Behind a thin vale, and the at times nauseating glamour of celebrity chefdom exists the reality of the restaurant business: tight profits and seemingly endless work hours. Pursuing a labor of love requires that chefs and restauranteurs continuously search for modest overhead and affordable rent so that they might hope to be properly compensated for their hard work and the sacrifices they've made in their personal lives for their trade. The meager margins in the food industry are inherently the reason that it is often restaurants that are first to inject new life into what are often considered to be less-desirable neighborhoods, condos are never far behind and gentrification ensues. A Chicago neighborhood that was once predominantly a meat packing district has attracted a handful of the city's biggest industry players to open up shop and transform a pariah of an area in the city's west loop into a hip, up-and-coming stomping ground that has for the most part, arrived.
Graham Elliot Bistro was not the first to cut the red ribbon in this part of town; in fact, far from it. It follows a long list of chefs to move westward of what Chicagoans call "The Loop" including but not limited to Grant Achatz's The Aviary and Next, Homaru Cantu's Moto, Paul Kahan's Publican and PQM, and Stephanie Izard's Girl & The Goat to name a few, all within walking distance of one another.
G.E.B's facade of compartmentalized windows painted a bright, fire engine red usher your eyes in from West Randolph street, giving off the vibe of a British phone booth. Beyond the heavy wooden front door is the host's stand made from guitar amps piled one on top of the other, the long dining room is split-level with an open concept kitchen that runs the entire length of the restaurant on the lower level and tables on the upper level. A garage door at the back of the dining room leads to a terrasse. We were seated against a whitewashed brick wall that houses satyrical saint candles depicting chefs, rock stars and pop culture personalities. Anthony Bourdain for example, was "Patron Saint of Coffee & Cigarettes", chef Eric Ripert "Patron Saint of Seafood" and Johnny Cash "Patron Saint of the Color Black". It wouldn't be long before our casually dressed waitress arrived with our menu, it was printed on lined loose leaf paper and taped to a record that was slipped into a tattered, old Hall & Oats sleeve. We found the whole rock n' roll themed decor to be entertaining but mildly overdone and slightly more reminiscent of teenage punk rock angst than we'd necessarily care to elaborate on - it got old quick.
We began with a couple of dishes from the "Small" section. First, an appetizer sized portion of perfectly prepared, breaded and fried calamari were splendidly tender and surprisingly light, served with green chickpeas that we could've done without and a few dabs of a faintly spicy espelette pepper ketchup. An heirloom tomato salad with burrata and arugula was remarkably inexpensive at 10$ a portion, we thought; but in the end we got exactly what we paid for, which is to say - not very much. The tomatoes were quite nice but the arugula was limp and soggy from being overdressed. The burrata was fresh but having been torn into bite-sized portions and rationed to meet the dish's price tag, the magic of breaking into the cheese and finding that seductively molten center had been forfeited; at that point it might as well have been conventional, run-of-the-mill mozzarella. We had no one to blame but ourselves for our unrealistic expectation, after all when something sounds too good to be true it almost always is.
Fried Calamari, Green Chickpeas, Espelette Ketchup - 12$
Heirloom Tomatoes, Burrata, Arugula - 10$
Nothing from the "Large" section of the menu really piqued our interest so instead, we decided to choose three items from the "Medium" section which counted the two best and the worst dish of the evening. Each dish in the "Medium" section was offered in full and half portions. A saffron risotto with steamed mussels and pea tendrils was nothing short of exquisite. Creamy without the use of an ounce of cream, ideally seasoned and delicately flavored, it was arguably the best risotto either of us have ever had the pleasure of eating, our sole regret - only having ordered a half portion. Cavatelli made by hand were pleasantly chewy, topped with the sweet-heat and acidity of julienned peppers, a lightly woodsy punch of fresh thyme and ribbons of aged goat cheese who's flavor was very similar to that of a sharp cheddar.
1/2 Saffron Risotto, Pea Tendrils, Steamed Mussels - 11$
Cavatelli, Peperonata, Aged Chevre - 17$
Unfortunately, if the risotto was a home run and the cavatelli a solid double, the oxtail lasagna that we had such high hopes for was a categorical strike out. A single sheet of very average pasta was haphazardly folded back upon itself, each time with a layering of an overly acidic ratatouille who's flavor bordered on metallic, and a stingy quantity of stringy, dry oxtail meat. A dollop of whipped ricotta on top did little to improve this freeform mess that looked as careless as it tasted. Served in their own braising liquid, oxtails can be such a rich pleasure, one of our favorite foods; having been served in pasta that was largely undressed did them absolutely no justice. When we think of lasagna or oxtails we think of comforting, fulfilling dishes - not this.
Oxtail Lasagna, Whipped Ricotta, Vegetable Ratatouille - 18$
After our mains, the surprisingly sparse number of customers that were in the dining room to begin with began to dwindle but the number of staff on duty remained constant. You'd think that this would create an atmosphere conducive to more rapid, attentive service. But instead, we were left unattended to with dirty plates on our table while the staff fraternized at the pass. When our plates were eventually cleared we began a wait for dessert that was unreasonable by anybody's standards, it made us wonder why we didn't just ask for the bill and leave rather than sit awkwardly in an empty dining room overhearing gossipy staff and listening to Journey records.
When dessert finally arrived our aggravation was rapidly mitigated by pillowy soft, hot beignets, filled plentifully with molten chocolate and covered in a dusting of icing sugar. Our second dessert of corncake and blueberry gelato was served with a garnish of roasted corn kernels and fresh blueberries. The dense cake wasn't overly sweet and the blueberry compote spooned overtop was reasonably good, but if we had one thing to say about the dish it would be that it wasn't particularly memorable. We would've been just as happy with nothing more than a couple of scoops of the blueberry gelato that adorned the dish, which begs the question: why all the fuss? Perhaps the other dessert option of "warm chocolate chip cookies & cold milk" would've been a better choice.
Stuffed Beignets, Molten Gianduja Chocolate, Powdered Sugar - 8$
Corn Cake, Blueberry Gelato, Lemon Balm - 8$
Our meal at G.E.B was hit and miss, service was spotty, and each of the three courses we ordered had it's own standout successes and outright stumbles. Prices are fair but we were only in Chicago for one week and found that there was plenty of formidable competition in the same price range. Expecting a chef with a young family, three restaurants and a television career to be everywhere at once is preposterous. Having said that however, when one chooses to brand their name, quality control of that brand is of paramount importance. In the restaurant business ingredients are king, but consistency is key, especially when your name is literally on the line with every dish sold. We've visited celebrity chef owned restaurants from New York City to Las Vegas where chef's names can be found engraved in the silverware and embroidered on the napkins in every diners lap. The common denominator that sets apart the best of them are the ones that operate autonomously on the same level you would expect them to if the chef who's name is printed on the front door were present in the kitchen. If GEB aspires to count itself among them the mice will need to curtail their play while the cat's away.
Click the following link to view our previous Chicago post: Girl & The Goat
Click the following link to view our previous Chicago post: Girl & The Goat
841 West Randolph Street