Hygge meets the midwest at Elske | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Hygge meets the midwest at Elske

Fine-dining power couple David and Anna Posey stake a claim on the lonely end of Randolph Street.

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The penultimate course among eight on the tasting menu at Elske is a forest-hued square of firm, chewy, sweet gelatinous matter, imbued with the cool flavors of fennel and mint. While it's a perfectly refreshing intermezzo between the roasted brisket with creamed brussels sprouts and the vanilla ice cream with nicoise olive syrup, it looks a bit like Soylent Green, the processed food ration made from human remains that sustains overpopulated New York City in the 1973 dystopian science-fiction film of the same name.

Elske is the Scandinavian-sounding new restaurant from husband-and-wife chefs David and Anna Posey, he a former Blackbird chef de cuisine, she a onetime Publican pastry chef. The name is Danish for "love," and that at least psychically echoes cosmetic touches that evoke the concept of hygge (HOO-guh) or "coziness," evident in the lovely minimalist glazed ceramics employed as serviceware and the roaring garden fire whose inviting woodsmoke beckons blocks away from less lonely reaches of Randolph. There's a garden gnome creeping around too. The rest of the environment, with its clean, modern look, is more in line with a cold, minimal northern sensibility, as is the Soylent palate cleanser.

While Nordic style is a thing now, especially culinarily, and Posey's mom is in fact Danish, any similarities to the old country don't extend much to the menu, which offers a relatively reasonable eight-course tasting for $80, and a separate a la carte menu of nine dishes or so, with no overlap. The Poseys have evoked the ever popular "casual fine dining" cliche to express their MO—a seasonal midwestern approach more than anything from Scandinavia.

At the moment that translates to an amuse-bouche in the form of a tea brewed from root vegetables that sit high atop the open kitchen's wood-fired hearth for four days, ultimately producing a brew so intensely flavored it could pass for meat stock. If you've elected for the tasting menu, a dehydrated parsley chip follows, topped with a gob of cold creamed parsnips and a dollop of osetra caviar. A smooth duck liver tart is rich and creamy, though the salted ramps said to be incorporated therein don't make their presence known. Roasted leeks topped with a shell of melted and congealed bandaged cheddar is a powerfully umamic dish, while confit bass bathing in a richly sweet pool of squash broth is among Posey's most luxurious and triumphant dishes. The aforementioned brisket is tough and undercooked and a bit of a letdown after all that, but somewhat redeemed by the creamed sprouts given texture with raw broccoli.

The a la carte menu offers more substantial portioning. Servers recommend three to four dishes per person, allowing a less structured approach, which could find you pairing up everything from delicate crispy fried skatewing with thick fennel puree to thick sections of octopus tentacle shrouded in raw radicchio leaves.

The heavier proteins on this menu don't perform as nicely as some of the lighter ones. A thick slab of lightly smoked coppa has a squishy, wet texture offset by crunchy sunchoke skins, while precisely portioned batons of lamb leg don't quite harmonize with a wedge of smoked onion and sweet potato.

On the other hand, substantial chunks of juicy sweetbreads are improved by crunchy wedges of cabbage and sweet landmines of green grapes and golden raisins. Long, soft cylindrical salsify dumplings are draped in a creamy smoked oyster sauce that's one of the more exotic things on this muted menu, balanced by bitter charred broccolini.

A thick omelet bedazzled with carrot coins and capers has a matrix of creamy scrambled eggs and confit chicken thigh, while the earthiness of a whole roasted maitake mushroom gets drenched tableside with a sweet pear cream. A brothy ersatz risotto is one of the most pleasantly surprising dishes, made up entirely of tiny batons of celeriac drizzled with crushed hazelnuts and black truffle shavings. It's a dish you can smell coming at you from across the room, yet for anyone expecting the creamy rice classic, it's something of bait and switch. If you're boycotting carbs, it seems designed for you—though you wouldn't know that's the case unless you asked.

David Posey's initial menu is very much of the winter, all comforting textures and devoid of sharp spikes in acid or heat. Anna Posey's desserts are similarly restrained in sweetness but perform memorably out of the box. For instance, the aforementioned vanilla ice cream doused in an olive syrup and mounted on a bed of pink grapefruit and cocoa nibs is redolent of an invisible olive essence so at home in its surroundings you'll be reminded that it is, after all, a fruit. Olive appears again in the form of a soft cake tossed amid a sharp cheesecake-like semifreddo supporting a scoop of floral jasmine frozen yogurt. Thick Nutella-ish rye bread porridge is the understory for puffed amaranth, sorghum, and brown rice, as well as a hollowed quenelle of quince sorbet containing a pool of the fruit's vinegar. A layer of blackcurrant jelly underlies parsnip cream and sunflower praline bound by thin chicory crisps.

The beverage program is overseen by Kyle Davidson, a Violet Hour OG whom Posey brought along from Blackbird. An abbreviated list of five cocktails is done proud by a dark, moody potion of smoky lapsang souchong tea, Punt e Mes vermouth, and gin infused with matsutake mushroom that tastes like it was distilled from the forest floor, while a sazerac's inherent sweetness is tempered by a darkly flavored coffee-licorice syrup. The wine list is relatively brief for now, though the $45 pairing with the tasting menu hits all the right notes, beginning with a light sparkling wine to make the fish eggs feel at home, and ending on a rich, bitter digestif to send it all on its way without any arguments.

At Elske, line cooks serve their own plates. These folks may not have the chirpy stage presence of your average improv-trained front-of-houser, but the service underscores the informality the Poseys are going for. In that regard they've joined an ever-crowded field—even in their own neighborhood—of young fine-dining veterans attempting to present their art in less formal circumstances. With Elske the competition has only grown stiffer.  v

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