In the 1998 Zagat Survey Chicago Guide, of the 40 restaurants with the highest food ratings (based on popular opinion), 20 of them were French.
In the most recent Chicago Guide, fifteen years later, that list of 40 includes maybe five French restaurants.
I say "maybe" because Zagat lists suburban restaurants separately these days (Tallgrass and Michael Restaurant would make the top 40 if the lists were combined), and though Zagat considers Tru, Takashi and the since-shuttered Bonsoiree to be French restaurants, I do not.
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440 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, IL 60605, USA
222 East Ontario Street, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
The French-cuisine-in-decline trope has been going on for years, usually resurfacing whenever a long-loved French restaurant (Le Francais, Ambria, Le Titi de Paris) calls it a career. And in terms of sheer numbers, it's no doubt true. French culinary dominance has been supplanted by regionally and seasonally focused American restaurants — run, far more often than not, by chefs with French training, employing French culinary techniques — along with an ever-increasing number of Latin and Asian restaurants, whose chefs are just as likely to have begun their training in French kitchens.
And yet, there's evidence that French cuisine is resurging. When Dominique Tougne's Bistro 110 closed to make room for Bar Toma, he purchased the old Cafe Bernard (itself a long-lived French restaurant) to open Chez Moi. Paris Club, which opened as a sort of French-at-arm's-length concept two years ago, recently brought aboard French chef Alexandre Ageneau, and is embracing its Gallic roots with more fervor. Carrie and Michael Nahabedian just opened the very French (and very hot) Brindille. And now Brendan Sodikoff, who already has French-accented hits in Au Cheval and Maude's Liquor Bar, has announced plans to resurrect the old Maxim's de Paris space.
So let's not count out the culinary grande dame just yet.
And with Bastille Day just a few days away, this seemed to be a good time to check in on two of Chicago's fine-dining icons — two restaurants that, not coincidentally, were the only city French spots to make the 1998 and 2013 Zagat top 40 lists — and get a sense of what makes them so special.
Like the majestic mountain for which it's named, Everest is not a restaurant to which one simply arrives. One ascends.
Base camp, as it were, is in the lower-level garage, where valet parking is complimentary. An elevator accesses the lobby, where a security guard checks your name and directs you to the elevator. Thirty-nine floors later, you transfer to the private elevator to 40, walk up the gently sloped hallway, and there you are, in an elegant, cream-toned and flower-filled bi-level dining room, beyond whose floor-to-ceiling windows the city stretches out before you. Time your arrival properly and you'll be dining by sunset.
"A long time ago, every French restaurant had the same menu and the same food," says chef-proprietor Jean Joho. "But in the U.S.A., a French chef is allowed more imagination and creativity. I think French food didn't do this for awhile. For example, I only use American ingredients because they are here; that's where we are. When I started changing the tasting menu once a month, people at first were shocked. But you have to change to be successful. We've been here 27 years, but we're always trying to get better. What's good enough for me today isn't good enough for me tomorrow."
My late-May visit to the restaurant found the chef's degustation menu ($165, wine pairings $98; a la carte also available) in an extended celebration of spring. After an amuse trio that included a soupcon of first-of-season asparagus soup, the seven-course meal included Maine lobster piled high over fingerling potatoes, topped with greens splashed with French vinegar; slow-poached halibut over English peas, topped with ramps and fiddlehead ferns; a massive veal medallion with morel mushrooms and, after a cheese course sourced exclusively from the Midwest, a "new wave" fromage-blanc souffle (new in that it's flourless) with rhubarb and strawberries and kirsch-flavored ice cream. All lovingly described on the to-the-point menu.
"People still want the beautiful room, the conversation, the nice flatware and stemware," Joho says, "but they don't want to be intimidated. So my descriptions are straightforward, so you know what you're going to get."
There were, oddly, a few service issues on my visit, notably some nervousness when it came to serving wine; the staff this night simply could not pour a glass of wine without dribbling some. By the end of the evening the tablecloth looked like a Rorschach test, and for once, it wasn't my fault. A waiter also served my wife the champagne I'd ordered, and vice-versa. Not exactly crimes against humanity, but uncharacteristic just the same.
Everest, 440 S. LaSalle St., 312-663-8900. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
The careers of Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni are a virtual history of French fine-dining in Chicago. Working together and separately (he as head chef, she as pastry chef) at such late, revered restaurants as Carlos' and Le Francais, they eventually became the husband-wife owners of Le Francais (which they held for 10 years) and Les Nomades, following in the footsteps of founding icons Jean Banchet (Le Francais) and the late Jovan Trboyevic (Les Nomades).
Tough acts to follow, to be sure, but the Liccionis acquitted themselves admirably. They are together still at this intimate Streeterville restaurant, no longer married but working together, she as owner (having purchased Les Nomades in 1993) and he as the celebrated chef. "Roland Liccioni, cuisinier," reads the plaque by the front entrance.
Les Nomades opened in 1978 as a private club, membership by invitation, and a strong sense of decorum — sternly enforced by Trboyevic himself — prevailed. The restaurant has been public since 1996, but there's still that air of exclusivity in the restaurant's intimate dining rooms, enhanced by beautiful floral arrangements and art vases. Warmly personal service makes you feel like an insider, even if it's your first visit.
"People ask if we get celebrities here," Mary Beth says, "and I tell them the ones we get are University of Chicago professors or opera singers. We've had more Nobel laureates than rock stars. That's not snobbish, but this is a place people come to for quiet conversation, to have nice food and be treated nicely."
Customers are asked to choose between the four-course ($115) and five-course ($130) dinner, choosing from the same overall menu, but Mary Beth happily acceds to a la carte requests. Arrive early (no later than 5:30) and there's a three-course, $65 option as well.
Some of the dishes hearken to Roland's early Le Francais days, such as the duck consomme, a soup so thoroughly clarified it takes days to make. The soup is a bit different now; Liccioni indulges his Vietnamese roots somewhat with the use of star anise, water chestnuts and chicken dumplings. But it's still a remarkable dish. Foie gras torchon is another jewel of painstaking preparation; paired with toasted brioche and greens fragrant with truffle vinaigrette, it's pure indulgence.
Elsewhere on the menu you'll find lobster in various guises — part of a free-form ravioli with a ginger-laced lobster sauce here, mixed with shrimp in a salad with pickled mango and taro-root chips there. The chef's well-chronicled fondness for meat duos is represented by a fine pairing of veal and lamb chop, brought together with a lamb-thyme jus; roasted venison loin, which back in the day might have been served with pommes puree or a light ratatouille, now arrives with more toothsome chickpeas and quinoa.
I never pass up a souffle when in a Liccioni-run restaurant, and the raspberry souffle available on my visit validated that decision. Mary Beth has always been particular about her chocolates, and the current chocolate composition — chocolate tart, white-chocolate coffee-bean ice cream and a chocolate taco (actually a tuile) containing a little vanilla froth and raspberries — is everything a chocoholic would wish it to be.
"I feel fortunate to have this clientele, especially the younger ones who have started coming, because they get it," Mary Beth says. "It's not just food; there's a feeling in the restaurant, the ambience it provides. It's small, it's intimate, it's owned by individuals."
And in this case, the individuals make all the difference.
Les Nomades, 222 E. Ontario St., 312-649-9010. Dinner Tuesday-Sunday.