Chicago Restaurant Week 2020 begins Friday.
OK, it’s not a week — it’s 17 days, which perfectly reflects the inflation that creeps into fine dining. Seven can easily become 17 by the time drinks and tax and 20% tip and 3% staff health insurance fee — it’s a thing — are factored in.
For instance. During winter break, I lured my boys home from law school by promising they could each pick a swank eatery and dad would pay. It worked. Both chose places offering a prix fixe meal which, in my naïveté, I thought meant in return for a set amount of money, we’d get dinner.
Ah, hahaha. Dewy innocence.
The older boy chose Omakase Yume. It’s hard not to be charmed just walking into perhaps the smallest restaurant in Chicago: eight seats around a tiny wooden sushi bar.
“It’s very Japanese,” I said, somewhat idiotically, thinking of Suntory Jigger Bars in Tokyo. It was quiet: light classical music, the octet of customers sitting in rapt expectation, watching Chef Sangtae Park create eight perfect pieces of raw fish—amberjack, yellowjack, three kinds of tuna — on oblongs of rice, then solemnly set down a piece before each guest.
The highlight was salmon, which Park smoked in a rectangular cedar box. A lovely bit of restaurant theater, the woodsmoke delightful, the sushi exquisite.
The fish was several derivations of freshness beyond standard sushi, it almost seemed a different substance. We mused over the economics of preparing dinner for eight customers and wondered how this place gets fish so much fresher than anywhere else.
“It must be a separate supply chain,” I speculated, imagining some hardy Japanese fisherman hooking slabs of bluefin tuna off a pier in Yaezu, packing them in ice and jumping on a plane to Chicago, sitting stolidly in his green rubber boots and orange slicker, his insulated treasure perched on his lap.
Anyone considering Omakase Yume should know one thing: Yes, it is a prix fixe meal — $125 a head. But that’s not the whole story. There are then “specials” which customers are invited to order. I figured I was already splurging plenty, so limited myself to one $16 bite of wagyu, aka steak.
Mistake. Not because the bite wasn’t good. It was perfect. But because the other diners, my son included, ordered two or three pieces, and so before dessert I had to spend 15 minutes watching Chef Park prepare food for everybody else. That wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t fun either. So if you do go, order a few extras. In for a dime, in for a dollar, or, as it happened, $425 for two.
The younger boy chose Elske, which I had never heard of, even though it too has a Michelin star, A little digging uncovered that it’s Danish, which did not reassure. To me, Danish cuisine means herring rotting in a barrel of brine.
I worried unnecessarily. Elske is a warm, modern, bustling, not particularly Danish room with an open kitchen, the chefs, David and Anna Posley, front and center. We opted for the “set menu” — $95 — that began with a “tea of smoked fruits and vegetables with grilled shiitake and marigold cracker.” Very good, though the pretentious name offended my older son. “It’s not tea, it’s soup,” he said, for weeks to come.
I enjoyed the parade of little dishes. An acute wedge of duck liver tart topped in bright green. A sublime mussel with chestnut cream and fennel. Slow roasted short ribs with a turnip cake. The freshly-baked Parker House roll they must serve to those arriving in heaven.
The tab soared. Four people eating $95 meals ended up costing $620 by the time we were done, what with drinks and tax and the porridge bread I simply had to try and that staff insurance fee which is in theory optional but you’d need a heart of stone to strike off the bill. (I should note that Elske is celebrating Restaurant Week by being closed until Feb. 7).
A lot of money. Though in my defense: If this column were about football, and I confessed taking my two sons to a Bears game, nobody, but nobody, would object, “You did? That’s INSANE! Three tickets can cost $1,000!” At Elske, the food was a lot better than at Soldier Field, we were indoors and we didn’t have to watch the Bears lose.