I first heard of Chicago chef Graham Elliott Bowles a few years back when Michael Nagrant (HungryMag.com and Chicagomag.com) interviewed him for a podcast while he was piling up accolades at Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel. I also followed along as sites like eGullet and the LTHForum (a Chicago food messageboard) tracked the opening of his own restaurant, Graham Elliot, located at 217 W. Huron Street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. As such Graham Elliot has always been on the list of “places to try” when I visit Chicago. On a recent visit I finally was able to check the restaurant out with a couple of friends.
I arrived and they were already at the bar where the bartender had filled them in on the new fall cocktail menu just released that day. I had something called the Surrender Dorothy which featured basil infused gin, green chartreuse, fresh lime and prosecco. It was delicious and had a very herbal taste that was nicely tempered by the bubbly prosecco. One of my friends had the Blueberry Hill, a mixture of Hendrick’s Gin, Crème de Violette, Blueberry Compote and Blackberry Shrub that was so tasty that he ordered a second one when we were seated.
There are several signature touches that make Graham Elliot stand out. From the super casual atmosphere with no tablecloths or stuffy dress code to the use of Ikea plates and bowls to the killer music selection which on our night heavily featured Jawbreaker, The Pixies, and the Cure (three of my favorite bands). The decision not to serve the obligatory and often times boring bread basket but instead serve up a basket of truffle popcorn is another Graham Elliot touch. Ahh the white truffle popcorn, what a great way to start out a meal. Its light and doesn’t fill you up like bread can and tastes 100 times better too. You can smell the aroma of the white truffle oil every time a server walks by your table with a new basket of this glorious snack food. Even as we were finishing our final courses I still wanted some truffle popcorn every time that unmistakable truffle smell wafted by.
After looking over the menu and flip-flopping over what items to order the server suggested one of their tasting menus (5 or 10 course). We asked her what menu items are on each of the menus and the 10 course ($125) pretty much covered every item the three of us were looking at so we decided to try it and I am glad we did because Graham Elliot serves up some exciting, unique, and most importantly, tasty food. Here is a brief recap of each course:
Course 1: White Tuna Sashimi with Plantain Chips, Whipped Avocado, Cilantro Sprouts, Passion Fruit. The waitress informed us this was an Escolar sashimi as she brought out the beautifully plated first course. A nice piece of fish sat atop the avocado and passionfruit. A paper thin segment of plantain stuck out from the bottom of that. As striking as the presentation was we were all underwhelmed by this dish. It lacked the pop that I expected. The ingredients made it seem like it would be a flavor explosion but everything seemed kind of muted. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn’t great.
Course 2: Hand Pulled Mozzarella This was the chef’s take on a Caprese salad and I am not sure I can go back to the real thing again. A perfectly ripe yellow tomato sat atop a round of their house made mozzarella cheese. On top of that sat a small quenelle of balsamic vinegar pre=”vinegar “>sorbet and some micro basil. The waitress then drizzled the small salad with some excellent olive oil. The contrasting flavors of warm fresh mozzarella, room temperature tomato, and ice cold sorbet worked perfectly. The taste was pure caprese but the sensation of that icy balsamic melting just awoke the palate in a manner the traditional salad could never accomplish.
Course 3: Sweet Corn Bisque This just might have been the dish of the evening. The bowl is presented with a small pool of lime crema topped with chipotle jam and crushed up corn nuts and a garlic marshmallow. The server pours the corn bisque into the bowl at the table and instructs you to swirl the marshmallow and other accompaniments into the soup. You got the pure taste of creamy corn with a little heat from the chipotles, a little acidity from the lime crema, texture from the corn nuts, and creaminess, enhanced with the garlic marshmallow. If Graham Elliot Bowles ever writes a cookbook I’d buy it for this recipe alone.
Course 4: Kung Pao Sweetbreads Pretty much what it sounds like. Sweetbreads served like kung pao chicken. I love sweetbreads and I love kung pau chicken so I knew I was going to order this as an appetizer before I stepped foot in the restaurant. A nice sized portion of sweetbreads was perfectly cooked and served with black sesame seeds, scallion puree, and chili oil. The exterior of the sweetbreads was slightly crispy giving way to a creamy interior with just a touch of pinkness, in other words perfectly cooked. What really tied this together and took it over the top was the addition of peanut brittle to mimic the peanuts found in kung pao. My dining companions, not fans of offal, asked the server if they could substitute the lobster corn dog. The kitchen said sure and they loved every bite of it.
Course 5: Seared Alaskan Halibut Halibut, I must admit, is one of my favorite fish to eat. This dish just might be my favorite halibut dish ever. It was up there with the corn bisque as one of the best dishes of the evening. Perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth halibut sat atop some Israeli Couscous mixed with smoked eggplant, caramelized pieces of fennel and some tomato marmalade. Every aspect of this dish was superb and worked in perfect harmony together.
Course 6: Scallop A perfectly seared scallop sat atop some fairly decent potato salad and is drizzled with what I think was a bacon dressing. A fried pickle rested on the scallop. All of the elements were good by themselves but together it just sort of became a muddle of flavors. This was probably my 2nd least favorite course of the evening. I loved the fried pickle on its own and the scallop was absolutely perfectly cooked, creamy on the inside, a golden sear on the outside. For some reason all of these tastes just didn’t work together for me.
Course 7: Tamarind Lacquered Duck I love duck and I loved the way the kitchen used duck in this dish. This was so stunning that I wanted to return the next night and order it again. The course featured medium rare duck breast with a crispy outer skin atop some forbidden rice, banana blossoms, thai basil, and curried coconut. Thai basil, curry and coconut is one of my favorite flavor combinations so I was certain I would enjoy this, and I did immensely.
Course 8 Bison Skirt Steak Thin slices of perfectly medium rare bison skirt steak on top of some addictive Sprecher root beer sauce, killer cole slaw, a nice onion ring and house made baked beans. Sometimes skirt steak, of the most flavorful cuts of meat, can be a little tough and chewy. That is not the case here as it was nice, lean and tender. On this blog I have made reference to my dislike of baked beans but these are so outstanding that I may become a convert. My overall read of this dish is that it was like a steakhouse meal (steak and onion rings) and summer bbq (bbq sauce, baked beans, and cole slaw) all wrapped into one killer dish.
(Note: I am not 100 percent sure these are the correct names for the desserts we had, I couldn’t find the exact menu from when we dined there so I am going from memory. Also by the time these fabulous desserts arrived I had a healthy buzz going).
Course 9: Deconstructed Strawberry Shortcake All of the elements of strawberry shortcake, but deconstructed. It worked well and kind of served as a nice palate cleanser from the heavier protiens served just before it. It was a nice transition between them, and the rich and decadent course that followed.
Course 10: FlourlessChocolate Cake A nice streak of chocolate cocoa syrup across the plate was the foundation for this killer dessert. There were two types of chocolate cake at each end. My favorite part was the crunchy meringue. The ice milk provided a nice cool contrast to the rich chocolate.
Overall I think the meal was a great success, one of the best meals I have had in recent memory. The three of us all agreed on the two weakest dishes; the first course escolar sashimi and the scallop course. However when I say miss the mark, it needs to be taken in context of the whole meal. The escolar was very fresh and tasted good, the combination of flavors just didn’t wow me or my friends. Eaten separately the components of the scallop course were also very good.While at first blush the portions seem small I left Graham Elliot’s I realized I was at the perfect level of fullness. I didn’t feel like I needed to eat any more and I didn’t feel stuffed.
The pacing of the meal was perfect as courses came out shortly after plates were cleared from the previous course, but not too fast. Our server was simply outstanding. She explained the dishes very well, made suggestions, and answered our numerous questions. She was very knowledgable about beer and wine too. One of my friends raved about the balsamic sorbet served with the second course and the waitress took notice. Just before our first dessert course arrived she brought out a small plate with another quenelle of the tasty sorbet for her; a nice thoughtful touch.
As much as I enjoy wine I have always been more of a craft beer guy. I was really in a mood for beer and unlike so many upscale restaurants, Graham Elliot really has an impressive beer list (they also have all of Sprecher’s sodas too). The waitress provided some guidance on the upcoming courses and recommended beers to try as we went along. An Allagash White Ale (Portland, Maine) was a refreshing drink that paired nicely with the lighter first course dishes. As the menu progressed I had a slightly hoppy Mendocino Red Tail Ale which was great with dishes like the Halibut and Sweetbreads. Moving on to the richer dishes like the Bison Skirt Steak and Tamarind Lacquered Duck, I took my server’s advice and had a black ale (I cannot recall what kind it was though). Along with dessert I switched gears and had nice glass of Madeira wine. The list of dessert wines is not online either so I don’t know what kind it was but it was great. Not too sweet and sort of nutty in taste, it was great with the chocolate dessert.
My only regret about this meal was that I didn’t try the ”foilipops,” Bowles’ signature appetizer of foie gras lolipops coated with pop rocks. I am not sure why I didn’t order them but I am certain I will return to Graham Elliot and I’ll definitely try them then.
Graham Elliott is located at located at 217 W. Huron Street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Phone: 312-624-9975 Web: http://www.grahamelliot.com/