Saturday, January 21, 2017

El Ideas

I try to go to a high end fine dining restaurant about twice a year,  I hadn't gone anywhere since June, so I decided that it was time to go.  There have been a number of fine dining restaurants that have opened in Chicago in the last year, but I am still trying to cover those that have been open for a while.  There were three restaurants on my short list, Goosefoot, El Ideas and Schwa.  I decided on El Ideas because I was looking for something a little less pretentious than Goosefoot and Schwa is impossible to get a reservation.  I had heard that El Ideas was in the middle of nowhere and while it is on the south side at the end of a dead end street next to a rail yard off Western, it's only about 4 blocks from Lagunitas Brewing and wouldn't be a long bike ride for me.  Looking at Google Maps ahead of time, though, I didn't see any good places to park that were close, so I decided to take public transportation.  The fact that it started raining as I started my trip also convinced me that this was a good idea.  Not only is El Ideas at the end of a dead end road, it is also unmarked on the outside.  It is noticeably a restaurant from the window and there is a sign on the inner door that says, "Get the EL in here!" to indicate that you are in the right place.  It is a small space seating about 20 people with a curved half-wall between the kitchen and the dining area.  The coat rack is just inside the kitchen area and, as a matter of fact, diners are allowed to get up and explore the kitchen with the exception of the hot line at any time during the meal.  It is a BYOB, so we brought a couple of bottles of wine, a Chablis and a Pinot Noir, which went well with the dinner.  There is some graffiti style art on several walls and despite the fact that it's pretty casual, it still has white tablecloths. 
Our first course was a test of sorts, to take take the pretentiousness out of the food.  It was a very nice dish with Osetra Caviar on top of a Poached Quail Egg with a base of Popcorn and a garnish of Cauliflower.  Normally when you get caviar, it will be served on crackers or at least crackers will be served with it.  We had no crackers.  We also had no silverware.  Picking this up would be extremely difficult and even if you did manage it, you would still make a mess (I did try to pick it up long enough to realize that it didn't have a solid base).  We were told that in order to eat it we were to lick it off the plate and any fingers used were cut off.  I had no problem picking up the plate, sucking the egg and caviar off the plate, and licking what was left.  What was funny was that the plate was clear and you could see your dining partner licking their own plate.  It was fun, it was funny, and it was a great prelude to what would be a great dinner.
For our next course, we had something that reminded me of Cream of Mushroom Soup.  Served in a bowl that looked like it had been carved out of a tree, which made sense because all of the ingredients came from the forest.  It started with Sunchoke Broth, and had Mushrooms, Snails, Black Truffles, Chartreuse, Nasturtium, and finished with Hazelnuts.  The flavor was creamy and earthy and was quickly a favorite. 
The Mushroom soup was a favorite until the next course was presented.  It was a slice of Sturgeon sitting in Granny Smith Apple Puree, surrounded by Winter Radishes and Lardo, and with Dill Powder spread around the outside of the plate.  It was a fairly simple presentation which made it easy to try the individual parts separately.  I worked from the inside out and liked each individual piece until I got to the Dill Powder.  That was a taste explosion that blew me away.  The flavor was very bright and went well with everything, but it was best when you could get a taste of everything at once.  The different flavors and textures were a perfect complement to each other. 
The seafood continued with the next course.  It looked and smelled like Lobster and while it did have lobster in it, that was not the key ingredient. The dish started with Monkfish, which is my favorite fish, to which was added the aforementioned Lobster, Hedgehog Mushrooms, and Spaghetti Squash.  It was rich, sweet, and texturally like a seafood pasta that went heavy on the pasta.

The next dish felt a little like an interlude.  In any case it was very much a surprise.  We were asked if we liked magic as we were presented with what looked like a fountain glass.  In the glass there was something white and crumbly.  It looked like it had been flash frozen with liquid nitrogen.  There was even a little steam rising off of it.  That couldn't be the case though, because the bottom of the glass was warm.  We were told that the dish was inspired by the chef's daughter's love of French Fries and Ice Cream.  We were then told if we wanted to see something cool, we should shove our spoon to the bottom of the glass.  As we did this, we got a huge cloud of steam released from the glass.  The Vanilla Ice Cream on top had been flash frozen with liquid nitrogen and placed on top of some warm Potato Leek Soup.  It was very good and did very much remind me of French Fries and a Vanilla Shake and I really enjoyed it.

When we started our dinner, Chef Phil Foss said that they were trying to take the pretention out of fine dining and part of that was allowing us to get up and wander around the kitchen.  The only place we were not allowed to go was the hot line which is the aisle right in front of the stove.  With the interesting flavors we were getting, especially the dill powder in the 3rd course, we decided to take a walk to see what other interesting spices they had.  Looking at the jars, it was obvious that they had a sense of humor.  The three jars of dehydrated mushrooms were pretty humorous, but what was interesting was finding a jar of course pink material called Love on one of the shelves.  Without thinking about it, I set myself up by asking the chef, "What is Love?" To which he replied, "Baby, don't hurt me."  That was the only response that I got, so I laughed at myself a little and we returned to our table.
After we returned to our table, the meat courses started.  First with something that I thought looked a lot like Pork because it was very pink, but turned out to be Veal.  It was served with Parsnips, Crispy Polenta, and Thyme Oil.  The veal was very tender and pink and, as should be expected pf veal, it was very tender.  The Parsnips were similar to potatoes with a slightly sweeter taste,  The polenta was cut thin and presented like crispy noodles, and the thyme oil added an accent to the dish.  It was very good and a nice start to the meat courses.
After the baby cow came the best example of what beef might be.  We were served a slice of A5 Wagyu Beef which was served with Maitake Mushrooms, Tosaka (Red Seaweed), Black Garlic, and what, according to the menu, was Atun.  A5 is the highest grade of Japanese beef.  The designation is similar to USDA Prime.  It was incredible.  We were given a knife, but the beef was so tender, it was almost like butter and a knife was really unnecessary.  The mushroom and seaweed were under the beef and added an earty and tart salty flavor.  There were also several dots of sauce surrounding the beef.  I have to guess that that was the Atun, which I was unable to find out what exactly what it was.  What it tasted like was Umeboshi or Pickled Salt Plums and added another salty and tart flavor.  I am not sure that I would eat some of the individual pieces on their own, but together, the dish was fantastic.
The next dish reminded me for all the world of Thanksgiving.  It obviously was not turkey, but the textures and flavors reminded me of Thanksgiving.  We had a Puff Pastry filled with Minced Hare and was served with Celery Root, Cranberry, Cocoa Nibs, and Chestnut.  Rabbit has a taste similar to Chicken, so I imagine the combination of the Hare, Cranberry, and Chestnut triggered my memories of Thanksgivings past.
Our final savory course did have the strongest flavors and was very earthy with some nice spice.  It also had the nicest plating design of the meat courses.  It was Venison that had no gamy flavor, so I have to guess that it was farm raised.  It was served on a wide stripe of Horseradish with Black Lentils and a single Turnip.  It almost felt like we were served the meat along with the diet that the animal had eaten.
Our first dessert course, while definitely a dessert course was also kind of a transitional course because it also kind of included meat.  We were presented with what was essentially a deconstructed Baklava.  It had the standard Phyllo Dough, Honey, and Pistachios, but it also had Quince, which kind of made sense as far as textures and flavors were concerned.  What was a surprise was the Foie Gras.  It was rich, tender, and had a light flavor, and surprisingly went very well with the rest of the baklava.  It was very good and a little puzzling as well because I missed the intro to the course and we were not presented with menus until the end of the meal.
Our next dessert course was much less surprising and more obviously a dessert.  It was a Lemon Tart using Wild Citrus and topped with a Black Sesame flavored Whipped Cream.  I like lemon tarts, the more tart the better.  The wild citrus did have lemon tartness, but it was milder than many lemon tarts that I have had in the past.  It did have a little more bitter earthiness than a standard tart that went well with the black sesame which while it tastes like sesame, is also stronger and more bitter.  It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't exceptionally exciting.
The final course was a fitting finish.  It was a standard finish as far as ingredients, but it was pretty off the wall as far as presentation.  This fit with the restaurant overall, which did a pretty standard course progression for a fine dining restaurant but presented things in a way that was different or might add something unexpected.  For our final course, we finished with a Chocolate Torte that was presented with Banana-Coffee Meringue with a texture similar to a macaron crust.  Everything was topped with Banana Cotton Candy with Edible Gold Leaf.  It was very good, with a lot of flavor, but it was also a little bizarre with the cotton candy.  In any case, it was eaten completely and enjoyed.

I really enjoyed my dinner here as did my dining partner and friend, Julia, who deserves photo credit for many of the courses (1,2,3,6,7,10, 11, and 12).  While it is off the beaten path, I highly recommend it.  The food and service are excellent with a low key vibe.  They seem to really enjoy what they are doing and do it well with a lot of humor.     

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