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West Loop's New Scandinavian-Inspired Restaurant Elske Will Charm You

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 13, 2017 7:38PM

The most unfair thing about the business of restaurant reviewing is that it's done by humans. Humans who have biases, moods, irrational reactions and bad days. And here's the thing: I was in a nasty mood when I came over for dinner at Elske the other day.

The whole saga is more than you need to know, but trust me, it really had been an obnoxious day. My phone died on the way to the restaurant, so I was worried about finding the place and couldn't tell my date I was running late. When I arrived, all sorts of things just annoyed me, from the slightly hard to find entrance to the dim lighting (with a blue overtone from the neon sign outside) to the fact that you couldn't get dishes from the tasting menu a la carte and that Elske charged for bread service. I was almost growling.

This small restaurant and it's incredible food turned me completely and totally around.

The two chef/owners, David and Anna Posey, are darlings of the Chicago food world. David spent 10 years at Blackbird, earning it a Michelin star and keeping it relevant and popular. Anna, who focuses on pastry, spent a number of years at The Publican. They're an adorable couple and reputed to be genuinely nice people, and everyone I know is pulling for them to succeed.

Turns out we don't need to pull all that hard. The menu, divided into a tasting menu and an a la carte list, is small and slightly Scandinavian-inspired; "Elske" is Danish for love. Dishes at Elske creep up on you. At first glance, Posey's food is delicate and twee and you're worrying about having to head to the McDonalds nearby after dinner, but by the end, you're stuffed and marveling about how you got there. Case in point: the crisp, chewy, whole-roasted maitake mushrooms, so good that they're gone in three bites. Then you realize how complex and fulfilling they are; rich undertones of pear and cream and the funky hint of mushroom linger, and you are suddenly warmed up and filled with happiness that winter is here. When I visited, a beautiful grilled sepia had the best texture i've ever experienced in this particular fish. The dish has since been replaced, but keep an eye out for its return. Even an offal-hater will be charmed by the veal sweetbreads, touched with the sweetness of raisins (which I normally despise in everything) and with the textural surprise of cabbage.

My favorite dish, the roasted maitake mushrooms. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Texture is king at Elske, with each dish creating an experience as you bite through it. Take the celeriac risotto, mixed with a hint of sherry and topped with the celery leaves and shaved black truffle. A picky risotto lover might think, "this seems a little odd, but still incredibly rich," as the individual grains of risotto pop, rather than melt. If you're curious and ask your server, as I did, you'll find out that the "risotto" is actually the celery root itself, cut into tiny pieces and put through some magic to make it into a risotto as good as any I've had with actual arborio.

Smoked scallops (served sliced and deliciously rare) are soft, but paired with tiny little potato chips for a bit of a crunch. It's obvious that the chef didn't just think about flavors, but about the experience of actually eating each dish, they way it feels in your mouth and between your teeth. Even the dessert, which for me was the "cheesecake" with olive oil and intensely floral jasmine frozen yogurt, managed to play texture games; plus, it wasn't sweet, which is reason enough for me to love a dessert after a long meal.

The interior is less charming at night. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Back to my grumpiness, which wasn't entirely gone (I am a petulant critic, after all). I still am not a fan of the dim dining room and someone needs to brush their banquettes, which were a bit crumby. However, they were crumby with homemade bread that, once I tasted it, stopped annoying me. Diners get a whole mini-loaf, and it's worth the price. The pricetag for your meal won't be low, but it won't make you stand up and scream. The tasting menu runs $80 for 8 courses, and individual dishes range from $17-22. As much as it pains me to say so, skip the cocktails, which weren't all that great, and ask your servers about good wine pairings. Speaking of the servers, they have taken the opposite approach of most modern waitstaff that feel the need to monologue long explanations; unfortunately, some of this food probably deserves more description than it was given.

But it doesn't matter. I walked out of Elske (past the awesome patio/firepit, which is sure to be a huge hit in the Spring) with a spring in my step and a smile on my face after a totally awful day. For me, that means Elske is a must-return restaurant.

Elske is at 1350 W. Randolph St.