By Kate Bernot, RedEye
June 15, 2012
841 W. Randolph St. 312-888-2258
Rating: !!!½ (out of four) Heating up
Chef Graham Elliot's been known to ruffle feathers. Over the years, he's pissed off Yelp reviewers, argued with critics and can be brutally honest as a judge on "MasterChef." Naturally, his food speaks just as loudly. At his first restaurant, Graham Elliot in River North, he captivated the city with his truffle popcorn and other fine-dining riffs on American classics. Lucky for those of us who couldn't shell out the big bucks for a meal at Graham Elliot, he's opened a more casual bistro in the West Loop called G.E.B. (standing for Graham Elliot Bistro) that serves lunch and dinner (with brunch beginning this weekend) on the same smokin' stretch of Randolph Street that's also home to Nellcote and Girl & The Goat.
The beer comes in cans, reservations aren't accepted (so you actually have a shot at snagging a table on a weekend) and no plate costs more than $20. I paid G.E.B. a visit last week to see whether Elliot had mellowed out in this new setting, or whether his food—and personality—were still as bold as ever.
How to order: The menu, at first glance, is deceptively simple. Similar to the early days of Graham Elliot's first restaurant, each dish on G.E.B.'s menu lists only three ingredients, with no explanation as to how they're prepared. I did ask my server for some details, but it might be more fun to let executive chef Jacob Saben (brought over from Graham Elliot to head up the kitchen) surprise you with creative plating and contrasting flavors. The menu's divided into six categories: hot and cold appetizers, pastas, "land" and "sea" entrees and desserts. The portions, especially the appetizers, aren't large, so servers recommend a three- or four-course meal. My date and I each ordered our own appetizers and entrees, and shared one pasta and dessert. We left satisfied, not stuffed.
What to order: Dishes aren't necessarily composed the way you'd expect, but the main flavors always shine through. An asparagus and egg appetizer ($9) paired firm, fresh asparagus not with a poached egg (as seen on many other menus), but with tiny cubes of sliced steamed egg whites plus an egg yolk sauce, and both packed way more flavor than they let on. Lasagna ($10 for a small portion; $16 for large) isn't a dish that you'd expect to find outside of your Nonna's kitchen, but a delicate fold of pasta (handmade using Saben's grandmother's pasta press) filled with earthy braised oxtail ragu, eggplant, squash and ricotta brings new life to this Italian favorite. Two of the entrees, the trout ($18) and the pork loin ($18), were not only generously portioned, but also the most memorable dishes I tried. Flaky pink trout wasn't overwhelmed by its companion, a mound of herbed spaetzle (German dumplings) that had all the chew and herbal flavor of great Italian gnocchi. The juicy pork slices were comfort food straight from the south, served with cornmeal-battered okra, savory grits and knock-out squares of pickled watermelon. Sadly, dessert couldn't hold a candle to the rest of the meal. A dense, bland strawberry and rhubarb poundcake ($6) left me wishing Bryce Caron, the award-winning pastry chef who recently moved from Blackbird to Graham Elliot, would lend his hand to the dessert offerings here.
What to drink: Along with former Whistler bartender Paul McGee, who's working on a tiki-themed bar with RJ and Jerrod Melman in River North, G.E.B. has a taste for the tropics. That means the tight cocktail list makes good use of rum, pineapple and Jamaican bitters (not all in the same drink, mind you), but don't expect kitschy add-ons like paper umbrellas. The wine list is easy to navigate, and the before mentioned cans of beer are hugged by G.E.B.-branded koozies—you won't see that anywhere else on Randolph Street's Restaurant Row.
Bottom line: G.E.B. shows that Graham Elliot can stir up all the drama he wants; his food backs it up. The lasagna and the pork made me reconsider dishes I'd eaten a hundred times, but the unbuttoned attitude and reasonable prices didn't make it feel like Elliot was working too hard to impress anyone. If he's proved anything with G.E.B., it's that great food is the best way to silence your critics.
Reviewers visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago
FAST FACTS ON G.E.B.
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Sunday for dinner; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday for lunch; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday for brunch
Reservations: Not accepted
Prices: Appetizers $7-$12, entrees $17-$20
Looks like: Part church, part industrial loft. Cool metallics and exposed brick are par for the course on Randolph Street, but there are plenty of Elliot's personal touches. His artist brother created the altar candles that line one wall and pay homage to celebs (Michael Jordan, Snoop Dogg) and celebrity chefs (Grant Achatz, Mario Batali) alike.
Sounds like: Band of Horses, The White Stripes, and whatever else is on Elliot's eclectic iPod. He can control the soundtrack from his iPhone, and recently had the rest of the kitchen rolling their eyes when he spun some Katy Perry. There's also a record player, so vinyl is in the mix as well.
Fun fact: The cherubs painted on the ceiling were uncovered during renovation and helped inspire the church theme that extends to the candles, reclaimed pews used as banquettes and confessional screen separating the dining room from the kitchen. Look closely on your receipt for the parting words, "Peace be with you, and also with you."
Reality star: "Around the World in 80 Plates" fans, look for sous chef John Vermiglio working in the open kitchen.
For VIPs: Look for the chef's table, a big booth in front of a stained glass window near the kitchen. Elliot hopes that it'll be a pit stop for touring rockers, but you can try your luck requesting it if you have a group of 8 to 10.
One gripe: Hey Graham, props for putting Pat Benatar's face on the ladies' room door, but can you help a girl out with a purse hook in the stalls?
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