I too was at the Thursday dinner GAF organized, and I'll admit I went in with lightened expectations. Perhaps that was because of some mixed reviews here, or perhaps the fact that I worry that some diners get carried away with new and lesser known ("underground" perhaps) restaurants that offer creative, modern techniques and clever plating. I was also concerned that dinner would be mostly focused on foraging, and less focused on the food. But I came away from Elizabeth smiling broadly, thinking that I dined at a restaurant that has the chance to achieve greatness, even if not quite there yet. So no, not everything wowed me. But some dishes truly stunned, at a level well above what most restaurants are doing. With further seasoning, I'm convinced Elizabeth will shine even brighter.
In terms of atmosphere, they've gone a slightly different route than El Ideas. Despite the completely open space, the room is a little calmer. The chefs work rather quietly, the music is for the most part in the background and not very noticeable (okay, except the very brief intro to White Rabbit, before I thought I heard the needle pulled off the vinyl), and there's a bit of an elevated service experience, particularly given the thoughtful cocktail and wine service. That's by no means a knock on El Ideas - they're just different.
There has also been tremendous consideration given to the overall dining experience - the room is nicely, though not expensively, decorated. Wood tables and mismatched chairs perhaps serve as a reminder of a farm, or foraging, element. And the array of beautiful serving pieces remind you that no details are ignored, that Elizabeth aims higher than most, and that they aim to touch every sense.
We ordered the owl menu (8-10 courses), although we were served 14 courses, including raccoon as discussed generally in the events thread post. I started with a terrific Old Fashioned, then moved on to wine pairings, which we shared (essentially, a half pour). Overall, I thought the wine pairings were excellent and clever. My only thought is that on my next visit, I would prefer to have full wine pairings, but I knew I had an early and busy morning at work the next day and didn't want to drink too much.
Our first course was called Apple Pie and American Caviar, an amuse of sorts. There was apple, spices and caviar. I did not quite find this course to be the best introduction for Elizabeth. I thought it was a little too sweet, and the caviar was slightly lost in that sweetness.
Apple Pie and American Caviar
We moved on to the Trough of Tastes - a buttermilk biscuit, whipped bacon fat, a beet marshmallow and perhaps a fruit preserve of some sort that I cannot recall. It was suggested that we drag the biscuit through the bacon fat, though I first wanted to taste the biscuit, which proved to be delicious and light and flaky. The bacon fat was a great complement and truly tasted of pure bacon. And the beet marshmallow had the perfect texture, although I cannot say that the beet flavor shined through. Overall, there were some nice flavors here but I don't know that it all came together. And in terms of progression, I wonder whether this would not have fit better later in the meal, as we neared dessert.
Trough of Tastes
Carrot Tea and Ginger was next, and though flavorful, I mostly remember tasting the ginger. I might have loved this dish had it delivered more carrot and a little less ginger. Though I love ginger, I wanted a little more balance. One theme throughout dinner was the beautiful service ware, and this tea cup (shown below) was just one example.
Carrot Tea and Ginger - ginger chew pictured; pictured without table side-poured tea
Our fourth course - Pumpkin, Apple and Gravlax - perhaps provoked the most discussion, as pumpkin is not so universally loved. And then there was the leaf of crystal lettuce, something I had never heard of. And finally, the debate about the worthiness of the dried bean curd. There were elements of this dish I really enjoyed (mostly, the gravlax). But this dish just did not come together for me. I struggled to understand how to eat it and how it all fit together. And I really didn't like the dried bean curd, which was not so dry that it merely crumbled or broke; rather, it bent. I felt like I was eating a twig. The sum of parts was beautifully plated, but the overall dish just did not work for me.
Pumpkin, Apple and Gravlax
After four courses, I was beginning to have some doubts. I was truly enjoying the company and the atmosphere, but nothing had wowed me. As if I was a character in a dramatic movie, my thoughts were stopped in their tracks. We were then served one of the best soups I've ever tasted, Celery Root Soup, and it was from this point on that the meal largely wowed me. The soup was so smooth and creamy, yet intense with celery root. Black walnuts delivered a nutty, sweet addition. And there was a freshness from radish. There was more than just celery root going on here, and it was all sensational (and I even think I'm ignoring an element or two of the soup).
Celery Root Soup
The Cornbread and Trout Roe that followed stood only a small chance of success in light of the excellence of the soup, though it showed some promise. There was also some maple syrup and fruit I think. Where this small and beautiful bite fell short though was the cornbread, which was just a little too dry. Had they slightly undercooked the cornbread and left it a little soupy, this might have been terrific (maybe a tad more roe too). I enjoyed the combination of flavors, and I found the salty-sweet bite to pair well in between two very rich, savory courses.
Corn Bread and Trout Roe
At course seven, the meal started to take on a decidedly more substantial feel. This course was Maitake Mushroom,
Cauliflower, Sweetbreads and Fresh Cheese. The cheese was a housemade mascarpone, which I recall having a slight lemony taste. I thought it was all cooked perfectly and there were some terrific flavors, but this course was a little dry for me, even with the mascarpone. I think some kind of reduction would have elevated this course from good to outstanding - it was so close.
Maitake Mushroom, Cauliflower, Sweetbreads and Fresh Cheese
Elizabeth's Homemade Bread and Charcuterie is akin to calling the Baha'i Temple merely a house of worship. Luscious duck rillettes, toasted housemade brioche, pickled carrot and okra, and house-churned butter with beet powder. Every single component of this dish was outstanding, the lightly pickled vegetables cut nicely into the richness of the dish, and shame to anyone who leaves a speck of the rillettes or butter on the plate.
Homemade Bread and Charcuterie
I cannot recall all of the components of Hen and Egg - I know there was chicken and chicken skin, a beautifully poached (or sous vide-cooked) egg dripping yolk, black truffle I think. But it was all rich, perfectly cooked and just delicious, not to mention thoughtful in its contrasting textures. The flavors were all so familiar, but the perfect execution and presentation really elevated the dish.
Hen and Egg - top picture representing the presentation of this course
A gift to LTH, we were then served Raccoon Bolognese. Clever. I had never tasted raccoon. In your typical Bolognese, there may be veal, beef and pork. The raccoon might have lent a similarly complex flavor, though served like this I can only be certain it was not your average white meat. But this rich Bolognese, paired with a delicious creamy polenta, parmesan (and black truffle again, I think) was excellent. It could rival the outstanding Bolognese I've learned to adore at Merlot on Maple.
Raccoon Bolognese - raccoon shown in bottom picture
The talent and array of skills in the kitchen continued to shine with our next course, Lamb and Fall Fixings. This might have been my favorite course. But interestingly, as I read David's comments, I'm reminded how personal food and food tastes can be. I was tantalized by the picturesque lamb, cooked sous vide and then seared, and deliciously tender. I was wowed by the addition of a lamb's blood sauce and lamb tongue. Then paired with root beer leaf, pumpernickel and cipollini onions, I was left almost speechless. So many familiar tastes, but also the less familiar (lamb's tongue and blood and root beer leaf). And fall fixings indeed - this dish sang fall in all respects.
Lamb and Fall Fixings
The meal was now winding down, and we were taken slightly off course with what would appear to be a palate cleanser, Swiss Chard and Smoke Aroma. The swiss chard sorbet, served atop an upside-down glass, had a great, smooth texture and was delicious. Then turn the glass over to inhale the trapped apple-wood smoke. This was unique, but I also thought the residual smoke cleverly played into the next course.
Swiss Chard and Smoke Aroma
Our principal dessert was Pears and Hazelnuts, but of course there was more going on here - bacon too I think. In any event, I thought it was delicious, nutty and not too sweet. The smoke from the previous course lingered and elevated the dessert.
Pears and Hazelnuts - two pictures shown to once again highlight the attractive presentation
Finally, Bites - dark chocolate cookies, rolled in almonds, pressed and filled with what I think was Earl Grey-caramel. A very nice finish.
Some of us finished with tea from Rare Tea Cellar. I thought the jasmine tea was excellent. Here are a couple more pics from Elizabeth, including the kitchen crew at work:
I thoroughly enjoyed the company and conversation, and I realize that played heavily into my enjoyment of the evening, but I also believe Elizabeth is a very special restaurant, even though they may still be feeling their way in their early days. I thought five of the fourteen dishes were outstanding - the celery root soup, the brioche/rillettes, Hen and Egg, Raccoon and Lamb. A couple of other dishes I thoroughly enjoyed. There were also several thought-provoking dishes - in terms of presentation, preparation and ingredients. And service - including knowledge of the courses and wines - was also excellent, worthy of a special night out. Since this was my first experience with Elizabeth and because I never dined at One Sister, I can't offer thoughts on how the various menus compare, and I can't recommend one over another.
But I think Elizabeth is a special restaurant and you'd be wrong to ignore it. There is obviously a lot of talent in the kitchen, and I look forwarding to watching it grow. Big doings are happening in Lincoln Square, perhaps once unthinkable (in terms of price point), with Goosefoot and Elizabeth. In addition to my favorite Thai restaurants and my new favorite neighbor Monti's (Philly Cheesesteaks!), I'm very pleased to call them neighbors. And I can't wait until my next visit to Elizabeth - it will be soon.
Note: edited to fix typos