At some point at dinner at Elizabeth a thought crossed my mind: is this the end? This was not a comment on the imaginative and thoroughly interesting meal, but rather on myself, as I waited for the next entirely new and novel taste sensation to cross my palate. We had the deer menu, which is the foraging-based one, and while there were many things in it which were familiar— I believe I’ve had carrots before— there were also some that had come out of a forest one way or another, from autumn olives to matsutake mushrooms. And forest food has a distinct difference from plant or root food— it’s intense, woodsy (well duh), and… not exactly food, to our sensibilities. More like something between food and not-food. So when I ingested something like spruce soda, part of me was excited to be opening new territory on the border between food and the country next to it, but part of me was haunted by a thought… so have I exhausted the world of food? Are there no new flavors left in known cuisine, that I have to go hunting for novelty in a land beyond food?
Iliana Regan’s response to this would surely include the observation that many of the things I’m assuming to not be food have been food for other cultures and eras— spruce, to name one, was used like hops are today in beer around George Washington’s time. Or they’re simply other forms of food— those carrots are wonderful, but when their familiarity is joined with Queen Anne’s lace jam, all you’ve done is reunited today’s carrot with its grandmother’s flower. (At the bottom of that Queen Anne’s stalk is a little bulb that would eventually be bred into the modern foot-long supermarket carrot. I learned that in a Sky Full of Bacon video.)
The other thing is that if you want to talk not-quite-food, there’s plenty of modernist manipulation going on in this meal, in which twigs and sprigs rest atop emulsified stabilized this or that. So if you think Elizabeth’s little storefront is doing a sort of eccentric, primitive folk art food— a reasonable impression from media and Regan’s deceptively dreamy manner— there’s also plenty of cutting-edge technique under the Etsy-obsessive picnic in the woods image that she’s constructed.
But how was the food, you ask, suspecting I could go on for paragraphs in this vein. And you’re right. This is a meal that everyone who thinks about their food should have in order to think about it, and conversely, if you’re going to go there because it’s new and trendy but you’re going to be disappointed that it didn’t hit familiar notes, please, spare us all and go have a steak at Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf.
Elizabeth has its moments of conventional comforts— a ragu on top of polenta is warm and comfy, and without being told you’d never know the odd thing about it, which is that that’s not beef, it’s raccoon. Right where you want a red meat course comes a course of venison, both loin and a sausage wrapped in cabbage (which led to the only real executional misstep of the night, in that my wife’s wasn’t warmed properly). Matsutake mushroom tea isn’t expected, exactly, but it’s certainly warm and nurturing. But most things are out to surprise you in some way. I loved a bite the menu simply calls “rice crispy,” which had puffed rice and other savory flavors topped with a single chip of air-dried… did she say bear? I think she did. The meal ends with a caramel whose comforts are instantly undercut by a livery tang. Even at the end, you’re not getting out of these woods easy.
All this happens in a small storefront where the kitchen is entirely open to the dining room; the obvious comparison that everyone makes is Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas, but I compared that experience to a backyard barbecue and it has a definite party-at-Phil’s-place vibe, a downshifted haute cuisine that says “I could make you the most precious thing you ever ate, but I’m just going to make something that sounds good to me.” Elizabeth by comparison looks as quietly, seriously efficient as surgery back there, and if the welcome is genuine in its desire to make us part of the family— at one point, we’re moved up one communal table, to the one the Owl menu diners have just left, to be closer to the kitchen and the other remaining diners— well, Regan seems relaxed and whimsical when she comes out to introduce a course, but everyone else works like they have a boss who wants things just so. (People have worried that her scant kitchen experience suggested that Regan was taking on way more than she could manage with the three menus running side by side. Talk to her for five minutes and you realize that, like Grant Achatz, she’s the type who knows exactly what she wants and doesn’t screw up anything, ever.)
As in the movies, where a “personal vision” these days is something a director brings to a corporate property like Batman, the restaurant scene has gotten so good at blending chef’s strengths with huge commercial projects that we take it for granted that any chef’s goal is to get to the 500-seat restaurant which updates the traditional genre with farm to table ingredients or a knack for charcuterie or whatever will keep the chef happy cranking it out night after night. Elizabeth is a restaurant not so much opposed to thinking about a restaurant that way as simply existing in another dimension where the question doesn’t make sense. As with a Terence Malick movie, either you’re in for trying to keep up with a completely personal journey, which will sometimes frustrate you but promises showing you something you’ve never seen before… or you shouldn’t even start. Part of the thing about going in the woods is that people do get lost there.
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Of course, we haven’t really exhausted the world of food at all; even when we’ve tried something, who’s to say we’ve really had it? Surely part of the fascination with food comes from its evanescence— one person says X is the greatest barbecue place in the universe, but on the day you go it isn’t and some other place blows you away. In Spain I had delicious iberico ham at every opportunity, but transcendent iberico ham only once, at an upscale restaurant. What was the difference?
I went with two friends to Kai Zan, the new sushi restaurant of the moment, at least the moment between B.K. Park leaving Arami and the launch of his upcoming Juno. It’s a tiny place, where I was wedged into a table like I haven’t been wedged into anything since my late grandfather’s early 60s British sports car. We ordered the omakase, which starts at $50, telling the waiter that we’d pay a little more for something exceptional, we weren’t afraid of anything, and we didn’t want to just see tuna and salmon all night. He immediately called our bluffs by saying that they had live uni (sea urchin) tonight, would we be interested?
I’ve eaten uni. I think I even liked it once, at NoMI Kitchen where it came with iberico ham and avocado on toast. I’m not opposed to it, but let’s face it, it’s got all the squishiness and fishiness that says to a westerner, you’re eating something that you shouldn’t be and you will be paying for it later. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever felt ill off it, only during it.) But I was in the kind of company where we all felt, if you’re promising us a better uni experience— it wasn’t actually live so much as “extremely recently dead”— then we should, in the name of our honor as gentlemen and officers of her majesty, eat uni.
As it turns out, we ate a lot of uni. Possibly 50% of all the uni I’ve ever eaten, in fact. One grade of it was in the cup above, alongside a scallop and a shiitake mushroom. More of it was in something else, and then finally came our live uni, half a dozen pieces draped on a plate. I would have happily not eaten any more by that point… but I also would have been sorry not to have had this uni. Squishy, yes, fishy, no, it was mild and tasted of the sea in a clean way. It was the best uni of my life, in the sense that it explained why I disliked previous uni but not, entirely, why anyone should really want uni— why it’s a food at all (except for desperation by seashore-living peasants millennia ago). But that is part of what I find fascinating about Japanese food— they seem to live much closer to the border between food and not-food than I do (though quite possibly they feel the same way about westerners).
Another thing I had I have no such ambivalence about. It was some kind of wild trout— I forget the exact descriptor, but this was plainly cold-water fish, muscular and yet ribboned with lush layers of fat. It was easily in the five best pieces of sashimi I’ve ever eaten, delicate yet firm, fatty yet meaty, containing contradictions and multitudes… and, significantly, prepared with a confidence that it needed nothing more than the sprig on top and the lemon below.
Sushi falls into two schools these days— there are a few minimalists remaining, like the great Katsu, but the trend these days is to gussy fish up with other flavors. The late Kaze restaurant (Kaze the chef is now at Macku) was a notorious practitioner of this with his banana toppings on tuna and the like, those rolls full of mayonnaise and sticky-sweet sauce are the ubiquitous offenders, and I wouldn’t say this kind of thing is strictly unknown at Kai Zan, but it’s kept from overwhelming the fish (or the fresh wasabi, which made many appearances, unmistakable both on looks and the lack of the instant horseradish burn). A couple of dishes got out of their control— a starter with a raw quail egg in it was like taking a swig straight from the soy sauce bottle— but most were simple and successful. On the whole, they’re buying beautiful fish, treating it with respect and enhancing it in only small ways. And the final tab for a meal which wedged us even further into our tiny table was all of $75 per person (it’s BYO), even with every special in the house thrown in. I tweeted this when someone broke the news of B.K. Park leaving Arami:
BREAKING: Katsu back to being only place to get sushi in Chicago
Which may not have been strictly true, but came closer to it than you’d wish. Kai Zan steps us that much further back from apocalypse.
Disclosure: my meal at Elizabeth was comped, as a media guest. Kai Zan was paid for.
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Well, I’m a full month behind on tracking my favorite things I ate this year, so here’s the list for July through now:
• Cheese curds at The Old-Fashioned in Madison, The Brewery in Mineral Point
• Ribs, 17th Street BBQ, Murphysboro, Illinois
• Filipino soup at Max’s
• Grilled beef tongue at Vera
• Fries at Au Cheval
• Fries at MBurger
• Beet, chicken tacos, Bullhead Cantina
• Manti at Afghan Kabob
• Margherita, sausage at Armitage Pizzeria
• Nathan Myrhvold’s modernist pastrami, caprese salad shooter, Trotter’s beer-can squab with tripe ravioli, at Charlie Trotter’s 25th anniversary dinner
• Tea-smoked duck at Lao Yunan (former Spring World), different from other Tony Hu versions
• Bonsoiree a la Beverly Kim: Chawanmushi, smelt, makkoli cake
• BLT dog, Bill Kim’s Urban Belly Dog, Franks N Dawgs
• PB&L (pork belly & lamb) sausage at Publican Quality Meats
• Phil’s Last Stand’s imitation of an In’N’Out burger
• Burger with tomato jam at Burger Bar
• Fried Dill Pickle Salad, Stout Barrel House & Galley
• Trenchermen: bacon cured sweetbreads, smoked sturgeon dish, heirloom tomato salad, coffee cake with smoked meringue
• Choucroute garni at Everest
• Sopa Azteca, Masa Azul
• Taleggio with green onions and grapes and speck pizza, rabbit sausage, Nellcôte
• Deep Purple Poutine, iNG
• Rice Krispy, carrots, raccoon ragu and polenta, Elizabeth
• Salmon from Ming Tsai’s new book at Takashi
• Lots of fresh uni, wild trout, Kai Zan
• Not-perfect-yet chestnut pasta with guinea hen sugo, Avec
• Duck and vinegary slaw ordered by pointing at what someone else was eating, Pho Xe Lua
• Ramen, Ginza
• Chicken soup with crispy rice, Lao Shanghai
• Enormous roasted chicken wings, Golden Palace
• Calamari dish, Bar Ombra
• Chicken boti, Ali’s BBQ
• Butternut squash velouté, fall chocolate dessert, Acadia
• Miche, La Fournette
• Hard kiwi-quince jam, from Orianna Kruszewski at the Green City Market
• Smoke cocktail, Allium
• Something from The Aviary… wish I could remember what…
Tags: elizabeth, kai zan