Elizabeth wasn't one of the best meals of our lives. Wasn't even one of the best meals in the last year (though it's in the discussion). Rankings like that when having a meal like the one we had at Elizabeth this week are idiotic (though I've done it on more than 2000 occasions).
Even recommending Elizabeth can be problematic. I think it would come down to the person asking. If the person asking is the kind of person that sits through the savory part of the meal with the ostensible goal of getting to dessert, if dessert utterly thrills them to the bone, if dinner isn't dinner without a sweet-dairy coda or dinner isn't even dinner without cream and sugar used throughout, Elizabeth might not be for that person. They might like it, acknowledge the higher-level goodness to be had, but it probably won't become anything close to an expansive, deeper memory easily recalled a month later.
But it's more than that.
Elizabeth isn't simply a deeper exploration into savory, highlighting the essence of individual ingredients, zeroing in on the venn diagram goodness of combinations, leaving them unadulterated, never thinking it needs to be souped up, and holding firmly to that line from beginning to end. That's been an entirely welcome trend for years now and it's not what makes it original. Iliana Regan, chef-owner of Elizabeth, hits a note that most attempting to cook Midwestern food just barely miss.
She finds its quietness and the integrity that comes with that quietness.
At Midwestern's best, both in its food, culture and people, there's a resonance, an attitude, an introspection and mental process that only the Midwest has, unique only to here. That's not Tea Party bloviation about "Real America," just that it's unique. A Midwesterner can be halfway around the world, run into an American and, after a 10-minute conversation observing their vocal pace, gait, pauses, eye contact and how they, in totality, fill the physical space, pretty much know if that person is/was a Midwesterner. It's the way we carry ourselves, even when we're trying to hide it.
I remember in the mid-to-late 90's, a group of people tried to release a newsstand magazine called The Midwesterner. It focused on fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays aimed at a more literary crowd. Becoming the Midwest's version of Harper's or The Atlantic (or what that magazine used to be) seemed to be the goal. It was a project fraught with peril in distribution logistics alone and I believe it folded after a fairly short run (looks like someone launched a web version recently). The magazine was an attempt at finding that elusive, indescribable, Midwestern-ness; letting everything flail then harden, morph then congeal, hoping in its completeness, an identity would form. To me, it was hugely ambitious, largely successful and way too high-brow and idiosyncratic to succeed. But the window it tried to open, the core is was trying to find, was something I remember almost 15-20 years after it folded.
Elizabeth made me think of that magazine with the added bonus of knowing that Regan isn't going anywhere. Quietness might be the wrong word to use for her food. It's more like food that doesn't feel one impulse to be showy or be so gosh-darn loud. Its integrity and food place comes in that. Nothing's taken down a notch. She's just found a place that expresses the Midwest differently, something more at its quiet, higher center.
Looking back on the meal, it was food that could only have come from someone that not only grew up in the Midwest, but has spent their entire life thinking about what that means. This isn't food worshiping at the altar of the purity of something like a parsnip. This is food made by someone who has spent years thinking about what a parsnip tastes like to her and the history of how it has tasted to her. Only that. Nothing more.
And it's Great.
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