Inexperience and hunger flatter food. Time colors it rosy.
Having said all my goodbyes, I celebrated my last day as a Chicago resident by running a half marathon, indulging in a massage, stealing a nap, and treating myself to a quiet dinner for one. That was the summer of 2005.
I asked Chris Nugent, the executive chef of les Nomades then and now, to assemble a tasting menu that night. I gave him carte blanche.*
Five years later, I was left wondering how much of my delight in Chris Nugent’s cooking then was gilded by an empty stomach. I hadn’t eaten all day when I arrived for dinner.
Or, had my fondness for his food been inflated by puerile estimation?
The fact that I was unsure is telling.
With five more years of eating under my belt, and the impending arrival of the Michelin man in Chicago, I recently went back to consider les Nomades anew.
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Little has changed about les Nomades since my first visit, save the fact that everything about the restaurant now feels five years older. The food is now pricier too. Currently, the four-course prix-fixe dinner is $115; five courses, $130.
Ever-faithful, the proprietress, Mary Beth Liccioni, formerly the other half of Roland Liccioni, still welcomes diners to her little townhouse tucked away in Streeterville as she did five years earlier.**
The decision to eat at les Nomades was last-minute. As late as noon that day, while gnawing on Italian subs from Bari, my friend Harpo and I were on a phone conference with his wife, the venerable Saint Theresa, still trying to decide on dinner plans.
At nine-thirty, we were the last party seated that night.
Saint Theresa initiated the order with five courses. The boys followed suit. She chose to have cheese instead of dessert, which effectively twisted my arm into supplementing a cheese course to join her. I’m a good sport.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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Wild Mushroom Cream Soup
Truffle aioli, and gougere.
Herb Roasted Maine Lobster
Sunchoke, confit leeks, Cognac jus. ($10 Supplement)
Assorted house-prepared pâtés served with cornichons and toasted brioche.
Roasted Veal Sweetbreads
Spanish chorizo, smoked paprika and potato.
Organic root vegetables and wild mushroom ravioli.
Crispy Poached Egg
Crawfish, Maitake mushroom, rouge vif d’etampes, Iberico ham.
Maitake mushrooms, fennel, Riesling emulsion.
Tokyo turnips, preserved truffle, haricots verts, langoustine sauce.
Squab Breast and Crispy Veal Sweetbreads
Apple, farro, sherry gastrique.
Rack and Loin of Lamb
Chanterelle mushrooms, English peas, lardons and basil jus.
Slow-Roasted Veal Tenderloin
Wild mushrooms, pommes purée, preserved lemon, sauce Périgueux.
Robiola della Langhe
Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Pecorino di Tartufi
Mount Saint Francis
Grand Marnier Soufflé
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The Pâtés Maison and soufflés at les Nomade are sufficient proof that classic French cuisine will never be irrelevant. Nugent nails this niche.
The chicken and squab pâtés were particularly outstanding, smooth as silk and clean as a whistle. Garnished with aspic, piped mustard, and cornichons, they were all wonderful.
The soufflés were beyond perfect. Tall and proud, they had an excellent crust and a fluffy interior. If I could frame them, I would. The Hazelnut Soufflé was especially mesmerizing, enriched with a spectacular hazelnut creme anglais.
The Wild Mushroom Cream Soup that arrived as an amuse bouche was a brilliant start. Perfumed with truffles, it packed a bold punch. Duck Consommé was clear as a bell, just like the first time I had it; a sea of vegetable confetti, a brunoise brag.
And the cognac jus that circled a tender curl of Herb Roasted Maine Lobster was fantastic, as was the accompanying sunchoke purée. Together with the lobster, it was almost worth the $10 supplement.
Squab, veal, and lamb were all nicely cooked, rosy and tender. Sauces were exemplary: Périgueux, sherry gastrique, basil jus – every one was faultless.
And the cheeses. It was a solid selection. The shockingly soupy Saint-Marcellin aside, all were in fine form, served with warm raisin-nut toast and some of the most perfect grapes I’ve ever eaten.
But the farther Nugent walked away from traditional French cookery, the less compelling the plate.
A Crispy Poached Egg, for example, wasn’t so crispy, and it was a bit lopsided too. Here, he seemed to be trying too hard – there was just a bit too much going on in that bowl, an overkill of autumn’s riches – Brussels sprouts, vif d’etampes, wild mushrooms… Question: are crayfish the eternally cursed crustacea, damned to a dry and mealy afterlife? They could have easily been edited out.
A single pomme soufflé perched on a nugget of sweetbreads was textbook – crisp and airy. But the Spanish theme to the rest of the dish was a little heavy handed, overrun with chorizo and smoked paprika.
And a filet of Hiramasa, meaty and thick, served with turnips, seemed slightly out of step with the excellent langoustine sauce surrounding it. I wish I had ordered the Tasmanian Salmon instead, with its mushrooms and Riesling emulsion.
Nugent seems to be striving for a slightly more modern plating style with the main courses. There were square plates and rectangular plates, all of which saw food scattered across them in landscape form. Given the highly symmetrical plating of the rest of our courses, it was an unconvincing exception.
Service here was surprisingly rough around the edges, the biggest disappointment of the evening.
Our server introduced our dishes by pointing very closely at the food with his pen, as if it were a specimen in a lab. I’ve never seen anything like it. And though we certainly didn’t need to stay any later – remember, we were the last to be seated, and last to finish – our captain would have been wiser to pull our server somewhere out of my earshot and eyesight before pushing him to drop our bill a.s.a.p. Don’t think that I didn’t see your entire staff leave through the front of the house in plain clothes during our dessert course.
One Michelin star? I saw it disappear over the course of this dinner.
Perhaps Nugent’s food was more exciting five years ago. And perhaps I was more eager and easy then too, younger and less-astute.
Misunderstand me not – there’s nothing wrong with Nugent’s food today. It’s dependable, beautiful, and flavorful. But it fails to distinguish itself from the crowd with any certainty. Avoiding irrelevance doesn’t necessarily make you relevant.
Looking for Continental cooking with a slightly modern appeal; a younger, better, more daring la Grenouille? Then this is your place. Get the soufflé.
222 East Ontario Street
* Nugent assembled a seven-course dinner, which I augmented to eight courses after listening to a nagging notch in my stomach after the sixth course. I never wrote about my first meal at les Nomades, but you can find the hideous photos I took with my point-and-shoot camera on my Flickr account.
** Together, the Liccionis had succeeded the late, great Jean Banchet to his legendary stove at le Francais in Wheeling, where I had a very good dinner shortly before it closed in 2006. I never wrote about that meal at le Francais, which Roland Liccioni cooked, but the photos can be found on my Flickr account.