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Salmon and winter vegetables

Forest, Preserved

by Lisa Shames | Photo: Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | April 30, 2013

Chicago isn’t lacking when it comes to restaurants preaching the farm-to-table mantra (whether all of them are actually following it is another story). But when the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was searching for a local chef to feature in its new exhibit Food: The Nature of Eating, which aims to teach children where food comes from, they chose newcomer Iliana Regan of Lincoln Square’s Elizabeth.

There among a stuffed bison, a pickup truck bed that doubles as a moveable farm and a map depicting the miles food travels, are photos of a smiling Regan and a few of her restaurant’s dishes, along with a description of the food-foraging philosophy she believes in.

When Elizabeth opened six months ago, I didn’t know what to make of it. Here was a pricey restaurant from a self-taught chef whose only long-term, back-of-house experience came from the underground supper club she hosted in her apartment. Menus consisted of just three prix fixe options, tables were communal and reservations had to be made through an online system and varied in price depending on day and time.

But, then again, Regan actually grew up on a small farm in northwest Indiana where she foraged for mushrooms way before it became a trendy thing to do. Her “One Sister” pierogies, sold at farmers markets a few years back, had earned plenty of praise. Plus, her restaurant experience, after all, did include a server stint at Alinea—hence the similar reservation system—as well as stages at Schwa and Moto.

Then I finally went to Elizabeth, and this occasional restaurant curmudgeon (it comes with the territory) found herself smitten.

Regan’s überpersonal approach to dining is evident the moment you walk into the small storefront. Open shelves are filled with knickknacks, books and wine glasses. Underneath hang bouquets of dried flowers. The eight chairs at the three wood-topped tables are a hodgepodge of styles. Light fixtures consist of long branches hung with light bulbs dangling on rope.

More proof Regan wants to “build community through love of food and nature” as her website states can be found in the extremely open kitchen, with Regan and her team of chefs just inches away. Feel free to ask questions on your way to the restrooms, whose doors are decorated with twigs that spell out “Toilet” and where reading material includes copies of Mother Earth News.

So how does all this earthy earnestness translate to the plates? Quite nicely, as a matter of fact. Whether you choose the Owl menu (10 courses focusing on local farms), Deer (15 to 17 woodland-focused courses) or Diamond (a whopping 20 courses, which, as of the new spring menu, features a combination of dishes from the other two as well as some of Regan’s greatest hits), you’ll have not only a unique dining experience, but a delicious one, too. While not every dish is a winner, I can’t help but applaud Regan’s efforts and envelope pushing.

That’s the feeling I walked away with after I had the Owl winter menu. From the reactions of my fellow tablemates, a friendly bunch that included husband-and-wife lawyers and a Northwestern professor, the feeling was mutual.

Take, for instance, the salmon and winter vegetables. The vibrant color of the fish hints at its luscious flavor (the fresh-from-Seattle guys, i.e., salmon experts, at my table gave it two thumbs up). A gentle cooking technique means the salmon retains a buttery texture, while the roasted beets and baby potatoes provide a nice contrast. The parsley gel, though, became more of a decorative element since it mostly stuck to the plate.

But before you get to the heartier courses, Regan readies you with lighter ones, like the lichens and cattails—actually from the Deer menu, “but I can’t help but serve it to you whether you like it or not,” she said with a laugh (if Regan’s ever in need of a side gig, her lovely voice would be perfect for voice-overs). This beautifully plated dish, like all the courses here, really, included preserved day lily petals, buttermilk and cardamom pudding, blue cheese from Wisconsin and cured bear loin.

Even with all her Mother Nature leanings, Regan isn’t afraid to work some modern culinary techniques into her food. That means the first course of seasoned parsnip juice includes Swiss chard beads and licorice gel. The final savory course, beer-and-birch-braised short rib paired with beet juice and blood—sounds icky but actually adds some umami flavor—farro, comes sprinkled with housemade horseradish powder.

But sometimes the ingredients don’t mesh together, as in the orange vegetables and cashews course in which the acidic sherry vinegar fought with the sweetness of the cashew custard.

Not a problem with the following course, actually two together. Inside a ceramic dish with a hen-shaped lid was chicken breast mousseline, chicken terrine, crispy chicken skin and a slow-cooked quail egg topped with shaved black truffle. Served next to it was housemade focaccia and chicken liver mousse. I challenge any poultry hater not to love these dishes.

Regan keeps the creativity flowing with dessert, too. While the buttermilk and vanilla gellies served atop the bottom of a smoke-filled glass were fun, it was the mirepoix, a play on the classic savory combo of celery, carrots and onions, that I liked best. But fear not, traditional dessert lovers: Tucked inside the owl centerpiece on the table were cellophane-wrapped chocolate-almond cookies. Said Regan, “I didn’t want you to suffer with just a vegetable dessert.”

4835 N. Western Ave. 

Open for dinner Tue.-Sat.

Owl Menu 6:30pm
Diamond Menu 7pm
Deer Menu 7:45pm

Menus $75-$195
Wine pairings $60-$140

Table Manners
Since you and your tablemates are served together, arriving late is a big no-no. Consider yourself warned.

Family Matters
The restaurant is named after Iliana Regan’s late sister.

Grape Nuts
Not a fan of wine pairings? That’s not a problem at Elizabeth, which offers a varied (and reasonably priced) wine list, both by the glass and bottle.

Food for Thought
Regan labels her type of cuisine “new gatherer cuisine” to reflect her passion for foraging.

Dress to...
Relax. Not only is the decor of Elizabeth laid-back, so is the dress code, which is to say, there isn’t one.