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LES NOMADES   I was a fan of chef Chris Nugent even before I knew his name. I immediately liked his style of French bistro cooking at Betise in Wilmette when I reviewed that restaurant in North Shore magazine.

I am an even bigger fan of Nugent now that I have experienced what he can do with French haute cuisine at the venerable Les Nomades. This, too, is a restaurant reviewed in the pages of North Shore, though that was almost four years ago.

Roland Liccioni was in command then as the chef/owner, and he continued the standard set by the legendary Jovan Tryboyevic, who sold the restaurant to Liccioni and his then-wife, Mary Beth. She is now the sole owner of Les Nomades, and chef Roland has reacquired and is chef/owner at Le Francais.

The Les Nomades menu remains the $85 prix fixe four course, or a five-course dinner for $100, which adds seafood before the entrée.

Recently hors d' oeuvres ranged from sublime roast veal sweetbreads to house-smoked salmon with traditional garnish, to house patés or diver scallops. Poached lobster is also an option, set in a light corn and oyster mushroom ragoût, though not so textured as that word might suggest. It's more of a broth to frame the buttery lobster, a small langoustine with tender claws and tiny body. Grains of caviar dot the ragoût, though their flavor is indiscernible.

As for some of those other offerings, the veal sweetbreads have a golden sheen, while a potato confit, caramelized endive and apple-infused Madeira bring even more in the way of tasteful elegance. The patés may vary, but often will include a silken chicken liver mousse and venison among the collection of charcuterie.

Seared diver scallops are paired with veal cheeks, which strikes me as creative if not odd. I suppose were everything not so wonderful, I might be tempted to dismiss ingenuity for contrivance.

Soup or salad follows. The baby green salad is embellished with pears, Roquefort and spiced walnuts, bound with a port wine vinaigrette. It's a bit of a breather from the culinary challenges that abound. Duck consommé is a similar respite, with its familiar deep flavor and a broth flecked with fresh-diced seasonal vegetables.

Those who favor a seafood entrée have a trio of choices. Grilled wild salmon is set on green lentils with thyme in the flavor mix. Also available is wild stripped bass plated with couscous; I did not taste it, but the menu suggests fennel as one of the flavor accents. I did taste sautéed red snapper with leeks, wild mushrooms and salsify in light lobster sauce. I am usually not partial to snapper, but this changed my mind.

I suppose dissertations could be written on whether seafood or grilled and roasted meats present the greater challenge to a chef's sense of creativity. For chef Nugent, it's a win-win situation. Rack of lamb, roasted duck breast with leg confit, and roast venison loin have been among recent presentations. The lamb is full-flavored without being strong; the sauce is a rosemary au jus and a nod to tradition. Veal tenderloin is paired with veal sweetbreads, but only to enrich, not intrude. Roasted venison loin is plated with pureed butternut squash, turnips and Brussels sprout leaves with a press of juniper in the au jus. It is not a very forgiving meat, but the Les Nomades kitchen staff has seemingly no trouble bringing out the best it has to offer.

The dessert portion of the evening offers the restaurant's famous soufflés, chocolate flourless cake and house-made ice creams — there are nearly a dozen from which to choose. I am partial to the cheese platter, where almost two dozen varieties are available.

This is one area where the restaurant's excellent staff acquits itself with perfection. There is advice, but never insistence, clarity, but never condescension.

Service people anticipate needs. In one instance, a waiter was concerned that one of our party might not be as comfortable as possible in her chair. Water was constantly refilled, as was the bread basket.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I learned after dinner, and after paying our bill, that I was recognized. While anonymity is vital, I also believe that in a restaurant with the tradition of excellence that marks Les Nomades, any favoritism would be minor when compared to the manner in which all diners are treated. Les Nomades remains one of a dwindling handful of French restaurants in Chicago at the very pinnacle of consequence and continues to merit a K/RATING of 20/20.

LE FRANCAIS   This is a true story. A few years ago a couple asked the parking valet to bring their car after finishing dinner at Le Francais. When the valet asked what kind of car, the man replied, "A silver Mercedes." "Sir," said the valet without too much irony, "they're all silver Mercedes."

Le Francais attracts people who generally drive luxury automobiles, because Le Francais is, after all, a luxe restaurant. But I am not sure it holds the panache of years past.

I did not really pay much attention to the dining room for my last visit before this review, perhaps distracted by dinner and conversation among our party of six. This time, I looked around and was struck by the feeling that the dining room is beginning to look a little tired.

It's not shabby, in fact far from it. But having visited Les Nomades just a week earlier, the contrast was striking. Where Les Nomades is bright, even contemporary, at least on the first-floor dining room, Le Francais is darker, old-world, even old-fashioned.

On the more positive side, the familiar hatch work of Villeroy & Boch dinner chargers greets each diner. Service remains first rate, always attentive and helpful. There's a more accessible wine list in terms of price that doesn't sacrifice depth. One section features what are called Bin Closeouts, as might be found in a wine shop.

At the heart of Le Francais, Roland Liccioni is back as chef/owner, and his work is usually quite interesting, if not as novel as it once was.

Diners may order à la carte or a seven-course, $90 degustation. We picked from the à la carte menu, which is usually supplemented by the occasional evening special. The chef is renowned for his fusion techniques and originality. With that in mind, we had a lobster-and-shrimp ravioli. It's listed on the menu as a tempura with ginger and lobster sauce. But the special version I ordered is somewhat different. The lobster sauce draws on French inspiration, but the ravioli is conceptually Southeast Asian with its use of rice-paper wrapping and a filling that teases at the taste buds.

Other first-course selections include fusion-inspired scallops, combining French technique with Vietnamese ingredients. An artichoke terrine is luscious with a garnish of heart of palm juliennes splashed with truffle oil. Ravigote sauce, not as highly seasoned as the name might imply, completes the setting.

A charcuterie selection, chilled lobster in aspic with foie gras, or foie gras with quince and cognac-Mandarin orange sauce have been other recent menu listings, as are a collection of soups and salads. Incidentally, Roland carries over the double consommé still on the Les Nomades menu, though in this case it carries an attribution to famed French chef Paul Bocuse.

Seafood reflects chef Roland's best efforts. He plates two fish together in one of his offerings. We had Alaskan char paired with black cod, also known as sable. The cod had the silken, flaked texture akin to sea bass; the char was the more firm-fleshed, something like salmon. Each had its own sauce: green and vegetal for the cod, sumptuous blackened wild rice for the char.

As for meats, I experienced my first and only disappointment ever at Le Francais — or from anything Roland has done elsewhere. Poached veal tenderloin was paired with sliced rib-eye steak. The veal was perfect, but the rib eye was more salted than I would prefer. I do not want to make too much of this, realizing that tastes can and do differ. Julienne cèpe mushrooms and braised cabbage were party to the garnish.

Other meats and poultry have included beef tournedos in classic French manner with Perigordine foie gras sauce, while lamb might be served with Moroccan-style seasonings. Each evening also brings a game trio and the appropriate sauces.

In true French tradition, desserts and/or a cheese course can be ordered to end the meal. We had something akin to a chocolate boudin with liquid chocolate poured into the center; almond ice cream was on the side.

When ordering à la carte, expect to spend about $120 a couple plus wine, tax and tips. I do not for a minute believe that Le Francais is slipping in any form or manner. But on the other hand, when compared to Chicago's other finest of fine dining restaurants, there is room for fine-tuning. Le Francais has a K/RATING of 19.25/20.

Sherman Kaplan is midday drive co-news anchor and restaurant critic for NEWSRADIO 780 WBBM. Write him at shermank@comcast.net.


 

Copyright© 2005 North Shore Magazine