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Review Tue Apr 24 2012

EL Ideas Brings Underground Dining Up for Air

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Review by Christy Prahl.

When you're lucky enough to score a reservation at EL Ideas, it feels almost mandatory to write about the experience, so write about it I will. It's no exaggeration to say this was in the top ten dining experiences of my 46 years. I'll also hazard a statement that the food isn't the (main) reason to go.

That's not to say the food isn't magnificent. It is. From an opening course combining crab, Ossetra caviar, lychee, lemongrass, and freeze-dried strawberry, to the finale -- a variation on a root beer float -- every dish was a reason to celebrate functioning taste buds and incisors to chew with. Would I be lying if I said I'd never had a food experience that ranks as high? Maybe. My single meal at Alinea (justified after collecting a check from a freelance job that just about killed me), a recent haddock curry at Owen & Engine, and a late-July vanilla soft-serve at the Dairy Bar outside Rockland, Maine, rivaled my favorite dishes of the night. But that's mighty high praise, and I don't dole it out lightly.

The disintegration of the fourth wall is what sets the EL Ideas experience apart from any other exciting meal of your life. It's a reason to opt for EL over Schwa, Moto, or most of the underground dining options on your radar. It's an incentive to skip the two fancy date nights, six trips to Kuma's, or dozen visits to the local taqueria and save those dollars for EL instead.

From the moment of arrival, you're encouraged to invade the space of the kitchen: Indulging the amuse (a garlic soup shooter with brandade, olive, and chorizo) straight from the prep table... then asking questions, taking photos, even helping to plate a dish or two. I spooned tiny globes of rhubarb puree onto a plate that would hold venison sous vide, black walnut, and Hook's blue cheese, and even when I made a terrible mess, the chefs were nonplussed and affirming.

If I have any quibbles with the meal, it's only one of diminishing returns as we got a bit too full (and wine-addled) to appreciate some of the later dishes as much as we had the earlier. But it's silly to fault a kitchen for being too generous with its diners. The porous flow at EL invites a certain intimacy with the kitchen staff, so I'll take the liberty of using their first names and speculating -- far more than my four-hour acquaintanceship should allow -- how personality seems to be the mother of the invention with these dishes.

Philip (Foss) is the face and visionary behind the restaurant. His signature is written across the experience from start to finish, and his storied recent history -- shared candidly with the food press and beyond -- adds a certain poignancy and complexity to his creative acts in the kitchen. In the same way he changes his hair style (short to long and back again) or goes from gracious appreciator to precocious bad boy in the media, Phillip shows a staggering range in his dishes -- foie gras punctuated with cherries and a nearly pickled reduction of shallots and chives, or an apple sorbet with peanut sauce, brittle, and thyme, reminiscent of his favorite granny Smith apple and Skippy peanut butter snack from childhood, which also may have left me with the strongest taste memory of the night.

Scott (Manley) reads as the punk-rock intellectual you might imagine studying meteorology in his spare time to figure out how to make a thunderstorm happen on your plate. A gorgeous, delicious thunderstorm. It's in his dishes, at least that night, where you found the most challenging ingredients, most umami, most sass. Sweetbreads with coffee streusel and apricot. Duck charcuterie with turnip and tangerine. A dessert course built from celery. It's clear he wants to fuck you up a little.

Kevin (McMullen) is more the skater kid with the heart of gold. His dishes were probably the most approachable of the night, but for me -- despite a palate I consider pretty adventurous -- may have also been the most satisfying. There was a kind of harmony on the plate (grouper with peas, carrots, and bacon; a foraged mushroom with scallion, sunchoke, and chevre) that contrasted with all that exterior dissonance -- erratically parked cars and storage drums, semis whooshing by -- on a cluttered back alley off south Western Avenue.

If Scott is the brains and Kevin is the heart, Philip is the lungs of the joint. The dishes inhale with elegant reserve, exhale with playful bombast. Inspired, the entire room breathes.

As a person who spent her childhood in her grandmother's restaurant kitchen in Watermill, New York, stealing packets of sesame sticks and melba toast as my sister and I scurried underfoot to the consternation of the short-tempered chefs, it was a pleasure to be invited back into that kind of nerve center. For those interested in how form and function marry up, how process and product dally inseparably with one another, this is a window into an unforgettable culinary experience.

Go. Eat. Plate. Chatter. Eat. Reflect. Save up. Repeat.


EL Ideas (2419 W. 14th Street) is BYOB and serves dinner only. Reservations (currently booking for May) can be made at 312-226-8144 or via email.

Photo by Sharon Bautista.

Julia / April 24, 2012 5:00 PM

El is maybe my favorite dining experience in the city. It's everything magical about food. It's unpretentious and fun. I just love them. Marry me, guys. For real.

Christopher Gagnon / April 24, 2012 8:13 PM

What a wonderful read. Not only do I want to share this experience, but I want to read more of your work. Please keep it up!

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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