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At Phillip Foss's El Ideas, balls to all that

The chef ditches food trucking and says hello again to fine dining

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[Editor's note: Andrew Brochu has since left El Ideas.]

One afternoon early last fall, I stopped by Phillip Foss's Meatyballs Mobile to sample a bull's balls sandwich. It was a warm Indian summer day, and the Le Cirque-trained fine-dining chef was doing what he'd done most days since getting fired from Lockwood a few months earlier—lobbing goofy testicular puns and hawking meatball sandwiches from the back of a lunch truck to giggling, eyeball-rolling customers.

Foss, in his new role as one of the city's first food truck operators, seemed like he was in his element, with a city's worth of hungry office workers waiting for him. But during a brief lull in the action he confided something: "Man, I really have to get back." By that he didn't mean he wanted to return to the stultifying work environment of the Palmer House restaurant, where he was caught helpless between a corporation and a labor union and fired for tweeting a bong joke. Rather, he wanted to get back to conceiving and executing the wildly creative and intricately presented dishes he'd served there and documented so lovingly on his blog.

Two and a half weeks ago as he prepped for two Saturday-night services at El Ideas (short for "elevated"), his three-and-a-half-month-old mini restaurant, he seemed surprised when I told him the story. He didn't remember feeling so disillusioned so soon after starting the truck. As he recalled, it was more like at the end of this summer, when the food, payroll, and parking-ticket costs for his three trucks had gotten out of hand and he was spending much more time and creative energy on the ten-seat restaurant he'd started in the Ballcave, the 14th Street commissary that supplied them. It had been a rough period in many ways. Earlier this summer—the very week he served his first menu at El—he separated from his wife, who'd been managing the Meatyballs office.

"Six months ago I thought I wasn't going to do anything but meatballs for the rest of my life," he told me. "You ever see Being John Malkovich, where Malkovich goes into his own portal and starts going 'Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich'? I was going around going 'balls, balls, balls.'" Foss was overworked and exhausted, and the day before I met with him, he'd announced that he was hitting the brakes on the Meatyballs trucks to focus exclusively on El.

He was maudlin about it, but I was excited. The night before, a friend bought out the restaurant's now-12 seats and invited me along for a 15-course party prepared by Foss and Andrew Brochu, the Alinea vet who'd come aboard after his last gig, Kith & Kin, closed. The space's snug dining room and open kitchen has rightly been described as fostering a sense of intimacy, camaraderie—even abandon—among diners, almost like a dinner party at someone's home. Bill Talbott, a front-of-the-house veteran of Trotter's, Les Nomades, and Lockwood keeps the BYO beverages flowing to a soundtrack of the Starland Vocal Band, Sesame Street, and the Backstreet Boys, while Foss, Brochu, and line cook Mike DeSteffano plate and serve each course. Guests are invited to get up any time and hang out in the kitchen, where the chefs are invariably slugging back beers, tweezering microgreens, and squirting sauces out of squeeze bottles.

A new dish at the ever changing El Ideas: spanner crab with cappellini, tomato, and poppy seed - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • A new dish at the ever changing El Ideas: spanner crab with cappellini, tomato, and poppy seed

Foss and Brochu share dish-conception duties about equally. For the former it's a return to the style he was putting out at Lockwood, beautiful abstract plates that carry the illusion of modernist manipulation but are in fact relatively classically, if precisely, prepared. Due to union restrictions, as the executive chef Foss wasn't even allowed to work a station at Lockwood. At El he's on the line for the first time in years. "When I'm doing my dish, obviously I'm the chef," he says. "I'm making sure everyone's doing it exactly how I want it. But as soon as I'm doing Andrew's dish I turn into a commis. I feel like I'm learning."

For Brochu it's nothing like his previous work at Pops for Champagne and Kith & Kin, but is clearly influenced by his two and a half years on the line at Alinea. A lot of the dishes he's brought to El were things he was working on in anticipation of heading up Moe and Ash Taleb's proposed upscale spot in Andersonville, which was stillborn when Kith & Kin closed.

"I like doing both," says Brochu, speaking of the simpler comfort food he was putting out at K&K versus the more refined plates that predominate at El, such as an involuted take on frozen broccoli and cauliflower with cheddar sauce featuring flash-fried kale chips, rapini florets, cheese curds, a gooey sharp cheddar sauce, and dabs of curry pudding. For such a painterly plate, it's one of the more luxuriously rich and satisfying things I've scraped up in many months. Yet he also has a fried chicken dish, a fat, crispy nugget of battered thigh meat that reminded me of the confit-fried birds he was putting out at Kith & Kin, but is completely different, he says. He serves this atop a thick potato puree with a dab of hot sauce and a minibiscuit on the side.

Foss, too, is back in rare form. His "eggs" dish was another of the best I've eaten all year, a cool disk of uni flan perched on nuggets of sweet rock shrimp with custardy soft French-style scrambled eggs and arctic char roe, its layered richness slashed with a smear of acidic yuzu and a dollop of finger-lime pulp. There were other memorable dishes too: an eggplant Bolognese bedded soft gnocchi which in turn supported a Parmesan tuile filled with barely cooked crabmeat. An ever evolving foie gras course—ours with chestnut puree, apple-Calvados foam, and five-spiced chestnut granola—is served without utensils so guests, who by now might be well into their cups, can lick it right from the plate.

A few courses are of the emotive variety, meant to unleash Proustian hallucinations of realities diners may know nothing about. Brochu has a take on bourbon balls with coffee and tobacco pudding, reminiscent of the post-holiday-meal-cigarette rituals of the adults in his childhood home in north Florida. A bowl of rooibos tea custard with squash pudding and crumbled pistachios was served on a larger plate layered with leaves and greenery foraged from the side of the train tracks across the street. Hot tea is poured over camouflaged dry ice and a scented mist rises as if from the forest floor. Foss hasn't completely given up on the balls either—the mignardise is always some sweet riff on the chocolate salty balls he sold on the food truck.

By the time you read this, most of these courses are likely to have been altered or completely replaced—the pair is constantly conceiving new ones while making sure their ingredients don't overlap. For the $135 price tag, diners are eating the work of two chefs for the price of one (plus a course from DeSteffano).

All of this would be fantastic for folks who missed eating Foss's and Brochu's food, if only El were easier to get into. The way things are now, it's about as tough a ticket as similarly informal but coveted fine-dining experiences such as Next or Schwa. They're booked through the spring of 2012, but hopeful diners can register for lotteries for extra seatings and cancellations at the restaurant's website, elideas.com.

Foss is trying to address demand incrementally. A plan to knock out a wall and add more seating was scuttled for fear that the intimacy would be lost, but this week they're up to 16 seats.

The night after I ate there, Foss, Brochu, and DeSteffano decided to add a second service. But after they had to scotch two courses, they decided they felt too rushed and didn't want to shortchange diners. A few weeks later they felt they had it under control and added a 9:30 PM seating after all, but only on Saturday nights.

"If I hadn't grown Meatyballs in such knee- jerk fashion I wouldn't have been able to open El in the first place," says Foss. "That kind of reckless abandon was too much growth too fast, and I think that's what brought Meatyballs down to its knees. I don't want to make that same mistake again. I want to protect the integrity of what this is."

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