First Taste: Elle on the River
Here's a niche I never knew I needed: a downtown, mature alternative to Big Star. What Big Star is for Wicker Park hipsters who apparently don't work and have nothing better to do with their time than line up at 3:00 p.m. for tacos and tequila, Elle on the River is (or can be) for downtown denizens with more expensive outfits and careers that deem visable tattoos fireable offenses. The casual al fresco offshoot of Travelle, Elle on the River offers a concise menu of Mediterranean-inspired tacos, punch, and parfait-like desserts on a sprawling, zen-like patio in front of The Langham.
(Elle on the River)
Walking into Elle on the River, which isn't exactly right on the river but actually nestled outside The Langham between State and Wabash, is an immersive experience reminiscent of embarking on a beach vacation. The entire space is outdoors, shaded with massive umbrellas, bedecked with lounge-y couches and high-tops, and outfitted with a beachy bar you might expect to find while honeymooning along the shores of Greece. This may very well be the coolest new patio setting in the downtown area, offering an expansive oasis in which to bask under the sun noshing on tacos. Unlike taco-happy patios elsewhere in the city, this one classes up the experience with a decidedly mature motif (it's vacation-y, but mature vacation-y) and vibe, aided in part by the richly clad patrons who each look like they could purchase and sell me without blinking. At any rate, it's a wonderful new destination for outdoor dining and drinking in downtown Chicago.
The crux of the menu at Elle on the River is tacos. But not just any tacos. These are Mediterranean-inspired tacos. Branching off Travelle's haute Mediterranean roots, Elle on the River offers a casual alternative with an assortment of tacos served on chickpea flatbreads in lieu of tortillas. The flatbread idea is nice, though it fell a little flat (get it?!) in terms of chew factor, which I so adore in corn or flour tortillas. But still, it does the job of ensconcing the Mediterranean innards and accentuating the theme. There's a handful of different options available, each crafted by chef Tim Graham, who does double-duty here and at Travelle. Elle's tacos include a piri piri chicken with pepper aioli, Mahon cheese, and pickles; Calabrian mahi mahi with lemon cream and quinoa slaw; crispy chickpeas with hummus and herb tabouli; and chermoula-braised pork shoulder with radish tzatziki. All flavorful, all lush. I liked the chermoula-braised pork shoulder the best, absolutely succulent and tender, like BBQ pulled pork that jetted off to Europe for a getaway. Chicken and fish were a little muted, but the chickea was great as well and not at all a chickpea overdose as I feared. I appreciate the daring gravitas that comes with folding chickpeas inside a chickpea wrap. The risk pays off. For dessert, don't you dare miss the adorable Ellies. They're parfait- and pudding-like confections made with layers of cake, frosting, and fruity accoutrements, and they are cuter than Saturday morning cartoons. Of the trifecta -- German chocolate cake, orange creamsicle, and strawberry shortcake -- my favorite was the strawberry. Not only was this thing as pink and cute as Barbie's Dreamhouse, but it tasted heavenly and light, almost like one giant strawberry marshmallow gilded with a bit of frosting.
The most vacation-y element of Elle on the River is the beverage program, which encourages day-drinking and sort of ruins productivity for the rest of the day but it's worth it. Jumping on the punch bandwagon, Elle features a focused selection of fruity punches, available as a single, a small (serves three to four), or a large for six or more, which might be worth ordering and then skipping out on work the rest of the day. I loved the Down by the River, a tropical quaff lush with Bacardi Oakheart, raspberry, cherry, and banana. There's also a few wines, sparkling wines, craft beers, and craft sodas.
- Matt Kirouac