We could’ve stopped with the popcorn. The super delicious, parmesan and black pepper topped truffle oil popcorn that just kept appearing in a basket at our table. I mean, stop it already.
And that was just the beginning.
I spent the weekend in Chicago with two of my very favorite friends in the world. On Saturday night, in keeping with our “we’re fancy” theme of the day, we had dinner at Graham Elliot (he appeared on episode two of Top Chef Masters but was eliminated). We arrived at the restaurant and were immediately seated. We walked through the dimly lit, trendily decorated restaurant and were seated in what appeared to be the wine room…I say this only because the back wall was just a huge wine rack.
Our waitress arrived soon after we sat down, taking our cocktail order and offering us very informed descriptions of the nightly specials and answering all of our questions (pisco, in case you are wondering, is a South American liquor distilled from grapes and developed by Spanish settlers in the sixteenth century). Turns out Graham Elliot likes to change up the menu often and to use seasonal, fresh ingredients. Thus, the menu had a cornucopia of pumpkin and squash and other warm and friendly autumnal foods.
Before leaving and letting us pore over our menus, our waitress mentioned that the Chef was trying out a new amuse bouche–foie gras lollipops dipped in orange Pop Rocks. Yes, you read that correctly. How could someone pass up a Foie-lipop? I couldn’t. And let me tell you. The foie gras was absolutely amazing–smooth and buttery and without that pungency I often find when sampling dishes of the organ meat variety. And the odd combination of the orange flavor and the popping sensation was a true experience. The orange was subtle and complemented the foie. And the popping was just fun and laughable. Though one of my fellow diners abstained from trying the “meat lollipop,” the other tasted it and enjoyed it, despite her apprehension. While it was delicious, it was much too rich and maybe a little too interesting to eat in its entirety. But I’m so glad that I tried it.
It did not take us long to decide on our meals. As a shared appetizer, we ordered the cheddar risotto. The risotto was cooked perfectly–firm without being crunchy yet also soft without being gummy. The risotto was made with Wisconsin cheddar, chunks of Granny Smith apples, Pabst glazed pearl onions, and crispy prosciutto. And the piece de resistance? It was topped with Cheez Its. While the concept of the dish was unique and, we decided, had a lot of potential, the prosciutto overpowered the cheesy goodness of the dish. I know, everyone loves prosciutto, but in this case, there may have just been too much. In the end, we felt there were too many components that just didn’t seem to come together as coherently as we had hoped.
For my personal appetizer, I ordered the sweet potato bisque, an obviously seasonal choice but a good one for the cold, Chicago night we had just come in from. The waiter set the bowl in front of me, empty but for the chipotle jam (SPICY!), garlic marshmallow (you heard me), dollops of lime creme fraiche, and the myriad corn nuts. He then proceeded to pour on top of all that goodness the bisque. It was a rich combination. Taking a little bit of every component into each bite was definitely the way to go–the garlic marshmallow melted into the bland (but not in a bad way) bisque, providing a sweet bit of a kick to the warm flavor of the sweet potato. Add to that the spiciness of the chipotle jam, the fresh citrus from the lime, and the crunch of the corn nuts and you’ve got yourself an unforgettable soup experience.
My companions had the beet salad…it was a sight to be seen. Everything we ordered was presented in such a way that we hesitated (okay, for maybe a second) before breaking into the absolute artwork put in front of us. This particular dish was comprised of roasted baby beets, hazelnut clusters (think about the clusters from Honey Bunches of Oats but substitute oats with ground hazelnuts), little balls of peppery goat cheese, micro arugula, pickled pears, and horseradish froth. Yes, friends, the whole dish came covered in horseradish flavored foam. Both of my friends greatly enjoyed the combination of flavors and agreed it was a great, light [second] start to the meal (or, I guess, third if you count the popcorn).
On to the main courses. Each of my companions ordered fish–one the Arctic char (brussels sprouts, turnip confit, mustard caviar, and cider bubbles), the other the seared Atlantic cod (smoked clams, brandade beignets (!!!), blistered corn, pancetta persillade). The fish on both plates was cooked to perfection. Each dish had such interesting components to it–the beignets were made not from dough, as you would expect, but from mashed potatoes; and the mustard caviar was an interesting and successful attempt to make a powerful flavor option look like a more pretentious add-on.
The “home run of the night,” however, was my selection: the Wagyu beef stroganoff. Now, I’ve been quite interested in the concept of food deconstruction since the Voltaggio brothers appeared on Top Chef this season. While it totally fascinates me, this approach to cooking also completely confuses me. Sometimes, I just don’t get it. Not the case here. The dish was beyond fabulous–in presentation, in concept, in execution, in taste. The beef was melt in your mouth perfect. It sat, in thinly sliced medallions, over a puree of thinly spread forest mushrooms (think the consistency of pate). It was accompanied by two mounds of peppered spaetzle that were of lukewarm temperature (but it worked) and had a slight sweet hint to them (it kind of reminded me of the flavor of traditional, sweet, macaroni salad–the kind you can buy by the bucket load in the deli section at the grocery store). The plate was finished off with two dollops of warm creme fraiche. Each “piece” of the dish separately was a flavor dream come true. But, put all together on one forkful, you tasted the ultimate result of beef stroganoff (albeit definitely less rich and much fresher tasting than that with which you are probably familiar). Had I had double the portion that was put in front of me, I would have easily devoured it…and been more willing to share more of it with the gals.
We couldn’t leave without some dessert. We ordered two: the blood orange dreamsicle was another deconstructed creation. The “citrus supremes” were small, gelatinous, orange cubes–they reminded me (in both taste and texture) of a jello mold my mom used to make that had cool whip mixed into it. Anyway, it was good but not OTT to die for. And, honestly, the crunchy meringue that came on the side was just a little weird. Our second choice was the pumpkin pound cake. The dish had four small cubes of pound cake, candied ginger, cinnamon stick, and pieces of pie crust and whipped cream. I’m not sure why the Chef added the pie crust to the presentation but, bravo. It was my favorite part of the dish. The ginger was very strong and totally overpowered the rest of the dessert, if you allowed it to. All in all, the desserts were my least favorite part of the meal.
So there you have it…my first travelling review. If you’re ever in Chicago, I highly recommend making a reservation and heading over to GE. The amusement you’ll get just from reading through the menu and marvelling at the Chef’s creativity is enough. And, you can only eat so many pieces of deep dish pizza (in my case, two at Gino’s East. YUM.), Chicago Dogs (just one at the airport, but it was worth the wait), or bags of cheddar and caramel Garrett’s popcorn (my fingers were orange for days).
(And sorry about the quality of the pictures–I know they’re worse than usual…I didn’t want to draw attention with the flash…but go to the website to see pics, if you want).