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
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
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.
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
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 email@example.com.