Dallas heard about this new restaurant called El Ideas several months ago. Chef Phillip Foss (formerly of Lockwood at Palmer House Hilton and then the Meatyballs truck) opened this place with Chef Andrew Brochu (formerly of Kith & Kin). El Ideas is short for Elevated Ideas. Dallas read that the menu was very innovative, the setting was very small (it seats only about a dozen people), and it was located in the middle of nowhere on the South Side. With our interests peaked, we decided to check it out.
To get a reservation you have to join a reservation lotto on El’s website. When they’re ready to take reservations, they’ll let you know. Dallas and I both signed up. In the past several months we’ve gotten many emails from Dina at El Ideas saying there were last-minute reservation cancellations and asking if anyone wanted them. In every instance, the reservations were swiped by someone immediately, sometimes in less than a minute! It got to the point where I wasn’t even trying to respond because, what’s the use? Finally, our lucky day came when Dina emailled us and said that the restaurant was booking for December and we could pick a day to make a reservation.
We decided to try to get as many seats as we could. December 9th was the day that Dina had open. Since that was the day before Dallas’s birthday, it worked out great! It was a Friday night and we could go and splurge and celebrate as part of Dallas’s birthday weekend.
Bill, the dining room manager and entire front of the house staff, greeted us when we arrived. We loved Bill. Very nice, very cool. And we loved his playlist. More on that later. Bill seated us, although it was obvious which table was ours. We had 6 of the 12 seats! The rest were 2-top tables. Along with me and Dallas, Danny, Alden, Paul Baker and Kate came out for dinner. We got our menus and everything looked great. The menu changes all the time, so we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. At first we thought the things on the chalkboard were the menu, too, but then we realized they were all different. .. so maybe it’s just an idea board?
Course 1: Tasmanian Trout with passion fruit, mustard, and smoked roe. Ok. Seeing how this is going to be. A good start.
Course 2: Uni with chanterelles, razor clams and radish. The chanterelles are at the back of the plate. The black spots on the right were a really strong shoyu reduction that was super tasty. The white is the clams and radish. The uni is the circle of kind of a scrambled egg on brioche. This was all great. And even when Dallas always teases me that I don’t like uni, otherwise known as sea urchin. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but I liked it here.
Paul Baker looking adoringly at Alden. Ha! Actually, I don’t know what he was doing. He took many photos of the courses, as well. I need to see how those turned out. As you can see Paul is dressed very casually. Some people next to us were on a dressy date. This is one thing I loved about El Ideas. It is what you make it. No one was out of place. It’s as fancy or casual as you want it to be, which I think is awesome.
Course 3: Cauliflower with popcorn, curry, and cheddar. A few at our table were like “cauliflower? I don’t know….” but this was one of the best dishes of the night. First of all, popcorn ice cream? With cheese? And cauliflower? It was so good. These flavors mixed surprisingly well. I wanted more! Oh, and that stick thing? I’m still not sure what it was, but doesn’t it look cool? And it wasn’t hard at all. Very light, when bitten into.
Dallas with his back to the kitchen. The kitchen is actually bigger than the dining area. To go to the bathroom you walk through it and to hang your coat on the coat rack you walk through it, too. Not only that, but Chef Foss and everyone told us we were welcome to go hang out in the kitchen, if we wanted. They wanted dinner to feel like a dinner party, and with such open arms and few guests, how could it not? That’s Chef Foss, the blur on the right. The chefs helped Bill serve everyone and Chef Foss explained each dish to us after it was served. Nice to hear the thoughts on every dish coming directly from the chef.
Dallas and I finally took them up on their offer to hang out in the kitchen. Actually, after I took a few photos (and I had my DSLR camera), Bill came up to me and said something in my ear. I remember Paul was like “Did you just get us kicked out?” Quite the opposite, Paul. Bill told me, “Get up, take photos! Go in the kitchen! Use your flash!” Wow. Not used to that while fine dining. I didn’t use my flash, but I did get up. Above is Chef Foss assembling the Tuna course.
With each course, Chef Phillip Foss and Chef Andrew Brochu, along with their sous chef, Michael DeStefano, set out 12 plates, one for each guest. They then assembled the plates with all of the ingredients and food. There’s no ordering. No staggering. No keeping things warm while other things finish. And not that things took a long time to come out, but it wasn’t rushed at all. I thought the pacing was great. Danny has worked in a few high-profile kitchens in Chicago and he thought it would be a cook’s dream come true.
I walked into the kitchen a bit farther and took this photo of Dallas. You can see the dining room directly behind him. Just a low wall of corrugated metal separates it from the kitchen. Pretty cool. I’ve been to fancy places like Alinea, where I’ve gotten to step into the kitchen and meet the chef for a brief moment, but nothing like this! Nothing like hanging out there and watching them make the food one foot away from you. Nothing like asking them questions while they work! When the plating was done, we went back to our seats so we could be served.
Course 4: Tuna with botarga, anchovy, saffron. This also had cannelli beans and the green is arugula. I think the jelly ball was the saffron? What stood out for me here is the anchovy (under the jelly ball). I always give Dallas my anchovies because I don’t care for them. They’re too briny and fishy. But these were neither briny nor fishy. Very good. This reminded me of when I read The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten and he said he hated anchovies. Then he went to Italy and Spain and ate them and realized that the anchovies that they throw on pizzas and Caesar salads in America are nothing like the anchovies you can get fresh in Europe. Long story short: Open your mind to anchovies. You might be surprised.
Course 5: Chokes with monkfish, lobster, and bee pollen. There was also some potato here. This dish was soooo decadent and savory. I loved it. This and the cauliflower were home runs for me. I wanted to lick the plate!
Dallas doing his best blue steel (how to here). Maybe he just had too much to drink. El Ideas is BYO and we somehow between the 6 of us brought 8 bottles of wine! Don’t worry, we didn’t drink them all. Just most of them!
Course 6: Octopus with orange, potatoes and mint. I loved the octopus, something I haven’t had cooked very often. I’ve definitely had tako, which I don’t really like very much, but I liked this octopus a lot. i thought the potato and the rest was kind of lacking, though, to be honest.
Alden through the wine glasses. I should note that as well as being the host, server, DJ and busboy, Bill also paired everyone’s wine with their courses. Talented guy.
Course 7: Mushroom with lemon, guanciale, and parmesan. I like mushroom courses. They’re usually surprisingly meaty and this one was no exception. Also, for all you foam haters, this was the only foam of the night.
Kate, looking lovely. She and Paul were just one week back from their honeymoon in Maui. Can’t you tell from their savage tans?
Another look at the chalkboard. There were some ideas on there that we really wanted to eat!
Course 8: Chestnut with hare, mascarpone, and tarragon. The triangle is the hare and the cylinder is a layered crepe with the cheese and tarragon. Each person gets a plate with these two things on it and then someone comes around and pours the chestnut soup in the bowl. I loved the rich and savory soup. I could have eaten more of that. And the hare was excellent, too. I thought the crepe was a little flavorless, but no one agreed with me, so maybe it was just me.
I had to take a lot of photos of Dallas because Danny, to Dallas’s right, was being camera shy. At one point Dallas and I switched seats so that my back was to the kitchen and he was facing it. Over his shoulder was Bill’s laptop, which was pumping out the most eclectic and awesome playlist. Everything from 80s music to indie covers to Will Smith to TV theme songs and “C is for Cookie.” At one point at the end, after several glasses of wine, Dallas and I were singing along to Mele Kalikimaka and making hand motions to the parts where they say “palm trees sway.” They have to get those playlists online or something. I’d love to look up some of the songs that were played.
Course 9: Jidori Chicken with sweetbread, celery root and raisins. The chicken was cooked sous-vide and was so tender and flavorful. The sweetbreads were in the ravioli. Both the ravioli and the chicken were so delicious. I felt like the sphere of celery root paled in comparison.
Starting to get sad that we’re nearing the finish line. We were all having such a good time!
Course 10: Banana with bacon, black garlic, and peanut. The bacon is around the banana and the peanut was in the form of peanut brittle, which is not pictured well here, but was great.
Dallas and I made one more visit to the kitchen where the sassafras course was being plated.
It’s so interesting to see the chefs going over all the minute details.
Course 11: Sassafras with venison, pecan and cranberry. This was the largest piece of meat that was served all night, I think. The venison was done sous-vie, like the chicken earlier was. This always makes the meat so, so tender.
Course 12: Rum with egg, vanilla, and sweet spice. This course featured rum ice cream. Yes! Paul Baker loved this. At the end of the nights when we were thanking the chefs for the amazing meal, Chef Foss told Paul that this dish was created by Chef Andrew (Brochu) and Chef Andrew kind of grumbled. I wonder if working with the egg yolk is a pain in the ass or what. But, we thought it was worth it. Delicious!
Course 13: Coffee & Tea with chocolate, chocolate, chocolate! I don’t remember exactly all the different applications of chocolate in this dish, but it was great. Our final course of the night.
After dinner we were offered coffee or tea. Kate was up for tea and they brought out 3 canisters of Rare Tea Cellar tea for her to choose from. And then it was served in a fancy tea infuser teapot.
I went for coffee and got my very own French press pitcher. The coffee was so delicious. I wish I’d asked what kind it was. I might be sold on the French press though. It brews such a delicious cup of coffee and doesn’t take as long as I thought.
Thank you to Phillip Foss, Andrew Brochu and Michael DeStefano for such a fun and delicious meal. And also thanks to Bill, the dining room manager, and Dina, who we worked with to make our reservation. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. We will definitely remember this night for a long time!
Oh, and a few final photos. Like I said earlier, El Ideas is in the middle of nowhere, in an industrial area on the South Side. It’s a dead ended street at Western and 14th. We drove down there, but the restaurant does offer to get you a town car for a flat rate, if needed. There’s no way you could find a cab to take home!