Elevated Taste

Laurie Sartain

The ‘El’ train can get you to EL ideas, but it can’t get you in. The restaurant is open four nights a week and completes only five seatings, each serving between ten to sixteen guests. Reservations are taken long in advance and get distributed through lottery via email. Tucked away in a dark building off the intersection of 14th and Western Avenue, EL ideas is neighborhoods away from the next closest tasting menu.

The restaurant consists of one large, narrow room split by a low barrier that separates the dining space from cooking area. The décor is understated and faintly masculine, with exposed brick walls and Parisian poster art complementing the clean, white dishware, befitting a kitchen full of men outfitted in T-shirts and jeans. For working in such an exclusive restaurant, the chefs and staff are remarkably relaxed and down to earth. Chefs Philip Foss and Andrew Brochu talk with guests and introduce each course with a description of each element on the plate, occasionally sharing the inspiration for the dish. Our server Dave explains that the meal is meant to be experienced as a dinner party in the chef’s home, and invites the table to walk through the kitchen, schmooze, and explore.

The food hints at elements of modern, experimental, and local cuisine, irreducible to a single identity. The dinner served on the night of November 23 resists simple characterization, the elements falling together in a way that is easy to describe, yet difficult to define. The first course was a lightly poached tuna loin served with a short Italian breadstick cracker, a sliver of cornichon, spiced mayonnaise, and fish egg vinaigrette.  An unusual but unusually apt choice to begin with, the fleshy tenderness of the tuna lent itself handily to the crunch of the cracker and vibrancy of the accompanying sauces.

The next course set the tone for the evening, revealing the playfulness and good humor of the kitchen. Diners were presented with a foie gras serpentine, snaked along the plate alongside bruléed foie gras buttons served with various forms of apple (apple chips, apple puree, and pea sized dots of raw apple) along with walnut dust and rainbow oxalis, an acidic-tasting flower.  This course was served on a flat plate, without silverware, and after everyone was served, Chef Philip addressed the room and instructed us to lick the food off of the plate, promising “bonus points to anyone able to do so while making eye contact with the person across from them.”  After a moment’s hesitation, diners across the room began breaking the taboo of civilized consumption, diving headfirst into the simple, sensual act. The foie gras delivered on its promise of luxury and unctuous indulgence, accented but not interrupted by its accompaniments, while at the same time imparting a sense of whimsical theatricality.

The “bolognaise” was the first underwhelming course. Consisting of four pieces of gnocchi served on a bed of spanner crab and eggplant bolognese with grated pecorino, the dish was sometimes more gummy than pillowy and the flavors of the bolognese were muddled, relieved only slightly by the zing of lemon zest.

The disappointment of the pasta was easily forgotten by the guests, though, when followed by the seventh course, titled “jowl.” The pork course consisted of a portion of tender pork belly, a slice of pork jowl bacon, and celery puree with celery root and kiwi fruit. The result was dazzling: the dual pork preparations complemented each other perfectly when combined with the crisp, herbaceous celery and tart sweetness of the kiwi.

One of the highlights of the evening came with the ninth course, titled “agnolotti.” A single piece of fried sweetbread rested atop pockets of tender pasta filled with squash puree, served in a thyme-gingersnap cream sauce with tiny cubes of cooked squash. A perfect melding of crispy, savory, tender, creamy and sweet, each bite was a mouthful of warmth and comfort, perfectly representative of the seasonal transition from autumn to winter.

The final course, the twelfth of the evening, came with a story. Chef Andrew introduced the concept behind the dessert as a memory of an adult ritual from holidays in Florida. Adults would sit around after dinner and eat bourbon balls, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. The grown-up dessert was composed of tobacco pudding, a small dome of chewy caramel, and a quenelle of Maker’s Mark ice cream with cookie crumbs. The dessert was a playful variation on adult vices: the bitterness of the tobacco and the booziness of the ice cream cut the sweetness of the dish wonderfully.

After the last plates were cleared, the diners relaxed in their seats and talked among their groups and with the chefs, who remained to chat and answer questions. Voices and spirits hit a crescendo, warming the dark room from within with laughter and good cheer. Ambitious and innovative, though never overreaching, EL ideas elevates the dinner party to an art.

2419 W. 14th St. (312)226-8144. elideas.com

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