Elizabeth | Restaurant review
We have questions about this place. But no answers.
We were three hours into our $491, 17-course meal for two at Elizabeth when the tenor of the dinner changed. Until this point, we’d eaten like birds, scraping at morsels that, sometimes, purposefully looked like dirt. Now, we would eat like rejected, lovesick Polish men of the 1800s.
Full-size plates were put in front of each of us (eight people, mostly strangers to each other, at the “deer” menu table, eating the middle—in size, price and creativity—of the three menus). Here were thick slices of duck, a pastelike sauce made of duck blood painted on the plate. On the side was a big, slow-cooked duck egg. This is what Polish parents used to feed men whose offers to marry their daughters were rejected, we were told. The duck was gorgeous and tender. The jiggly egg was underseasoned and didn’t have much of a taste, just a texture: thick.
A break, in the form of a cup of deer stock. Then, another big plate. Sliced deer, very rare and glowing red. A piece of cabbage stuffed with overly firm deer sausage. The cabbage/sausage: horrid. But it didn’t matter. The deer cut and melted like butter.
In short, things were looking up, kind of. This meal had not started so hot. In the first moments, while I waited for my coworker Julia Kramer to arrive, a server asked me if I’d like a cocktail. I jumped in my seat a little and told him I was fine with water. The thought of ordering a cocktail I didn’t know the price of, adding an unknown sum to the enormous amount of money I had already spent online (Elizabeth, like Next, sells tickets to its meals, paid for in advance on its website), terrified me. But I thought it’d be tacky to ask.
Julia arrived, then a group of four, and while we all waited, awkwardly, for the final couple to arrive, we were given huckleberry pie, which at Elizabeth takes the form of a shot glass filled with thickish and very sweet huckleberry juice and a pebble of pie dough, which spreads out on the tongue into a grainy paste. I wished I hadn’t eaten it, though it did offer me the opportunity to think about some of the conventions Elizabeth is trying to upend, like by starting the meal with sugar. The logic was lost on me, as was the logic of pre-paying for food but not alcohol (it dampens some of the pleasure of the prepaid experience, which is leaving a restaurant without ever having reached for a wallet). But some of Elizabeth’s other unconventionalities—the hypercommunal eating; the tiny, twee space—were charming me. So I swallowed the dough and hoped the coming courses would be better.
Some were, some weren’t. Shortly after the pie we were each given a tiny terrarium. Iliana Regan, Elizabeth’s chef-owner, told us about it—she used the words edible soil—and I dug at it with a tiny spoon. There were rose petals and rose water gel, and so the dish had a floral thing going on. But it was the “soil” I liked. It was dry and crumbly and tasted like Earl Grey tea. By the look of horror on Julia’s face, I could tell she disagreed. Her expression said: This isn’t food. Her expression asked: Why?
At Elizabeth, why? is often asked but never answered. For our next course, Regan explained that we were going to eat carrots, a sponge of lamb’s quarter and some Queen Anne’s lace. The lace is a weed, Regan explained. She foraged it, and now we were going to eat it. But—why? Because it tastes good? Because we can?
Obviously, the dish itself should be the answer. As we ate, one of our tablemates seemed to find it.
“That weed is delicious,” he said. I don’t know if he was joking. I don’t think he was. Me, I didn’t get much from the weed, but I liked the texture of the carrots, which were cooked until they were still firm but had no snap.
It became clear that the reasoning behind certain choices was not worth thinking about, and I resigned myself to Regan’s choices, some of which seemed like senseless esoterica. When I found a crunchy half of a crabapple underneath some cheese and squishy fried frog legs, I didn’t bother wondering why the cumbersome bite hadn’t been cut down in size. I just rolled my eyes. When I came face-to-face with a bowl of chanterelles and acorns, the mushrooms uncooked and unseasoned at the top of the bowl, I stopped eating and, instead, steered my attention to a mite, climbing, I assume, from the crevice of one of those mushrooms and up the wall of the bowl.
When I encountered the salmon, I didn’t bother spending time thinking about why Regan chose to wrap it in daikon, which got in the way. I just wanted more of the delicious fish, which had been cured in aquavit and was infused with the flavor of caraway. And when it turned out that the centerpiece of the table, a large log studded with branches, was partly edible (the branches were breadsticks), I pushed away my thoughts about how derivative this was of Alinea and swirled the breadstick into a shallow bowl of creamy, luxe truffled potatoes.
There were a couple of liquid courses. One was a mushroom broth with cacao nibs, which added a crunchy, bitter counterpart to the umami. The other was that “deer soup,” nothing more than a rich stock made from deer bones. Both were nourishing, aromatic broths that tasted as though they could cure any ill, anywhere. There was also a raccoon course, a pleasant ragù over soft polenta. The table talked about it—what does raccoon taste like? (In other words, why?) Among the tomatoes and carrots in the ragù, the animal essence was hard to parse out.
“It tastes like squirrel,” that same tablemate said. I don’t know if he was joking. I don’t think he was. To me, it tasted lighter, more like turkey.
The last course before the big plates was an empty, thin, upturned glass with a tiny cluster of crisped rice stuck to its base. The diners looked at each other. How do we eat it? One person grabbed the sticky crisp with her fingers. I ate it right off the glass—it was peppery and crunchy—and thought about the increasing number of ways restaurants have figured out to make me look and feel like a nube.
Then we ate the duck, and the deer. Then a tiny float that tasted like pine trees. Then a good whiskey ice cream with a horrible walnut powder that had the aftertaste of death. Then, the last bite: a porcini mushroom caramel.
As the end of a meal that was defined by creativity and inconsistency, it was apropos, an unorthodox combination that tasted, unpleasantly, like mud. But as the finale of a dinner that raises so many questions, I wish it had provided an answer.