Dates Visited: 7/27/16
Meal Length: 3 hours 30 minutes
“Iliana Regan is a self-taught chef who began washing dishes at age 15 and hasn’t left the restaurant industry since. Her cuisine highlights her Midwestern roots as a small farmer’s daughter and emphasizes the pure flavor of the ingredients from her upbringing. It was tradition in her family to farm, forage, and homestead. Her dishes highlight these practices, sometimes sung and sometimes whispered within her seasonally focused menus. She orchestrates tasting menus meant to please the senses and extract the essence of terroir, telling the story of her Midwestern heritage.
Elizabeth Restaurant’s cuisine is inspired by the natural world – we call it New Gatherer.”
– “About,” www.elizabeth-restaurant.com
Why should you be interested?
Beyond the spiel above–which, truly, is admirable in its simplicity and sincerity–Regan has held earned a Michelin star since 2014, been nominated for JBF’s Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2014 and 2016, and was named a Food and Wine Best New Chef this year to boot. But what piqued my interest a couple years ago–beyond the star, I must admit as I was young and foolish then–were the themes of the menus. They weren’t a mere “showcase” of the season or some more abstract journey, but instead engaged motifs like Game of Thrones, Fairy Tales, and (this fall) Downtown Abbey opposite others like Native American, Ugly Fruits, and Harvest Moon. Though I often didn’t have much of a touchstone for these subjects (sorry GRRM), the restaurant’s playfulness was instantly alluring against the more humdrum histrionics of fine dining.
How easy is it to locate?
The restaurant is located across from a McDonald’s on a quiet (I think serene) stretch of Western Ave. in Lincoln Square. There are no obvious markings save for some small signage on the door, but the structure is easy enough to pick out from its neighbors.
How do you feel when you enter?
After fumbling with the top lever lock on the door (don’t forget it on the way out and attempt to throw your weight into it), you find yourself slim, short hallway. On the other side of a thick curtain lies the entirety of the space: a half dozen tables, an open kitchen, and a broadly naturalistic yet strikingly contemporary aesthetic. It’s a small space, an endlessly active one. But you’re smoothly greeted as if showing up at an old acquaintance’s. And the tables are proud and spacious in a way that eschews a couple more covers each evening for the sake of real comfort. Of un-interrupted and -impeded conversation. And let me be clear, this is not a “wow” dining room or sexy kitchen counter type place. It’s also not so rugged like EL ideas. But it displays a similar sincerity. A patchwork manner of design that doesn’t inspire awe yet imbues–far more importantly–a sense of home.
How should you order?
Elizabeth offers one themed, set menu each evening for anywhere from $75 to $165 (depending on the menu). Some themes require the diner to make a choice between two “paths,” but the options are always warmly and clearly explained–and sharing is encouraged amongst the table so you’ll likely get to taste it all. Beverage pairings are priced around $50 for non-alcoholic, $65 for beer, and $100 for wine and they’re all (across multiple menus) excellent. If anything, I would recommend the beer or wine because the selections are so eclectic–and so well described–that they offer a rare, highly approachable chance to learn.
What are the notable dishes?
The theme on this visit was “Ugly Fruits,” referencing this video but more broadly featuring excess and unwanted produce from the restaurant’s network of farmers.
Seared Watermelon / Savoy Cabbage: Two (comparably) familiar ingredients treated more like protein than produce. The melon, bedecked with nasturtium leaves, had a surprising, meaty chew from the sear. The usual sweetness took a pleasant savory-sour turn by way of powdered scallop and yuzu (a mandarin hybrid). The cabbage, which likewise had a wonderful crunch, carried smoked salted pork fat, lemon, sheep’s milk cheese, and Queen Anne’s lace (those delicate, miniscule flowers–if you can make them out). And, despite those decadent seasonings, the cabbage tasted of cabbage. Mild and sweet, crunchy as can be, but–like the melon–possessing an added depth unleashed by its more savory and citric accompaniments. Semilla has turned heads by treating their produce in a similar manner–here, it’s understated, natural, and highly effective.
Milkweed Pods: One of the favorites of the chef, and an ingredient I hadn’t encountered before. But luckily enough: it was fried. So it was quite easy to dive in. The lightly battered but expertly crisp pods burst in the mouth with the crunchy layers and “pop” of a pearl onion. There might be a better comparison out there that escapes me, but this was a textural marvel–and a nice display of the kitchen sharing something they like, cooked in a way someone unfamiliar with it would find it hard not to enjoy. I can’t quite remember the accompanying dip, but it was cooling and creamy against the pods.
Chioggia Beet: Though beets–particularly meaty, smoked beets–have become a welcome sight on more and more fine dining menus, Regan has had the root vegetable mastered as long as I’ve been eating at the restaurant. This iteration featured a whole Chioggia “candy stripe” beet lacquered in elderflower syrup and adorned with herb flowers. A pleasing crunch yielded to the vegetable’s gushing, tender interior–which carried its candied nickname proud with a vivid sweetness balanced by hearty, healthy smoke. I’d trade all but the best animal proteins for a full plate of beets prepared in this manner; they satisfy with a depth one wouldn’t believe possible from this (often maligned) ruby of the garden.
Spaghetti of Wild Greens: The wild greens in question were stinging nettles, and they possessed an impressive chew for faux-noodles. They were paired with parmesan and black truffle, and I thought I’d surely love this dish, but found the flavors muted and less satisfying than the meal’s other offerings.
Lobster with Onions / Steak + Romaine: Leave it to Elizabeth to sneak a surf and turf into one of their most openly modest menus. The crustacean was plump and warm in an onion broth with further thin layers of onion and fennel. The concentration of the broth, deep sweetness of the lobster, and soft snap of the vegetables made for the most straight-up comforting dish of the evening. The steak was not far off either: blushing skirt steak, sliced and served with charred romaine. Another pleasing interplay of textures, though one that demands an appreciation of bitterness.
Berries + Honey: A visually striking and comforting dish of blackberries, honey jellies, and spoon bread. There were two also-good desserts before this, but I must admire this homey close to the meal.
THE BREAD BASKET
Elizabeth, reliably and without question, has the best bread service in Chicago. While many worthy establishments arrive on some preferred combination of bread (and butter/oil/some other unique frill), these great breads are often frozen in time. Why innovate when you already have something that works, something that shines among the day old dinner rolls of the world. The restaurant, as far as I’ve experienced, tailors its bread and accompaniment(s) to each of the themed menus and does so thoughtfully.
Tart: Filled with housemade cheese and crudité, which weren’t assertive enough for me, this tart impressed me nonetheless with the depth of flavor and crunch in its crust.
Sourdough: Served with cultured butter, this robust bread was tame by the restaurant’s creative standards but made an expert vehicle for marinated tomatoes and zucchini with hollandaise. Admire that gently-blackened crust.
How does the service make you feel?
Comforted. And really, they don’t have much time to linger at your table here. Yet when they do arrive–even if mid-conversation–it’s natural, rhythmic, and welcome. Each member of the team speaks with an intimate knowledge of what they’re serving, one that naturally, elegantly removes any pretension. One that reflects sincere excitement about their food and drink–sincere excitement over sharing it with you. In short: they don’t need or try to impress you. They simply share what comes out of that kitchen–share it with a geeky, glorious warmth. And in the context of how beautiful some of the plates are, how foreign (so to speak) some of the components and techniques are even to me, this deserves special praise. Elizabeth is a classic example of holistic hospitality: a well-oiled machine, a zealous cadre of evangelists for every piece of what that night’s menu entails. Yet it’s always so subtle, always underlined by a palpable-yet-tacit belief in what they’re doing. Perhaps that’s Midwestern to its core too. Elizabeth consistently provides the very highest level of service, yet one uniquely their own. I’d put it in rare company with just a few other restaurants in the country.
Was the meal satisfying?
I don’t think any other restaurant could do as much as Elizabeth does with their ingredients at their price. And to design this specific menu around farmers’ excess product–and to deliver the same high caliber of cooking–shows serious aplomb. I do leave Elizabeth decidedly not feeling stuffed, but the restaurant commits fully to–and really does satiate with–variety. Variety that does not abandon complexity but, in fact, demands it. Dishes, as small as they are (and even deceptively simple), are nearly unfaltering in execution and often legitimately surprising in its combinations. This variety, combined with smoothness of pacing and service, shapes the multitude of dishes into a truly satisfying meal.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
In terms of identity and imagination, you’d be hard pressed to find a better restaurant in the country. And I truly think Elizabeth serves as the best sort of role model for the future of fine dining. At under one third of the price, I just leave Elizabeth feeling happier than I do Alinea. Elizabeth doesn’t think of itself as “dressed down” fine dining–of itself in relation or reaction to anyone or anything. Like EL ideas, it exudes the warmth of a close-knit team but reaches even higher peaks, displays even more personality in every particle. Even after a few visits, I always learn from a meal at Elizabeth. A new ingredient or form for a familiar one. A certain wine or beer (or juice) well and warmly described. Not to impress or provoke smug, knowing smiles. But to nourish. To let what’s in front of you, whether you fully grasp it or not, teach you through its flavor. And, to me, it just doesn’t seem strained. Doesn’t seem disneyfied or the result of some consulting or marketing ploy. It’s real respect between kitchen and customer. It’s serving those things you’re so excited about to customers, but including them, soothing them, and satisfying them. It’s true, pure hospitality in an uncommon form–which is the only form it today takes.
Would I go back?
Certainly, and I’d like to some day try their brunch and “Casual Sunday” menus–both geared even more towards homey, satisfying food.
How hard are reservations to get?
As with other restaurants that use Tock, reservations are sold in advance as tickets online. Pairings can be added at the time of purchase or supplemented on the evening itself. Depending on the theme–and given reservations are released a couple months in advance–tickets can sometimes go fast (though there is usually at least something left on the calendar for those looking with shorter notice). I’d recommend getting on Elizabeth’s e-mail list. The newsletters they send are the only restaurant e-mails I read in full. They read as heartfelt rather than promotional and, I think, stoke the intimacy of the dining experience in the time between visits. In a rare way, it makes you feel like part of a community rather than a customer.
Reservations and other information can be found at www.elizabeth-restaurant.com