Review: Elizabeth Restaurant

It’s Chicago’s most original new restaurant; pity it’s been overrun by foodies.

Iliana Regan; cooks in the kitchen at Elizabeth; and deer heart with olive oil powder, dill aïoli, pickled onions, celery ribbons, celery seed, and smoked salt
(Left) Iliana Regan; (bottom right) deer heart with olive oil powder, dill aïoli, pickled onions, celery ribbons, celery seed, and smoked salt
 

I see antlers and hanging terrariums. A pressed-tin ceiling. The openest kitchen ever, so close you could snatch the tweezers from the chef’s hand. On my plate is a citrus-dolloped arugula sponge topped by goat’s milk sorbet, laced with herbs and lavender flowers, and drizzled with honeys from multiple states. And at my communal table, I see ­alcohol-loosened blowhards snapping photos of their food with flashes brighter than Alpha Centauri and verbally pleasuring one another with ill-informed tales of Pacojets, sous vide, and unbridled Achatz lust.

In this communal crapshoot, sometimes you end up with crap. My cohorts include a smug concert pianist, two socially stunted computer geeks, a name-dropping phony, two large Canadians—one making love to his Canon EOS, the other napping between courses—and my wife. One guy says he spends $10,000 a month at restaurants; another keeps mentioning the 20 pounds of deer tenderloin in his freezer. Neither can pronounce “foie gras.”

A deer head on a wall at Elizabeth

Among the windbags, I am equally insufferable in my quiet superiority while I keep an eye on the soft-spoken, possibly brilliant chef who looks far happier in her hushed kitchen than out here with us. And why shouldn’t she be? Every detail is under control back there, yet when she emerges to describe the arugula sponge, which is unlike anything anywhere, half the guests don’t bother to stop gabbing across the table. The other half won’t put down their iPhones long enough to listen.

This is a review of Elizabeth Restaurant, the four-month-old stunner operating out of an unmarked Lincoln Square storefront between a tire shop and a soccer specialty store. But it’s also an audit of us, the foodies, a label we hate but deserve because we can’t come up with anything more apt. My nearly five-hour meal was one of those unforgettable events that made me stop and take stock of Iliana Regan’s uneven yet exhilarating food—and of myself. How much preciousness can I take from restaurants and the crowd that populates them, even if I am One of Them?

THE SKINNY

ELIZABETH RESTAURANT 4835 N. Western Ave., 773-681-0651
FYI The hyper-organized kitchen keeps its herbs and garnishes in tackle boxes, an idea the chef got while fishing with her father.
TAB $65 to $205; tickets at elizabeth-restaurant.com
HOURS Dinner Wed. to Sun.

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

If you titter with delight at the thought of, say, a prosciutto-wrapped smoked mussel served directly onto your fist, you will adore Elizabeth. If you’re looking for a cadre obsessed with the minutiae of Chicago restaurants—people who say, “How was I to know that Next’s El Bulli menu would sell out in 9.6 seconds?”—welcome home. If either of the above mystifies you, Elizabeth may represent your seventh circle of hell.

Either way, no other restaurant in Chicago presents a more undistilled vision of its maker. Regan, 33, grew up on a farm in northwest Indiana, the daughter of two restaurateurs. She forages. She gardens. She cans. She hunts. She’s got copies of Mother Earth News in the bathroom. And she combines her acquisitions exactly as they appear in her head; all three of her prix fixe winter menus (ranging from $65 to $205) were mentally planned back in July 2012. That’s 50 incredibly complicated dishes in one brain. As Michael Gebert, a local food writer, said on his blog Sky Full of Bacon: “Talk to her for five minutes and you realize that, like Grant Achatz, she’s the type who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t screw up anything, ever.”

A former underground chef and onetime employee at nearly a dozen upscale Chicago restaurants, from Alinea to Zealous, Regan (a self-proclaimed “imperfect perfectionist”) labels her food “new gatherers’ cuisine.” It’s a fascinating and often seamless mix of the lowest of the low-fi (twigs and leaves and such) paired with what we might have identified as molecular gastronomy a few years back, before those words became dirty. Call it modernist-meets-survivalist.

I began Elizabeth’s grandest menu, the 24-course Diamond prix fixe, with a vivid shot of apple pie consommé with black caviar and finished with chocolate-dipped potato tubes filled with yogurt fennel mousse. In between are petri dishes of carrot tea gel, overturned shot glasses harboring smoke and topped with trout roe, a deer heart, raccoon Bolognese served to the tune of “Rocky Raccoon,” foie gras injected with cassis, and cones of bacon ice cream. Some of it sings. Some whispers. Some falls flat, amusing just long enough to leave a memory on your tongue before the next spectacle. “I think of the progression as little roller coasters of simple to complex, savory to sweet, small to big,” says Regan.

The best dishes, such as the beautiful “lobster, liver, and flowers”—an airy tail and claw drizzled with chicken liver sauce and served atop sous vide potatoes on a stone slate—reconcile flavors delicate and hearty in a way most chefs never approach. The worst, a terrarium curated with pickled blackberry, malt soil, wood sorrel, yogurt, seaweed, and flower petals, is less about flavor than gimmickry. Which is a nice way of saying it tastes like a scoop from a pretty garden, dirt and all.

Yes, it’s a long meal with or without the smart wine pairings, but the warm servers and skilled kitchen keep things moving. And while $205 is a lot to spend for a meal from a chef you’ve never heard of, you don’t eat the chef’s name. What you’re paying for is the discovery of a talent still in its infancy, an artist whose ideas—good and bad—are pouring out at a remarkable rate. People compare Elizabeth to Alinea, but Regan is less like Achatz 2013, the impeccable superstar, than Achatz 2001, the ambitious kid whose ability had not been identified beyond his circle at Trio.

As for the foodies, some of us take it all too seriously and others not seriously enough. No one can tell the difference anymore because we’re all simultaneously bloviating. “I have tables that don’t care to listen,” says Regan. “Then I have tables that would love me to sit and tell stories all night. I have guests who challenge me to win them over. I have guests who are already won over, and those who don’t want to be won over at all.” Enduring this blend of fanatics and pretenders up close is the price you pay to experience a dinner party restaurant like Elizabeth.

Regan is thrilled to discuss every detail with those who are interested and hopes that those who aren’t simply enjoy themselves. That’s the only realistic attitude for a chef whose food raises more questions than it answers. At my meal’s end, Name-Dropping Phony gestures to the kitchen. “Ooh, look, they’re making the foy grass for tomorrow!” he says.

I admire the fellow’s spirit, which never wanes all evening. If only he weren’t pointing at a marshmallow.

 

Photography: Anna Knott

Share

Advertisement

comments
2 years ago
Posted by ChicagoBestRest

Thanks Mr. Ruby for this detailed review. Is communal dining the only way to dine at Elizabeth Restaurant?

2 years ago
Posted by Ruby

Chicagobestrest: Yes. Elizabeth has only communal tables -- three of them with eight seats, each.

2 years ago
Posted by UninvitedX

They do have ONE table for two, but how one goes about reserving that one or which menu it is, I do not know.

2 years ago
Posted by Not so smug

Part of the communal dining theme is to sit at a table with fellow diners and engage in conversation with them -- not to be "insufferable in [one's] quiet superiority". If that's how you feel, you've failed the experience and wasted $200+.

2 years ago
Posted by Fellow Diner

I was a diner at the table that the critic, Jeff Ruby, mentions and there are always two sides to every story.

Unfortunately, the review Jeff writes for Chicago Magazine has some notable omissions and the parts that are presented include a combination of gross exaggerations and outright fabrications.

To begin with, the critic was the rudest person I've ever shared a table with.

Elizabeth features communal dining and all diners are served at the same time. They ask that diners arrive promptly and their FAQ states that diners more than 30 minutes late may not be seated.

Of about two dozen diners that evening, all but the critic's party arrived approximately 15 minutes prior to the dining time and were seated. We were served a pre-dinner cocktail and spent some time being pleasant and getting to know the other diners at our table.

The critic's party, however, did not take part in this cordial conversation. Mostly because they arrived nearly 40 minutes late. Despite the fact that all the other diners who had promptly arrived had been seated and waiting for nearly an hour, they offered no apologies to the table or to the restaurant for making over 20 other diners and roughly half that number of restaurant staff start an evening much later than planned.

This antisocial behavior continued oddly throughout the evening -- with the critic refusing to directly converse with anyone at the table from early on and actually grew to be uncomfortable by the end of the meal.

From his review, I see now that he was trying to maintain an air of "insufferable quiet superiority". Ah, but if only he had actually been quiet. For he was anything but quiet -- you see, he rather unpolitely made snarky comments about the rest of the table to his female companion throughout the dinner as if we couldn't hear him, when in fact, we quite plainly could .

In fact, his rudeness was so pronounced that I quite thought he was "suffering in pompiness" rather than being "insufferable quiet superiority". I forgave their trespasses and wrote them off for conversation because I chose to enjoy the meal -- not attempt to make myself and the other diners miserable all evening. I assumed he was just being an asshole who had a bad day that culminated with him showing up late to a dinner that he wasn't capable of enjoying.

As for the "meat" of the article, nearly everything he writes about his dining companions is misrepresentations, exaggerations, and in some cases outright lies. I feel like he had an agenda that he had to be "superior" to everyone else and needed to create this fiction to support his agenda. When one of the other diners confronted him on twitter, the critic's response was this:

'Jeff Ruby @dropkickjeffy: @slambennett The smug pianist! You got it half right. I was late and I didn't try to converse.'

For what it's worth, I quite enjoyed the company of the other diners at the restaurant. In fact, I made new friends and got e-mail addresses and I've kept in touch with them. What I didn't enjoy was the company of the "professional critic" who showed up late... and who couldn't stop criticizing everyone all night long during the meal.

2 years ago
Posted by Ruby

Thanks for commenting. You're certainly entitled to your opinion, and I'm glad you chose to express it here. But I stand by the column, which is factually correct and an honest portrayal of the evening. Seems the only thing that you and I agree on is the fact that I was late.

I'm glad that you enjoyed your meal at Elizabeth from your end of the table. So did I, from mine.

Jeff

2 years ago
Posted by Fellow Diner

Everything I said in my comment was true. Beside being extraordinarily late (actually past the last cut off time for seating), you refused attempts to engage in common pleasantries that are expected from polite people at a communal table. I will explain these courtesies to you since you obviously lack knowledge of them: be prompt and show up to dinner on time and well dressed, introduce yourself, make polite conversation or at the very least reply when spoken to, and at the end of the evening, thank your fellows for their company.

I don't believe you did any of these. You showed up late without an apology, half-disheveled like a frantic married couple who couldn't find a baby sitter, wasted a cumulative 24 hours of other diners and workers time before you picked up a fork without an apology, sat aloof and apart, and acted rude at the table.

And No... your account isn't "honest and factual"... you did not sit there "equally insufferable in [your] quiet superiority". You sat there pretending to be better than everyone else making rude comments like an immature high school kid to your wife loud enough for anyone with decent hearing to overhear.

There are things you would have learned too if you actually had talked to the other diners rather than merely made fun of them while eavesdropping from your ivory tower with the intent to misrepresent their conversations. You got small snippets of conversation and took them out of context and you also got details wrong even for the stuff that has a grain of truth.

I'll start with your obsession that the other diners were continually mispronouncing foie gras -- it was done once, in the middle of a joke about how people can't pronounce the word. For what it's worth, two of your fellow diners were Canadian (you know, a country that speaks French) and several of the other diners are conversationally fluent in the language as well. They've spent time studying French and time abroad visiting France. One had a best friend who has a doctorate in 14th century French literature and another has dined multiple times with the French consulate. The "smug pianist" even lived in France for a while. This was a group of people whom most could watch a French Film without subtitles.

No one at the table has 20 lbs of venison in their freezer. One said they had a couple tenderloins received from a brother who hunts deer in Mt. Hope Wisconsin on a 100 acre private reserve and who has closer to 200 lbs of venison if you actually want to keep count. In fact, he asked Iliana who her hunter was and how she sourced venison with a followup question if she was interested in sourcing more venison from Wisconsin when she was at the table.

The person you claim to have told "ill-informed tales of sous vide" has been using a chamber vacuum and a Polyscience immersion circulator at home for over four years. If you want to stop by and have them show you how to use these tools, they'd be more than happy to accomodate you as they do sous vide dinners at least monthly for friends.

I could continue on-and-on to dissect the list of each little insult you throw at your fellow diners and how it is factually incorrect because I actually spent time talking to them.

Again... everything you overheard you misheard, you exaggerated you got wrong, and some I'm still pretty sure you made up. There were boisterous groups at all three tables in the restaurant and you were too busy making rude little comments to your wife to actually clearly hear the details of any conversation. The fact that you were too aloof to engage and that you actually missed out on over an hour of pleasant talk before the meal gives you very little perspective on your fellow diners.

There also exists a reasonable assumption of privacy for conversations in an intimate setting. It's extremely rude to eavesdrop on people you're not talking to and to print what you only think you overheard. If you are going to violate this, at least you could do so in a manner that more truly represented what was actually said. Instead, your readers got incorrect quotes and quips taken out of context plus a fair amount of embellishment -- all focused through a lens of bitter cynicism.

Your article is juvenile in nature... taking a holier than thou attitude while reflecting the same immature name calling you displayed at our table: "large Canadian making love to his Camera", "smug" "socially stunted geeks", "blowhards", "windbags", "fanatics", "pretenders", "name dropping phony".

You're mistaken if you really think that anyone who has gone to high school doesn't realize you're not nearly as "superior" as you pretend to be with that attitude?

You claimed to be "One of Them" when talking about the other diners but YOU ARE NOT ONE OF US. Every foodie I've ever met, including the people at that table, are decent people who were nice to each other. None of us were phony or pretending to be something other than we were and the stories and passions for food that we shared in conversation over dinner were all personal experiences and opinions. What makes a person a "foodie" is not simply an appreciation or love of food but also an empathy and an ability to share that love with like minds.

No, You are not a "Foodie". You are a "Critic". You are a person who exists striving to find fault with things in life and criticize them -- sometimes rudely in mixed company. And simply knowing that people like you exist makes me lose a little hope for the human race.

I'm willing to bet that every other person at that restaurant talked to their other diners and made at least one new friend that night... with the exception of you and your wife.

2 years ago
Posted by Overwhelmed diner!

Golly! Is there a night when ordinary people can eat at Elizabeth? If not, can I get a copy of the rules of how to behave at the communal table beforehand?

Also, Mr. Ruby, I'd rather eat with you than that person above who is all too ready to prove your point.

2 years ago
Posted by chrb66

I was lucky enough to get the aforementioned 2-top right next to the kitchen. While my companion and I have no problem with communal dining, getting what amounts to the Kitchen Table was fantastic.

The terrific hostess at Elizabeth explained that we were the only couple to have bought tickets for the Deer menu, so they re-configured the restaurant to allow for the larger number of Owl menu tickets and the 4 who were enjoying the Diamond menu.

That said, I can't wait to go back and try the upcoming spring, summer, and fall menus. I found Elizabeth to be the most interesting and amazing dining experience I've had in Chicago. Thank you, Ms Regan, I look forward to eating your wonderfully thought-out menus for years to come.

As for the back-and-forth between Mr Ruby and his fellow diner above, I always thought eating out was about the food. Mr Ruby seemed more interested in reviewing his fellow diners rather than focusing on the food at Elizabeth.

2 years ago
Posted by Nate76

"Overwhelmed Diner"... saw this response to "rules" at LTHForum:

They are not explicit rules in any way, but rather, what FELLOW DINER considers to be courteous behavior when dining in a communal seating setting. Apparently the one rule that is indeed explicitly stated when reserving at Elizabeth is arriving on time (with the added warning that the reservation may be cancelled if you're more than 30 minutes late).

I have not yet been to Elizabeth, though, so those who have, feel free to correct me if my assumption is inaccurate.

However, I also don't see anything wrong with his/her advice, as a matter of common courtesy, and I don't find them overly burdensome. Here's the quote, again: "I will explain these courtesies to you since you obviously lack knowledge of them: be prompt and show up to dinner on time and well dressed, introduce yourself, make polite conversation or at the very least reply when spoken to, and at the end of the evening, thank your fellows for their company."

2 years ago
Posted by Overwhelmed diner!

You all, most of you, are lunatics.

The review says this about Chef Regan:

"And while $205 is a lot to spend for a meal from a chef you’ve never heard of, you don’t eat the chef’s name. What you’re paying for is the discovery of a talent still in its infancy, an artist whose ideas—good and bad—are pouring out at a remarkable rate. People compare Elizabeth to Alinea, but Regan is less like Achatz 2013, the impeccable superstar, than Achatz 2001, the ambitious kid whose ability had not been identified beyond his circle at Trio."

Unless you are from Mars, where perhaps words have different meanings (perhaps they don't, I don't know, but I am guessing), this is extraordinary praise.

But so bothered are you by the close to the bone criticism of obnoxious "starfucking", menu-collecting, and self-important diners such as yourself that you have been rendered apoplectic and verbally incontinent. Oh boo hoo, the critic didn't want to act like an attention-whoring jackass with the rest of you. Get over it.

2 years ago
Posted by Interesting Coincidence

"Overwhelmed Diner" is either Jeff Ruby trolling this board or one of his close friends doing so with his knowledge which is a bit disingenuous.

A qualified google search of Jeff Ruby articles shows that he uniquely uses the word "starfucker" and "starfucking" to describe his disdain of diners who verbalize any sort of praise or admiration for famous chefs.

In fact, Jeff wrote that exact same thing yesterday here: http://www.chicagomag.com/Radar/Dish/January-2013/Dish-Extra-Also-on-the-Menu-Insufferability/

2 years ago
Posted by Fellow Diner

Whoa... that doesn't seem cool at all.

The phrase "obnoxious "starfucking", menu-collecting, and self-important diners such as yourself that you have been rendered apoplectic and verbally incontinent" is an exceptionally clever insult and uses a number a catch-phases that appear unique to a certain reviewer who prides himself on cleverly insulting people.

But really Jeff...

Trolling your own review comments is highly highly unethical behavior.

It does, however, seem to fit the pattern of immaturity and name calling I have seen from Mr Ruby both in his reviews and observing first hand when we dined together.

2 years ago
Posted by Overwhelmed diner!

Oh man, Ruby, they are totally onto us! We had best break out the black helicopters. Hope they don't have tinfoil hats to keep us from finding them!

(I will confess, however, that while I don't know Ruby from Adam, I was indeed deliberately referencing Ruby's use of "starfucker" because I found it so apropos. And hilarious. Hilarious because it is so apt. And it has "fucker" in it. Also funny. Had I more time, I would have also thrown in some Thrasymachean insult about your wet-nurses, but I got distracted. Thus the verbal incontinence jab. Also true. And hilarious. Sorry!)

You guys here all week? Your stuff is GOLD!

2 years ago
Posted by Fellow Diner

"Overwhelmed Diner" is refreshing this article at an suspiciouly high rate for a disinterested third party considering the rapid timing of his reponses to my posts. Do you expect us to believe you are sitting here all day hitting "F5" on Mr Ruby's review several days in a row?

2 years ago
Posted by Overwhelmed diner!

Can't not get everything past you!

(p.s. - I tried hitting F5, but it just made my keyboard dimmer. I don't get the joke. I mean, unless, well, nevermind.)

2 years ago
Posted by Chicago magazine

From the editors: While we encourage a discussion, we ask that it focus on the content of the story. Comments that we deem irrelevant will be removed. Thanks.

2 years ago
Posted by Civility

Great minds discuss ideas.

Average minds discuss events.

Small minds discuss people.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

1 year ago
Posted by Nicole Jay

But really, all cattiness aside, why does this article focus so much on the people at the table? I don't care about them, although I'm sorry to hear they feel misrepresented. This is a restaurant review, bottom line, and we're not given the luxury to learn your opinion of the food until after we're forced to put up with your judgement of the other restaurant patrons, at which point I felt like I needed a shower.

It's really such a turn off. You sound like a scorned lover. Please cut the crap and at the very least, save your judgement of others until the end of the article so people can first read about the food and then bail out of this gossip nonsense.

1 year ago
Posted by Jillian12345

Half of the experience is about the food (unusual ingredient combinations, visual artwork, and beautiful tastes). But for one mini too sweet course, apple with grapes shot, they were all exquisite. Try to sit near the kitchen facing the chefs as watching their meticulous preparations makes you appreciate your dishes even more. If you love chef artistry and innovation, run to Elizabeth.

The other half of the experience is the communal dining experience. When you have the Diamond menu that lasts almost five hours, you get to know you tablemates. This aspect reminded me of having a long dinner at a family event--some individuals were interesting and nice to get to know yet one in particular seemed to talk a lot about her not so interesting life and opinions and dominate the conversation.

Unless you are able to sit at the table against the wall for two, the conversations from the individuals at your communal table will be part of your experience. Whether the critic's comments were correct or misplaced, I do not know. Why he needed to discuss the other patrons at his table, I understand having just experienced this communal seating. While other restaurants have communal seating, not many of them have the four to five hour experience with liberal alcohol pairings. With other communal dining experiences, we could overhear tablemates conversations rather than be part of them? We would have preferred the table for two as we learned way too much of this one person's world. Unfortunately, it did take away from our otherwise phenomenal dining experience. Would I go back, definitely. Elizabeth is an exceptional restaurant and true treasure in Chicago.

Submit your comment