Date Visited: 7/1/16
Meal Length: 3 hours
“EL Ideas quest is to make fine dining cuisine and service approachable and fun instead of pretentious and stuffy… …As there are no walls separating diners from chefs, interaction with the kitchen team throughout the meal is not only welcome, it is encouraged… …Given the direct line with the audience, the small culinary team is able to give their own descriptions as to how their creations take form through inspirations, stories, and even guest interaction… …Through this direct line, a relationship is forged between diner and chef that inherently goes deeper than thought possible in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Part dinner party, part performance, and all restaurant, EL Ideas is introducing the world to a new genre of fine dining.”
– EL ideas, “About Us”
Why should you be interested?
I forget how I decided upon my first visit to EL ideas early last summer. I likely noted its Michelin star (back when I used to care about that sort of thing) and the strangeness of its name, which I still don’t understand but evokes a certain whimsy. It’s well placed. Though it’s now en vogue to dress down fine dining, EL has spent now half a decade in its aggressively industrial, bafflingly charming space. It’s not “chef-driven” in name or presentation but in every inch of the space, bite of the food, and word of the inspiration that makes it all come about.
How easy is it to locate?
The restaurant is located on a sleepy (read: barren) street some 5 miles west from (and a bit south of) Chicago’s Loop. The building overlooks train tracks and a small parking lot. And it bears no markings besides its number and a telltale Michelin sticker on the door. But they tell you all that on their site (and recommend having a little app called Uber ready for when it’s time to head home). As long as you know you’re not looking for a sign, you really can’t miss it.
How do you feel when you enter?
The first door leads to a hallway, where yet another door beckons you to enter with a piece of bottle cap art. You appear in the dining room–a scattered arrangement of tablecloths set for 2, 4. There’s not really a host stand, and the kitchen (already alight with the clatter of pans) isn’t even separated from the diners save for a half wall. But the waiter-cum-maître d’-cum-sommelier pops from the corner to vigorously greet you and warmly shepherd you to your seats. There’s already an ice bucket for your wine and oh, here’s a corkscrew.
How does the service make you feel?
In addition to the aforementioned floor man, service comes courtesy of the chef himself and his small kitchen team (two–possibly three–cooks and a dishwasher if I remember correctly). This highlights, of course, the oft-obscured path from the person preparing your food to the table. And it works to keep things both casual and fluid (no lingering). And the “interactive” aspect doesn’t mean making cooks memorize tableside spiels or bolster themselves for Q&As. Descriptions of dishes are natural: sometimes but not always interesting. More importantly, you feel the entirety of the staff shares some sincere piece (however large or small) of themselves. We felt there was a bit of snobbery surrounding our wine service. However, given that a sect of the clientele makes a show of “sharing” their treasures with the staff (a gracious practice but one that requires some self-awareness), a hard edge can be forgiven given the warmth of the rest of the experience. And truly, considering last visit a member of another party approached us–seated–to cast dispersions on our choice of wine, the staff are kindly orderlies keeping the lunatic pretension of the other guests at bay.
How should you order?
EL ideas offers one set menu each evening priced at $155 (including tax and service) paid up front online. Priced at $175, 1-2 seats are offered every evening in the kitchen with a view down the pass. The wine (if you haven’t picked up) is BYOB, and recommendations are as simple as “sparkling, medium full bodied whites/reds, dessert wines,” and “beer.” So there aren’t really any choices–or, especially, wrong choices–to make. The restaurant also admirably accommodates nearly every dietary restriction–save for vegan or fully dairy-free guests.
What are the notable dishes?
Corn: To start, corn. With caviar… and ghost pepper, and a little cotija cheese. South of the border sturgeon, and it’s served without utensils. You need to lick it off the plate (sorry to spoil this but trust I’m neglecting to mention a more wonderful surprise later in the meal). Shock–maybe even fear–turns to bemusement, delight, and something bordering on ecstasy. The delicate roe skates on the creamy cheese. Charred corn brings impressive sweetness before the pepper closes with a cleansing kick.
Olive: This dish (essentially a haphazard scatter of ingredients) was inspired by one of the chef’s trips to Whole Foods. Perhaps it’s a little trite, but I still like it infinitely more than hearing “chef really loves this season and x and y ingredients from the garden.” Olive came together with tomato “from the salad bar,” plum “from the produce section,” snow pea, fig, almond, parmigiano, and basil. And it was delicious. This sort of “building block” layering of raw, familiar flavors is revelatory yet playful.
Cherry: Cherry referred to cherry BBQ sauce. Served in some abstract line pattern under a very real, a very dark-brown-to-crispy-black piece of BBQ duck. Quinoa and tosaka (salted-preserved seaweed) provided the picnic accompaniments for what was a nostalgic dish big on familiar cookout flavors yet taken to extremes of texture and tang.
Lamb: I didn’t find the flavors to be quite as assertive (and in your face pleasing) here as the other dishes. Yet the blushing lamb, strewn pieces of cucumber and apricot, reaching radish stem, and coating of tahini made for a beautiful and nonetheless enjoyable.
Profiterole: I had never heard of a pluot before (a 25% apricot and 75% plum hybrid). The tart, syrupy (but still sweet) sauce from the fruit mingled with the wonderfully crisp and light dough. Green tea and black sesame added depth to the sweetness in what was well-balanced and texturally very pleasing.
THE BREAD BASKET
There’s no dedicated bread course–and certainly not the staff to sustain a dedicated bread program–but the restaurant deserves credit for the quality of the pierogi (stuffed with wagyu mind you) and profiteroles produced. The pacing and energy of the experience mitigates the lust for an interlude of crust and butter during the flow of the meal.
Was the meal satisfying?
Yes. For a comparably low cost, EL ideas gives you many of fine dining’s luxurious stalwarts (truffle, foie, caviar, wagyu, et al.). Yet they don’t take a dainty, delicate form. They’re engineered for flavor–often enlisting familiar (but unusual or even lowbrow in the context) accompaniments to capture and convey the beauty of their flavor. It’s approachable, well paced, and appropriately portioned. I would have loved second helpings, but that’s only a testament to the quality of the dishes and the size of my appetite. Impressive breadth, great pacing, and a pleasing amount of food.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
Few tasting menus in the city are so playful and creative in such a wide-reaching way. Oriole charms as much with its food (and with greater flourish given the increased price) but lacks the confidence and polish of a team who lives the ideal of fine dining without the pomp. I think Next and Elizabeth certainly capture this as well–and their cheaper tickets may even cost less than a meal at EL. But I would say, though I rank those two higher for greater intellectual heights, thematic depth, and showcase of technique, EL ideas is timeless fine dining. The sort that makes you fall in love with these extended dinners–fall back in love with them–at a time when “interaction” in restaurants has become more disneyfied than dignified. Some of the dishes here really made me smile; this place should be experienced once whether you’ve had 100 tasting menus or none.
Would I go back?
Certainly. To eat this quality of food–this exuberant sort of food–with such an abandonment of pretension is a treat. Hand in hand, the sincere service and the engagement of an open kitchen (and cooks themselves) satiates a deeper, eternal dimension of hospitality I often write about. EL ideas is a nice place to wean oneself onto finer dining, to experience a tasting menu–the flourishes of certain presentations and flavors–without the feelings of alienation some sidereal restaurants trade in. EL ideas is just as nice a place for those burnt out on “fine dining,” the skeptics who realize the real treat is to eat food of this caliber in your blue jeans with whichever wine (or beer) you please. To be served warmly but not with an aim to impress. Instead, to feed and satisfy in a way that feels natural first but does, ultimately, impress because the sincerity creeps to every inch and crevice of the restaurant.
How hard are reservations to get?
Reservations are purchased online through the restaurant’s site, which uses a nifty calendar view to show availability. Weekdays (Tu-Thur with one seating at 7) generally have some small availability in a pinch. Fridays and Saturdays (seatings at 5:30 and 9:30) might require a couple weeks planning.
Reservations, current menu, and other information can be found at www.elideas.com