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About a month ago, I was out to dinner with three of my high school girlfriends at a fabulous sushi/Thai place here in Chicago (Butterfly Sushi…get the curry). We were plowing through plates of smooth, creamy, slow-heat curry and mounds of perfectly-decorated sushi, downing glasses of cheap white wine like we didn’t have to work the next day. “We should do this every month!” my friend J. exclaimed around a mouthful of Godzilla Roll. “Well, why don’t we?” was the resounding answer. Thus, the Fine Dining League was born.

The rules are simple: each month, one of us picks a restaurant in the greater Chicagoland area to sample. The cost cannot be more than $60 a person, and everyone has to agree on the choice. Other than that, the world is our oyster. Last night marked the FDL’s first official (and probably most expensive) excursion.

As someone who reads food blogs as voraciously as some indulge in the gossip rags, I had heard nothing but praise for Graham Bowles’ first restaurant, Graham Elliot. Described as “bistronomic,” GE (as it is casually referred to by those in the know) walks that fine line between food snobbery and refined accessibility. Bathed in soft orange light, the interior features about 25 tables, with four booths separated from the main dining area by vases filled with large brown branches. As we sat down at our table, our waiter handed us menus bound in buttery suede, with the letters “g e” embossed on the cover. We eagerly perused the menus, having spent the entire day on the GE website, visually devouring the descriptions of the food and the accompanying pictures.

Bowles has divided the menu into four distinct sections: Cold, Hot, Sea, and Land. The Cold and Hot sections feature smaller dishes, meant as appetizers, and boast selections such as foie gras with compressed rhubarb, salted almonds, and buttermilk sorbet or split pea bisque with lavendar marshmallows.

I settled on the creamy crab risotto for my “Hot” dish. The risotto came topped with a whole crispy basil leaf, which cracked neatly under my fork. Perfectly al dente, the pasta was smooth and, indeed, creamy, with the taste of the crab subtely underlined by the white truffle oil, mascarpone cheese, and spring onions. As is my wont, I was tempted to do away with the fork nonsense and plant my face directly into the plate, letting the cheesey creamy goodness soak into every pore. Fearing a permanent lifetime ban from this fine establishment, I reigned in my enthusiasm and reminded myself to eat slowly and savor each crab-tinged bite.

For the main event, the menu presented us with both Land and Sea creatures. J.chose wisely with the New York Strip with toasted brioche, creamed watercress, onion rings and bordelaise sauce; a bit of a twist on a classic, traditional, and old-school dish. (I briefly rethought my selection when J’s dish arrived with a section of bone, marrow still in.) A. went with the Scottish salmon confit, dressed in a horseradish crust and topped with candied beets, tater tots, and a sorel coulis. M.’s Alaskan halibut was the most visually impressive, accompanied by Israeli couscous, smoked eggplant, caramelized fennel, and tomato marmlade. Atop her halibut was a crispy, caramelized tomato skin, which cracked under her teeth when she bit into it.

My own meal may have well appeared on a menu in any restaurant in the South, so down-home were its ingredients. Three large scallops were crusted in cornbread and placed atop fried green tomatoes, then sprinkled with crispy bacon bits. Mounds of black-eyed peas surrounded the scallops, alternated with piles of purple and white cabbage cole slaw and all drizzled with a tangy, ham hock vinaigrette. The scallops were perfectly cooked, with a firm but tender consistency, and not at all chewy. I ate slowly, savoring the tasty texture interplay between the grainy cornbread, smooth scallop, and tender, juicy fried green tomato. The beans were good, but may have been left sitting on the plate a touch too long, as they were slightly dry as was their sauce.

Dessert consisted of a deconstructed strawberry shortcake (deconstructing things is very hot in the culinary world, I’ve noticed. Chefs seem to understand the somewhat childish delight diners get in seeing ingredients separated and laid out in a way we can understand) and a Mexican chocolate cake with a teeny horchata milkshake, roasted banana and cinnamon gelato.

People, bottom line, this meal was plate-scraping, fork-licking, belly-rubbing delicious.

Suffice it to say, this was not cheap. In fact, I’ll probably be eating cereal for dinner for the next month. But it’s all in the name of experimentation and exploration, amirite?


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