mentioned was the centerpiece on each table.  It looked like a series of white vases that were connected to each other at the widest point.  They were spherical in shape and had what appeared to be twigs coming out of the tops.  At this point, the centerpiece actually came into play.  While there were twigs in several of the openings, there was also dried carrots (orange) and Rye Sticks (the lighter brown twigs).  The carrots were chewy, sweet, and very flavorful and the rye sticks were light and crispy with a definite, but not overpowering, rye flavor.

After the centerpiece, we began to progress into our entrees.  We did not immediately proceed to heavy, meat based dishes, but instead started with some soup.  We were brought out a black bowl with grilled Fiddlehead Ferns.  Into that was added Fiddlehead and Fava Bean Soup.  The soup was very rich and savory, tasting like it was cream based, although cream was not mentioned.  The grilled fiddleheads were crisp (like fresh green beans) and had a very pronounced flavor that was pretty bitter and reminded me of asparagus.  It was a good start to the savory courses and I was excited to see (and taste) more.
From the soup, we proceeded to offal and had Spring Greens and Sweet Breads with Mashed Potatoes.  It was a very nice looking dish with the sweet breads placed on the mashed potatoes with a flower petals and leaves next to them and the sauteed greens next to the potatoes.  The imagery of the placement invoked flowers although, it was very definitely a savory dish and had little floral flavor.  The sweet breads were tender and flavorful, the potatoes were rich and buttery, and the greens were buttery and crisp with a slightly bitter finish.

From the sweetbreads, we proceeded to what was my favorite dish, Duck Stew with Homemade Sourdough.  The stew consisted of Baby Turnips and Carrots, Onions, Duck Sausage, and Duck Confit that was presented in a hollowed out Sourdough Bread Bowl.  This was savory, rich, and very definitely comfort food.  There wasn't a lot of stew broth, but there was enough to moisten the bread which made it easier to eat.  The turnips and carrots were small but flavorful, the sausage was tender, and the duck confit was excellent as it always is.  This dish was very good and was a lot of fun to eat.

We finished our savory courses with Spring Lamb Belly and Golden Beets served with a berry jam and a sour cream on the side.  I was actually a little leery of this because I had had lamb belly elsewhere and the flavor was stronger than I really liked.  I shouldn't have worried because, like everything else, it was prepared perfectly.  There was a definite lamb flavor to the belly, but it wasn't exceptionally strong.  Texturally, it was similar to pork belly that hasn't been cured to bacon.  The golden beets were light, sweet, and crisp and tied the belly to the sour cream.  The jam reminded me of huckleberry and had a sweet, fruity flavor with a tart finish that went well with the lamb belly.
Our next course was essentially another intermezzo between our savory and sweet courses and again made reference to Chef Iliana's scientific background.  We were brought out a barkless tree branch that had five holes drilled in it to mount test tubes.  All of the test tubes had liquid in them and they were interspersed between green sprouts and pink flowers.  The liquid in which the pink flowers was floating was Kombucha, a fermented tea, and it was what we were to drink.  We were also given white and black straws to drink it with but I actually forgot about the straw initially and poured it into my mouth.  I did use the straw afterward to recover the flower from the test tube.  The drink was sweet, slightly effervescent, and had a very slight tea flavor.

The first of our desserts looked like breakfast.  I really don't remember most of what it consisted of, but I do know that it wasn't what it looked like.  The dish was called Froot Loops and that was, in a matter of speaking, what was in the bowl.  The cereal rings were not colored like Froot Loops, but they did taste good especially with the Cashew Milk that they were served with.  They were sweet and crunchy with a slightly tart finish.  With the froot loops was served a light and crispy biscuit, some whipped butter, and an egg that wasn't an egg.  Texturally, the egg was like a hard fried egg with a hard yolk, but it was perfect.  There were no fry marks or imperfections.  It did taste good even if it wasn't an egg.
The next dessert was much more identifiable and I actually liked it better than breakfast.  It consisted of Juniper, Sunchokes, and Rhubarb.  The rhubarb was obvious, being thinly sliced and placed on top, the juniper was presented in a cake, and the sunchoke was formed like a semisoft cheese.  The dish was sweet, sour, and bitter with a lot of varied textures and a cream served on the side.  It was very good and a joy to eat.
For our final official course, we were presented with a plate of cookies.  They were Chocolate and Almond Cookies that were rounded on top and looked like mushroom tops which was significant because they were presented on a plate with mushrooms painted on it.  The cookies were sweet and very chocolaty with an almond finish.  They had a crisp exterior with a moist interior and were very good.
I called the last course the last official course because after we had paid our bill, we were presented with menus and another cookie.  This cookie was wrapped for the possibility of taking it with you, but after everything else was so good, this cookie didn't make it out the door.  It was a Peanut Butter and Jam Cookie and like everything else. it was great.  

During my dinner here, I noticed several themes that were repeated several times.  These were owls, scientific equipment, and mushrooms.  There was also the over-arching theme of nature being everywhere, but that was kind of obvious.  It was very cool to see how any of these themes would be presented from course to course.  I really enjoyed my dinner here and would recommend it to anyone who would like to explore Chicago's high end dining scene.  It's amazingly creative, and with one of the most affordable prices for restaurants of this caliber, is a good gateway.       


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