After being canceled on a second time by Schwa, MW and I were pretty disappointed, but not at all surprised. Fortunately, Chicago has many great restaurants and so I made a reservation at Graham Elliot. The self-proclaimed pioneer of bistronomy - the trend of combining causal decor with gourmet-level food - in Chicago, Elliot has earned quite the reputation for his oft-described "whimsical" creations. But behind all the clever descriptions and funky concoctions is a seriously talented chef who is turning traditional fine dining on its head.
Known for his elaborate tasting menus that earned him rave reviews during his time at Avenues, Elliot took the same playful approach to his food but decided to do away with all the formality when he opened his eponymous restaurant. Having spent time under such chefs as Dean Fearing, Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto, it came as no surprise that he earned a Michelin Star earlier this year. But after several tepid reviews it seemed that Elliot was determined more than ever to reclaim his former prestige.
We arrived at the restaurant with a bottle of wine in tow (Capiaux Pinot Noir, Widdoes Vineyard, Russian River CA (2009) and were immediately seated. Brick walls, wooden floors and bare tables helped achieve the casual vibe Elliot sought when creating the space. Even the waitstaff were casually dressed; sporting sneakers, jeans and t-shirts with the restaurant's "ge" insignia.
As our wine was being decanted, MW and I decided to start with two cocktails. The Oh, Fiddlesticks - Hendricks Gin, Exchange Vodka, Cucumber Lillet, Orange Bitters - was a refreshing, though not original, combination of ingredients. On the other hand, I found the French Broad - Calvados, Plymouth Dry Gin, Pineau de Charentes, Egg White - to be more to my liking.
While we sipped our libations, we munched on a bag of Popcorn that had been spiked with a liberal dose of Truffle Butter, Cracked Pepper and Parmesan. Salty and nutty, this was particularly addictive.
Presented in a shot glass was our amuse bouche, a Sorrel Wood Panna Cotta topped with Steelhead Trout Roe. Where the popcorn was bold, the panna cotta was subtle, if not a bit weak, saved only by the salty orange orbs of trout roe.
Our first course was Charred Octopus with Preserved Turnip, Liquid Olive, Smoked Potato and Cured Orange. A very good first course, the octopus was nicely charred and contained a subtle smokiness that was also featured in the potatoes. The briny olives and acid from the orange helped complete the dish.
Next was a signature of the restaurant, Elliot's Deconstructed Caesar with Gem Lettuce, a Brioche Twinkie, Parmesan Fluff and White Anchovy. A novel approach on this culinary classic, the brioche "twinkie" housed a cheesy parmesan fluff which sat next to a wedge of gem lettuce that had a single white anchovy draped over it. While the presentation may have been modern, the flavors profiles were classic as the dish tasted exactly like the original when all of the elements were eaten together.
The following course was a Farm Egg with Green Garlic, Fiddlehead Fern, Wild Watercress and a Pebble-Moss-Soil-Stone. The egg was perfectly cooked, with the white set while the yolk was still runny. When pierced, the egg's golden yolk mixed with the edible "soil" and green garlic, creating a symphony of flavors.
Next was Elliot's take on French Onion Soup. Here it was served with Gruyere Lace, Whipped Marrow, Icicle Scallion and Pickled Ramp. Poured tableside, the sweet soup mixed with the other components resulting in a melange of varying flavors with each spoonful. I was particularly impressed with how nicely the acid from the pickled ramps seemed to perk up the entire dish.
Crab Cake with Soft Shell Crabs, Old Bay, a Kohlrabi Slaw and Grainy Mustard was the first of a few fish courses for the evening. Here, the crabs had been deep fried and dusted with Old Bay and paired with a crunchy slaw that evoked memories of long afternoons spent at Maryland crab shacks.
Next was Foie Gras with Compressed Rhubarb, Wild Strawberry, Caraway Crumble and Candied Angelica. Described as a play on "strawberry rhubarb pie," the slab of seared foie was a wonderful accompaniment to the sweet strawberries and tart rhubarb.
Elliot's Smoked Whitefish with Preserved Lemon and Toasted Sunflower contained familiar flavors that nearly transported us back our favorite New York City deli. The fish had been nicely smoked so as to not mask the delicate flavor of the fish while the toasted sunflower seeds provided a fun textural contrast.
Swordfish is an ingredient we don't eat often. However, we had no objection with Elliot's preparation here, as the Atlantic Swordfish was paired with White Beans, a Saffron Infusion, a Fennel Ratatouille and was finished with Razor Clams. The fish was wonderfully cooked, remaining meaty and moist, but it was those sweet razor clams that really made this dish for us.
One fish was followed by another, and the King Salmon with Buckwheat Gnocchi, Shimeji Mushroom, Marsh Samphire and a Dashi Bubble was likewise a success. Having a flawlessly crisped skin, the fish was flaky and moist, which made for quite a hearty dish when combined with the earthy mushrooms and buckwheat gnocchi.
Our final fish course was Skate Confit with Corn Meal, Fava Beans, Ham Hock and Pecan Oil. Most definitely a southern-inspired preparation, Elliot first dusted the fish in cornmeal and then formed it into a roulade, serving it with fresh favas and an incredibly delicious ham hock broth. In addition to being magnificent on its own, the hammy broth provided some much needed body to the dish.
We were then served Jidori Chicken with Israeli Couscous, Baby Carrot, Burnt Honey and a Chamomile Essence. Our server seemed quite proud of the restaurant sourcing Jidori chickens from a small farm. Having had this breed of chicken before, it was indeed moist as ever, but wasn't anything special compared to some of the previous courses.
This was followed by Colorado Lamb with Pea Cannelloni, Morel Mushrooms, Homemade Lambcetta and Eucalyptus Bubbles. While MW preferred the lamb, which was served medium rare and was none too gamey, I much preferred the more assertive "lambcetta" which was fantastic with the sweet pea cannelloni and morels.
Our final savory course was Veal with White Asparagus, Sweetbread Schnitzel and Crème Fraîche. The tender veal was good with the sweet asparagus but was outdone by the perfectly executed schnitzel and tangy crème fraîche. Of course, this could be me interjecting my own bias for sweetbreads as MW much preferred the veal.
Acting as a segue to dessert was Elliot's much famed "Foielipops." Foie gras torchon that had been cut into disks and skewered to mimic a lollipop before being dredged in Pop Rocks and seasoned with Fluer de Sel. The sweetness of the pop rocks with the foie was a brilliant combination while the popping sensation of the candy made this dish the most unique foie preparation we've ever encountered.
At this point we were ushered into the kitchen where we met Pastry Chef, Gabe Geers, who served us our pre-dessert. Discharged from an ISO canister, Chef Geers created us each our very own Cherry Soda which included Madagascar Vanilla, Morello Cherry and Soda Spritzer. The bubbles from the soda and complexity from the vanilla made for a delightful intermezzo.
We returned from the kitchen for our first dessert, Lemon Cake with Citrus Curd, Blueberry Gelato, Poppy Ribbons and Violet Foam. While neither of us are too enamored with the prevalent use of foams in modern gastronomy, the violet foam imparted a floral essence to what appeared to be a lemon-poppy seed cake on 'roids.
Next was my favorite dessert, Thyme Nectar with a Lavender Brûlée, Pignoli Streusel, Macerated Blackberries and a Crisp Nougatine. Geers' use of thyme and lavender helped offset the sweetness of the dessert, which was made complex with the savory pignoli streusel and fresh berries.
It seems you can't end any proper meal without at least a taste of chocolate and so our final dessert was Chocolate Framboise with Jivara Ganache, Manjari Cremuex and a Coffee Earth Ancho Chili. Again, it was the subtle twists that made this dish interesting. The fruitiness of the framboise and the chili elevated this dish from your garden variety chocolate offering.
We came into Graham Elliot with some trepidation that it might be a redux of wd~50, a meal that contained some incredible highs but far too many lows to qualify as a great experience. Like Dufresne, Elliot utilized modern technique with a playful approach and included a few surprises. But Elliot succeeded where Dufresne ultimately failed in that his food was more consistent across the board. While Elliot's food was indeed "fun," it would seem misleading and even insulting to insinuate that it was "juvenile." In fact, we felt quite the contrary, coming away with the impression that Elliot's cuisine was carefully thought out and well executed, indicative of a chef hell-bent on elevating his craft and earning the respect that his food truly deserves.
217 W Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654