At one point of a dinner at Elizabeth restaurant, I was served a dark and rich maitake-mushroom tea (really a clarified broth) while a pure-white device on the table played Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Which made me think that chef/owner Iliana Regan is a smidge older, or a ton hipper, than I'd supposed. Probably both.
More crucially, I came to regard this dish, however tasty and pretty (the tea, with hints of chocolate and camomile, arrives in gorgeous Italian porcelain espresso cups), as less a menu component than an autobiographical manifesto.
Iliana Regan is Alice. The fields and farms where she forages for ingredients comprise her Wonderland. We are along for the ride, and it behooves us not to be late.
Though Elizabeth is barely 3 months old, Regan is well-known in Chicago's foodie universe. The restaurant is a public version of the underground restaurant she ran for two years, and the underground restaurant was an offshoot of her pirogi sales, which blossomed from her farmers market appearances. Each step of the way, her passions for home growing and wild foraging have informed her work.
Foraging is an imprecise science; one never knows what treasures might appear and when, and the joy of the finding compensates for the tedium of the looking. So it is for Regan's restaurant. Her multicourse menus, the smallest of which require a three-hour commitment, provide moments of rapture, and occasionally of indifference. But nothing is ever less than interesting.
Elizabeth offers three fixed menus. The farm-to-table, rustic Owl menu runs 8 to 10 courses, priced at $65 to $85 (prices vary by the day of the week); the game and forest-influenced Deer menu ($125-$155) includes at least 12 courses and the extravagant Diamond menu ($175-$205) encompasses 20-plus courses and will keep you in your seat for more than four hours.
Elizabeth doesn't take reservations per se, but sells tickets using the same system Nick Kokonas designed for his Next and Alinea restaurants (Regan worked at Alinea for a time). One nice feature of Elizabeth's setup is a calendar grid that lets you browse dates to see which seats, for which menus, are available.
The dining room consists of three, eight-seat communal tables, each table committed to one of the three menus. Each table has a single start time (though all three tables have different times), so tablemates eat together.
Thus your dining experience is inextricably woven with your dining partners. Sometimes this can be ideal, sometimes less so. One night the table talk was dominated by a handful of been-there-done-that foodies who dropped a zillion names (including, surreally, mine), which can be fun if you're into that thing. Another night, two tablemates were business types who talked shop a bit more than I'd have preferred, though they piped down whenever food arrived. And one night I was surrounded by fellow travelers who so reveled in the experience that it was a delight sliding down the rabbit hole with them.
Owl menu highlights included a "hen and egg" composition of chicken-breast mousseline, chicken-thigh terrine, crispy skin and shaved truffle and a slow-poached quail egg, all encased in a hen-shaped ceramic dish (in the chicken versus egg debate, Regan takes neither side, but serves both simultaneously). I loved the "trough of tastes," a re-purposed wooden olive dish containing a tiny buttermilk biscuit, a smear of bacon fat (biscuits with bacon fat were a staple of Regan's underground dinners), a spoon holding apple mostarda and a pink beet marshmallow.
Deer menu treats included venison tartare on brioche, topped with a sheet of gelled horseradish; raccoon prosciutto (you heard me; it tastes kind of porky) with pulped beets and carrots and rose gelee, and the aforementioned mushroom tea. The knockout dish, though, was a duck trio of rolled-up smoked breast, confit leg and a custardy slow-cooked duck egg, over Polish kluski noodles and czernina, the Polish duck-blood soup, enriched with cream and duck stock; this dish was so rich I was grateful for the rest between courses.
The Diamond menu, which is like a marathon in that pre-event training is required, includes a "salad sponge" of whipped and stabilized arugula, topped with sorbets of goat milk and sunflower seed; a gorgeous poached oyster in a sort of potato-nasturtium vichyssoise, presented in a ceramic ginkgo leaf; and rich dry-aged rib-eye over potato puree, a dish that would seem improbably pedestrian but for the brined beef tongue and smoked-buttermilk pudding accompaniments.
There are occasional menu crossovers, as with the pancake-batter gougeres whose fillings vary with the menu (cheese on one menu, trout roe on another), but by any reasonable measure each menu is unique. Watching Regan and her small staff produce 40-odd dishes, split among three tables of eight diners, each night, with such precision and unaffected grace, is almost mind-boggling. And then the same chefs, including the musically voiced Regan, serve the dishes along with charming back stories and occasional eating instructions.
Desserts are not resounding finales, and there are a few reasons for this, chiefly because so many of the previous courses have self-contained savory-sweet interplay that an obliterating sweet finish would seem odd. And, of course, there's no way patrons would be hungry for a big dessert, even after the shortest of the three menus. And so her desserts tend to be short and sweet farewells, such as bacon ice cream and whiskey butterscotch nestled in pepper-tuile cones (Diamond menu), caramelized pear with pear chips and pear sorbet with hazelnut ice cream (Owl) and black-walnut shortbread cookies with vanilla molasses and goat-milk caramel (Deer).
Wine is not part of the pre-paid ticket; options are offered at the beginning of dinner. One can go with the wine pairings, which cost $50, $85 and $100 respectively for the Owl, Deer and Diamond menus, or opt for a couple of glasses to get through the dinner (at least one couple at every table I visited took this option). Wine director Scott Moorman, who crafted the pairings for Elizabeth's fall menus, has left the restaurant, but Ben Aviram, late of Alinea and French Laundry, will join the team soon and will design matches for the next round of menus, which will debut early next month.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
4835 N. Western Ave.; 773-681-0651; elizabeth-restaurant.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Owl menu $65-$85, Deer $125-$155, Diamond $175-$205
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Tickets sold online only
Other: Street parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.