3-STAR DINING REVIEW

Phil Vettel: Three stars for EL Ideas

Strange location, format all part of unique dining experience

 EL Ideas has been playing to full houses since it opened in July 2011. That would be a nice achievement for any operation, but given the quirky experience chef and owner Phillip Foss offers, it's positively miraculous.

Dinners cost $145, prepaid, tip additional, and you bring your own wine. The menu, about 15 courses, is not revealed beforehand. Reservations are tricky to acquire because EL Ideas has only 24 seats and serves dinner only four nights a week. And the location is so iffy, a decrepit dead-end stretch of West 14th Street where Tri-Taylor, Lawndale and Pilsen meet, that most guests arrange private-car transportation. Foss jokes about it as part of his opening greeting.

"You could try to flag a cab on the corner," he deadpanned one night, "but you might die."

Actually, I parked my car two blocks away one visit, without incident, and Foss acknowledges that there "never have been any problems" in his nearly two years at this location. But Foss' willingness to make sweaty-palm jokes about his own neighborhood tells you that he relishes his role as chef-provocateur, eager to challenge not only your assumptions about food, but also your assumptions about being a restaurant guest.

Foss doesn't merely dismiss tradition; he virtually scorns it, playing the reverse-snobbery game like a virtuoso. His introductory remarks posit EL Ideas (short, he says, for "elevated ideas in dining") as an alternative to what he calls "pretentious" fine-dining. Granted, this comes from a guy who's charging $145 for dinner, but what I think he means is that EL Ideas seeks to distance itself from the notion of chef-as-unapproachable-genius.

It's the reason you'll see Foss and his fellow chefs clad in black T-shirts and striped aprons, with nary a chef's coat in sight. Guests are urged to abandon the sit-back-and-be-wowed convention, to rise up from their tables, crowd into the kitchen area (there are boundaries, for safety reasons), snap a few photos and even engage the chefs in conversation.

Although seating is usually divided among tables for two and four, dining at EL Ideas is very much a communal experience. There is one seating per night (7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday), and arriving late to dinner is like arriving late to the theater; you'll get in, but you'll have missed part of the show. Courses are presented more or less simultaneously, and after a quick explanation from Foss (or one of his team), everybody digs in at the same time.

When, as it so often happens, the first course arrives without utensils and guests are instructed to lick their plates clean, the fact that every diner in the room participates at once serves as a combination icebreaker and bonding experience. "We can get away with stuff other restaurants can't," Foss says. "When the whole room is doing it, it breaks down all the reservations. Nothing says just because you're having great food, you have to keep your noses in the air and not let your guard down."

Another course presents a shot glass in which a Kusshi oyster is suspended in smoked-duck consomme with kimchi-spiced vegetables, shiitake matchsticks, sea grapes and borage (a star-shaped blue flower that tastes faintly of cucumber). That's a lot going on in a two-gulp taste, and Foss says not all his guests appreciate it.

So he works that polarization into his shtick: "This is probably the course you'll love or hate," he intones as he introduces the dish. "But I don't care, because we love it, and we're going to keep serving it."

Daring guests to dislike a dish is pretty nervy, but it's just another envelope for Foss to push.

Once you drink the figurative Kool-Aid, surrender to the experience, Foss and his minions make it fun. Foss' dishes are eye-catching and unfailingly delicious, certainly, but Foss lets guests in on the creative process as well. It's not that he presents a dish of bone-marrow-filled potato with cauliflower foam and caviar (think potato skins, the way Scrooge McDuck might order them), but he explains why he thinks bone-marrow and caviar work together.

Nothing in Foss' maverick approach comes at the expense of creature comforts, mind you. Tables are covered in white linen, and nice stemware awaits your BYO choices. Windows are treated to reflect inward, focusing attention on the food while sparing guests the rather bleak view.

The evening progresses with a parade of novel flavor pairings and eye-tricking presentations. A couple of months ago, the menu included baby octopus tentacles wrapped protectively around a square of cod cheek, the plate accented by squirts of inky-black charred eggplant (I dubbed the dish "startled octopus"). Enoki mushrooms swam in a ham-infused broth with golden char roe and pine nuts; an avian charcuterie assortment offered pheasant ballotine, chicken liver mousse and crispy chicken skin; and a virtual salute to Greektown combined lamb tartare with crumbled feta, soft bread and accents of smoked paprika.

A more recent visit yielded a study-in-spring composition of cold-poached turbot in a vivid-green dill soup and crisscrossing pieces of leek tuile; sepiolini (baby cuttlefish) with artichoke, powdered espelette and chorizo. A gorgeous salad consisted of three styles of boar (cured, rillettes, smoked neck) and six varieties of kale. Golden fried sweetbreads sat, plump and proud, alongside a sugar pane inlaid with fennel seed, anise cotton candy and molasses-glazed hazelnuts.

Foss always includes a bread course, or a course highlighted by bread. One night it might be Parker House rolls stuffed with roasted garlic and smoked raclette cheese. Another time the bread shows up as a rye roll with whipped-lardo spread, a weighty counterpoint to the barely cooked sturgeon and lightly pickled vegetables sharing the plate.

Desserts tend to be fun and quite sweet; I'm thinking specifically of the old-fashioned cake doughnut, with applejack caramel and spiced-cider sorbet; and the decidedly more modern deconstructed pecan pie, with candied pecans, brown-butter custard, malted chocolate stout sorbet and a torched squiggle of marshmallow.

Service, not surprisingly, is a little different here. Bill Talbot is the genial host who seats guests and oversees the dining area, but dishes are likely to be carried to your table by one of the chefs or Foss himself, and Foss has been known to invite guests to deliver the occasional course, though I gather this happens less and less often. All part of EL Ideas' anything-can-happen experience.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.

EL Ideas

2419 W. 14th St.; 312-226-8144; elideas.com

Tribune rating: Three stars
Open
: Dinner Wednesday-Saturday
Prices
: 15-course dinner, $145 prepaid
Credit cards
: A, DS, M, V
Reservations
: Required
Noise
: Conversation-friendly

Ratings key:
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.

philvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

CHICAGO

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