It had been almost a decade since I was last in Chicago and I was anxious to get back; my primary intent to eat my way through the city. From all reports, Chicago is bursting at the seams these days with highly lauded, inventive, boundary-pushing chefs, and I had a long list of restaurants on my must-try list. When I found out I’d be heading to Chicago for a business trip, I knew there would be some great meals in store for me and my colleagues, even if I wouldn’t be leading the reservations effort.
I’m not going to kid myself; this will never be a three Michelin-star restaurant, ever. We’re so far outside the box. We play loud hip-hop. We do not give a fuck.
-Chef Phillip Foss
Coincidentally, the same week I’d be in Chicago would mark my wedding anniversary with Craig, so we decided to extend and morph the trip into a mini-vacation; because life is short and a few extra days would mean a few more opportunities to eat. I extended my stay through the weekend and Craig booked a flight to join me mid-week when the business part of my trip was complete. My primary task: find a special place to eat for our anniversary with only a few weeks’ notice.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have stumbled on EL Ideas except that, by chance, at the same time I was tasked with finding our anniversary dinner an interview in Eater with Chef Phillip Foss appeared in my inbox. I wasn’t familiar with Chef Foss, but only a few lines into the article I was pretty sure I’d found my special dinner.
Chef Foss is forty-five years old, a Midwest native, and has cooked at several fine dining establishments, as well as a slew of hotels around the globe. After returning to the Midwest he started a much-loved food truck in Chicago called Meatyballs Mobile. One day when a health inspector came out to inspect the brick building in Douglas Park that Foss was using for prep, he gave him a restaurant license somewhat on a whim, and two months later EL Ideas was born. Foss soon ditched Meatyballs (with the promise of an occasional pop-up) and three years and a Michelin star later, Craig and I arrived for our anniversary dinner.
I’d read some reviews and blog posts leading up to our meal but I didn’t want to know too much about the actual dishes, because I really revel in the element of surprise. Although almost everything I read was extremely favorable, it was clear that EL Ideas isn’t for everyone. Some think the casualness, the loud rap music, the licking of plates (more on that later) is too much for a fine dining experience. I read that sometimes diners actually help serve food and was intrigued. My assumption was that it was all in good fun, but when I mentioned it to Craig I could see the uncertainty cross his face. And then I got nervous. But it was too late; reservations were made and the entire bill including tip had been paid in advance.
Turns out there was no need for anyone to be nervous. It was a beautiful, fun, relaxed, delicious night. As we made our way to the restaurant it was clear that the neighborhood was rough around the edges, and probably in its center as well, but it’s a location where a chef like Foss can afford to own a building and be able to run a restaurant on his own terms, without answering to partners or investors like he would at a swank downtown location or in the current trendy neighborhood du jour. And, frankly, the setting suits EL Ideas; it’s anything but your typical fine dining experience and the location makes that clear from the start.
Foss’ goal is to take the fussiness out of fine dining and to make it more accessible. Perhaps not by price, although the BYOB policy helps, but by taking out the pretentiousness. The concept is that you are at a dinner party in someone’s home; a fact that is almost literally true, given that Foss lives upstairs above the restaurant with his girlfriend and EL Ideas Director of Operations, Akiko Moorman. The tiny restaurant seats twenty-four people max. They serve a tasting menu only and have one seating a night during the week and two on weekends. You are encouraged to talk to other diners and, more significantly, you’re encouraged to walk by the kitchen – which is completely open to the dining area – and talk to the chefs. Want to take photos? Not a problem. Want to ask a question about the food? Go ahead. And presumably, if you wanted to help plate or serve food, you might even have an opportunity to do so.
The restaurant runs on a small, efficient staff of five during service. Chef Foss and Chef de Cuisine Joe Cancarz lead the way in the kitchen, with one other chef, a dish washer, and Bill Talbott at the front of house. All three chefs double as servers, while Bill keeps your water glass full and provides glassware, wine bottle openers, decanters, and ice buckets for your BYOB wine.
It’s an intimate set-up with a casual, friendly vibe. There is a loud, eclectic playlist and Breaking Bad art in the restrooms. But the food is serious. Well, that’s not entirely true; some of it is quite fun and playful, but all of it is beautifully presented, carefully curated, absolutely delicious, and at times mind-blowing. The fact that the restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 2013 after only two years should prove especially meaningful in an atmosphere that is so opposite of what you expect from a fine dining establishment. Chef Foss plays by his own rules, and it’s obvious he and his co-conspirators have a great time doing it.
I love watching chefs at work, and in contrast to some other places we’ve been to these guys seem to actually be having fun. They smiled, they laughed, they chatted with one another, and they chatted with their dinner guests. Sure, the food requires some intensive, precision work and timing, but they didn’t seem tense and didn’t seem to mind the distractions. More than just a well-choreographed kitchen dance, it seems like these guys share a vision and really enjoy working together.
After everyone had arrived and settled in, Chef Foss announced the rules of the evening: have fun, talk to your neighbors, come by the kitchen, and just be mindful when you’re walking behind one of the chefs. He then announced some of the special occasions being celebrated that night, and apparently Craig and I were not the only couple celebrating an anniversary. He then had us all raise a glass to toast one another, signifying we were all in this experience together.
As each course came out and after everyone was served, one of the chefs would turn down the music and explain what we were about to eat and any special instructions on how to eat it. No, it was not always obvious.
We started with an amuse bouche called Steak and Eggs, which Chef Foss declared would be the best course of the evening and it would be all downhill afterwards. It was a wham-bam of a starting course, but afterwards things definitely did not go downhill. So how does Chef Foss reimagine this American breakfast classic in a single bite? With a beautiful piece of Wagyu beef wrapped around a small chunk of brioche and topped with caviar. Extravagant and perfectly decadent, it leaves you wanting more — which I can only assume is exactly what he planned.
This teaser was followed by a series of gorgeous, early summer dishes splendid in all their pink and green glory. Blossoms was a cucumber salad with wild salmon roe, apricot, and edible flowers, arranged on top of a buttermilk–based drizzle, spiked with chamomile and served dramatically on a large, black, snake-skin patterned plate. It was almost too pretty to eat. It was also the most physically challenging dish of the night because it was served sans utensils, yet it was not finger food. Chef Foss instructed us to, literally, lick our plates with the intention that it would break down any barriers for the remainder of the evening. I was reminded of when I was growing up and would push food onto my fork with my fingers (truth be told, I still do that) and my dad would tell me to take my fingers out of my food. As a young college student, I got my revenge when I took my dad to a Moroccan restaurant where you were supposed to eat with your fingers. Licking our plates at El Ideas felt like a natural progression, and I couldn’t wait to tell my dad about it.
While I tried not to read too much about specific dishes at EL Ideas, there was one dish I couldn’t avoid reading about since it has become somewhat of a signature plate for Chef Foss that everyone enthusiastically and giddily writes about. I had no idea if he would serve it, so I was trying not to get my hopes up. Thankfully, it turns out it’s the one dish that is always on the menu. It was also the most showy dish in its presentation, as well as the most unexpected and the most delightful: French fries and ice cream, inspired by Foss’ own children dipping their French fries into a Wendy’s frosty. Admit it, we’ve all done it, and this elegant, grown-up version was dramatic, exciting, and definitely in the mind-blowing category.
The whole dining room started buzzing when we noticed the billowing liquid nitrogen coming from the kitchen, and we instinctively knew what was coming next as we gathered around the kitchen to watch the ice cream being made. Glass goblets were filled with potato leek soup and crunchy potato bits and then, back at our tables, the smoking vanilla ice cream was poured on top of the soup. The hot and cold, salty and sweet, creamy and crunchy goodness made me giggle with delight. It is such a perfect dish that Chef Foss may have a tough time moving away from it. Like elBulli’s spherical olives, this will be a dish that diners demand and chefs attempt to copy for years to come.
We were told our first course would be the best; then, EL Ideas most iconic dish was somewhere near the middle. So how do you top that? You don’t worry about it. You just keep on serving amazing, inventive food, like a pretty glass bowl of king crab salad with honeydew, lemongrass, galangal, and radish sitting atop a game hen consommé. The consommé – which I was expecting to be flavorless and more about texture – was out of this world, simultaneously rich and light, and a perfect foil to the sweetness of the crab and honeydew. This was easily one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
Then came the uni. I want to like uni, I really do. But no matter where I’ve had it or how it’s been prepared I just can’t embrace the funky texture, taste, and smell. I’ve had it fresh off the boat in Tokyo at the Tsujiki Fish Market, I’ve had it in Barcelona prepared by Chef Albert Adria, and I’ve had it prepared by master sushi chef Shiro Kashiba at home in Seattle. And now I’ve had it in Chicago by Chef Foss. The plating was so pretty, with the uni surrounded by curly spring pea tendrils and porcini mushrooms, and I hoped this would be the time that I fell in love — but it wasn’t meant to be. Uni: I’m just not that into you; but like a bad relationship you just can’t shake, I suspect I’ll keep you giving you more chances despite my better judgment.
The final heartier, more savory courses were now coming up to round out the menu. Sous vide lamb — with El Ideas version of a Carolina BBQ sauce served with grits and fiddleheads — was tender, rich and comforting, and something I wish I could eat for dinner in a full-sized version right now. Following that was a rare roasted duck breast with turnips, pecans, and mulberries in an Asian coffee sauce, which was perhaps the most predictable of all the courses but that didn’t take away from how tasty it was.
We were beginning to transition. While I wouldn’t exactly call the next dish a palette cleanser, it was clearly a turning point. Craig and I had previously requested a substitution for fois gras if there happened to be any on the menu, which they replaced with a decadent goat cheese served with peaches, spruce, kohlrabi and verjus, all of which provided a rich, earthy combination. I should mention that EL Ideas was very good about acknowledging and confirming dietary requests. When we initially made our reservation they asked about dietary restrictions, which they confirmed a day prior to our arrival and again when we arrived. I have no doubt that it’s difficult to accommodate different requests in a tasting menu format, but the staff at EL Ideas made us feel welcome even if our restrictions puzzled them.
The first dessert course was a gorgeous plate of blood-red strawberries, chunks of red velvet cake, cream cheese frosting and black licorice ice cream. The ice cream was surprisingly refreshing and a great counterpoint to the berries. The final course provided a rich and satisfying ending with dark chocolate gelato, fried banana, peanut brittle, and a chocolate macaron crisp.
Self-serve coffee and tea were offered up to finish off the night. Guests lingered for a while and then slowly we all made our way out as the chefs cleaned up for the final time of the evening. I wondered what it feels like to go through this entire process twice a night – you get through one service and clean up just to start the whole thing over again. But with a limited number of diners and a small kitchen crew, I’ve never seen chefs look so relaxed — and that seems to be the point of the EL Ideas philosophy that Chef Foss has imagined and brought to life.
The evening was unpretentious yet the food was glamorous and decadent. Beautiful in presentation but also delicious with inventive combinations that really worked. There were moments of fun and delight, like licking your plate and eating French fries and ice cream, and moments of pure luxury with ingredients like Wagyu beef, caviar, and even the shaved goat cheese. Blurring the lines between the kitchen and dining room not only make this a unique experience, but also a welcome change in attitude for fine dining. Chef’s counters abound in restaurants today, but it often feels like you’re a gawker or a spectator. EL Ideas has changed those boundaries.
While not inexpensive, the BYOB policy makes the cost more manageable. The dinner is pre-paid upon making your reservation, including tax and tip. This is a controversial practice gaining in popularity, particularly at popular, higher-end restaurants. I think it’s fine when the service is as good as it was here. My only issue is when I don’t think the service is worthy of the tip that I’ve been forced to give – in advance – which is a whole other issue, because any meal that you’re spending hundreds of dollars on should have exceptional service. But I digress because, along with the excellent food, the service here was never an issue here; and, honestly, it was really nice to end the meal and not have to settle up.
I really appreciate what Chef Foss is doing at EL Ideas. I’m a big fan of marching to the beat of your own drum and I hope he can keep doing that without feeling pressure from critics and the Michelin guide; because, despite what he says, Foss does give a fuck. While waiting for a call earlier this year from Michelin announcing the results for their latest guide, he said, “Look, nothing’s definite. I’m looking to get two stars. If we get one star? Eh, fine. I’m not going to be as exalted as last year. But, if we lose it, I’d be pretty devastated.” He went on to explain the Michelin star system in this analogy: “Maybe a one star is she recognizes you and she gives you her phone number. Two stars is she’s ripping off her clothes for you. Taking a star away is she’s sleeping with your best friend and you don’t even want to show your face in public.”
From all accounts, there are a lot of critics and diners alike who find Chef Foss a refreshing counterpoint in today’s culinary world, so I hope he sticks to his guns and continues to get the accolades he deserves — including that second star. I know I’m going to be following Chef Foss’ career and can’t wait to make it back to the windy city to celebrate another anniversary at EL Ideas.