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Call of the wild

Underground chef Iliana Regan, who's been at the helm of precious few kitchens besides the one in her Andersonville apartment, is going legit with her ambitious "new gatherer" restaurant. The concept could be her greatest asset and greatest challenge.

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Then Jen Laaback and Mike Meier showed up, and they were serious about helping her out. Laaback had started her own consulting firm about 15 years earlier and liked the idea of supporting a woman-owned business. She's also a big fan of underground dining, and says that Regan's cooking far surpassed anything else she'd tried. "I just couldn't believe the kind of food she was putting out, how organized she was, and how absolutely spectacular everything was," Laaback says.

Regan was still planning to go ahead with her crowd-sourced investing until Meier and Laaback asked how much she needed to raise. Probably $65,000 or $70,000, she told them. "They were like, fuck, well, we can do that," Regan says.

They were also willing to let her have 51 percent of the company, giving her the control she wanted. (Another investor, Robert Herbster, has just over 12 percent; Meier and Laaback each have a little more than 18 percent.) Finally, Regan had both a plan and funding—and she thinks Elizabeth would have approved of the name. "She had grandiose ideas of herself," Regan says. "She'd be like, of course you would name your restaurant after me."

Last December, Regan, Laaback, and Meier looked at the former location of the short-lived restaurant Prix Fixe at 4835 N. Western (which no one was particularly excited about), then a place at Damen and Irving Park that everyone loved. There was one small problem, though: it lacked a kitchen.

They also checked out a former tattoo parlor on Western just south of North Avenue. The owners had been running an underground porn studio out of the basement, their agent said. The stairs down to the low-ceilinged basement were treacherous, a missing step replaced by a rickety wooden board; one small room was occupied by what appeared to be a hot tub that had been filled in with cement. In an adjoining room was a lone mattress and a few empty bowls. The restaurateurs-to-be decided to pass.

They made an offer on a building on Milwaukee just northwest of Logan Square, but it was rejected. Meanwhile, the space formerly occupied by Prix Fixe was still available. They hated the tile floors and low ceilings, but their $130,000 total budget limited the changes they could make. And while they hoped to spend no more than $30,000 remodeling, the final number was about twice that.

Things have been going fairly smoothly overall, though. The liquor license has transferred already, and once everything in the kitchen is in place they'll have their health inspection. So far, none of the bureaucratic issues that tend to plague new restaurant owners have cropped up.

Regan has been doing as much of the work as she can herself, stripping and sanding and painting, sometimes with the help of friends and family. It's been a lot harder than she expected, she says, and it's only worth it because it's hers. "If I was just going to work here, I would have already quit," she says. "I'd be like, 'Fuck you and your stupid restaurant for your sister.'"

Elizabeth is scheduled to open September 19. The tile on the floors has been taken out and the concrete sanded and stained. The ceiling has been replaced. Preserves, cookbooks, and pitchers adorn a few shelves on the walls made from wood that Laaback and Meier found in their alley, and bouquets of dried herbs are everywhere. The coatrack consists of deer antlers (bought on eBay) clamped to particle board that's mounted on the wall. Three heavy wood tables, accompanied by mismatched chairs bought on sale, take up most of the space. Dining here will be communal.

Regan has hired the three chefs she's planning to employ—Jacob Novar (Maude's), Meghan Murphy (S&M Underground), and Wilson Bauer (Pensiero, Longman & Eagle)—and a service coordinator, Scott Noorman, who's also the wine director. Noorman was one of the opening sommeliers at Alinea and says that he had an almost unlimited budget there. Buying wine for Elizabeth is very different, according to Noorman—it requires a lot of creativity and arm-twisting of wine reps. "I've pretty much told three companies to go screw themselves. But the ones I've been working with since Trio days are willing to play ball. I've got long-standing relationships with these guys, and they know it's going to be the next successful place, and in the future they're going to have all of my business," Noorman says.

The three fixed-price menus will change seasonally; as at Next, the price varies according to the night of the week, so eating there on a Wednesday will be cheaper than on a Saturday. The shortest menu, at about ten courses, is what Regan is calling the "owl"; it's farm and garden focused and will range from $65 to $95. The "deer" menu (14 courses, $115-$135) is "woodland influenced," featuring mostly wild plants and game animals. The "diamond" (22 courses for $175-$205) is where you're most likely to find truffles or caviar. All are fairly local, and Regan says there won't be much overlap between them.

Dishes will include pig tails cooked in dark beer and served with a cocoa nib-infused balsamic gastrique, tenderized cocoa nibs, beets, pickled beet stems, and charred beet leaves; seared matsutake mushrooms with cinnamon custard, juniper powder, pine gel, and a compote of mushroom scraps; deer tenderloin with celery root and amaranth porridge, yellow nasturtium flowers, mustard sorbet, marigold pudding, and a dandelion-petal sugar tuille; and frozen chestnut mousse with pine and thyme fluid gels, shaved and sauteed boletus mushrooms, acorn puree, acorn meringue, and pine cotton candy.

iliana regan chocolate ganache
  • Jennifer Moran
  • Mexican hot chocolate ganache with strawberries, balsamic vinegar consomme, and Thai basil

Aside from Next, Alinea, Goosefoot, El Ideas, and the recently closed Charlie Trotter's, few restaurants in Chicago offer high-end fixed-price menus with no a la carte option (Prix Fixe, the restaurant that previously occupied the Elizabeth space, met a speedy demise). But chefs who can pull it off praise the freedom, flexibility, and creativity the concept affords. Phillip Foss, the chef and owner of El Ideas (a 20-seat restaurant near Roosevelt and Western that offers 12- to 15-course meals for $135) is a big proponent of the fixed price, multicourse model—and of being your own boss. Foss was the chef at Lockwood for three years before being fired over a tweet ("Can't we all just smoke a bong?"). El Ideas has been wildly successful by any standard, and Foss is nearly always booked up as far in advance as he's taking reservations. When he runs into other chefs, he says, "hands down, everyone tells me that this is their dream."

Though Regan hit her breaking point when she was working at Alinea, she thinks she would have been unhappy working for other people no matter where she was. The resolution she made there, she says, was: "I'm going to fucking cook, and I'm going to open a restaurant, but I am not going to work for any of these motherfuckers for slave labor and be treated like a piece of shit in their kitchens." So far, so good.

Regan e-mailed me recently to tell me that she often dreams that Elizabeth is alive again, and drinking, and Regan is begging her to stop. Although Elizabeth was a talented painter, Regan says, she ended up in the medical profession. "I believe if she followed her dream she might have been happier. I don't know if that would have saved her or changed the present," Regan wrote. "I believe following my dreams saves me." 

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