I had forgotten that chicken could taste this good. Although the menu indicated that it was poached, I suspect it had undergone some kind of Hogwarts treatment. It was the most tender and flavorful plate of chicken I’ve had in too many years. Even my friend, who has a hard and fast rule about not eating chicken (the reasons are very vague and confusing to me), was convinced to take a bite of the roulade of breast meat. She agreed that it was mighty fine chicken.
An artist becomes great when, having mastered his/her craft, is finally able to break out into free-form creativity. Chef G. Elliot Bowles has done just that with graham elliot, his new restaurant in Chicago’s River North.
I don’t need to give Chef Bowles’s creds, if you haven’t heard of him then I suggest Google as a great place to start. Suffice it to say, he’s earned the ability to strike out under his own brand of culinary artistry.
He calls it “bistronomy” – “redefining fine dining.” This is *not* Avenues, where he reigned as chef supreme for four wonderful years. This is Elliotland, a personalized playground for the adult kid that he is. It’s complete with (you can precede each of the following with “great”) food, drinks, a website, and a soundtrack. It’s the kind of place that you want to go with good friends, which is what I did.
It’s no secret that Bowles and I are acquainted. For months, I had been keeping up with him about the progress of the restaurant. He had shown me the restaurant space in March. At that time, it was an empty shell. I wouldn’t know it from a condemned warehouse. He told me, optimistically, that he aimed for the restaurant to open in late May/early June.
Knowing the way restaurant openings usually go, I took this as “code” for late October/early November.
But, true to his word, graham elliot opened on time – sadly, long before I managed to make my way to Chicago again.
So, I sat on the sidelines watching as food bloggers and others reported back about their experiences.
From the U-shaped bar to the floor plan, the website, the color scheme, and the atmosphere, the restaurant is exactly as Chef Bowles had described it to me five months earlier.
The menu is divided into four categories: Cold and Hot (both starters) and Sea and Land (main courses). Of course, there’s a dessert menu as well.
Portions are what I call “big boy” sizes. You definitely won’t walk away hungry. Everything, be it salad or side of hoofed animal is served on the same fifteen-inch (guestimating) white enamel plates (from IKEA).
You also won’t walk away terribly broke either. Although the prices aren’t exactly cheap ($9-$15 for starters; $27-$33 main courses), value is high and the execution is superb. The average tab for a three-course meal with a drink is probably approaching, if not just a little past $60.
My two friends and I each ordered two starters (I had two Cold and my friends had one Cold and Hot each). They each ordered one main course and I asked if Chef could split a fish and a meat for me, which he agreed to do (I couldn’t decide what to order, so I just left it up to him). But, he also sent out a second round of full-sized main courses for my friends (which were comped), just so they wouldn’t feel left out. We had PLENTY of food.
Here is what we ordered (you can view each dish by clicking on the title, or click here to see the entire set):
Each season paints the restaurant with a new color and vegetable/fruit theme. As you can see from my photos, summer = yellow. The dining was awash in yellow light (one that had a food blogger-proof frequency that disarmed my camera’s white balance function). Double-mirrored showcases set into the exposed brick wall displayed lemons that seemed to stretch into infinity. Autumn will bring orange lights and pumpkins; winter, white lights with herbs (that’s when I need to return for some color-adjusted photos); and spring, green lights (I can’t wait to see my pictures from THAT meal) with mushrooms.
On a mid-week night, the restaurant was humming by 6pm when I arrived at the bar for a pre-dinner drink, packed by 8 when we were mid-meal, and empty – almost clearing out instantly – by a quarter after 10 when we finished. There’s a definite rhythm to this operation.
Chef sent out his signature “Foielipop” as a pre-dinner lagniappe – a ball of foie gras mousse coated in pop rocks on a lolipop stick. Along with it came a glass of NV Dampierre Grande Cuvee Champagne, on the house. I don’t think of champagne and foie gras as a particularly intuitive pairing. It’s not. But champagne with pop rocks was something else. Try it sometime.
Having eaten at Avenues quite a few times, most recently in March just before Chef Bowles’s departure from The Peninsula, I had gotten a preview of graham elliot’s menu. For example, the Aged Cheddar Risotto on the Hot portion of the menu is a slightly tweaked version of the “Risotto” I had at Avenues. Rife with apples, bacon and cheddar, it’s garnished with Cheez-It crackers. Spicy Buffalo Chicken is a variation of the “Quail,” with the same accompaniments: celeriac slaw, “bleu” cheese, hot sauce, and Budweiser beer froth. And his famous “Romaine” now appears on the menu as GE Caesar Salad, still with the romaine lettuce, Spanish boquerones, and brioche “Twinkies” filled with Parmesan mascarpone.
The Kobe Beef Tartare on graham elliot’s menu is a dish that I’ve seen evolve over the course of a few years. The “Tartare” course I had at Avenues over two years ago was an early prototype. It featured Wagyu beef tartare on a carpet of parsley panna cotta and topped with a horseradish beignet and Bearnaise sauce gelato. More recently, it had developed so that the tartare sat on a Bearnaise sauce panna cotta and was topped with smoked ice cream. Now, the beef is topped with a Bearnaise sauce gelee, watercress, smoked ice cream and a potato chips.
At Avenues, the hallmark of Chef Bowles’s cooking was the ability to ingeniously embody wit in dainty and finessed forms. At graham elliot, Chef Bowles sets this playfulness right side up and presents himself, unplugged.
I mean, the food is still witty – like the Lake Superior Whitefish, which was a clever stab at a German fish fry, with a saucy tartar flecked with bits of tart relish, vinegary potato and cabbage salads, and a fried pickle – or the Short Rib Stroganoff, a flashback to the 70’s family meal, which featured a hunk of short rib meat on a bed of egg noodles with crimini mushrooms and ladled with peppery creme fraiche.
And, it’s still playful – preying upon a weakness of mine, the restaurant serves (lime and brown butter) popcorn instead of bread.
But, gone are the smug quotes. There are no more cute, rehearsed theatrics or table-side presentations. If you tap into the wit – like the Molten Carrot Cake (I can’t help but laugh at the commentary it makes on *that* chocolate version), which has a cream cheese core and is sided by sour cream ice cream raisin compote, and a shard of crunchy walnut brittle – great. If not, the food speaks for itself.
The food is simple, big, and bold, like the Prime Pork Rib, the juiciest and most flavorful pork chop I’ve ever had; it put the Berkshire Pork “2 Ways” that I had at Justus Drugstore last year, to shame. Double cut and the size of a small MACK truck, Bowles’s version came glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce on a bed of creamy grits, braised collard greens, and topped with a peach chutney. My friends and I joked that the dish should be renamed OINK; there’s really no other way to describe it or one’s reaction to it.
There was also a Slow Roasted Beet salad, with hazelnuts and whipped chevre. Truffled Potato Gnocchi was a comforting dish of fluffy gnocchi and asparagus tossed with truffle oil and topped with a fried egg with a runny yolk. And a savory Creamy Artichoke Bisque found a wonderful contrast in tart preserved lemons, sweet onion jam, and crispy fried leeks.
The only dish that I’m not sure worked for me (although my friends loved it) was the Ahi Tuna Carpaccio. There was perhaps a little too much activity on the plate: the tissue-thin slices of tuna were accompanied by crushed Marcona almonds and sided by a creamy chickpea salad topped with pimento foam and crispy sheets of Serrano ham. While the throw towards Spain was interesting, I’m not sure it was my style. I wanted to taste more of the tuna.
The three desserts that we tried were all very good. My favorite was probably the Sour Lemon Napoleon, which found pucker-tart lemon curd sandwiched between crisp layers of basil-flocked phyllo. The stack was sided by blueberry sorbet. Being the closest thing to ice cream on the menu, I naturally enjoyed the Vanilla Bean Semifreddo. It had a pina colada appeal. The dome of fluffy white frozen mousse-like cream was garnished with toasted coconut and sided by soft, stewed dices of pineapple.
Service was great. I told Chef Bowles that it was like Avenues without the raised pinky. The staff all sport casual brown button-ups, jeans, and sneakers. Jim Colombo, who had cooked for me last time at Avenues, is now managing the front of the house at graham elliot. It’s the kitchen’s loss, but the dining room’s gain. He welcomed my friends and me and floated around the dining room making sure everything and everyone was taken care of.
A few other notes:
1. The noise and energy levels were high; it’s definitely not a place for a quiet and intimate night out.
2. There’s a copper-top hightop near in the bar area that seats up to 10. It’s great for a large group or for communal eating. Chef Bowles is having the restaurant’s name stenciled and cut out of the copper so that the table can be lit from underneath.
3. graham elliot has its own water filtration and carbonation system. All of the water for the restaurant is bottled in personalized “ge” glass bottles that not only save on waste, but are pretty darn cool to look at.
4. The wine is organized by menu sections: Cold, Hot, Sea, Land, and Sweets. There’s also a funny and witty assortment of cocktails (unfortunately, I didn’t get to try any) and a spirits and beer list. I let our server, Patrick, pair two beers for my main courses. He poured Two Brothers Ebel Weiss with the Lake Superior Whitefish and the Goose Island Oatmeal Stout with the Rosemary-Scented Lamb (which, was so tender and moist that I mistook leg for tenderloin. It was amazing.). Both pairings worked very well. The stout went even better with the Short Rib Stroganoff.
I have to admit, being friends with Elliot and the house, I was nervous about my visit: what if I didn’t like it? Thankfully, I didn’t have to negotiate that bridge.
Executive Chef/Owner Graham Elliot Bowles
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654