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Nov 13, 2012 09:33 AM

El Ideas Review

El Ideas, situated on a tiny no-account street south of Roosevelt Rd and just west of Western Ave. in Chicago’s University Village (I didn’t even know such a neighborhood existed), breaks a lot of the rules.

We arrived at 6:07 (having gotten lost trying to find it) and then had to knock on the locked door to be admitted for our 6 pm reservation, the only seating of the night.

The open kitchen dominates the room. In fact, the entire restaurant is essentially a huge kitchen with a very few tables scattered between the door and the kitchen. It seats 22 guests. They have just expanded having added a four-top table.

And between – or during – the 12-course tasting, guests are encouraged to populate the kitchen, gab with the staff of (3) chefs and a dishwasher, and even help plate the food. I scattered dried cranberries on one of the courses and when I returned to the table, Mr. CH inquired whether they had asked me to wash my hands first.

The first course was several variations on “egg,” including chawanmushi, a Japanese savory custard and salmon roe. A touch of soy sauce and a swab of yuzo add salty and sour elements. And every bit a work of art for the eyes as for the palate.

Then came a single perfectly – and I do mean perfectly – sautéed scallop on a cauliflower puree with a bit of curried tomato sauce.

Then came a small piece of sturgeon, encrusted with bone marrow and served with a bit of butternut squash and tiny skinned champagne grapes. Who thinks of crusting fish with bone marrow? Chef Foss does, apparently.

Next a sautéed and flamed octopus salad with a bit of dressed frisse lettuce, kohlrabi and blue cheese.

Try and imagine nitrogen-frozen foie gras so cold it could shatter, but in the warmth of your mouth melts to an agonizing pleasure. It is served with a tiny crispy oat cake, a banana noodle and dried cranberries (plated by moi!).

There are moments during a great dinner when I close my eyes, the better to savor the flavor and/or texture I am experiencing. This was one of those moments. Three different kinds of wild mushrooms in a joyful menage-a-trois on my plate.

I know that rare lamb is highly preferable to well-done lamb, but I would have preferred this lamb to have had a little more time near some heat. The chef extolled the joys of the lamb fat, but not for me. I cut it off and left it on the plate.

My least favorite course all night. A silver-dollar sized fried disk of chopped unidentified pig parts garnished with tiny cucumber slices and carrot and pepper strips. It tasted – porky – and not in a good way. And then I bit into a piece of pork gristle embedded in the disk. Not pleased.

A piece of Wagu ribeye. Wagu is a Japanese breed and style of raising cattle to ensure a high percentage of unsaturated fat (the good kind), ensuring a very tender very flavorful beef. It was served with black garlic, scallions and scallion ash. If only this had come earlier in the progression. Amazing flavor, but I barely had room to taste it. Still, we weren’t done.

A cheese course featuring “robbiola” cheese, fresh pistachios and quince. Robiola (one or two “b”s? not sure.) is a luscious soft cheese from northern Italy.

Prickly Pear
Part of this was exactly what I wanted. It was a refreshing, palate-cleansing sorbet of prickly pear, along with a (for me) too-rich chocolate fudgey square. I do have my limits, Fellow FoodBeest, and I was well past them at this point.

Old Fashioned
Finishing up with an decomposed ice cream sundae. The ice cream was astronaut-like nitrogen-frozen bits of vanilla base on top of a kind of hot-fudge chocolate sauce, some cherry sauce and topped with a fruit leather. I poked at it. Tasted it. Laughed at it. And appreciated its whimsey.

Chicago is the center of something extraordinary happening in the world of cuisine and El Ideas is a vital part of it. It is every bit as much of an experience as a meal. $135/person, BYOB.

The entire experience could be viewed as a pretentious and self-indulgent experience. It could also be viewed as an extraordinarily creative work of performance and culinary art. And either way, it’s a function of your personal point of view about the purpose and role of food in our lives.

Il Ideas had its failed courses, but it also included some of the most interesting, delicious and delightful food I’ve ever eaten. And it was intentionally iconoclastic and fun. FOH Manager Bill Talbot told us they are already booked up through the end of the year and are now taking reservations into 2013.

Photos and more here:

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  1. I'll be there Thursday. :-)
    Thanks for sharing!

    1 Reply
    1. re: uhockey

      Looking forward to hearing what you think. I always appreciate your perspective.

    2. I think you and I went the same night as the courses were identical and then plating identical (based on your photos in your link. here are my thoughts...

      I welcome the relaxed atmosphere. Bill Talbott, who manages the front of the house, was friendly, pleasant and attentive.

      Chef Foss and his collaborators embraced the "interactiveness" of the dinner format they provide. It wasn't just a show. They were eager to chat.

      The meal. From the perspective of dish flow, I thought the timing was very good. Not too fast. not too slow. From the perspective of light to heavy, savory to sweet, I felt the progression was appropriate except maybe for the foie course w/ banana and streusel. It felt more like a dessert and could have come out second to last given how it leaned, to my palate, much toward the sweet. Execution wise I felt everything was cooked well, flavors were well-balanced, textures were spot on. Highlights for me were 1) the bone marrow topping on that sturgeon, 2) the umami deliciousness of the mushroom course 3) the ribeye and the accompanying flavors of celery root, onion and black garlic.

      Overall, the meal was an enjoyable one. I'd like to bring in a restaurant back home in NY I have been to for comparison. Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare. I have been lucky enough to have gone there 3-4 times and I find that it shares some similarities with El Ideas, particularly in the intent to have a relaxed, interactive, inventive experience with fine ingredients and expert preparation. As much as I enjoyed El Ideas, Brooklyn Fare was for me, superior. Though at a superior price tag now that the accolades have accumulated. Chef Ramirez and his team compose such a masterful meal. If you close your eyes and eat, you know you are in a Michelin 3-star restaurant. You open your eyes and you find yourself without a white table cloth, without stuffy captains and without robotic servers. I think Chef Foss and his team can aspire to that and I feel that they are on their way there. I certainly appreciate their hard work and their passion, and it shows in their food.


      1. Just curious -- do you plate your own or is it a communal experience. Also, bravo to your husband re: his comment.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Nancy S.

          You don't plate your own and it isn't communal. The chefs do all the plating. What you do depends on you.

          You can stay at your table and never venture into the kitchen. Or you can wander into the kitchen, observe and/or schmoose. Or, if you want, you can help. Someone handed me a container of dried cranberries and I sprinkled them on each plate.