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It's Hard to Be a Picky Eater with a Michelin-Starred Tasting Menu

BY: Kelly MacDowell | Jul 22, 2016

I had no idea what to expect upon arriving at Elizabeth, the Michelin Star winner from Chef Iliana Regan. But an unmarked, unremarkable storefront between a tire shop and a sporting-goods store certainly wasn't it. With few exceptions (Schwa, most notably), Chicago's upper-echelon restaurants boast exteriors that match their illustrious River North and Restaurant Row addresses.

But as it turns out, Regan has no taste for that sort of superficial flash. She dons no chef's whites. She displays no awards. She does not raise her voice to the Gordon Ramsay–level roar or even the Rachael Ray-ish rollick that TV cameras eat up.

Instead, this northwest Indiana native quietly built her reputation as someone who hunts for frogs and spears them herself. Someone who has suffered tick bites and poison-ivy rashes foraging for wild flora. Someone who has penned an essay on intensity for Lucky Peach and once themed an Elizabeth restaurant tasting menu after those violent and visceral A Song of Ice and Fire novels.

So yeah, I was kinda terrified to eat her food.

I'd never done a tasting menu before. And I wouldn't necessarily classify myself as a picky eater, but I'm not a particularly adventurous one either, particularly when it comes to meat. (I can barely look at plated octopus without shivering.) I'd heard that Regan once served edible ants. Which are, like, bugs.

My nerves were calmed upon walking into Elizabeth, though. Austere yet charming, the whitewashed space was accented by light fixtures made from bare tree branches; dining chairs draped with faux-fur slipcovers; a chef's counter armed with Elder Scrolls and Vikings Funko Pop! dolls. It was all in support of the season's menu theme: vikings.

There were two options: land or sea. Or, as the first in a delightful succession of servers explained it, "Imagine a viking ship has reached the shore. One group goes on land to look for food, the other into the sea." My friend Erin and I opted to order one of each to share and, despite my trepidation of certain meats, placed no restrictions on what we would eat. (You can arrange for some allergies and dietary needs in advance.) We wanted to go all in.

After the amuse-bouche—a surprisingly complex roasted whey carrot dressed with goat's-milk cheese and edible flowers—came our first courses. The land dish was ... a bowl of rocks. The server assured me the top "rock" was actually a baked potato coated in edible clay. But it was very convincing as a rock, so I bit in with trepidation. As Erin ate the rest, dipping it into the cheese and butter puddings it was served with, I forked into her langoustine with lingonberries. (Pro tip: don't try to tear off the claw without looking. You will stab your finger on a spine.) So far, so very good.

As the servers continued to weave their culinary narrative, I realized there was an unmentioned character in their tale—Elizabeth itself. The restaurant is small, seating about 16 or so, and the kitchen is wide open. It was impossible not to get caught up in what was happening back there, particularly when sous chefs were wielding brûlée torches and "plating" on gorgeous pieces of handmade pottery. And the line between front and back of house was practically nonexistent. One moment, you'd see someone in the kitchen stirring and slicing; the next they'd be presenting your next course or clearing your table. (Chef Regan included.)

This created an unexpected intimacy, one that removed any hesitation when asking about a particular dish. It's clear the teammates take a deep yet quiet pride in their collective work. They spoke warmly about where ingredients came from, excitedly about the preparation techniques used. They always used "we" or "our," never "me" or "Chef Regan." (Again, Chef Regan included.)

Over the next few courses, there were so many charms. An herb-rolled, soft-boiled quail egg served in an actual nest; impossibly chewy seaweed bread darkened by squid ink; a cauliflower-mushroom soup that Erin about died over. I was particularly fond of a course called Barnyard: headcheese dusted with beet powder, paired with a collage of root vegetables and flavored puddings reminiscent of something out of the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing.

And that's the thing. Never in my life would I have thought that I'd be fond of headcheese. I would have probably never eaten it if it weren't for this meal. But it was fun to break out of my culinary comfort zone.

The other surprising thing? How full we were, considering it was a tasting menu. By the time we were served the entree courses—rare lamb medallions wrapped in swiss chard and pickled fish in a sauce of its own bones—we were taking deep breaths between bites. I'm pretty sure they were the only two plates we didn't completely clean.

We managed to buck up for our "one-and-a-half" dessert courses, as the server put it. (The "half" was a palate-cleansing sorbet.) Our favorite was Under the Sea, a spongy coral-seaweed cake so realistic looking it prompted me to ask the server just how much of it we could eat. "All of it," she said. We complied.

Maybe, as a writer, I'm just a sucker for a good story. But I was enchanted by Elizabeth, both in backstory and in not knowing what was coming next throughout the culinary adventure. And while I probably won't be buying headcheese any time soon, I'm excited to see what Chef Regan has up her non-chef's-whites sleeves next season.

Watch Chef Regan explain her approach to fine dining:

Guide Staff Writer
BY: Kelly MacDowell