CHICAGO -- What hooked me was the duck tart.
Three dishes into the tasting menu at Elske, and the tart arrived, a sliver of silky-smooth liver mousse astride a toothsome buckwheat crust. On top, a layer of dried and ground parsley added the vivid-green color and pebbled texture of an artificial putting surface. Surreal yet familiar, exotic yet comforting, this dish made me want to taste every single thing on the menu.
Elske is the creation of husband-wife team David and Anna Posey, he the onetime chef de cuisine at Blackbird (which earned him two consecutive Rising Star chef nominations from the James Beard Foundation), she the pastry chef whose work graced Blackbird, Everest and The Publican.
The restaurant is a nod to David Posey's Danish roots, and elske is the Danish word for "love" (the two got engaged in Copenhagen), but you're not going to find anything especially Nordic among the sweets and savories. What you will find are highly creative, labor-intensive dishes, contrasted by an open dining room whose clean lines are anything but complicated.
The word you want to remember isn't elske (though that comes in handy when looking for the place) but hygge (pronounced hoo-guh), which is a Scandinavian concept of welcoming, warm conviviality. That's what the front of the house is going for, and you feel it in the genuine welcome at the host stand, in the warm glow from the candles atop the rich wood tables, from personality-rich servers who border on the nurturing, and from chefs and cooks who, despite no shortage of food runners, take a moment to bring a dish or two to each table personally.
And these, by and large, are terrific dishes. Or, more specifically, bowls. The Poseys tend to serve their creations in bowls; even the occasional flat plate has an upturned lip. "It's a great shape to eat out of," David Posey said. 'It's versatile."
Choose from the tasting menu ($80, with a $45 beverage-pairing option) or the a la carte selection; the choices rarely overlap. The former will begin with a bowl (of course) of tea made of hearth-smoked, seasonal fruit and vegetables — a warm and aromatic starter. Then things get creative with skewered ribbons of grilled carrot, within whose curls reside thick cream made with mussels, mayo, pickled kombu and sherry. A bit later, there might be a firm square of bass, coated with shiitake mushroom chips, over squash broth, or a comfort-food creation of beef brisket with sauteed shallots.
The a la carte choices — about 10 in all, up from the seven choices on Elske's inaugural menu — teem with irresistible, clever dishes. There is a lovely risotto with hazelnuts, sherry and freshly shaved black truffle, but hold on; the risotto is made of celeriac, not rice (some rice-steeped broth completes the sleight-of-hand), but the texture is spot on. In a similar vein, salsify dumplings are stretched lengthwise out to resemble actual salsify (with one piece of salsify included to further cloud your mind), interspersed with smoked oysters and bathed in oyster cream sauce.
Posey presents umami flavors in unexpected ways. Whole-roasted maitake mushroom pieces are interwoven with shaved cauliflower for visual and textural contrast, and the poured-over pear cream and shaved chestnuts makes the dish utterly soul-satisfying. Ditto for a whimsical chicken-and-egg concoction that presents confit chicken thigh under a blanket of soft-scrambled eggs and crispy bits of grain and chicken skin. Veal sweetbreads are supported by an unlikely collection of cabbage, halved grapes and pickled golden raisins, and somehow it all pulls together.
The all-star dessert is Anna Posey's cheesecake, which frankly needs a more marketable name. Picture a ball of cheesecake semifreddo, pushing through shards of jasmine yogurt meringue like some polar ice-cap eruption. Hidden below, pieces of olive-oil spongecake (some deliberately dry, some so moist they call to mind tres leches cake) await delicious discovery. This is one cool dessert.
Elsewhere, you'll find a half-pipe of sunflower-seed praline, its hollow nestling black-current jelly topped with piped parsnip cream; and quince sorbet containing a tiny pool of quince vinegar, surrounded by rye-bread porridge with puffed amaranth, sorghum and brown rice. And you might get a little fond farewell in the form of bright-green squares of fennel pate de fruit.
The beverage program is tight — just a few cocktails, a handful of beers, a dozen or so whites and reds by the bottle — but the options, which are sure to increase, are unfailingly interesting, fresh and thoughtfully priced. Indeed, prices overall are remarkably low, given the quality. I dined with three friends my last visit, denied ourselves nothing and barely broke the $300 (before tip) mark.
The entrance to the restaurant is at the end of a small courtyard, which boasts a curved fireplace that's lit every night, no matter how forbidding the weather. Two chairs, draped with blankets, await anyone willing to huddle outdoors, and every night I've visited, two or more guests give it a shot. The space will come into its own with the return of warm weather; it's easy to imagine a couple of dozen people, wine stems in hand, milling about.
No doubt the Poseys are looking forward to an Elske summer.