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March 16, 2009

Graham Elliot

Foiellipops Dominic Armato

One of the great shames of my last stretch in Chicago was that I never quite managed to make it to Avenues under Graham Elliot Bowles. Despite hitting just about every other fine dining landmark, despite hearing from many friends that Bowles was the most underappreciated of Chicago's high-end chefs, I kept waiting for the right occasion. And then he was gone, tired of fine china and table linens, bored with stuffy service and precious presentations, and ready to strike out on his own. For a fellow who could basically write his own ticket, the path he chose was surprising to some. But for anybody who had been paying attention to Bowles' irreverence and ebullience, Graham Elliot -- the restaurant -- shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Bowles is regularly lumped in with Chicago's MG wonder twins Achatz and Cantu, but it's an unfair comparison. He's more playful and less petri dish, with a penchant for bridging the gap between what we perceive as upscale and downscale foods. This is, after all, the guy who famously brought together foie gras and pop rocks. As such, his "bistronomic" concept, bringing fine dining down to an approachable, casual level, would seem a natural angle for him to take. Graham Elliot is what happens when a four star chef gets sick of being fussy. The food is high-concept, very creative and painstakingly executed, but served on $3 Ikea plates by a Converse-clad wait staff while punk music blares. It's a concept that might come across as conceit if it didn't seem such a genuine reflection of Bowles' sensibilities, and maybe it does try a little too hard at times. But the guy isn't trying to change the world. He's just trying to have a little fun.

Caesar Salad Dominic Armato
It's a hip River North space that has enough of a vibe to keep scenesters happy without becoming a full-blown scene. The tables are bare, the floors are hardwood, the brick and ductwork are exposed and the lighting changes color with the seasons. (For the record, while this last detail makes restaurant photography a nightmare, I'm not so paranoid as to count myself among those who believe this is consciously intended to foil bloggers.) The walls are covered with a grid of mirrored boxes containing seasonal ingredients, and a simmering pot of aromatics -- pinecones and juniper when I visited in December -- hits your nose before you even set foot in the front door. It's loud. Not such that you can't hear yourself think, but quiet conversation isn't happening. Thankfully, it's a good selection of tunes. And baskets of creatively seasoned popcorn show up on the table in lieu of bread service. In short, Graham Elliot goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Not Formal it is, and yet I found any conceit I felt completely forgivable with the exception of our server, who spoke to us at great length as though we were culinary idiots. A little insight into the menu is always appreciated, and I like to know in detail what, precisely, I'm being served. But a full-blown unsolicited lecture on how any food lover knows that the true test of a good tartare is in the knife work and the texture achieved is just fricking annoying, and it's a trend that needs to stop.

Venison Steak Tartare Dominic Armato
The menu is conceptually subdivided into sections titled Cold, Hot, Sea, Land and Sweet. It's a little bit of superfluous flair but it works perfectly well, with the first two representing starters, the second two representing entrees and the final containing the desserts. The menu items themselves, however, are often completely off the wall, coming across as the mad brainchild of a junkfood junkie with formal culinary training. The widely reviled Cheese-It risotto is no longer offered, but this is still a menu that features root beer, pop rocks, Budweiser foam and Bowles' take on buffalo wings. We went with a huge crowd of friends, the upshot of which is that I was able to sample about half the menu in one go. The downside was that much of it was tiny tastes, some of which left big impressions and some of which simply seemed inadequate to form any strong opinions. But here's my take on what I ate (or what I remember of what I ate), for better or worse.

Buffalo Chicken Dominic Armato
Bowles' playfulness was evident right out of the gate, both for better and for worse. His caesar salad has gained notoriety for its brioche "twinkies": large, lightly crisped croutons with a cream cheese filling. But despite the twist (which worked for me, actually), the dish was a winner on the basis of an excellent traditional dressing and somewhat less-than-traditional white anchovy fillets. It's tough to make a caesar stand out without butchering the concept, but this one did just that. Another winner for me was the venison tartare, which fulfilled the promise of four star food at least from the standpoint of endless components. Plated with cranberry mostarda, hazelnut "paper", juniper gelato and parsley cream, there was a lot going on both in terms of texture and presentation. But the marriage of textures worked, the flavors popped, they worked well in concert and -- perhaps most surprisingly -- they didn't completely obliterate the venison. This isn't a preparation for tartare purists, but it was one of my more enjoyable bites of the evening.

Root Beer Pork Belly Dominic Armato
Less successful, I thought, was Bowles' buffalo chicken. Here, I might be in the minority, as many who are down on the rest of the menu seem to consider this one of the bright points. Rather than bringing the fancy-schmancy down to earth, he applies unusual care to bar food, plating crispy chunks of chicken (thigh, if memory serves?) with a homemade hot wing sauce, celeriac slaw, chunky bleu cheese sauce and Budweiser foam. My issue wasn't that it wasn't delicious. It was. And it had me thinking about how each element was elevated with unusual care. But my first and last thought with every bite was, "Yup... that's a buffalo wing," and it struck me as kind of a pointless exercise. Delicious? Yes. An interesting repackaging of the traditional wing? Absolutely. I'm just not convinced that the buffalo wing was in need of elevation, or that this iteration brought anything to the classic other than a pretty face.

Maple Glazed Scallops Dominic Armato
Entrees, however, were all positive experiences to varying degrees. In a shocking role reversal, my ladylove was the one to order the pork belly, braised with root beer and served with grits, collard greens and plum marmalade. The belly was far too lean for my tastes (something our server touted as indicative of its high quality, to my continuing annoyance), but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the root beer glaze. Once I got over the initial shock of it, I had to concede that it almost seemed a natural pairing. One of the less notable but perfectly tasty bites that passed my way was that of a maple-glazed scallop, served with oatmeal, collard greens and a butternut squash puree. It's a proven combination of accompanying flavors, if one not generally applied to mollusks, and I found it satisfying if less than thrilling.

Kentucky Fried Pheasant Dominic Armato
A dish I wish I'd gotten more than a fleeting taste of was the Kentucky fried pheasant, and it's on my short list for a return visit. Fried crispy and served with a yam waffle and hash of turnips and brussels sprouts, this one really flew (ha!) on its execution, incredibly moist and tender beneath a light and crispy crust. But my favorite dish of the night was actually my own, a "skate almondine" that went big on both flavor and texture. Done with a beurre noisette, creamy polenta, toasted almonds, haricot vert and a caper chutney with pomegranate seeds, it had a sweet-salty vibe that was put over the top by a great crust on the skate and the meticulous knife work that reduced all of the accompanying ingredients to a fine dice which simultaneously blended and released all of the big flavors involved.

Skate Almondine Dominic Armato
Desserts... well, you guys know me and desserts by now. Nothing was blowing me away. I thought the much ballyhooed deconstructed Snickers bar wasn't all that, and the apple fritters were the highlight of the sweets, but they were all classic flavors, slightly repackaged. Since opening, Bowles has been steadily toning down the menu in response to criticism that his mad scientist approach to junkfood integration was a little over the top. Having not sampled the menu until at least one round of major revisions had already taken place, I don't have the same perspective as some of his earlier patrons. But I wonder if the foiellipops, which I finally had the opportunity to try, weren't the perfect metaphor for how I felt about Graham Elliot. An old signature dish carried over from Avenues, the foiellipop is a slice of pure poached foie, lightly salted, stuck on a stick and rolled in pop rocks. I found the pop rocks to be a surprisingly good, if glaringly unorthodox, accompaniment. But more was needed to cut through the excessive, unseasoned richness of the foie, and it could have used -- of all things -- more pop rocks (a phrase, by the way, that I never dreamed I'd be using, least of all in a food blog).

The thing is, I actually found Bowles' fits of goofiness compelling. Or at the very least, they put me in a frame of mind where I could enjoy the dishes on a fun level without taking them too seriously. Not only do I think that's exactly the point, but I also wonder if much of the criticism levied against Graham Elliot is because of the expectations that were set by his stint at Avenues. Unburdened by such preconceived notions of what his food would be, I found myself simply getting caught up in the fun at times. It would be another story if he were turning out flat dishes, but the menu is mostly tasty -- sometimes extremely so -- and I wonder if raking him over the coals for overreaching at times is unfairly muzzling the guy. Bowles set out to do four star cuisine in a casual setting. I'm not sure he did either, really. Its vibe is a little forced and these dishes, transplanted, couldn't anchor a fine dining restaurant. But going in with the idea that you're going to have some good, irreverent food, there's a lot here to like.

Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Mon - Sat 5:00 PM - 10:30 PM


I can't help it; I read the entire post with Guybrush Threepwood's voice in my head. Agh!

Nice! Thanks for the review. My husand and I walked past Graham Elliot yesterday and plan on going this week.

I'm all for creative combinations, and I'm willing to try just about anything, but pop rocks--is there any actual food substance in its composition?--on foie gras...I feel almost personally insulted by that. It's just not right. It's how I feel when I see a cat dressed up in people clothes. Poor kitty. Poor foie. How demeaning.

I am always irrate when cheftestant says he (well, it's always a he) wants to "educate" diners. Bite me, Stehpen! Just put the food on the table.

Will try this place out in May.

"I'm all for creative combinations, and I'm willing to try just about anything, but pop rocks--is there any actual food substance in its composition?--on foie gras...I feel almost personally insulted by that. It's just not right. It's how I feel when I see a cat dressed up in people clothes. Poor kitty. Poor foie. How demeaning." (Paula)

You know what, though? It actually works. And I don't think it's just a gimmick; the fizzing-popping-whatever of the pop rocks complements the texture of the foie gras. I am sometimes a bit challenged by foie, and I enjoy these a lot.

I agree about dressing up pets though. :)

I guess I'm a foie gras traditionalist. Seared fois, plus some kind of rich, sweet sauce, fruit compote and toast points. That is so going to be my last meal.

Thanks for posting this. It is unlikely I'll ever have a chance to try this guy's food, but I enjoyed your expressive description.

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