The chef/owner behind EL ideas is Phillip Foss, whose rich and interesting resume includes places such as Maui, Jerusalem, and Bermuda. Perhaps the travel experience is what gave this classically French-trained chef a perspective unlike others. In Chicago, Foss was perhaps best known for his work at Lockwood, a contemporary American restaurant in the Palmer House. After Lockwood, Foss left behind his hotel-restaurant and conventional fine-dining identity and joined the Chicago food-truck craze, selling meatball-sandwiches off his “Meatyballs Mobile.” Foss, a somewhat quirky fellow, was not afraid to “go there” with the name of his truck and routinely came up with obnoxiously punny tweets to promote his business. It was during this time he landed the 14th Street location in order to comply with the backward Chicago ordinances and cook all the food ahead of time.
After Foss finally ran out of corny balls jokes, instead of turning his truck into a sausage mobile, he began phasing out the whole food-truck venture and transforming his 14th Street kitchen into a small tasting-menu-only restaurant. The namesake of the restaurant, EL ideas (which stands for elevated ideas), not only pays tribute to the EL trains of Chicago but also points to the progressive concepts underlying the cuisine. At the beginning, he elicited the help of Andrew Brochu (previously Alinea and Pops for Champagne). Foss’ international experience and Brochu’s contemporary flair generated a buzz early on and received some enthusiastic, albeit mixed, reviews from local food critics. But a couple months prior to my visit to EL ideas, Brochu left the project to head the kitchen at Graham Elliot. Since the menu at EL ideas changes constantly, by the time of my reservation, the menu would have been “all-Foss.” I was somewhat concerned, as I wasn’t sure how Brochu’s departure would impact the creative vision of the project. It was with this unease that I visited EL ideas with my friend, Endo Edibles.
The area surrounding EL ideas was quite desolate. And at night time, it seemed down right sketchy. It was certainly not encouraging that, when I was getting of the cab, my driver asked me with a concerned face, “Here? Are you sure?” I thought to myself, “Phillip Foss, this better be damn good!” Like most fine-dining restaurants in divey locations, EL ideas’ entrance was hard to find. But after finding it, one would be rewarded with a warm and welcoming dining room. The décor was decidedly eclectic, replete with unconventional but pleasant personal touches such as a window treatment made with corks and a chalk-board with a tribute to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The overall atmosphere was intimate, inviting and made perfect sense in the context of the project. I definitely preferred this dining room over those at similar ventures such as Schwa and Bonsoiree.
The meal started with an oyster shot. The oyster was the sweet and plump Kumamoto. The cocktail was made with gin, crème de violette, and cucumber juice. The garnishes, which consisted of Champagne-vinegar-marinated beet, cucumber blossom and coriander blossom, provided both textural and visual interests. The composition was well-balanced, light, and refreshing. It was an interesting amuse bouche, but the whisky-glass vessel made it difficult to consume. Perhaps it would be more successful if served on a porcelain spoon or in a shot glass.
The kitchen then delivered the next course, char roe, with no utensils. The golden char roe was sitting on a tube of tapioca cooked with coconut milk and garnished with yuzu ponzu-marinated radishes, soy sauce pudding, and wasabi leaves. Topping everything were fine shavings of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). The combination of citrus, umami, and creaminess was compelling and showcased sophisticated use of Japanese ingredients. Even though the dish was a touch too salty for my palate, it was within the range of reasonable personal tastes rather than a clear execution error. As none of the diners were dexterous enough with our fingers, we had to literally lick the plates clean. The iconoclastic approach to this “caviar” course was cleaver and fun, which set the tone for the rest of the meal.
Next was black bass. Superbly executed, the fish had a well-crisped skin and tender but firm meat (as opposed to flaky). The fish was sitting on top of black glutinous rice, blackened garlic puree, and slices of black radish. Clearly, the word “black” in the names of the ingredients was the common thread that inspired this creation. But this was more than a clever collection of ingredients that contained the word “black.” Aside from forming a gorgeous presentation, the sweet and al dente black rice, the smoky black garlic, and the refreshing and slightly crunchy black radish added dimensions to the fish in both flavors and textures. Even though I thought this course was oddly placed in the progression of the menu, I quite enjoyed it.
Foss then introduced the next dish, named “cauliflower.” The cauliflower was executed in two ways. First, it was cooked sous vide with lemon and olive oil, allowing the natural sweet flavor of the cauliflower to come through without being overcooked. Second, it was chopped finely and cooked with sofrito into what Foss called “cauliflower Bolognese.” This was served over boiled potatoes, croutons, and topped off with white anchovy and botarga. The umami and the brininess of botarga and white anchovy paired beautifully, which was in turn balanced by the sweetness of the cauliflower preparations. The dish had the elements of a satisfying pasta course without the weight and the richness. Pure genius.
Then came a dish called “Brussels sprouts.” The caramelized Brussels sprouts were good. But the best part of the dish was the combination of the creamy grits and the crispy fried kale and pork cracklings. The textural and flavor interplay of the three items I don’t usually eat turned out to be most comforting and oddly nostalgic. It reminded me of something I used to eat growing up in Taiwan – congee with pork sung and furikake. Foss probably didn’t intend it to evoke that reference; but I wanted to give him a man hug anyway for bringing me the taste of home.
The meal then turned for the lighter. Foss composed a dish out of a classic American snack – apple and peanut butter. The peanut butter was infused with Bourbon aged soy, and the apple was executed in two forms: sorbet and juliennes. The soy-infused peanut butter struck a delectable balance between sweet and savory; combined with peanut brittle, it reminded me of majiang mian (a Taiwanese noodle dish served with sesame paste and soy sauce). The crispy bacon, sitting on top of the tart Granny Smith sorbet, of course went well with the sweetness of the dish. Finishing off the composition with a dollop of parsnip marmalade, this was essentially a successful deconstruction of a snack sandwich. The tension between sweet and savory was engaging and interesting, albeit placed in a somewhat odd point of the meal (it’d be more compelling as an appetizer course or a transition course between savories and desserts).
Next was the kitchen’s take on an American French classic – French onion soup. The soup base was Emmentaler cheese and was rich and savory. Swimming in the soup was caramelized onions and strips of brioche. In the middle was a prominent piece of toasted brioche crouton, which gave a smoky, even burned, nose to the dish. On the rim of the warm plate was nutmeg powder – a classic French Laundry execution to excite the essential oil in the spice and add aroma to the dish.
As our meal coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, Foss whipped up a “green eggs and ham” dish to honor the occasion. The green egg was a nicely poached egg with an arugula juice marinate. The Benton Family Farm’s ham was sitting on a bed of creamed Jerusalem artichoke slices. The dish was garnished with fresh arugula, candied blackberry and blackberry sauce. The ingredients sounded like they could work together (imagine an elevated eggs benedict); but they were not well composed. The ham, especially, was cut way too thick. I had previously enjoyed Benton’s ham at Publican. But when the ham was this chunky, the texture was too chewy and the saltiness overwhelming – it was nearly inedible to my palate.
Next was a generous piece of roasted foie gras. The foie gras was incredibly supple and unctuous, satisfying gluttony like the kiss of a passionate and experienced lover. It was on a bed of lentil and celeriac salad, which provided some contrasting textures. The Meyer lemon confiture and mustard-vinaigrette cut through the richness of the foie gras nicely. The celeriac puree and the translucent celeriac crisps provided lightness and more textural interests to the dish. The combination of whole foie gras and the garnishes usually served with foie gras au torchon / pate, was smart and successful. From the high quality of the Hudson Valley foie gras to the meticulous composition of accompanying garnishes, this was the best foie gras preparation I’d had in the past two years.
Another soup course followed, as a bowl of kohlrabi cream soup was presented, with crispy kohlrabi leaves, steamed Maine lobster, and sweetbreads sitting on the edge of the plate. Instead of pouring the soup tableside over the ingredients, the kitchen had us pushed the ingredients into the soup ourselves. My only gripe is that the sweetbreads, which were introduced as “crispy sweetbreads,” were not very crispy. But other than that, the dish sang with beautiful colors, rich flavors and complimentary textures. This was my first time having sweetbreads in a soup, and I hope it wasn’t the last.
Next was an Asian-style duck breast. The duck was cooked sous vide and roasted – beautifully pink and tender. The duck was sitting on a bed of pickled shishito (a mild Japanese pepper) and bok choy. The sauce was a black pepper oyster sauce, which worked perfectly with the richness of the duck (much like how plum sauce works with Peking duck, which probably inspired the pairing). A simple and stunning dish.
The final savory course was Australian wagyu strip loin. The steak was relatively lean but very tender. It was served with a deconstructed Béarnaise sauce (clarified butter powder, slow cooked egg yolk, tarragon reduction), lemon pudding, and Dijon mustard. When the butter powder hit the palate, it would instantly melt and coat the steak, imparting a pleasant buttery richness. It was as delicious as it was fun.
The first dessert was appropriately named “movie snacks.” It was composed of popcorn, crumbled homemade Whoppers, chocolate-covered pretzels, Twizzlers ice cream and Coca-Cola foam. I abhor Twizzlers (and its cloying, artificial sweetness) with a passion. But as a flavor for ice cream, it was amazing. The ice cream form really brought out the little virtue that Twizzlers have – the subtle fruitiness was pleasant and the rosy color enticing. And the coke foam worked well too – paired with other items on the plate, it really conjured up memories of good times at movie theaters. I’m not a fan of movie snacks in general. So if a chef can make a fantastic dessert out of things I otherwise dislike, he will get my respect. I will remember this surprising and wondrous dessert for a long time.
The final course of the day was another elevated childhood favorite – “milk n’ cookies.” An excellent chocolate ice cream was paired with sweet milk pudding and Oreo and dark chocolate cookie crumbles. The white ball was liquid chocolate encased by a white chocolate capsule, which the kitchen called a “reverse Oreo.” It was a relatively safe composition with satisfying flavors and contrasting textures. I would have liked to see less of the crumbles and more of the milk pudding.
After the meal, diners were welcome to help themselves with tea and coffee in the kitchen. The tea was from Rare Tea Cellar, and the coffee was from Ipsento. The kitchen was completely open to the dining room, and diners were free to wander into the kitchen and interact with the staffs. And so, it felt like a great room in someone’s house. I was worried that such transparency would render the experience hoaxy. But such was not the case. The staffs did not stage for performance – didn’t try to be over-the-top effusive or crack corny jokes. They were just focused on cooking. And if the diners happened to ask a question, they would gladly answer it. Towards the end of the meal, my friend and I were getting quite full and so decided to walk around the kitchen between courses. We ended up striking up a conversation with the maître d’. We talked about other chefs and restaurants in the city, and he did not hide his enthusiasm about Duffy’s new venture, Grace. Conversations were organic and the atmosphere unintimidating. Some diners even played waiter and brought food back to their own tables. It all felt like a dinner party at someone’s home.
I did not know what to expect of EL ideas – I was not sure if I’d appreciate the format, and I was worried that the kitchen would suffer after Brochu’s departure. I left pleasantly surprised and thoroughly impressed. My only complaint is that the progression of the courses was rather odd. It almost seemed like two savory tasting menus back to back. This criticism, however, doesn’t take away the brilliance of this well-conceived project. The food was imaginative, engaging, and, except for the St. Patty course, really delicious. The whole dining experience was also fun and memorable. EL ideas is perhaps the most exciting restaurant in Chicago now. The flavors were bold, but the presentation was exquisite. The menu seems to be constantly evolving, but the execution is consistent. In terms of style and level of cooking, I found EL ideas similar to Graham Elliot (under Runge) and Schwa, both of which are 1-Michelin-star restaurants that I think deserve two. As such, I have no doubt that Foss will snatch at least 1 Michelin star in the upcoming Red Guide, and I cannot wait to go back.
2419 W 14th St
Chicago, IL 60608