Innovative fine dining has found a home in Chicago. From the much lauded Alinea to newer restaurants like Curtis Duffy’s Grace, modern culinary masterpieces can be found across the city, opening the minds of diners and elevating the eating experience to a kind of art. However, the exclusivity and novelty of these places hardly give a sense of accessibility. Fine dining restaurants stand like ivory towers, inviting awe but not understanding. The machinations of the kitchen stay shrouded in mystery, and diners must adhere to fancy dress rules of high etiquette. It’s an incomparable experience to eat at one of these establishments, no doubt, but hardly a relaxing one.
El Ideas stands by a different philosophy. Hidden in an unmarked building down a side street on the south side of the city, far away from the trending neighborhoods for dining, the location alone gives a hint as to how this restaurant approaches the traditional concept of high cuisine. Owner and Chef Phillip Foss opened the small, one-seating-a-night location with the idea of “redefining fine dining.” El Ideas, short for Elevated Ideas in Cuisine and Dining, throws out the stuffiness and allows diners to really see and understand the food his kitchen brings to life.
You’re made to feel at ease right from the beginning as dining room manager Bill Talbott greets you not in jacket and tie, but jeans and a t-shirt. His jokes and smile keep the mood light, but don’t take away from the high standard of service he provides to each and every table. Chef Foss provides an introduction to the El Ideas style: all dishes are served at once, allowing the diners to experience the food together. Everyone is invited into the kitchen as the chefs plate to observe up-close the process and ask questions. The breakdown of the front of house – back of house barrier provides a deeper appreciation of the meal and a closer connection to the work put into it.
The casual atmosphere does not diminish the complexity of the dishes. Surprising combinations and unique preparation can be found in each course. Since everyone is served at once, the excitement and discovery become shared as diners smile and exclaim their praise. The chefs explain the inspiration behind each presentation, providing even further insight into how a meal of such high caliber comes together. It is a complete unveiling that you would be hard pressed to get at even the highest starred restaurants.
The food itself is one of a kind, and the menu can change from night to night depending on what the kitchen has available. The menu during one visit consisted of thirteen courses and no lack of creativity.
A deconstructed everything bagel started things off. Round, sweet balls of cream cheese mimicked the shape of the caviar, and dustings of poppy seeds, garlic, and salt brought that familiar flavor in an unexpected way.
Shrimp was accompanied by various incarnations of corn, from a corn pudding to shrimp fat popcorn, and sprinkled with ashy flecks of huitlacoche, a fungus that can be found on the plant.
Tomatoes took a surprising form as bubbles, accompanied by blanched cherry tomatoes, blackberries, fennel, and a spread of blackberry-infused goat cheese.
Even bread was more than met the eye. The sourdough was made with quince, Tahitian vanilla, and Blue Moon beer. The accompanying cheddar-brie butter, pork lardo spread, and Portobello mushrooms created one of the best bites of the night.
Sweet met savory in the most decadent way in one dessert: foie gras ice cream sandwiched between chewy, gingerbread like cookies and topped with a peach bourbon jam.
El Ideas certainly succeeds in taking the idea of fine dining to new heights. Luckily for us, the chefs act as our willing guides to take us right along with them.