By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 25, 2012 5:30PM
Despite all the pre-opening geekery among the food press, there were so many different things about Elizabeth that made me nervous. The dining room was tiny — would it be awkward? Communal dining is a huge pain — what if I hated everyone? Foraged ingredients sound fey and precious — will I actually get a meal here? My fingers shook a little as I bought the advance ticket (not cheap!) for my first dinner — what if the ticketing system didn't work as it should? It's official: I was being paranoid, and I was wrong on all counts. Elizabeth is one of the best things to happen in Chicago's dining scene since I've been eating here.
Elizabeth feels like Alinea went on a camping trip. While it's still a "modernist" restaurant, everything feels a bit more earthy with flavors that are richer, less contrived and more satisfying than the average foams/dusts/gelee that dominate high-end restaurants. Most dishes have components foraged from forests, parks, preserves and other wild places, either by Chef Iliana Regan or one of her purveyors. Instead of being yet another pointless way for chefs to brag about their food, foraged components make this restaurant stand out. Why? Regan doesn't need to come up with ever more tortured, not-really-ironic presentations of standard ingredients ("let's puree it, then powder it, then rehydrate the powder and form it into a perfect approximation of its former self") to shock the jaded diner. Here, the ingredients themselves are enough to make your eyes go wide.
When was the last time you tasted Queen Anne's lace gel? Yeah, that would be never. Pine juice? Acorns? Fermented crab apples? Pickled rose petals? Carrot tops? The list goes on, but surprisingly none of these ingredients ever shocked the palate. They just nudged it gently out of its familiar sleepiness. The food is comforting, a quality that most fancy food these days lacks.
A small dish called "flowers, eggs and twigs" was actually the greatest mashed potato appetizer ever created. Who serves mashed potatoes at a tasting dinner? Regan, and thank goodness she did. These are made with just barely enough potato to hold the dish together and eaten with edible "twigs" taken off of a birch log that's been lurking at the table since before dinner started. There's a quail's egg, some shaved truffle and a few tiny flowers. It would be unbearable if it wasn't so hearty and wonderful.
I've never had a carrot dish that will stick with me as long as Regan's. This dish included the aforementioned Queen Anne's lace and also illustrated the ... adventure (if you want to call it that) of Regan's foraging. She told us, offhand, that it was important to wait until the Queen Anne's Lace curled, because until it did it looked just like hemlock, which is deadly. Thank goodness she knows what she's doing. Barely-warmed garden carrots nestled on top of the Queen Anne's Lace gel, which tasted like a particularly flowery dill. The whole thing rested atop a lamb's quarter sponge, which tasted like someone had shouted the word "Plant!" directly into my taste buds.
Regan's sly sense of humor comes through all over the dinner. One course, "1 Pill Makes You Larger," started with yet another potentially groan-inducing premise - a pill. But the pill (really an herbal mix) was served in the daintiest china cup ever. Then, Regan came to the table with a portable stereo blaring "Go Ask Alice" and poured mushroom tea into our cups from a dainty teapot. It was a perfect mid-meal palate cleanser that had everyone smiling.
Not every dish was a hit — a salmon cannoli used a technique I'd never seen before, substituting shaved turnip for the cannoli wrapping, but aside from the texture, it tasted of smoked salmon and not much more. But out of 15 courses, one good-yet-unremarkable offering (especially on opening weekend) is a darn good record.
Regan is constantly coming to the table to talk about foraging, but she has also assembled a stellar service staff. It takes talent to serve in that tiny dining room without tripping over everything, and her staff performed perfectly. Speaking of the dining room, it looks like an extension of Regan's living room, at least in my imagination. Shelves of home-canned goods, bundles of dried herbs and rustic light fixtures made of branches lend a home-grown feel to the entire enterprise. I came in wearing a tie and feeling a bit uptight, and as soon as I sat down my entire body (and the tie) loosened up. It has a similar feeling to El Ideas, a sense that you are part of something special — rather than a snobby, pretentious atmosphere. It creates a sense of possibility, adventure and excitement. Regan wants to tell you about her food and your dining companions want to talk about it. No one cares about your tie.
Wine was expertly curated. Each menu (there are three) has pairings that go along with it, and based on the sips my next-door-seatmates gave me (the advantage of communal dining) they were perfect, if a bit pricy. I opted for a bottle instead, and there are some wonderful options for under $50. I ordered the "deer" menu, which is the middle of the three options at 17 courses, and was reassured that the dishes did not repeat between the different menus. Whatever you get, it will be unique.
Sometimes, after a long meal of fireworks and challenges, I feel exhausted, a bit ill and ready to collapse into bed. Not here. Elizabeth's gentle yet exhilarating dishes hid tiny pushes into new culinary territory, each of which constantly reminded me that there were still new flavors out in the world. Or even in my own backyard.
Elizabeth is located at 4835 N. Western, Unit D. You should buy tickets in advance, though they occasionally will have walk-in seats available. Three menus are available, ranging in price from $65-$205.