The much-decorated chef owns three Chicago restaurants and will be inducted into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame in two weeks. He shares screen time with Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay judging "MasterChef" (just renewed for a fourth season) and has his face and signature white-framed glasses all over town, whether singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at a Cubs game last weekend or working the crowds at Lollapalooza (where he's been culinary director since 2010) this weekend.
Elliot garnered four stars as chef at now-shuttered Avenues, but his solo efforts have not been as highly acclaimed. He's clearly shooting for the stars at Graham Elliot, his first restaurant, which has undergone drastic changes since February. Out are "foie-ly pops" and other signature snacks; in are nine- and 13-course tasting menus (and limited a la carte options), more formal service (in style, that is; denim from the waist down is still de rigueur) and quieter ambience.
And, recognizing that he has too many irons in the fire to run a four-star kitchen, Elliot turned the cooking duties over to chef Andrew Brochu, a three-year Alinea veteran, and newly added pastry chef Bryce Caron, who was the pastry chef of record when Blackbird got its fourth star.
Perhaps fittingly, for a restaurant owned by such an overt and polarizing personality, Graham Elliot likely is not for everyone. This is clear from the outset; tasting menus begin with a dollop of smoked oyster cream and black pepper, sharply contrasted with a mignonette gel so puckeringly tart it's like biting into a sour lime. This is less an amuse than it is a warning shot: The acidic components in Brochu's dishes are not timid elements.
"I like a lot of pop," Brochu says. "I find tons of dishes that just don't pop for me anymore. So I get aggressive with the popping."
If you're a fan of sharp flavors, as am I, you'll find Brochu's style delightful. If you're sensitive to high acidity, as is my wife (who begged off attending our follow-up visit), dining here could be less so.
A luscious pork belly, alongside pork-skin chicharrones crushed into breadcrumbs, gets subtle support from mango balls and reduced mango cream, and a jolt of acidic mango gel — arguably a stronger jolt than the dish requires. A slow-cooked halibut is so beautiful you'll want to run out for your own sous vide kit, and the accompanying powdered brown-butter-malt-vinegar is sci-fi genius; here the acid comes from a sharp lemon gel, but the dish's problem is under the halibut, in the form of oversalted pommes puree.
But most dishes flat-out rock. Brochu fashions a masterful tomato salad that balances sweet and tart tomatoes with a quartet of cucumber presentations (including a couple of miniature cukes with still-attached blossoms), pulling together the flavors with yuzu and cucumber-ginger gels. A risotto dish offers soothing flavors of artichoke, Parmesan and summer truffle. An herb-rich beef tenderloin, sitting on an emulsification of its own fat, has but a hint of vinaigrette balancing the sweet, melted Vidalias crowning the filet. And as the accompanying photos illustrate, Brochu's plates are so gorgeous they ought to arrive framed.
Finding a wine to go with so many bold flavors is daunting, but sommelier and general manager Jamie Kluz is a terrific resource. I'd recommend the wine-pairing option ($55 and $85, respectively) with the nine- and 13-course tastings, if only to listen to Kluz's detailed and entertaining descriptions.
Caron's desserts contribute mightily to the experience. A plank of dark chocolate ganache anchors the chocolate course, though to me the honey-charred apricots and slivered Fresno chilies are the stars of the plate. Frozen oat mousse — yes, oat mousse — with raspberry gel, fresh berries and bourbon-caramel sauce is a fine dessert that also would make one hell of a breakfast. And Caron designed the brilliant intermezzo course for both tastings, a mini-terrarium (cleverly echoing the herb-garden centerpieces decorating each table) of sesame cream, powdered black olive, pickled cherries, chocolate and myriad herbs. You could argue that Caron's best dish is the one not listed on the menu.
Graham Elliot is not yet a four-star restaurant. But it might yet become one. Graham Elliot is featuring $95 and $145 tasting menus at a time when luxury-dining restaurants are vanishing at an alarming rate, so survivability is always a concern. But this is a restaurant worthy of support.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
217 W. Huron St.; 312-624-9975; grahamelliot.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $33-$41; tasting menus $95 and $145
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.