Friday, December 30, 2011
Although my new immersion blender provided an early Xmas for denizens of the Commissary, I didn't want my stomach to feel left out of the proceedings. Luckily, a chance email arrived mid-month giving me the opportunity to treat my digestive tract to a pre-present as well. Back in October, I placed my name on an email list requesting a reservation at EL Ideas, a 10-table restaurant created by Chefs Phillip Foss (of MeatyBalls sandwich truck fame, chronicled in this blog last January) and Andrew Brochu (formerly with Alinea and the now-defunct Kith and Kin, which we visited in July 2010) in the catering space that had been used for Foss's food truck. With everyone falling all over themselves this year about such new local sweetheart ventures as Next and Girl & The Goat, EL Ideas has operated largely under the mainstream foodie radar, quietly turning out amazing, Trotter-esque plates of food without the fine-dining pretense (evidenced by its location in a completely un-trendy neighborhood, an industrial park near 14th and Western, next to the freight train tracks). Given its diminutive size and reservation backlog, I didn't expect to dine there before 2012, yet here was an email from the EL Ideas hostess, offering us a mid-week table right before Xmas, which I enthusiastically snapped up.
For a refreshing change from usual city visits, street parking wasn't an issue on this dilapidated side of town, where the skyscrapers of the Loop glow off in the distance. Mrs. Hackknife and I were met at the door by Bill, the maitre'd, who took our coats (since the staff just about outnumbers the diners, everyone's pretty much on a first-name basis here). When you first walk inside, you immediately notice that, other than a waist-high partition, there's little separation between the kitchen and the dining area (see Photo #2 above); in fact, Bill encouraged us a couple of times to get up and walk back to food prep, take pictures, interact with the chefs, etc. Despite his reputation of having an outsized ego, Chef Foss made himself accessible a number of times, patiently answering questions about bee pollen and shellfish while clearly focused on the task of creating eye-popping plates. For each of the 13 courses, a cadre of cooks emerged from the kitchen to deliver the dishes, with one of them providing a detailed explanation of the ingredients and the presentation. Our first course included a small pile of orange fish roe laid atop a bed of round cucumber, with small globes of mustard and passionfruit gelee on the side (think of it as an exercise in circles). This was followed by one of my favorites of the evening, a beautiful and delicious plate of raw tuna slab with bottarga (a cured Mediterranean fish roe), anchovy, and saffron accents (see Photo #1 above). Not to be outdone, next appeared a charred piece of curried cauliflower, propping up what appeared to be a kale chip, both accompanied by a small scoop of popcorn ice cream with a cheddar powder - potent and rich in flavor, everything melded well together. Course #4 was hearty chunks of lobster meat surrounded by 4 different preparations of choke (artichoke, sun choke, and other chokes that escape my memory), topped with a pinkish puree of brandade (salt cod) and dusted with the aforementioned bee pollen, which added a floral characteristic.
Things began to lag a bit through the subsequent four dishes, which included (#5) grilled octopus with potatoes, mint, and drops of blood orange gelee, (#6) mushrooms with lemon, tomato, and Parmesan cheese (I managed to force this one down despite my aversion to mushrooms), (#7) scallop with radish, chanterelles, and black garlic, served in a giant scallop shell (ditto), and (#8) a tiny saddle of hare with chestnut, prosciutto, and cocoa nibs, the latter being quite tasty, but minuscule in size. The next three courses were all meat and all wonderful: (#9) a succulent jidori chicken breast served with sweetbreads, celery root, and raisins (the chicken reminiscent of the juicy slab received during the Paris 1906 menu at Next), (#10) an amazing lamb medallion, medium rare, with merguez, couscous, and harissa (immediately conjuring up images of Morocco - see Photo #3 above), and (#11) a venison chop drizzled in sassafras syrup and adorned with dates and pecans. Last, but not least, came 2 dessert plates, the first being a sort of deconstructed eggnog, featuring a sweetened egg yolk, rum sauce, and vanilla ice cream (again, I choked down the egg against my better judgment), followed by a smear of chocolate infused with espresso and Forbidden Rose (which, near as I can tell, is a perfume developed by pop singer Avril Lavigne - I am not making this up) and a small portion of framboisine (white almond cake with raspberry mousse).
Because the restaurant has no liquor license, guests are encouraged to bring their own wine (no corkage fee), which we did. I wanted to bring a single vino that would pair well with a diverse selection of foods and I opted for pinot noir, although the only one I could find in the Commissary cellar was a bottle featuring a smiling Chef Shawn McClain from the Cooper's Hawk dinner we attended back in May (see earlier posting). Once Bill opened it for us, he glanced at the bottle's label and immediately walked it back to the kitchen to show Chef Foss. For a moment, I thought that may have resulted in our ticket out of the joint (is it gauche to bring wine with another cook's picture on it to dinner?) and I don't know exactly what conversation ensued; however, I did see Bill save the empty bottle on the back counter after service was over, possibly for the staff to vandalize at some point in the future (I should note that they were kind enough to offer Mrs. Hackknife and me each a complimentary pouring of some house wine when ours had been exhausted, so it couldn't have been a major faux pas). In any case, to summarize, the missus and I received all of this great cuisine and unique ambiance (which included, but was not limited to, the ultra-attentive service, interaction with the chefs, access to the kitchen, and surprisingly whimsical house soundtrack of Carpenters covers, Sesame Street jingles, and the like) for the low, low price of $135 a person (prior to tip). We left EL Ideas with full bellies and the feeling that we'd indulged in one of Chicago's best-kept culinary secrets. Kudos to the chefs and continued success...