Thursday, November 8, 2012

What an AMAZING El Idea

The Awesome Dining Room Art-Aqua Teen Hunger Force!

I should start, that while there was not an Annie Lennox dance party in the kitchen, nor were we given a bottle of Old Granddad and asked to do shots with the staff, our dinner at El Ideas was probably the most fun we've had in a dining experience to date. Not to mention, our favorite meal this year.

Back in mid-August The Husband realized that my birthday was approaching. After thinking about various places to try, he decided to make a reservation at El Ideas, the brain child of Phillip Foss. We had been tracking Foss, the chef/owner for some time. After leaving Lockwood, he became a pioneer in the now overwrought food truck scene in Chicago. His Meatyballs truck was a hit, the sandwiches were delicious and after doing that for some time, he decided to open up a brick and mortar place, El Ideas.

When you speak with people about El, it’s typically compared with Schwa. The concepts are similar, small space that only seats a few people, kitchen staff does the serving, awesome music playing and of course, BYO. There are three things that I feel separate the two restaurants. First, the seatings; there is only one seating at El. All 18 people come in at 7:30 and are served the prefix meal together. Whereas Schwa, there are multiple seatings throughout the evening.

Second, the space; both restaurants are small and can only seat an average of 20 people a night (18 at El, 22/4 at Schwa).  From the outside of Schwa, you couldn't tell it was a great restaurant. It’s a small space on a grittier section of Ashland in the Wicker Park neighborhood belies what’s inside. Once in, the space is a dark gray with chandeliers hanging inside the two blanked out window boxes. It’s small, it’s dark, it’s low lit it’s intimate.

 El on the other hand is literally at the end of a dead end street (more like an alley), down on 14th and Western.  You cross under a railroad track, turn down a tiny street, drive all the way to the end and there is a well-lit glass store front.  A 7:15 at night, it appears to be the only place that has people inside, honestly, I don’t even think any other business is on that street. The space is larger than Schwa’s, although the dining area is small. Everything is open, the kitchen takes up the bulk of the space and the dinners have a clear view into it. No one speaks in hushed tones, people laugh loudly

And my third differing point, the staff. The staff at Schwa comes out; speaks about the dish maybe will crack a joke, but then head back into the kitchen to prepare the next set of dishes for the next table.  They take their food extremely seriously, as they should, but they don’t appear to be particularly comfortable chatting up the guests.

At El, they also take their food extremely seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously and they enjoy their guests. They crack jokes, they come out and speak with you.  Moreover, guests are invited to walk into the kitchen, chat with the chefs, ask questions and even help plate. How awesome is that? So you can stand in the kitchen, with your glass of wine, plate some food, chat with the chefs and then sit and eat the food you plated. 

This made ALL of the difference. Because the chefs encouraged the guests to chat, to be bold, to break that barrier, the guests did. And it spilled over into the dinner. We began chatting with the tables around us. Getting to know our fellow diners was really fantastic. It’s not something we do a lot of, especially in fine dining places.

So now that I've set up the concept for you, I should explain our evening.

The Husband decided back in mid-August that he wanted to take me to El for my birthday. He reached out to them (you can do this by phone or email) to make a reservation. The next opening they had was two months later. So here we are, six weeks after my birthday, having my birthday dinner. Totally worth the wait.

El is a BYO. On their website they give you a general idea of what to bring, but they say that you can email them the week of the menu and you’ll get more direction. I did this a lovely woman by the name of Allison gave me some perfect directions: a Cava, a Savignon Blanc and a Pinot Nior. She also consulted with a friend who is a sommelier and added some vintages. We didn't have a ton of time (our own fault) so we worked with what we had and went with a Cava, a Bordeaux Blanc (from Perman's 6 for 60 Something) and a Lagrein  (from Imagery, our wine club).  We decided that since the meal was going to be four hours and El is known for being a place to share, it never hurts to have more. We also brought two additional stoppers for the Bordeaux and Lagrein, just in case we didn't finish them (ha, like that’s ever happened….) . We also brought the kitchen a six-pack of 3-Floyd's Robert the Bruce.  El is one of those places where the kitchen staff openly accepts gifts of beer and bourbon. And as good patrons, the least we can do is bring them some beer for their hours of hard work.

We got to the restaurant about 10 minutes early. We had read numerous places that they don’t wait, so we didn't want to miss anything.  We walked in and were greeted by Bill, their front of the house man and immediately gave him the beer. Bill said we could take any of the available two tops.  He brought the six-pack back and we heard a loud “YES!” from one of the chefs. The Bruce was a good plan, high five to The Husband on that one.

As there were only three remaining two tops, (two were filled already) two that flanked the door and one that was diagonal, we took the diagonal one. It was closest to the kitchen and gave us a great view of the rest of the dinners (not that any of the tables didn't…)

We sat, I took out our three bottles of wine and Bill swept them away. He asked if it was okay for him to do the pairings for each of our courses and we agreed that we would leave the wine pairings to him. He also told us that this was a very relaxed restaurant, the Chefs take the food seriously but everything else is fun.  He poured us a glass of our Cava and we began looking around at the space.  Within five minutes the restaurant filled up with the remaining guests, one of the chefs brought out a plate with two thin planks that were blackened and smoking and smelled like a delicious campfire.  Then Chef Foss came out to speak
He echoed what Bill said and told us that we are welcome to come into the kitchen, ask questions, help out.   He said that all of the chefs cook together, but the chef whose idea it was for the dish will be the one to come out and explain it to us. As he was speaking, our first plate came out. He explained it as a play on cedar plank salmon. They had received some delicious salmon roe that morning and decided to make a dish of it. He then said, if you notice, you have no utensils, this dish is to break the ice, everyone must lick their plates clean.

And so our evening began.  

The Husband refused to let me get a picture of him licking his plate, so I don’t have documentation of it. But I can assure you, it happened. And it was DELICIOUS. Salty, smoky, very bright and lots of fun; everyone was giggling and looking around to make sure other people were doing it.  The Husband and I had no qualms; you don’t have to tell either one of us twice.
Licked the plate!

Bill came by and changed or Cava for the Bordeaux  saying that he was going to save the rest of the Cava for our dessert courses.

The next course was a Black Cod course. They made it like in the style of Salt Cod, they salted it for a week, then let it dry for a week, then put it in water for a week then cooked it; you can imagine the stench.  They served it along with artichoke hearts, capers and olive slices, so lots more salt.  The amazing thing is, when you took a bite of the fish, it was the least fishy taste you have ever had. It was soft and mild and delicious. I am NOT a fishy fish fan, and I was really worried about this dish. I was so amazed by it in fact, that after we finished the course, I went up to the chefs and asked them about it. They said that it is the vilest smell you have ever smelled, but the process is worth the taste.  It was just fantastic.

So stinky, but so delicious
Our third course was equally as amazing. Shima Aji or Stripped Jack, which was fried, and placed over cucumber melons. YES they are teeny tiny little melons that have the taste and consistency of a cucumber. This is something that I must have. It was placed next to a cucumber sorbet and a nasturtium flower (beautiful, edible and very peppery) over a thinly sliced Matsutake mushroom all speckled with dried plankton.

Course number four came out and The Husband and I were already gitty. It was a Hamachi, with thinly sliced apples and leeks that were rendered down in bacon fat. The leeks were crispy and looked like bacon bits; the fish was salty and perfect. These guys know how to do amazing things with fish, there was no doubt about that.

From there we moved onto a Foie Gras course. One word: Heavenly.  It was whipped and then covered in pistachios, olives and pop rocks. The pistachios were revelatory. The Husband and I were shocked that we had never thought of it before; they were a perfect complement to the Foie. The olives were really sweet and reminded me of blueberry’s and the pop rocks. OH THE POP ROCKS! They crisped and popped in your mouth, adding an amazing balance to the creamy Foie and the salty nuts. I went to the chef who made this dish after and told him it was really wonderful and the pop rock and pistachios were perfect. He said that I should tell Chef Foss that, because he still wasn't too sure about the dish. We loved it so much, that there was an extra one sitting on the counter behind me; we were debating if we should snatch it up, and when the couple next to us said they had just been discussing the same thing, but didn't want to seem piggish. In the end, one of the Chefs gave it to a table of women behind us.

Pop Rocks and Foie!

Between courses, I walked through the kitchen to the bathroom. When I came out, I found The Husband speaking with Chef Foss. He had informed him that we were having a fantastic time and thanked him.  Apparently right before I walked out, The Husband had informed the Chef that we had been following him for some time and that he had his balls and loved them, and then The Husband realized what he said and started to laugh.  It wasn't the first time the chef had heard that one.

View from our seats into the kitchen

Over the course of the evening, we began speaking with a couple to our left. They were in town from Toronto for a wedding, he was an Emergency Medicine doctor as well , so he and The Husband had loads to chat about. As the wine began to flow, everyone got more and more comfortable and even though we were a few feet apart, our dinner became much more of a dinner party and much less of a dinner for two. It was a really lovely experience. We chatted with The Canadians about their background, travels, families and other places to go in Chicago while they’re here.

This course was followed by their rendition of Buffalo wings with a home-made hot sauce. It was an amazingly tender slice of chicken breast next to a deep fried croquette of chicken meat surrounded by a buttermilk sauce and the best hot sauce I've had in a while.  The Husband and I went insane over this dish. Between the buttermilk sauce (The Husband’s favorite) and the perfect hot sauce (my favorite) the amazing bites of chicken were gobbled up quickly. We kept trying to savor them, but we couldn't  The croquette was salty and crunchy and perfectly filled with chicken and breading.

Chicken and Hot Sauce

I informed Bill that the hot sauce was amazing and the chef who made it came over. He said that hot sauce was his favorite thing to make and that he’s been trying to convince Chef Foss that they should bottle and sell this. I told him I’d buy it in a heartbeat. He said making it was very easy and gave me a rough recipe. The key, Fresno chilies and letting it sit for a few weeks. Perfection.

Our next course was an explosion of happiness in our mouth. The Husband and I love the Black Truffle Explosion (BTE) at Alinea and this was just as delicious. The other “exploding” ravioli we’ve had (Schwa, Alinea and Next) all use Quail Egg, this was the first we've had that uses bone marrow. The shaved black truffles and the warm marrow is like a salty butter exploding in your mouth.

Explosion of Happiness

Our second to last meat course was a pork belly that was sliced extra thin and made to look like bacon over a slice of headcheese with an etouffee.  Now, as you may know from previous postings, I’m not the biggest bacon fan and while I do love pork, headcheese isn't my favoritest pork product. However, these were both fantastic, shocking, I know. The pork belly bacon was crispy and salty. As for headcheese, for those of you wondering what it is, it’s basically all of the meat off the head of the pig made into a loaf and sliced.  The texture reminds me of pulled pork meets pate, it’s a little creamy and a little stringy, and salty. When headcheese is done well, it’s amazing, when it isn't, it can have the texture of Spam.  This, was good. And for those of you who think “OOOOH that’s gross” it really isn't.

Pork Deliciousness 

Our next course was a break from meat, Broccoli roasted until it’s caramelized  placed over a bed of pureed chestnuts and emmental  cheese. The cheese and chestnuts were creamy and salty and the broccoli was cooked so that it was slightly crispy, but still kept its taste. Really awesome.

Broccoli Trees in Cheese

It was then that the two women sitting adjacent to us (the ones who got the leftover Foie) commented on our bottle of red wine.  She asked if it was from Imagery. I nearly fell over. The Husband and I have been drinking Imagery wine for nearly five years and no one has ever had it before, apparently this woman was also a wine club member there and she also brought a bottle of their red.  We ended up sharing ours and had some of their Syrah. The Canadian couple next to us said they had already drank too much and then offered us the remainder of the Pinot Noir they brought, so we were all sitting around sharing wines, chatting about Imagery. Again, all of the times we've eaten at restaurants, this has never ever happened.  The Husband and I were totally hooked (and also lightly buzzed).

The final meat course came out, their play on Surf and Turf on an awesome piece of slate, a beautiful piece of grass-fed filet mignon that was sous vide (cooked inside a plastic bag in a water bath in order to cook everything at the same temperature) and then briefly seared to get a crisp and put a dab of a home-made horse radish sauce next to it. On the other side of the steak was a large langoustine. If you’ve never had the pleasure of dining on langoustine before, I HIGHLY recommend you go out and try them. The easiest way to describe them is if a Lobster and a Shrimp had a baby. It’s tender and taste very similar to lobster tail. They cooked this and put just a little butter on it, in order to keep the flavor and texture. The small bark like things next to the langoustines are called Salsify, it’s a root that looks similar to a carrot, but it’s brown instead of yellow. It tastes like a starchy potato stick and was an excellent complement to the richness of the langoustines and the earthiness of the steak. This dish was phenomenal.  

The only way to eat beef, sous vid

After we licked the surf and turf plate clean, we moved onto the dessert course and our came our bottle of Cava (we hadn't seen that in a few hours!).

We started with an Orange Julius course. It reminded me of the stands at the mall, hopefully you’re not too young to remember those (don’t make me feel older than I already am people). An orange and buttermilk ice cream, which was creamy and slightly tart. We began chatting with the gay couple to our left (we hadn’t really spoken with them much this evening, they kept to themselves) and were discussing our childhood experiences with creamsicles and the Orange Julius shop in the mall.  This course was absolutely about nostalgia (and palate cleansing).

Palate Cleanser

Our first official dessert course began with a Pumpkin dish. The had nitro’ed pumpkin ice cream (so it was a little  harder than normal  house-made ice cream, but still creamy and melted in your mouth) and placed it on a dish with dried pears, apricots and pumpkin seeds. It reminded me of our dessert course at Alinea, but on a much smaller scale. It was sweet, but not overly so like some pumpkin desserts can be. You could really taste the flavors of all of the fruits and the pumpkin ice cream was delicious.


Our final dessert was something they had come up with that day.  They were a little nervous about it, but were really excited for everyone to try. Do you remember the Take 5 bar that came out many moons ago?  Peanut butter filled pretzel bars covered in Chocolate. THAT was out dessert.  A homemade pretzel, next to peanut butter and chocolate ice cream sprinkled with some pepper (PEPPER!). It was to die for. Salty, sweet, the pepper added a nice texture and spice. I had never had a Take 5, but The Husband is a peanut butter aficionado and obviously had them in the past. Everyone was silent as we ate, you could hear the occasional moan of delight and we all licked our plates clean, even though we were totally full.  It was amazing a perfect ending to a decadent evening.

Take 5

Cabs were called; people wandered around and chatted with the chefs.  The Husband encouraged me to walk up and thank the chefs at the end of the evening.   I informed them that The Husband and I have Season Tickets to Next, we've eaten at nearly every major restaurant in Chicago and THIS was our favorite meal of 2012, hands down.   The chef who created the Take 5 then asked what we thought, and we spent another few minutes gushing over it.  They had said they weren't totally sure how it was going to turn out until they started plating.  Some people may not like that about a restaurant, but to The Husband and I, it was something we loved.  It’s El Ideas adventurous nature that makes this place so wonderful. They aren't afraid to try something new, to step out of the box and if it fails, they’ll start again. We thanked them profusely and said that we would be back many many times over. We’re thinking maybe New Years?! Any next time, we’ll bring them some bourbon instead of beer. They deserve it. 

Our Menu

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