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A $500 Meal Just Shouldn't Be Like This: Dining Review

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 17, 2017 7:50PM

The Cherry Pie. Photo via Instagram.

When done correctly, fine dining is an art form. The subtle ballet of service, the exploration of new flavors, the beautiful designs and patterns on each plate; it has the potential to create a genuinely transcendent experience. And while some may say that no food should cost as much as fine dining food does (and yes, it can be a little insane), I can’t deny that I have had a few actually life-changing meals.

That’s why the bad ones, especially the very expensive bad ones, sting so very, very much. The combination of extreme expense, dashed hopes and the memories of great meals past mean that when you experience a real fine dining disaster, it hurts. It’s like being ripped off very slowly, feeling like a dupe while watching money get set on fire while simultaneously getting a tiny bit sick to your stomach from the actual food.

And that’s what happened to me last week at Elizabeth.

I’ve been a big, vocal fan of Elizabeth (and of Chef Iliana Regan) for a long time. I did an early review of the restaurant, I’ve been back since, and I’ve enthusiastically visited her other projects. Her blend of fine dining and whimsy, combined with her love of foraging, created a unique cuisine that has gotten tons of attention and a Michelin star. That’s why, when she announced that Elizabeth was doing a series of Twin Peaks-themed dinners, I was one of the first to buy tickets.

Elizabeth has recently been running themed dinners, with themes like Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks and Game of Thrones, and they’ve apparently been well-attended. I tried the Narnia and Lord of the Rings menus, and they were… just OK. But the food was beautiful, there were some great dishes, and the experience was genuinely entertaining, so I was still excited to buy my tickets for Twin Peaks, which cost $125/person. That price is before wine pairings or tip.

We walked in on Friday night, and were instantly excited—the front of the restaurant had been done up like the inside of the Black Lodge, complete with chevron-ed dance floor and deep red velvet curtains. There were Twin Peaks touches throughout (look, it’s an Audrey doll!) and the entire menu had been redesigned. We are clearly Twin Peaks freaks, and as such, were a sympathetic audience.

Laura's Diary. Photo via Instagram.

The first course wasn’t bad. Elizabeth reused an old trick: your first course has been in front of you the whole time! It was part of the flower arrangement. A twist on bread service, malted “twigs” incorporated their signature foraged ingredients—this actually included a paste made from ants, which didn’t taste like much aside from sharply acidic.

That’s when things took a turn. “Laura’s Diary” had a beautiful presentation, served inside a hollowed out book with beet juice inside a syringe, an edible orchid, and a tiny bag of powder meant to simulate cocaine. But the dish, even if you could get the lemongrass powder out of the bag and into the dish of tiny gelatinous globules, literally tasted like nothing at all.

The theme of tasting like nothing continued through another course, “Mackerel and Rye,” a slice of supposedly-pickled fish on top of a house-made rye cracker with various garnishes. My dining companion looked confused. “It’s like they did something to remove all the flavor from this fish.” He was right.

Things didn’t improve. A pork shoulder dish meant to evoke the ham Agent Cooper ordered at the Great Northern was incredibly fatty and hard to eat, served with a grain accompaniment that, once again, tasted like nothing. We sent it back barely touched, though no one seemed to notice. Even the “Damn Fine Coffee Glazed Donuts” that ended the meal were bad, tough and cakey and served cold, and trying to saw through them with a knife was not a pleasant way to end a fancy meal. Both dessert courses also went largely uneaten.

Throughout the meal, it was like the kitchen had forgotten that food requires seasoning. Nothing had salt, spice or acid (except the ants), and while each dish was beautifully presented, it was like looking at pictures of a fancy meal and then trying to eat the paper. Strangely, there were none of the luxury ingredients that help to justify the price of a menu like this - no lobster, caviar, truffles or wagyu. There wasn’t much protein at all, aside from three small fish dishes and the inedible pork.

A mediocre (or even a bad) fine dining meal can sometimes be saved through genuinely great service. Feeling like you are special and taken care of goes a long way, but Elizabeth doesn’t seem to have that down either. Our servers did a wonderful job of explaining the Twin Peaks connections behind each dish, but seemed baffled at what to do otherwise. Dishes were delivered to the wrong tables, courses were mixed up; it was like the general manager (assuming there is one) called in sick that day.

Plus—and here’s the unforgiveable kicker—the 10 course menu lasted 4 and a half hours. There weren’t any special gifts, amuse bouche, candies or extra bits. The 10 courses on the menu were what you got. That’s almost half an hour per course, for dishes that were largely served cold and/or pre-made. I have genuinely no clue what they were doing in the kitchen that took this long. By the time it was over, my date and I were desperate to leave, and I almost skipped dessert entirely, before realizing the money I would be giving up and how embarrassing it would be to simply walk out the door.

What about the wine pairings? Maybe they could have saved the evening. Well, they might have, if they weren’t a huge rip-off. It’s almost axiomatic that wine pairings aren’t a great deal, but this was a bit ridiculous. The $95 “mixed pairing” included sake, beer, cocktails and wine. Somehow they managed to include no red wine at all and they forgot to bring one pairing entirely. Now, I understand that wines are always marked up. But, as I am inclined to do, I actually did the math, and generously, those pairings would have cost me $35 if purchased at retail price. That means, assuming that they buy booze at wholesale prices, the restaurant was charging a nearly 5X markup on the pairings. That’s insane, given the already-high cost of the meal. It’s not that the pairings were bad, though they weren’t particularly inspired. It’s that the price is literally ridiculous.

The dinner led to some amusing moments. At approximately hour three, my husband and I started thinking of other things we could do with the time we would likely spend at the table. We could drive most of the way to Cleveland! Or, what we could do with the money—we could have three really good dinners at another restaurant or buy 20 hardcover books for the price of this one night.

It’s possible it was an off night for the restaurant. But when you are charging this kind of money, you don’t really get to have off nights. Was no one in the kitchen tasting any of the food? Was it just us that realized that things weren’t good?

So, between 2 $125 tickets, 2 $95 wine pairings, tax and a decent tip, I spent $500 on Elizabeth. I return to my thesis: A $500 meal for two people should be a transcendent, rarified, beautiful experience. This? This felt like a fraud. I know that kitchen can do better, and I hope they improve, but for the moment, Elizabeth is definitely off my list.