(Graham Elliot interior; This picture and all others taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com, my companion for this meal)
While in Chicago for a conference, I had time in my schedule for one restaurant dinner. As I wanted to try someplace new, my companion and I narrowed our choices down to Graham Elliot and Schwa; two restaurants with obnoxious chefs, one of whom is never in the kitchen, the other of whom never opens his kitchen. We wound up selecting Schwa, only to have them cancel on us the same day; as luck would have it there was same-day availability at Graham Elliot and so we decided to go there.
Eponymous owner Graham Elliot Bowles opened the restaurant in 2008. He has since expanded his empire and is rarely in the kitchen any more. This raises the issue of authorship, since while he founded the restaurant and no doubt tasted all of the dishes, he is not the one who designed the menu. In his stead, Andrew Brochu is now the executive chef; he was previously at EL Ideas (and Alinea before that), a restaurant which my companion holds in high esteem. Elliot’s absence did not bother me, and I reasoned that with his strong pedigree, Brochu was likely executing at a high level. Still, my companion phrased it well when he stated that this meal was not a reflection of the skills of Graham Elliot (the person) but instead those of Brochu.
I had held off from going to Graham Elliot since during the last 6-12 months, the restaurant has undergone continual changes in the kitchen and menu structure. I have always felt as though I would be catching the restaurant in a state of transition, and while every restaurant is always technically in a state of transition, I had felt as though they hadn’t yet established a consistent identity. Another reason why I hadn’t yet been was simply that I find the owner’s personality to be irritating; it seems as though he’s always hungry for attention and yet quite aggressive at the same time (both of these attributes were on display in the recent escapade in which he refused service to an equally irksome food critic, only to cash in on the publicity from the episode.)
As one can see from the photograph at the top, the interior is expansive and tables are spaced at the requisite distance for a restaurant with strong Michelin aspirations. Unfortunately, there was little of the stimulation that one usually gets from a Michelin-starred dining room, even if our four-top was comfortable and afforded us plenty of space to spread out. The space felt cold and the mix of wood and brick was a bit bland for my taste. The only color was supplied by the backs of the chairs, but the lime green—the kind of green one often finds at places trying to advertise their eco-friendliness—did not harmonize with the rest of the environs. The restaurant does seem to place great emphasis on plants (the website advertises the hand-blown terrarium centerpieces that grace each table) although I found that the wildlife motif was drowned out by the industrial warehouse feel. Given this atmosphere, I would not say that the ambiance positively informed the experience.
There are 3 menu options: a la carte, tasting (8 courses) and repertoire (13 courses.) The price differential was a bit strange, as the 8 course was $95 and the 13 course was $145. This meant that the 13-course option cost more per course than the 8 course—odd since a) none of the five extra courses were savory ones and b) the price per course typically decreases (and rarely increases) with longer menus. We had actually planned to order the repertoire menu but it was different from the one listed online; most notably, the duck course had been taken off the menu and so we chose the 8-course option.
The meal began in an unusual way as it forwent a proper amuse bouche, although the first course was sized like one—I liked this as it made the opening bite more organically related to the rest of the meal. The first offering was titled “oyster,” comprised of oyster leaf, oyster cream, mignonette gel, and black pepper. There was strong acidity to this dish (likely due to the mignonette gel), setting the tone for the rest of the meal.
We were next gifted with the second course from the longer menu, titled “ramp: flour, cream, melon.” In the saucer were ramps, flour, and melon, into which we were instructed to pour a small pitcher of a cream-based sauce. While I’m not opposed to involving the diner in a hands-on way in certain contexts (i.e. Alinea), this seemed like an overly mundane task and didn’t add any novelty. Overall, it was a refreshing dish although its creamy flavor made it virtually interchangeable with the oyster course.
The following dish was another vegetable preparation, named “tomato: cucumber, soy, pepper.” The plating, with a number of edible flowers, reflected the garden appearance that one finds at a number of restaurants now. This involved a trio of tomatoes; I especially enjoyed the thick preparation, which was topped with black pepper. There was also a cucumber puree and an acidic yuzu component. It is always interesting how a restaurant can be identified through its plating style; I found this to be a good example of the Graham Elliot aesthetic, with an abstract appearance that recalls Charlie Trotter’s, only more 3-dimensional and sculptural.
Moving on to the protein preparations, our next course was “pork: mango, lily, coriander.” The pork belly was seared and paired with chicharrones, mango cream, mango gel, and coriander. I usually find mango to be overly sweet, but the chicharrones did an admirable job of countering this. One can see in the photo that there was a good deal of yellow color in the plating, which, combined with the flowers (a recurring visual motif throughout the meal) established a tropical appearance that—while perhaps a nod to the terrarium centerpiece—was strange in the context of an old warehouse. Due to the factory environment, I don’t think that the atmosphere really coheres with the aesthetic of the cuisine.
Our next dish was a pasta course, “risotto: artichoke, basil, truffle.” Having consumed too many heavy risotto dishes in the past, I usually stray far from risotto (and other pasta for that matter) although this managed to be relatively light due to its small portion size and I found it to be an outstanding preparation. The artichoke and truffle were quite appealing, although the basil was a bit aggressive in this context and served no purpose beyond supplying some color.
We were next brought an intermezzo, which was a bit of a surprise this early in the meal. It consisted of sesame cream, powdered black olive, pickled cherry, chocolate, and herb. According to the recent review in the Chicago Tribune, this preparation was intended to invoke the appearance of the terrarium centerpiece, although this was neither self-evident nor mentioned by the server. The pastry chef is now Bryce Caron, who was formerly the pastry chef at Blackbird. I remember enjoying Caron’s desserts from my meal at Blackbird; this was equally well-executed, although I still feel that the pronounced chocolate flavors were a bit much. It’s now common to see savory flavors infiltrating dessert preparations, but this went the other way around and I don’t think chocolate works well in an intermezzo course.
Our fish course was “halibut: squash, dill, potato.” One can see the sculptural abstraction of Elliot’s style: a large portion of halibut was sous-vided in butter and paired with mashed potatoes, squash blossom, and a strong dill flavor that still resonates with me as the dominant flavor from the meal. I had high expectations for this dish as I love halibut, but it was a disaster. I don’t understand the rationale behind sous-viding in butter, and the inherent flavor of the fish was completely overwhelmed by the fat. The dill was similarly overwhelming and I also found the potatoes to be too heavy in conjunction with the fish.
The red meat dish was “beef: chive, tarragon, thyme.” It was topped with finely chopped sweet onions. The steak was described as a domestic Wagyu filet, although when I asked about the supplier, no exact answer was given and we were told that they use a blend from several suppliers—curiously, this was the exact answer that Tru gave in response to their domestic Wagyu sourcing. I enjoy lean meats and so for me this was a terrific preparation, but there was very little of the marbling one would expect from Wagyu and in this regard, one has to wonder whether they are only using Wagyu beef for the novelty of its title.
The next offering was another extra course gifted from the kitchen, titled “cheese: blackberry, almond, ash.” This was a composed cheese course that deconstructed a traditional cheese course; the cheese tasted like pecorino, paired with almond crackers and blackberry compote. We both enjoyed this preparation and I felt that the execution and conception were more precise than that of the savory dishes.
Our next dish was described by the server as being a favorite; titled “plum: sassafras, white chocolate, celery,” there was candied plum, plum sorbet, root beer financier, white chocolate, and celery; I was a bit blown away by this preparation, especially since I don’t consider plum among my favorite fruits. The plum/root beer/white chocolate amalgam offered a terrific mix of flavors and textures.
Our final course was “chocolate: apricot, coconut, chilies”—dark chocolate ganache accompanied by chilies, charred apricot, and coconut sorbet. This preparation actually sounded fairly tame after the last two desserts and so I was shocked when this wound up being the most aggressive dish of the evening. While the chocolate/chile combination is not uncommon, the kitchen had not removed the seeds and the result was unpleasant and made for a horrible final course.
The mignardises were a soy/blueberry pate de fruit and a rice/sesame/chocolate candy; both were tasty and refreshing in light of the chocolate dish.
This was certainly an interesting meal—while some of the preparations were outstanding, a couple of the dishes—notably, the halibut and the chocolate—were offensively poor-tasting. One of the issues involved in evaluating this meal is that there is no indication that either of these two preparations was prepared differently from its intent. Our server, in fact, asserted that it was not uncommon to sous-vide fish in butter, which seems almost unfathomable to me. Despite the two misfires, the other courses held explosive flavor and novel ingredient pairings; while it’s a testament to their ability that they can create so much flavor, they seem to have an issue with ‘flavor management.’
The restaurant obviously has aspirations for multiple Michelin Stars; however, I think one of the obstacles it runs into is that the owner’s clownish personality (which pervades the restaurant’s identity despite his physical absence from the kitchen) precludes the requisite tenor of precision exhibited by more highly acclaimed restaurants. While I enjoyed the meal, I didn’t find the concepts or execution as appealing as Moto or Alinea. It will be interesting to see whether the elite roster of talent they have assembled can manage their ability in a more polished way.