I know what you are thinking -- didn't you just go to Alinea? Yes, I did. As I was scheduling my trip to Chicago, I got greedy. I thought "Why not hit two Michelin-starred restaurants in one trip?!" So that's what we did. Since Alinea is the only 3-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago, I went for a 2-star of which there are only two in Chicago. Although both L20 and Graham Elliot were willing to accommodate our vegan preferences, I enjoyed my conversation more with the Graham Elliot host. She said they'd be more than happy to accommodate and there was even a statement on their website stating that they could accommodate any dietary preferences. That sealed the deal for me. But, other than that, we really didn't know anything about Graham Elliot.
From the website, it looked more casual than what I would expect from a 2-star Michelin restaurant. In fact, it looked so casual that I had to confirm with the host that I was making reservations at the right restaurant as he has three different ones, but all have similar websites. She confirmed that the restaurant named after the chef/owner was the one with the Michelin stars. Okay then.
So on the Saturday night during our trip to Chicago we headed over to Graham Elliot. Immediately upon entering, we marveled at the spacious, open layout that allowed seating for 115 people. With its exposed brick walls and ductwork along with artwork featuring found moss and other items from nature, it was much more modern than your typical upscale restaurant.
So who is Graham Elliot really? At age 27, he became the youngest Four Star Chef to be named in any major U.S. city and was named one of Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chef" in 2004. He has also accrued several prestigious accolades including multiple James Beard Foundation nominations as well as being named one of Crain's Chicago Business list of "40 Under Forty", putting him in an elite club that includes luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey. He opened his first restaurant, the one at which we were dining, in 2008 and subsequently opened two more casual joints -- Grahamwich and g.e.b. shortly thereafter. He is best know for his stints on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters.
As our server approached us, it became evident that this would not be one of our typical upscale experiences. The server was wearing jeans and a sport coat with funky black and white sneakers. Elliot apparently wants to buck the idea of fine dining by playing indie rock and having his staff wear more relaxed attire. He feels that his restaurant should be an artistic outlet that is constantly evolving and what you witness at Graham Elliot is his expression.
After speaking to our server, we had to first decide between the 10-course tasting or the 15-course chef's menu. We went with the 15-course. This time, we opted not to do the wine pairing and would instead just choose a bottle of wine. This became a difficult decision as the wine list was extensive. The sommelier came over to discuss the Pinot Noirs with us. We first chose a French Pinot, but found it to be a bit too sharp. He seemed genuinely interested in ensuring we'd have a wine we enjoyed so after discussing our preferences, he chose a bottle of Pinot Noir from Le Cadeau Vineyard 2007 in Willamette Valley, Oregon. This was perfect.
The amuse bouche were fennel lollipops presented in a log. Cute.
The first course was orange with blackberry, thyme, and tarragon flower.
The second course was a beautiful, artistic presentation of radish, kohlrabi, yellow & red beets, and chamomile with vinaigrette. This was a very complex dish that we found to be very good.
Next, was one of the coolest looking dishes -- a tofu disk served on avocado mousse with cilantro and on either end was a tofu mousee in a crispy plantain with pickled jalapeno. We thought the tofu mousse had a great texture that went well with the avocado mousse, but the tofu disk needed something else -- maybe a little more herbs.
For the fourth course, we had tiny circular grilled egpplant with crispy fennel and ratatouille in a bell pepper sauce. The eggplant was meaty and when paired with the smoky sauce, was quite delightful -- a hearty dish.
For the fifth course, we were served a cold carrot soup with crushed almonds, chervil, and tarragon along with a saba vinaigrette. At this point, we were super impressed.
Next, we had an intermezzo of cucumber sorbet, coriander, melon, and compressed cucumber. Delightful.
For the seventh course, a simple dish of cherry tomatoes with cucumber, olive oil and flowers was served.
This is the point at which I started feeling full and realized we were only halfway through! Next, we had grilled summer squash, kombasu, and samphire (a sea vegetable) in a ponzu sauce.
The ninth course was when they brought the spongy morel mushroom dish out. I love the distinct taste of morels. There were full morels standing on the plate with some morel slices, crispy artichoke, borage (an herb), pickled pearl onions, and dollops of black garlic sauce. What really surprised us about this dish is that there was some sort of morel-based paste inside of the morels -- completely unexpected and delicious.
We marveled at how minimally cooked all of the dishes had been thus far. The chef cooked them just enough while preserving the texture of each vegetable and mushroom and never overcooking anything. It was pure perfection.
The tenth course was a risotto cooked in a vegetable stock with runner beans, and pea shoots in a parsley sauce topped with crispy onions. So many tastes that meshed together well.
The eleventh course was one of my favorites. Here we had seared cauliflower with lobster mushrooms, artichokes, and purple potatoes. The mushrooms were served over a delicious potato puree. Besides being on the salty side, I absolutely loved this dish.
The twelfth course were tiny little bites of elderflower panicotta with compressed rhubarb and celery set in an agar gel. You can't really see it, but all of those little bites are sitting in a sort of vegan jello that caught us off guard!
As we finished our wine, the server offered to pour us one of the dessert wines to pair with our dessert courses. We thought that would be great. I must say these next three dessert courses really blew us away.
For the thirteenth course, we had apricot sorbet with an olive oil gel over crushed hazelnut served with meyer lemon gel and a vanilla bean skewer.
Next up, a lavendar streusel with strawberry gelatin served with sorbet, compressed strawberries, and borrage flowers.
And finally, the grand finale -- just the picture of this makes me say "wow" all over again -- a chocolate explosion. Here we had chocolate mochi made with cashew butter and gold leaf, chocolate ganache, chocolate sorbet, chocolate powder, and passion fruit gel. I think we died and went to chocolate heaven at that point.
Then they finished it up with two more lollipops.
So despite our first reaction to the casual atmosphere, I would say we were pleasantly surprised and incredibly impressed. Each dish was impeccably prepared with minimal cooking and presented flawlessly. The service was beyond excellent -- everything was on point as we were served on right and dishes collected on the left. I mean, the service was completely flawless. After our meal, they even presented us with a list of vegan restaurants to explore in the city -- they really went above and beyond. The sommelier was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. And the price for all of this was reasonable at $165 per person. All-in with a $140 bottle of wine, tax, and tip, we spent about $660, but was one of the best meals we've ever had. And for a random choice of a restaurant, I was super happy. The Michelin raters sure know their stuff.
217 W. Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654