It started off as a project all about balls. Meatyballs, to be precise. In a city with strict policies against cooking on food trucks, chef Phillip Foss quickly realized that he had a restaurant license. “The Ball Cave,” as the staff knew it, was the cooking space for the Meatyballs Mobile, Foss’ short-lived food truck project, and had enough space to comfortably seat eighteen. The idea of a restaurant evolved into one of the year’s hottest dining experiences.
EL Ideas, which stands for “elevated ideas in cuisine and dining,” is (currently) the collaborative baby of chef Foss, former-EL chef Andrew Brochu (now at Graham Elliot), recently-nominated Eater Young Gun Kevin McMullen, and Scott Manley. The trio constructs their weekly menus based on seasonality, oh, and their creative minds. The beauty of EL is that they are constantly challenging themselves and pushing the envelop to create delicious and thought-provoking cuisine. To categorize EL Ideas as New American cuisine is not fair as it puts a limit to their creativity. Progressive cuisine would be more appropriate, though because of the amount of thought and energy put into each dish, there really isn’t an adjective to describe EL. It’s just cooking, done to perfection.
In Chicago’s food scene, there is some negative energy out there with new reservation procedures *cough*Next*cough*. The nice thing about EL is that it sticks to the basics: email or call them. Someone will answer. Check their website to see if there are short notice cancellations. You might be able to snag a table sooner, rather than later. That’s what happened for me. I emailed for a table that was posted for a week away. Twenty-four hours later, I received an email saying that the table was mine.
EL Ideas is in the middle of nowhere. Really. Driving past downtown, past UIC, west of the West Loop, west of the Medical District. There is literally nothing around the place…except the FBI – Chicago Office and the Cook County Juvenile Court. But hey, never judge a book by its cover, right? The perfect idiom for this place.
The dining space is small. Tables are either two- or four-tops, seating a total of eighteen lucky diners a night. White tablecloths line the rectangular tables, as perfectly weighted and designed utensils rest atop a folded cloth napkin. Cold steel shines in the kitchen. Walking around is encouraged, and one would notice all of the cooking machinery, each chefs’ mise, and hand-drawn pictures from chef Foss’ daughters.
Was I there to check out the kitchen? Well, yes, but really I was there to eat. Wine was poured (BYOB) as diners entered, and a pre-dinner toast was raised for a few birthdays, my fiancee’s included. A nice, intimate touch to the evening.
But the reason many venture to the 14th Street building is the cuisine. Perfectly executed cuisine. Our menu consisted of fourteen thoughtful plates and drinks. There was ossetra caviar, a well-crafted fruit cup with squid and lychee foam, a potato soup with inspiration deeply rooted in the Foss daughters dipping french fries in ice cream (I thought I was the only one that did this! A suggestion, as discussed with chef McMullen: try dipping them in a Wendy’s Frosty instead), smoked sturgeon with hearts (of palm) and made with love(age), and sweetbreads complemented by daikon, soba and miso.
Something unique about EL Ideas is the way the staff interacts with the guests. Because each dish is the unique creation of an individual, each chef discussed the story and inspiration behind his dish as the course came out of the kitchen. You don’t get that type of interaction at many other restaurants.
What’s even more unique is the experience of plating a course. My fiancee and I had the opportunity to plate the final dessert course for all eighteen guests. Of course a plate was modeled for us, but we still sprinkled our creativity on the dessert. That type of experience is something very memorable, something that she and I will never forget.
I suppose this is where I say it: EL Ideas ranks in the top two dining experiences in my short twenty-five years. I am quite excited to see how EL Ideas evolves its cuisine and as a restaurant. Another visit (or dozen) is in line. I shall return (with another growler in hand…maybe some harder stuff too). Cya soon, gentlemen.