Into the woods, darkly, at Elizabeth 

Iliana Regan's Elizabeth Restaurant is the setting for a delicious, sometimes eerie fairy tale

Salad of grilled mushrooms, young pine shoot gel, and acorn puree

Salad of grilled mushrooms, young pine shoot gel, and acorn puree

Andrea Bauer

I've eaten at three different restaurants in as many years in the snug Lincoln Square storefront where gardener, forager, pierogista, and former underground chef Iliana Regan has now planted her flag. And I used to buy comics there, before the Serbian grill that served a "Balkan Bacon Explosion" took over. Then there was the ambitious but ill-fated fine dining spot from a pair of culinary school teachers. And now there's Regan's Elizabeth Restaurant.

Compared to its past incarnations, the space now has a distinct fairy tale vibe (with a few peculiar passages)—and perhaps for that reason Elizabeth has the best chance at breaking whatever curse has kept businesses from thriving in this carswept spot on Western.

Or maybe it's just Regan who's empowered to break the curse. Her captivating trajectory from front of the house at Trio and Alinea to resourceful underground chef was well documented not long ago in the Reader, something of a fairy tale itself, embedded with the question of whether a self-taught chef with relatively little experience running a restaurant (outside of the one in her Andersonville apartment) was ready to pull off one of the more ambitious—and attendantly pricey—upscale dining experiences in the city.

If you eat with abandon Elizabeth's price point can rival that of Chicago's most expensive restaurants. Regan offers three tasting menus, which you must choose among when buying your advance tickets (a la Next), and which vary in price based on the day of the week: a top-tier 20- to 25-course "Diamond" menu ($175-$205), a 12- to 16-course "Deer" menu with a "woodland" theme expressed in its reliance on foraged and hunted and trapped ingredients ($125-$155), and an 8- to 10-course "Owl" tasting based on a farm-to-table aesthetic ($65-$95). Those prices don't include tax and tip, and if they seem precipitous, brace yourself if you plan to imbibe. Pairings for the middle menu, orchestrated by the veteran (and remarkable) sommelier Scott Noorman, run $90. With still more tax and tip this comes close to doubling the cost of the menu.

click to enlarge Interior picture Elizabeth Lincoln Square
  • Elizabeth's dining room has a distinct fairy tale vibe.
  • Andrea Bauer

I chose to go that route because the Deer menu seems to best express what's most exciting and unique about Regan's style: a philosophical alignment with the uncompromisingly local and foraged food of Nordic chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Denmark's Noma and Magnus Nilsson of Sweden's Faviken. Regan's even coined a phrase to describe what she does: "new gatherer cuisine."

She isn't half as orthodox as those chefs, who don't serve a morsel they haven't picked, hunted, fermented, or summoned themselves from the craters of Scandinavian volcanoes, but a great deal of her raw material was scavenged by her own hand. Fungi, pine shoots, goat milk, and wild animals all figure prominently on this menu, beginning with a sweet liquid amuse, a "huckleberry pie" in the form of a shot glass containing a sweet cinnamon-spiked fruit consommé and a soft lump of pie dough. You could almost imagine this poured over the next course: a spherical "pancake," its batter mixed with Regan's own goat cheese.

Regan also gets tagged with the modernist label, and all of her menus are peppered with gels, powders, and foods manipulated for dramatic effect. The centerpiece of the table features a birch log draped with edible twigs made from malt powder. These are meant to be dipped in a later course, a rich, truffled potato puree cradling a raw quail egg. But the employment of these techniques rarely overshadows the sense that these strikingly pretty dishes have clear connections to the earth. This is unmistakably real food.

Rarely is the importance of a clear visual aesthetic as obvious as it is in the case of Regan's food. Texture, dimension, color, and framing all come together in the service of some strikingly pretty plates. One of the more outstanding dishes on this menu features a foamy green sponge made from lamb's quarters and gel from foraged wild carrot flowers, both of which anchor the real star of plate: the brilliantly colored roasted red, orange, and yellow carrots pulled from Regan's garden. When this arrives the room smells of dill, the roots taste like meat, and you wonder why carrots almost never taste like this.

click to enlarge Elizabeth Regan carrots
  • Carrots—with a sponge made from lamb's quarters and gel from foraged wild carrot flowers—almost never taste like this.
  • Andrea Bauer

There's a clear narrative to this progression too. Fanciful early courses—say, a salad of grilled mushrooms, young pine shoot gel, and acorn puree, or a gravlax cannolo rolled in rice vinegar cured turnip—give way to heavier, meatier presentations as you venture deeper into the woods (like some character out of Grimm's) and are confronted with a series of its inhabitants. A server may focus on the novelty of a hazelnut custard with pickled crab apples then casually mention there are some frog's legs in there. Raccoon from an Indiana trapper may show up in a meaty Bolognese with polenta, and bits of cured bear meat in a puffed wild rice "crispy." And then there's the czernina­­—or, rather, a take on the Polish duck blood soup apocryphally said to be fed to young suitors when their affections are rejected. This "loser's soup," as one tablemate described it, is composed of slices of rare duck breast and sous vide egg atop a hidden deposit of duck blood puree. It's an intensely rich dish, given little acid to brighten it, but you can certainly appreciate the fortifying powers it might lend to the heartbroken.

On a menu this size there are bound to be a few ill-conceived dishes. A morsel of sous vide brisket flash fried to a bitter crisp was a case of visual appeal employed at the expense of taste: perched in a thicket of tall greenery, it certainly did look like bird's nest and tasted how I imaged one might. Deer tenderloin, served rare, was undermined by an accompanying dry, dense, bland, ground venison-stuffed cabbage. But these were minor interruptions in a story set in cheery room adorned with jars of preserves and hanging dried herbs, with subtler dark undertones provided by the skull and bones of woodland creatures.

There's also a conformity to recent developments in high end dining as seen at places such as Schwa (where Regan did a turn as a server) and El Ideas (where there's little physical or psychological barrier between the kitchen and the front of the house). Regan and her chefs appear at the table frequently, providing the conceptual play-by-play and occasional dramatic flourish—in one case delivering a speaker playing Jefferson Airplane's "Go Ask Alice" to accompany a course called "1 Pill Makes You Larger," a teacup filled with an intensely meaty mushroom stock bolstered with cocoa nibs and chamomile.

The kitchen executes the three menus simultaneously, serving three communal tables at once in a feat of kitchen organization and a strong display of chops. For the diner there's a certain amount of risk inherent in embarking on an hours-long multicourse dinner at a communal table—a risk that is minimized in a more casual environment, such as what you'd find at, say, Avec. If the strangers sitting next to you at Elizabeth turn out to be trolls or ogres you run the risk of having your expensive night psychically poisoned. That's a variable that's out of the restaurant's control, but it could easily affect ticket sales among the more socially cautious.

But Elizabeth was built on the goodwill of the adventurers who attended Regan's apartment dinners, and a permanent above-ground establishment is only going to multiply their numbers. It's expensive to walk these woods, but Regan's food is worth it.

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