In Fran And Cameron Eat On The Company Dime, The Takeout staffers Fran Hoepfner and Cameron Scheetz eat on the company dime. This week, our resident critics visited Elizabeth, the Chicago restaurant that recently served a Game Of Thrones-inspired menu.
Fran Hoepfner: Cameron, look at us, we’re back and once again we’re eating for free. We’ve returned from a dinner at Elizabeth restaurant loosely inspired by Games Of Thrones—both the HBO show as well as The Song Of Ice And Fire novels by George R.R. Martin. Going in, I have to admit I wasn’t fully sure what to expect. I’ve read all of The Song Of Ice And Fire books that are available to us (George… please release The Winds Of Winter…), and the descriptions of food from those books are notoriously excessive. Half to full pages describing feasts of skewers of meat and heaping potatoes and pies (both animal-based and, uh, human) and cakes and the like. Combining that vision with a modern 21st-century cuisine seemed almost like a big clash of
kings contexts. Like, were we about to eat a horse heart? Honestly, no clue.
Cameron Scheetz: And while Game Of Thrones is appointment viewing for me, I haven’t read a single damn chapter of George R.R. Martin’s work, so I was coming into this even more green than you, Fran (cue Fran’s best Ygritte impression: “You know nothing, Cameron Scheetz”). I was expecting more of a medieval-style feast. Like, a big table full of hog heads and hog butts and copious amounts of cheese. Because that’s what you see on the HBO series, where the food often feels like an afterthought unless it’s being used as a murder weapon. Pigeon pie, anyone?
FH: While it wasn’t feast-like, necessarily, with big heaping servings, the meal was, well, enormous in scope. The seemingly endless number of courses were united in their earthiness, many of them toying with combinations of sweet and salty, like our opening course, which was dehydrated strawberries atop a salted sweet cream and herb crisp. They were great: a fun balance of textures and chewiness as well as something I’ve just not ever had before. But it definitely set the tone that the connections to the show would be a little more esoteric.
CS: But then sometimes it did feel quite literal, at least in a visual sense. Take, for example, that second course of marbled sourdough and quail eggs: A nod to traditional Germanic black bread. Which, as the staff suggested, could be dressed with your sides of pickled asparagus and egg yolk—lay it out on the sourdough and you’ve got dragon scales, baby! This was a clear sign that chef Iliana Regan was eager to inject her meal with some Thrones-ian fantasy.
FH: Right! And for sake of brevity we won’t delve into every single course—it felt like there were as many courses as there are characters in this series—but I want to shine a light on the little Iron Islands interlude midway through the meal. The Iron Islands, home of Theon Greyjoy (who sucks) and Asha/Yara Greyjoy (who rules), is an oft-cast-aside part of the books and the show, but it inspired some of my favorite courses we ate. This mini trilogy included clams in herbs with seaweed oil, squid noodles in a stinging nettle broth, with both regular and pickled ramps (it’s ramp season), and a charred parsnip over a codfish and potato purée.
CS: This dish in particular had me thinking of the Game Of Thrones series as an adaptation for the first time. In a sense, Elizabeth and HBO are doing the same thing, but with a different set of tools—David Benioff and D.B. Weiss use a massive visual effects budget and Kit Harington’s pout to interpret Martin’s words, while chef Iliana uses Midwestern ingredients and thoughtful plating. And ramps because it’s ramp season.
FH: You’re so right. This is equal parts an adaptation as the show is to the books, and in its abstraction, Elizabeth manages to achieve something more ephemeral and interesting. In the way that watching the show is somewhat predictable if you’ve read the books, you’ve got to believe that one of our dessert courses was, in fact, lemon cakes, Sansa Stark’s favorite treat. I had guessed that would happen, and it was no doubt good, but I often found myself more wowed by the surprises. There was another course, quite possibly my favorite, which were roasted red onions over cheese served in a bowl of mushroom “tea” (or broth), meant to signify the way in which onions, often cooked with meat, would sweat with flavor. I never would have predicted something like that! But the second it was put in front of me, it was like, “Of course. This makes perfect sense.”
CS: Much like Jaime Lannister and Brienne Of Tarth, Game Of Thrones and Elizabeth are a perfect pairing. As the staff told us on more than one occasion, “Chef is a bit of a nerd,” and her passion for both the food and the source material came together in a beautiful way here. From the honey-glazed duck to the cantaloupe sorbet, every dish felt like the creation of a true Thrones fan—one with a Michelin star to her name.
FH: We often think of interpretations of stories in a very straightforward sense: books become TV, or books become movies. But those things can become food! Which is also art! Which is cool! It was wild to me, as someone who’s been a fan of these books for several years, to have a meal that transcended a literal interpretation, that didn’t just hand me a turkey leg or something, but challenged the way I thought about this narrative and its culture and its presentation. It stripped down some of the excess of Game Of Thrones and presented the heart and soul of it. Well, not literally the heart.
CS: Yeah, it’s exciting to engage with something on a completely different sensory level. It breaks down the walls of “the medium” and, in this case, gives some insight into both George R.R. Martin and chef Iliana’s creative processes. It’s clear that this “interpretive territory” interests chef Iliana, as she’ll continue to put her pop culture bona fides to the culinary test this summer with upcoming menus inspired by Stranger Things and Twin Peaks. Of course, I’d need to do a few runs up and down the North Wall before I’m ready for another meal this big. “Valar morghulis,” all men must dine.