August 8, 2013
Elizabeth, the restaurant, is not quite a year old, but recent changes by chef/owner Iliana Regan have made the dining experience drastically different. And I like every single change she has made.
Most notably, Regan has revamped Elizabeth's seating, a source of contention among critics and customers. Gone are the eight-seat communal tables and the prospect of dining among six or more strangers, an experience that some embraced and others groused about. Elizabeth's 24 seats now are distributed among two- and four-seat tables (which can be rearranged to accommodate larger parties), so if you're annoyed by your dining companions, well, whose fault is that?
The old Owl, Deer and Diamond menus, which varied in price and number of courses, have been merged into a solitary menu, whose components are unknown to you (unless you peek at online postings) until they arrive. The current menu consists of 20 courses, most of them very small, and it is extremely improbable that you will finish feeling hungry or overly stuffed. Prices still vary depending on the day and even the hour, but they are lower than before; now you can dine for as little as $85 (the previous low was $65, for half as many courses) and no more than $165 (the previous high was $205).
And finally, the single menu, though large, enables Regan and her staff to whittle down the length of the meal, which often lasted more than four hours. The goal now is 31/2 hours or less for a party of two; that goal isn't always met — my meal lasted longer — but less than a month into the new format, the kitchen staff is getting there. And to be fair, the night I visited, the chef was not in the kitchen (enjoying a very brief honeymoon), and in her absence, the smaller staff was no doubt sweating the details more than usual.
This is perhaps the ideal time to visit Elizabeth; Regan is well-known for her foraging and sourcing abilities, and the Midwest bounty doesn't get any better than an August following a rainy spring.
The menu is divided into The Farm; Ponds, Lakes and Seas; and The Woodlands sections, delineating a sensible, even predictable sequence of courses. The surprise is that each third of the menu is its own mini-tasting, starting with an amuse and growing in complexity until the next section, with its own amuse, hits the culinary reset button. The Farm section, for instance, opens with white chocolate and hibiscus spheres filled with tomato water, a blanched garden tomato over burrata and Worcestershire pudding and a tableside-brewed tomato tea accented by shallots and lemon thyme, a virtual garden in a teacup.
A few courses later you'll encounter an elote-inspired bowl of corn puree, inset with tiny squares of Mexican white cheese, lime and grilled potato and sitting next to caviarlike beads of fortified ham stock. Spanning the bowl's rim is a buttermilk breadstick, on which bits of candied lime, trout roe and lime basil sit precariously.
In the middle grouping you'll find shrimp noodles, the shrimp actually incorporated into the noodle, with crisped kale, lemon rind, toasted quinoa and Parmesan; followed by crispy smoked sturgeon alongside asparagus vichyssoise, surrounded by fresh, geleed and pickled cucumber. Best of the group is the crab dish, featuring nori-wrapped crab over compressed watermelon infused with soy and togarashi, crab salad amid watermelon foam, and a grouping of pickled watermelon-rind roll-ups. The black and clear dots alternating on the plate are, respectively, nori pudding and geleed rice-wine vinegar.
The meaty third of the menu includes bacon-wrapped rabbit as part of a deconstructed Cobb salad (I liked the juxtaposition of rabbit and rabbit food); the return of Regan's "white rabbit" mushroom consomme (a highlight of last fall's Deer menu) flavored with chamomile and cocoa nibs; and a hunter's-stew composition of venison, venison sausage, mushroom gnocchi and chanterelles, set amid a forest floor of mosses, reindeer lichen and birch bark.
Regan would be the last person to lay claim to much pastry-chef cred, but her desserts have gotten better and more substantial. The sweet progression begins with blackberry puree in a miniature pie-crust shell, served in a ginkgo-leaf dish; segues to honeydew melon balls with baby profiteroles, honeydew sorbet and house-made mascarpone cheese; and ends triumphantly with chocolate-mushroom brownies with porcini caramel, hazelnut-raspberry crumble and raspberry curd. Topping each brownie piece is a tiny piece of mushroom-shaped meringue. Just beautiful.
Beverage choices consist of beer and wine by the glass, wine by the bottle and wine pairings; the pairings are $100 (regardless of day or time). It's possible to get by for considerably less, but sommelier Ben Aviram's beverage picks are so spot on, and his descriptions so exquisite, that I can't imagine passing them up.
On the whole, I'm a fan of Elizabeth 2.0. The rearranged dining room has a nice flow, the tables close enough that you still get a sense of community from the space, and the one-on-two (or one-on-four) interactions with the servers, cooks and Regan herself feel more personal.
This isn't a full re-review, as I only visited once to see how Elizabeth's changes were panning out. But I have no trouble affirming the rating I hung on the place in December.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
4835 N. Western Ave.; 773-681-0651; elizabeth-restaurant.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Multicourse menu $85-$165
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Tickets sold online; phone reservations (prepaid) available for odd-sized parties
Other: Street 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.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC