On a dead-end Chicago street, in an unassuming and unmarked building and in the middle of nowhere sits a different type of fine dining restaurant: EL Ideas. Recently awarded a coveted Michelin star, EL Ideas doesn’t fit a traditional fine dining experience where your glasses seem to magically fill themselves by nearly invisible wait staff and the waiters are dressed in suits. Make no mistake, though, Chef Phillip Foss and his team of five rock star chefs (who are literally rocking out to tunes like the Beastie Boys in the kitchen) serve up a spectacular cuisine you will not soon forget. Ossetra (quail egg, cauliflower and lime) at EL Ideas — Photo courtesy of EL Ideas
First, you need to score a reservation, which isn’t easy since the small restaurant seats between 16-24 people. Max. Other than Saturday evening, which offers dinner service twice, there is only one service from Tuesday through Friday.
Walk into the dining room, hang up your own coat, check in with Bill - the man who runs the front of the house - and be seated in either your own table for two or communally (You’re asked whether you’d like to dine with strangers when you confirm your reservation.). Bill will happily uncork your bottle of wine or whatever you’re drinking. EL Ideas is BYOB and doesn’t have a corkage fee. Some diners bring Champagne, while others bring several bottles of wine or craft beer. The choice is yours, and no one will judge.
The only thing that divides the dining room from the kitchen is a low wall, so everything happening in the kitchen is in plain view. From watching them meticulously prepare each dish, from choosing the perfect pot to the perfect sprig to the detail that goes into plating, you will see it all in rare, raw form. Inside the kitchen at EL Ideas — Photo courtesy of Megy Karydes
Unlike other restaurants, at EL Ideas, diners are even welcomed and encouraged to step into the kitchen, to chat it up with the chefs about the dishes, techniques and sometimes to plate the food. Despite the casualness of the place, these chefs are on top of their game. Nothing is left to chance, and everything is made from scratch. Each of the 12 or 13 courses presented over the course of the three-hour evening has been tested countless times before it makes it on the menu.
At a recent dining experience, the menu started with fries and a frosty (which consisted of potato, leek and vanilla) and then moved into geoduck and monkfish. Each dish is a work of art and meant to challenge your palate. The dessert was a sight, literally. Liquid nitrogen ice cream was prepared in front of everyone, with its smoky goodness on full display. The name of the ice cream is milk and cookies, and that’s exactly what it tasted like.
In January, Foss will bring back his "pop up" workshops Ideas in Food and collaborative dinner at EL Ideas for those who want a more hands-on experience.
EL Ideas is a fine dining restaurant with a fine dining price tag, but without the pretentiousness that often accompanies a fine dining experience. If you’re seeking a truly different type of fine dining experience in Chicago, then EL Ideas will not disappoint.