Top Chef/Tough Chef – Elizabeth – Chicago - June 2014
One of the challenges of progressive cuisine as artistic endeavor is that dishes demand to be loved. They snuggle up to diners, rarely stare them in the face or kick them in the shins. In contrast, contemporary art has a well-deserved reputation for such affronts. Provoking one’s clients has a long and respected history from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ to Richard Serra’s brutal steel plates. These are objects that are important precisely because they insist on being unloved.
Chefs do not have that luxury. A dish that doesn’t taste good does not have many takers, even Grant Achatz knows that. Perhaps this is because, unlike when we visit museums, we pay for the privilege of consuming our choices. One rarely hears, “Ugly, slimy, and bitter, but essential.”
Chef Iliana Regan, the wunderkind behind Elizabeth, has established what is surely one of Chicago’s half-dozen most essential restaurants; yet even Chef Regan does not create dishes that are “ugly, slimy, and bitter.” However, in her rare series of personally gathered compositions (served on occasional Tuesdays) she explores the boundaries of taste and texture. The dishes on Elizabeth daily menu are diner-friendly, despite their gathered ingredients. During this summer Chef Regan plans to visit important sites of gathered cuisine, such as Noma and Willows Inn (and Nathan Myhrvold’s molecular workstation in Seattle), and surely her vision will be shaped as a result.
The dishes on Tuesday – at least the Tuesday that I attended – are more edgy than those on Saturday night, but more vital for creating a cuisine that doesn’t depend on diner-love. They are not unctuous or coarse, but neither are they syrupy comfort food.
Dinner on Tuesday began with a composed dish of wild strawberries, baby radishes, allium flowers, hyssop, and hay pudding, placed atop malted barley soil. Malt soil is a common base for salads at Elizabeth, ground fine as a condiment. Tonight, however, the soil was rocky. We were served barley pebbles, emphasizing the texture of the dish. Our attention was directed to the plate. One could not eat the salad thoughtlessly, and whether one wished an easy mix, one received a rocky outgrowth on which radishes, allium, and wild strawberries survived.
This starter was followed by a paean to skin: crispy salmon skin sous-vide, served with sunchokes, late-season ramps, and wild carrot pesto. Again one’s attention was focused on the ingredient: the animal as lived and killed.
Perhaps the most important dish was the main salad: a bouquet of wild greens that lacked the buttery geniality of bibb: yarrow, chickweed, bok choy blossoms, and other peppery and bitter roughage. The plate was centered by a calm house-made whey sorbet, which provided a honeyed warmth to the unforgiving greens. It was a salad that demanded a new perspective on what greens can teach.
This salad was followed by a dish that provoked in its blazing minimalist simplicity. Chef Regan served a small piece of bluegill, blanketed in tempura batter, perched on a puddle of creamy potato: beige on beige. With the attempts by other chefs to create a blow-your-horn dramatic cuisine, this dish hid in plain sight. But each half was so delicately perfect that a diner was reminded that all that mattered was taste and texture. In its lack of glamour the bluegill was most profound. It was pure sensory delight: no sound and fury.
I was less impressed by the asparagus, Hollandaise and 64 degree (Celsius) egg (and wood sorrel), which traded in current cliché. Even the plating seemed conventional. Nothing wrong with the combination, but little that one wouldn’t find in common boites throughout the metropolis. Ordinary brunch.
The deer loin, on the next plate, was gloriously veiled by a bouquet of crow’s garlic, clover flower, and powder of red vinegar. While the protein is typically the main player, Iliana’s loin was hidden in a forest glade. The deer was bloody delightful: undercooked and kicking, but it was the gathered tastes of the wild that made this Noma-esque dish inspiring.
Course seven is another gathered scene: a wooded pool. Chef Regan served wild onion, braised daylily, and electric green sassafras leaf (providing a gelatinous and startling texture). Daylily bulbs provide a unique and sweet crunch. This dish, more than most others had a New Nordic quality: Gastrinavia. Bright colors, dramatic vegetal flavors, and unexplored textures abound.
Lake trout in a salad of watercress, cattails, and milkweed was introduced by the chef, challenging us, “It tastes like Lake Michigan smells, which is not necessarily are bad thing.” Not at all. Here was her inverted parallel to the fried bluegill. Another simple dish, but with starch replaced by greens, and frying oil, but light heat. Excellent.
The ninth course was a transparent, transcendent “pasta”, and perhaps the best construction of the night. This pasta was sited in an overgrown garden: salvia, hyssop, cicely, pokeweed in a pheasant broth with house-made ricotta. This dish underlined the trust that we give our chefs. What might cicely, much less pokeweed, do to my innards? Carrots have a long history, but hyssop? Some weeds are “bad actors.” Do salvias save? As naïve diners we hope that chefs, like medicine men, do no harm with their physics.
Plate ten was our major protein: Canadian goose breast with morels in butter, pickled elm leaves (elm leaves?), fried maple leaves (maple leaves?). One is shaken by eating the forest floor. The maple leaves prove that everything is delicious if it is fried. This is another dish that demonstrates just how thoughtful and how poetic gathered cuisine can be, and why Chef Regan is among the leaders of this movement.
Iliana is known for her libations: typically mushroom tea. Tonight we were served a shot of chamomile, German thyme, and pepper along with a dollop of spruce ice cream. The shot was not entirely diner-friendly, but distinctive as refresher, and the ice cream kept us in the forest depths.
The sweet spoon was a reprise of previous ingredients, daylily shoot, cattails, and chamomile pudding. Short and vegetally sweet. A minor, if carefully plotted, taste.
The main dessert revealed was both perfumed and untamed: cicely ice cream, lamb quarters, milkweed, and sassafras root. Eschewing the traditional frostings and sugars, this dessert demonstrated that a wild meal can be honeyed.
A mint marshmallow smuggled onto a driftwood centerpiece ended the night with peace and pleasure.
As Elizabeth is becoming more proficient as a restaurant, it requires a laboratory in which experiments can be tested on willing white mice. As much as I appreciate what is served on Saturday night, Tuesday evening may be the more important. Yes, some of the flavors and textures require tolerance, but this was the most influential meal I have had in Chicago since the early, glory, molecular months of Alinea and Avenues and moto. A new culinary day is upon us: a dawn appreciated in a dappled dell.
4835 N. Western Avenue, Chicago