Sky Full of Bacon

Happy Anniversary, Graham Elliott (Bowles)

Four years ago I posted a long and pretty much rapturous ode to a meal at Avenues under Graham Elliott Bowles, then newly appointed and acclaimed and also, as it turned out, an LTHForum visitor (with one real discovery claim to fame, the much-loved but ill-starred Cafe Salamera, which he was the first to call attention to). Last year Bowles took his molecular gastronomy-tinged show down the street to a more casual venue, his bustling, loud-music-blaring River North spot Graham Elliott. Like a lot of people, I had mixed feelings. The price point didn’t really mesh with the claims that it was making that kind of food less expensive and more accessible; and some of the dishes were just too jokey (haute imitations of junk food) and didn’t work, although certainly the meal had at least some real high spots. Basically, Graham Elliott seemed a work in progress that needed more time to find its precise niche and even out some of the rough spots. Which is fine, except when you have to do it in the full glare of a highly publicized opening.

I haven’t been back since then, but I’ve meant to, so it was a real pleasure to be invited to Graham Elliott’s first anniversary party. (Yes, you should take that as admission of all the impartiality-voiding issues; we were his guests, of course I wasn’t anonymous, etc. There, are you happy John Mariani?) It was an eclectic crowd, less strategically chosen (not all that much in the way of local food media that I could see, though I did meet Janet Fuller of the Sun-Times), lots of old work colleagues or chefs he likes, and mainly just folks who seemed to have been appreciative of his food at some point.

The cocktail hour included a few hors d’oeuvres, of which a little cup of pea soup was by far the best, bursting with springy pea flavors (and a little crispy pork note in there somewhere, I believe). But the best thing during this time— maybe the best thing all night— was a cocktail, called Almost Paradise, built on vodka, cucumber and a teasing hint of steeped rosemary, with some egg white froth at the top. As David Hammond said while urging one on me, “The perfect summer drink.”

The interesting thing Bowles did for this menu was list some items that were on the menu a year ago and then serve us updated versions of the same concept a year later:

I had had one of these, the deconstructed Caesar salad. Last night’s version was less deconstructed than dada, the crouton having grown into an enormous cheese-filled brioche (amusingly called a brioche Twinkie) looming over the now tiny and defenseless bits of lettuce with the anchovies draped over it like melted clocks. This was a Caesar salad’s nightmare, and though parts of it were tasty, I tended to agree with Hammond that this business of taking apart a Caesar tends to lose what a Caesar is.

The second was the latest iteration of a play on buffalo chicken wings, with a beer foam. Then it was chicken and Budweiser; by now it’s sweetbreads with a roquefort gelato, “celery 5x” (five different forms), and a foam from Goose Island’s Matilda beer. I’m no fan of the basic buffalo wing flavor, so I was more entranced with the stuff around it, especially the celery and roquefort together.

The third dish was my favorite and, I think, most peoples’ out of the dinner courses—a scallop with Spanish flavorings including olive, almond and a chorizo vinaigrette. This was really a great dish, exotic and pungent yet accessible, and considering that fish dishes had impressed me the most last time out, I continue to think his adventurous but not overbearing hand with fish is one of the restaurant’s main strengths.

The last course was a variation on last year’s beef stroganoff, which I think I had had a taste of; now it was a cube of steak atop some spaetzles and some onion marmalade (which I’m always happy to see), with a little salt and pepper “station” on the plate. This was a satisfying dish for folks who wanted to see some red meat at that point. Where the dinner courses had been petite tastes of different things the kitchen can do, the dessert was a blowout with a gooey-center chocolate-peanut butter cake, a dab of ice cream, a little milkshake and a sugar-topped bruleed banana.

So where do I think Graham Elliott lands at this point? I don’t think it’s been radically transformed, but it seems to have grown into its skin as a place offering a certain degree of the experimental art cuisine you get at Alinea/Moto/etc., but in a more casual, nightclubby atmosphere. It seems like a good niche and while see-and-be-seen restaurants are often more flash than substance, that’s obviously not the case here. In general, the things I thought had been especially weak a year ago (cocktails and dessert) were far better, and the main courses probably batted a little higher overall.

Graham Elliott is very much a reflection of Bowles’ personality, which is less mad scientist and more puckishly playful than his molecular peers. One thing that was really charming about this evening was Bowles’ mom going around from table to table; she talked with us for quite a bit and had obvious pride in her son’s accomplishments. After dinner, he invited us back into the kitchen and showed off the modest space* from which they’d fed 130 people more or less on schedule (they were thrown off by some special requests, which seems vaguely appalling to me when you’ve been invited to a free dinner). I liked seeing the row of jars of pickled stuff, not nearly so much as Vie’s, but some interesting things (hot peppers mixed in with fruit, etc.)  It was an interesting capper to a gracious event which I very much appreciated having had the opportunity to attend.  Happy anniversary, Graham Elliott Bowles.

* Though to be honest, if there’s any Chicago restaurant with a vast and spacious kitchen, I haven’t seen it yet.

If you like this post and would like to receive updates from this blog, please subscribe our feed. Subscribe via RSS

Comments are closed.