Michelin stars are elusive.
In Europe, the awarding of a star can make or break a restaurant; it can increase attendance exponentially. Losing a star can be catastrophic. Chef Bernard Loiseau, chef/owner of La Côte d’Or, committed suicide in 2003 when it was rumored that he was slipping from three stars to two. The Michelin Guide is serious business.
Legendary French chef Paul Bocuse once said, “Michelin is the only Guide that counts.” And while the Michelin Guide might not have quite the impact in the U.S. that it does overseas (perhaps because the Michelin inspectors didn’t cross the pond until 2005—New York, of course—and didn’t arrive in Chicago until 2011), in foodie circles, and certainly in the restaurant world itself, it’s a huge deal.
Here’s how the ratings system breaks down:
- Bib Gourmand: good food at reasonable prices ($40 per person)
- One star: “A very good restaurant in its category”
- Two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”
- Three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”
The rating is done by super-secret inspectors; it’s all very hush-hush. In November of 2013, 64 restaurants were deemed “Bib Gourmand;” 20 Chicago restaurants rated one star; four received two stars; and only one—Alinea—received three stars, the top prize (find the complete list here). From my viewpoint, many deserving restaurants go unrewarded, but that’s a story for another day.
Last week, I had the opportunity to dine at two Michelin-starred restaurants: Elizabeth, an exciting newcomer that received a single Michelin star; and Sixteen, which moved up this year from one star to two. It was a big week for my stomach, but I survived to tell the tale.
While these aren’t full reviews, I wanted to share the experience with my readers in hopes that you’ll be inspired to check out these places on your own.
Both restaurants feature prix-fixe tasting menus; both provided excellent “food theater” with exciting presentations, remarkably attentive service, and an overarching vision from highly talented chefs. But there, the similarities end.
Elizabeth (4835 N. Western Ave., Unit D, Chicago, 773-681-0651) is an improbable restaurant in an improbable location. It’s hidden in a shopping strip on Western Avenue, just north of Lincoln Square. Stepping into this tiny storefront is like discovering a forest glade; it’s filled with natural elements, including Chef Iliana Regan’s notable collection of fanciful owls.
The place feels personal, like you’re being welcomed into a small, private dinner. And the service feels that way, too. One of very few Michelin-starred female chefs in the United States (and one of only two in Chicago, Carrie Nahabedian of Naha and Brindille being the other), Regan is a force of nature—literally. A forager, she revels in unexplored flavors and pairings; the Midwestern forest is her playground. A warning: It is a meal that one cannot describe without the liberal usage of quotation marks.
Haven’t tried bear before? You’ll find it in jerky form, albeit a tiny square, on top of the wild rice krispie, held together with melted curried marshmallows. It’s known as the “Rock Course,” because it is presented, of course, on a rock.
The bear resurfaces in a delicate dashi broth that’s transformed into a “veil” that tops the wide, nettle-infused lasagna noodle wrapped around homemade ricotta cheese, then gilded with chive flowers and rosy red trout roe (pictured top right).
The portions are small—some almost to the point of precious—but there are many, many courses. The Spring menu began with a Petri dish of spruce gel (gorgeous, but the spruce was a bit overwhelming to start a meal) and an eye dropper of herbal tea; next came a ramp-centric terrarium, served in a round glass vessel filled with pickled seaweed and ramps on a bed of “dirt” made of hazelnut flour, chamomile and other various ingredients. It’s what I would serve to Mr. Tumnus if he were stopping by for dinner.
After the aforementioned bear courses came Elizabeth’s famous shrimp noodles, one delicious spoonful that left you wanting more. A deeply flavored mushroom “tea” followed in a charming china cup, and then a fried maitake mushroom breaded in acorn and barley flours mixed with panko and served with aioli. It was a flavor bomb, and just as substantial as a piece of meat.
Twice during the meal, we ate what appeared to be a centerpiece. A few courses didn’t quite hang together for me; but between the apt wine pairings and the general aura of pixie dust surrounding the meal, those were easy to overlook.
There were three dessert courses, including my favorite, “Fruit Loops,” really dessert masquerading as breakfast. The house-made cereal came in three flavors: strawberry, thyme and porcini. Fresh cashew milk was poured over the loops, and I have to say it was the pinnacle cereal experience of my life. Also on the plate were a gorgeous whole-wheat biscuit and a trompe l’oeil sunnyside-up egg made of goat’s milk custard (the egg white) and alchemized lemon and saffron (the yolk). A truly stunning dish (pictured left).
Elizabeth is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only. You don’t make reservations, per se; you buy tickets online, similar to Next or Alinea. The price is on a sliding scale as well, depending on the day and time of the reservation. It might cost $85 for 15 courses, or it could run you $135. Wine pairings for the meal are always $100 per person. Seating and menu structure have changed substantially since it first opened, and apparently for the better. Regan has handpicked every serving vessel used here; the general vibe is fairy tale funky, but delightful.
Sixteen (401 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, 312-588-8030) is a different animal entirely. There’s a story being told here, but it’s not a fairy tale. You can taste and experience every bit of that second star. Ensconced on the sixteenth floor of the very posh Trump Hotel Chicago (perhaps you’ve seen the low-profile sign?), it’s hard to imagine a more luxe venue. The floor to ceiling windows look out on a spectacular view of the city, and if you are gifted with inclement weather, there’s no better place to watch a storm.
Executive Chef Thomas Lents works with great assurance. His Summer menu reflects confluence of land and sea, from Chicago to the Far East. Accordingly, each course includes elements of both. Basically we’re talking 16 courses of conceptual surf and turf.
It takes a confident chef to kick off the meal with a picnic basket of miniature snacks, in this case tiny deviled quail eggs, a fried smelt “chip;” a mouse-sized wax paper-wrapped slice of Italian hero; an eensy-weensy version of elotes; adorable fried quail leg and a mini sangria pop; all set up carefully on a checked napkin folded just so. A miniscule snifter of bourbon sweet tea is poured. Unlike Elizabeth, little here is left to chance, and even the fanciful elements are clearly planned to the nth detail.
The following 12 courses are a textural symphony composed of meat and fish, from the gorgeous mosaic of yellowtail sashimi and paper-thin lardo, to the dome of beef tartar coated in osetra caviar pearls; from the charred leek boat filled with crispy sweetbreads, tender razor clams and chanterelles to the phó of lamb with cuttlefish noodles in a transporting broth. The meal culminates with a number of dessert courses, including a choice between sea- and land-inspired options. Executive Pastry Chef Aye Fukai is not afraid of flavor, and it shows. Apricot and almond pair beautifully with celery; chocolate, blueberry and Delice de Bourgogne cheese, maybe not so much.
The service is beyond perfection here; the level of commitment and knowledge on the part of the staff is a thing of beauty. The cheese cart will take your breath away. Every piece of servingware, from glasses to utensils to china, is of the highest quality. Michelin loves luxury, and here, it abounds.
Restaurant Director Dan Pilkey, who selects all of the rare and wonderful beverage pairings (like the food, the beverage list travels around the world), was especially impressive.
Although it’s billed as a nine-course menu for $185, there are a number of complimentary “surprise” courses; dessert, it must be noted, comes in four parts (pre-dessert, two desserts, and mignardises to end the meal). Beverage pairings will set you back $125 (if you opt for the “Reserve Pairing,” featuring rare vintages from the cellar, count on $750 per person). There is an a la carte menu available, but the multi-course menu is really why you’re here, right?
So there you have it: a Michelin cage match, as it were. Both restaurants provide remarkable experiences, but if I had to pick a winner, I’d have to agree with the Michelin man. Sixteen has a chef at the height of his powers with full command of the meal from start to finish (as might be expected of someone with Lents’ professional credentials). Elizabeth is a charming idyll; the work of a chef with tremendous vision and creativity, on her way up and learning as she goes along. I highly recommend both.