I recently had meals at two much-talked-about restaurants at the higher end of Chicago dining. Both were interesting and included delicious bites, but I’ve struggled to write anything about them.
The first of these meals was at elIdeas, where chefs Phillip Foss and Kevin McMullen sweated over 12 artful courses, still managing to be gracious hosts in the kitchen. An especially delicious chestnut soup was brighter and refreshingly more acidic than the stodgy chestnut cream soups I’ve had at fancy French places over the years. A terrific lamb dish included surprisingly intense sausage, uber-tender loin and another cut I can’t remember now. The whole meal was good and I was impressed with what those guys were going.
Next came Blackbird, which has always been my favorite spendy place in town. As at el, soup was a highlight – in this case one made from Kohlrabi and watercress, where the intense vegetal flavors shined and the puree could not have been silkier. Also as at el, Blackbird’s soup started with a pristine white bowl that had a couple of tiny artful garnishes before the waiter decanted the liquid in slow, steady stream.
This is where the problems start for me. There were some golden seeds decorating the top of a ruby red piece of trout in the bottom of Blackbird’s big white bowl, if I recall correctly. At el, I think it was a carefully curated cube of cream colored rabbit topped with some lush brown cocoa nibs. After the soup at Blackbird came sturgeon and lamb dishes, each with symmetrically carved mounds of perfectly cooked protein adorned just-so by colorful garnishes of one kind or another. A pine nut mayonnaise, perhaps. Maybe something called Thai poppy seed jam. For dessert, Blackbird sat a wonderful espresso cake atop some kind of ash that tasted a bit too much like ash
It's all so beautiful and artfully constructed, and I just don't give a shit. Worse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It's the same feeling I used to have when my ex wife would take me to an opening at some Fulton market gallery where everyone took themselves, the artist, and - most importantly - their all-black wardrobe very seriously. Hanging out with people who have Phd's generally makes me feel this way. I like a good painting, but let me look at the thing without standing in a cavernous space where black heels echo against a concrete floor while hushed conversation takes place between sips of cheap sparkling wine. I like a late night conversation about the meaning of life, but I find it more satisfying without a contest over who can use the cite the most Latin phrases within Nietzsche quotes. And I'd love another bowl of steaming, fragrant chestnut or kohlrabi soup - but I'll find it even more enjoyable if the rabbit or trout cube has a slightly jagged edge.