(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.”
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?
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