“Found the Meatyballs trucks!”
That’s the first sign that lets you know you’re in the right place if you’re looking for El, the not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-private-chef creation of Chef Phillip Foss. The second sign is when Chef Foss himself opens the door and sticks his head out to welcome you. It’s that latter bit that gives it all away.
El is not a restaurant. El is not about getting sustenance, and it’s not about being seen. Unlike a lot of Chicago dining experiences, El is simply about people who love food, feeding you. As soon as you walk through the doors, you are enveloped with a camaraderie that blows right out of the kitchen and sucks you in. Foss, Andrew Brochu, Minni, Bill, all of them greet you personally with warm smiles and introduce themselves. And in a town where chefs are often put on pedestals or tucked behind velvet curtains, this brings back the very definition of Midwest hospitality. At El, you are more than a diner, you are a guest.
The concept is simple. ELeven courses for $125 (give or take a blueberry juice/cabernet “froth” palate cleanser). The courses themselves read simply, “brandade / caviar / blini / apple,” but they reflect careful consideration of flavors, textures, aroma and plating. While the exact dishes will likely change based on what Foss and Brochu are in the mood to present, if they continue to maintain the attention to detail that was presented in their opening night menu, they will undoubtedly succeed.
The dish that stood out the most was Course Three, listed as “haricots vert / black garlic / mustard / bee pollen.” Looking at those four ingredients, you would never picture the perfect green gelee globe orbited by small galaxies of granola. And, you would never imagine that such a dish would be so refreshing, so satisfying. You have green beans in aspic, and then you have haricots vert in gelee.
And then there was Course Five, listed as “smoked oyster / vinegar / tomato seed / ocean froth.” When I think of smoked oysters, I have fond memories of using a church key to open a tin can while camping. Of sucking the oil off of toothpicks and of chewing and chewing and chewing. El’s Course Five is anything but. Individual cast iron pots sitting on small cedar shingles. A single perfect oyster (blue point?) nestled on a smouldering mound of wood shavings. A waft of fragrant smoke tempting you closer. Just the smell of it is delicious. Foss comes around spooning airy bubbles on each oyster. “That’s foam!” exclaims Charlotte.
“Foam is so 2000,” Foss says. “This is froth.”
A friend of mine reminded me recently, that opinions are not fact. And it is with this in mind, that I venture forth with what may cause consternation (though I doubt anyone will read this far, so I’m not too worried.) Two of the twelve dishes were enthusiastically seasoned. The broth that accompanied Course Six smelled heavenly, like a flask of distilled sea. But it overpowered the delicate flavor of the perfectly cooked lobster. The same happened with the duck confit. Perfectly cooked, but the flavor was lost to salt.
Two small discrepancies did little to obscure what was clearly a beautiful progression of dishes. (If you can somehow get seconds of the lamb tongue, please let me know how. Goodness that was delicious.) By the time you get to the dessert dish, where both Foss and Brochu deny being the originator, you will have surrendered your heart and your palate over to the entire kitchen staff because they have wooed you with flavors, and charmed you with service. El is not a restaurant, El is an honor.