Although Graham Elliot was a contestant on Top Chef Masters twice…and lost BOTH times, it did not seem to dull my desires to experience his modern, “deconstructed”, new American cuisine. Paired with the fact that GE is one of the most highly regarded, interesting and fun restaurants in Chicago, GE is practically a foodies playground.

For our 3 year anniversary, Nick took us to GE to experience the Spring 2010 menu. Graham Elliot changes its menu every season, including its famous original cocktail concoctions.

Our impressions before going: Creative delicious cuisine that’s “fancy food without being stuffy”

Check out the drink menu. Guess which one we went for?

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Starter: The Popcorn Basket(s) complete with truffle oil, freshly shaved parmesan, cracked black pepper, chives, and salt

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Rating: A+ fresh, A- stale(ing). Apparently, it takes 3 rounds of popcorn to be able to get the freshest, least stale popcorn possible. Our first basket, despite the kernels being cold and starting to stale (i.e. getting chewy and undesirable) was still full of flavor, delicious and pungently awesome. If you happen to get a fresh basket, you’ll find warm medium-sized plain popcorn, evenly coated with a light film of truffle oil, salt, and pepper. Over the top of the basket, there’s a generous sprinkling of thinly shaved parmesan cheese that even a cheese hater (such as myself) came to enjoy. The cheese brings richness to the light popcorn but the servers seemed almost reluctant to bring our refills! Is that truffle oil so expensive you have to be stingy with bringing a second…or third basket?

Cocktail: Carrie Me Home

Rating: B. The cocktail didn’t blow me away and wasn’t so unique that I’d recommend it. That being said, it was one of the less intoxicating, more palatable and pleasantly sweet cocktails I’ve ever ordered at a restaurant.

At this point, popcorn basket #1 was gone. We asked our server sweetly for another basket right away. Basket #2 came 10 minutes later.

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From the “Cold” Appetizers

My Starter: White Tuna Sashimi with passion fruit sorbet, crispy plantain, whipped avocado, and cocoa nib ($13)

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Rating: A. This was not only a stunner, but incredibly delicious to eat. “sashimi” instills the idea of Japanese cuisine, yet when you actually combine all the elements of the plate together into one bite, the flavor screams CEVICHE!! The fish itself was extremely fresh and the flesh was actually the sweetest element on the plate. It took me a few bites to warm up to the school of sorbet that accompanied the dish, but it was unmistakably necessary to bring the acidity and icy cold element to the dish. The sauce itself didn’t just provide beauty, but it was actually the cream, rich component to the sashimi and tastes almost as if it were guacamole. Needless to say, I scraped the plate CLEAN.

Nick’s Starter: Carpaccio of Beef with hydroponic watercress, french baguette, red onion, horseradish custard ($15)

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Rating: A. I have never heard Nick rave so much about an appetizer. As a dude who has never had carpaccio before, he went out on a limb to try this dish. The beef was fresh and supple and was laid upon what appeared to be a long thin rectangular bar of cream cheese.

From the “Hot” Appetizers

My starter: Scallop Almondine with haricot vert, blood orange, marcona almond, brown butter ($15)

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Rating: B+. Apparently, this was such a successful entree from the winter menu that they decided to move it into spring as an appetizer. Despite the fact that the scallop itself was seared to perfection (browned on the outside but still soft, tender and juicy on the inside), the sour blood orange based topping was not anything I’d ever order again. The

Nick’s starter: Satay of Duck with green papaya, thai curry, purple basil, coconut emulsion ($14)

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Rating: B-. Highlight of the dish was the flavorful peanut sauce (but to be honest, it’s hard to mess up creamy, peanut satay sauce) and the presentation. Flavor-wise, the duck was not too gamey but also not very ducky perhaps because it tasted a little overcooked. The texture was chewy almost to the point where it was tough. I had one bite and refused another.

At this point, popcorn basket #2 was out. We asked the busser clearing our dishes if it was possible to have more popcorn. He said yes…and never returned.

Entree Options

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I’m embarrassed to ask someone else, but that popcorn is like crack to me.

10 minutes later, our server came to check back with us and I asked for more popcorn. I kinda got a funny look and 5 minutes later, fresh popcorn arrived! WOOHOO!!

The Entrees

My Great Lake Whitefish with red lentil, curried cucumber, currant chutney, chai froth ($28)

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Rating: A+ Awesome. This Indian-themed, Asian inspired seafood dish really hit home for me. Personally, I am the hugest fan of pickled vegetables and Shanghainese vinegar (thank my Chinese heritage), which I’m guessing was what GE marinated their sour berries in. The rest of the dish, including the pureed lentils, fried curry cauliflower, and pan-seared fish were actually one the heavier side, so to have some acidity from the cucumbers and berries really made this dish sing for me. The individual elements of this dish were prepared perfectly including the tender yet crispy outside of the whitefish. However, I can see someone who’s not too crazy about Indian spices or tart flavors be too fond of this dish.

Nick’s Crispy Jidori Chicken with rice gnocchi, black garlic, pickled maitaki, and edamame puree ($28)

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Rating: B. Although the flavors of the dish were solid, both Nick and I agreed that the chicken breast was dry and over cooked.

Popcorn Newsflash – By the time we got to dessert, popcorn basket #3 was out. I seriously debated whether to ask our server for another basket, but before I could ask, she said, “I’m going to have you wean you off the popcorn. It doesn’t go very well with the desserts!” I was totally taken aback.

Boy do I wish I had asked for another basket of popcorn instead of dessert.

A Shared Dessert

Pineapple ($10)

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Rating: B-. Wish we hadn’t spent $10 on this. Nothing to write home about. Freshly chopped pineapple was soaked in syrup and plated with a sweet custard sauce and a sour lime-based sauce. The dome-shaped angel food cake was awfully dry and required plenty of that deliciously sweet mango sorbet to make it palatable. The most creative aspect to this dessert was the black sesame brittle, but even that wasn’t that impressive.

Total tab: $150 (without tip)

RATINGS

Taste: 4/5

Plating: 4.5/5

Originality: 5/5

Value: 3/5

Service: 4/5

Overall, the dishes were either a hit or a miss. He either nailed it, or it just…didn’t work. My favorite aspect about this restaurant was the fact that it allowed diners to be playful with their food and have some autonomy over the flavors you’d like to pair, all on the same plate. The deconstructed food concept will make it or break it for some diners, but for me personally, I appreciate the fact that I can alternate between one flavor combination to another all on the same dish and all within the same flavor profile/theme. The whimsical fun factor and laid-back atmosphere was also a plus.

However, some of the portion sizes and certain flavor pairings were a little disappointing. GE would certainly benefit from modifying its prices to reflect the cost of the actual ingredients better (i.e. 3oz of chicken breast is definitely not worth $28). I wouldn’t say this restaurant was the best value for money…the man paying for it (Nick) definitely said he prefers MK over Graham Elliot for new American food. I would have to agree, although GE was such a unique dining experience (I’m clearly still wowed by the whimsical food factor) and that popcorn…oh that popcorn.

Nick and I decided that yes, we would go again during another season, but make sure you have the server describe the dish for you pre-ordering to avoid disappointment!

Recommended for: people looking for a fun special occasion restaurant who are feeling a little more adventurous than usual.

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For some reason, food is most fun when eaten messy. And most tasty when it looks rather unappetizing. Anybody else agree?


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