Five apps, five entrees, each described as tersely as possible: "Lobster, osetra caviar, celery, blood orange," for instance, or "Turbot, cauliflower, clams, marine cider." The menu at Ria, the new fine-dining spot in the posh Elysian Hotel, may be abbreviated to a handful of nouns, but it speaks volumes. Each plate is an expertly composed piece of art. Take the single perfect rectangle of grilled sturgeon balanced by two dominoes of pork belly and five precision-carved baby carrots. Splashed with a blazingly orange sauce, it was a minimalist masterpiece. Pink knuckles of lobster and pale scallop dumplings trickled with impeccably clear pale-gold consomme could be a damn Kandinsky.
Aesthetic perfection is the point, of course. Executive chef Jason McCleod was schooled in classical French cooking by British chef Marco Pierre White (who also fostered Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay, and Heston Blumenthal) and put in years with the Four Seasons organization and other haute hotels. His seafood-focused dishes are meticulously and sustainably sourced, with the obligatory premium placed on fresh local ingredients. But just when you think you've got him figured for a fussy formalist, one of a battalion of solicitous servers turns up with "Cheese," a giant wheel of Comté, the smooth, nutty, unpasteurized cow's milk cheese from the Franche-Comté region of France. Sawed off into rough wedges and served with buttered caraway toast, it's shockingly rustic, messy and deeply satisfying.
At $8 this cheese course is also the least expensive thing on the menu. From the aperitif cart to the spiced hazelnut pain de genes (a sponge cake), Ria is unapologetically pricey. (Dinner for two with three glasses of wine apiece ran us $337.) This is, after all, the Gold Coast—and in fact the entire dining room glows in tones of champagne and amber, silver and slate. It's impossible not to feel like a high roller once you're snugged into your banquette and plied with bubbly and amuses; the couple next to us had decked out their table with red roses and a ring box. But if you can accept the terms of engagement, and submit to the bill with a quick supplication to the gods of MasterCard, Ria is a towering success. McCleod and his team know exactly what they're doing, and they do it well. —Martha Bayne
The journey up from the echoing, marble-clad lobby of the Elysian to its two third-floor restaurants—the aforementioned Ria and the more casual Balsan—is probably meant to emulate the passage of a Greek hero gone to his reward, but on my first trip, I felt more like an overwhelmed mausoleum salesman taking a lunch break from the sales floor. Balsan actually looks more solemn than the comfy-looking lounge leading into its fine-dining neighbor. But the long, stark, monochromatically glitzy main dining room turns out to offer a tightly curated yet laid-back and consistently imaginative dinner menu geared toward sharing. Chef Jason McLeod has spent most of his career in hotel dining, but his chef de cuisine, Danny Grant, spent a good bit of his at North Pond, and a good deal of what's happening at Balsan reflects that restaurant's familiar emphasis on the seasonal and the house-made.
The easy informal air is set by the raw bar and mostly house-made charcuterie selection. The latter is hardly a distinguishing feature on paper anymore, but it's among the best I've tried in town. Slabs of squab and black trumpet mushroom terrine, a buttery foie gras torchon sprinkled with sea-salt grit, and luscious duck rillettes were beautifully presented with cheeses served at precisely the right temperature, pickled vegetables, and other well-chosen accents. Another now-familiar feature, a wood-fired oven, turns out a pair of pizzas—a burrata margherita and a tarte flambée whose Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese-bacon-onion funk is softened by creme fraiche—with superthin crusts jacketed by a superstratum of ethereal crispiness. Credit pastry chef Andrew Johnson—and that's not the extent of his skills with bread. The chewy, tangy baguettes that come out with bread service and the variety of fresh and toasted vehicles for the cured meats hint at great possibilities for breakfast and lunch.
It would be easy for a group to pick over an assortment of small plates like a veal heart salad—slices of cold roast beef amid a forest of frisee, pear, and Manchego—and diver scallops strewn across a body of curried apple puree. A couple of these are early contenders for my favorite bites of the year, like the soft-boiled hen egg, meant to be mashed up with sauteed wild mushrooms, potato puree, and a crispy potato tuile, and the seared-off section of meaty testa cake amalgamated with bread crumbs and plated with prunes and garlic chips. (As much as I like these two on their own merits, I'd love to see them married on a breakfast plate.) These shareable smaller dishes extend to a short list of sides including a satisfying crock of two-bean cassoulet and probably the ultimate french fry in recent memory—fried in beef tallow, with a delicate, crispy exoskeleton barely protecting the thin, fluffy insides.
Things seem to go awry with some larger dishes, including a watery raisin-studded cauliflower risotto, a dry grass-fed burger, and a funky piece of turbot. But I'm willing to attribute the last to fish-on-Monday syndrome: the clean, lushly fatty ocean trout with grilled endive and guanciale I ate on a different occasion almost obliterated it from memory. Setting aside the $48 whole roasted chicken, there's a lot of good value to be had at Balsan, all the way down to the small selection of desserts at $5 apiece.
The Elysian's two restaurants were initially supposed to be launched by Charlie Trotter, and while I'm sure he'd have complemented the hotel's opulence with jackbooted precision, I can't imagine he'd have been able to pull off something as fun and unfussy as McLeod has in Balsan. Hotel dining has a tendency to pander to an itinerant captive customer base that's not necessarily focused on imaginative eating. I hope Balsan attracts the local following it deserves to keep McLeod's passionate momentum going. —Mike Sula
A bustling barstaurant isn't my idea of the best place to savor sophisticated contemporary cuisine, but Cuna, the first nightlife venture from local businessman Paolo Acuna, has a friendly neighborhood vibe, thanks in part to the unpretentious staff. The decor goes for industrial chic: exposed-brick walls with a few colorful acrylics by local artist Wynn Fermin, a black tin ceiling with silvery ductwork, circular stainless-steel light fixtures, and dark wood floors. Tulip-shaped stools upholstered in red vinyl surround the high tables that fill much of the room, while a handful of regular tables are near the kitchen. Striking concrete work by Indiana-based Schumacher Brothers includes the long bar with glass-covered insets, low gray tables fronting couches on a lounge platform, and a blocky fountain at the entrance to the back room, which can be booked for private parties.
Naturally there's a big beverage program, with beers like Affligem and Half Acre Over Ale on tap, 17 wines by the glass or bottle, and cocktails ranging from a classic old-fashioned to new creations like the Belmont Whistle, a potent blend of Hendrick's gin, Tito's Handmade Vodka, and cucumber-infused simple syrup. But the real draw for foodies is chef Kendal Duque, formerly of Sepia. If you ate there you'll recognize his flatbreads, offered here with toppings like Amish chicken confit or roast beet, garlic, and Gorgonzola. On one visit, his skill with soups showed in a thick, rich blend of cauliflower and potato set off by intensely salty smoked trout. But too much salt marred the otherwise delicious roasted sea scallops, served with wild mushrooms and crunchy brussels sprouts in a little chicken jus. Our other "small bite," grilled baby octopus that was charred on the outside and extremely tender within (like in Greektown), came on a delightful bed of braised endive, peeled orange segments, and pine nuts.
My favorite "big bite"—and the most expensive one on the menu at $16—was a pair of perfectly braised pork cheeks with puddinglike polenta and black kale in a slightly tart cashew vinaigrette. Duque also did well with other greens: the bacon-braised collards with the so-so cobia (substituted for skate wing) in a complementary cranberry-pine nut sauce; the wilted arugula tossed with lentils and chunks of acorn squash underpinning a grilled Amish chicken breast that was just a tad dry. The closest the one-page menu comes to typical bar food is the soy-braised pork belly mini sandwiches and a bison burger with Gorgonzola and sweet-potato chips. Homey desserts take advantage of the bar—for Kilo Kai Rum in the caramel sauce beneath a walnut-laden flourless chocolate cake—but cocktails like the Foi Dog (rum, cream, raw egg, yam-spiced syrup, and cinnamon) or Mocha (chocolate and espresso vodkas and chocolate liqueurs) make an equally fine finale. —Anne Spiselman
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618 Church, Evanston | 847-424-1483
FRENCH | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY
I'm a sucker for picture-perfect French bistros, and Pascal Berthoumieux's Bistro Bordeaux in Evanston fits the bill with its light mustard walls covered with small framed posters, butcher-paper-topped tables, dark wood bar towards the back, and servers in black vests and long white aprons. Even better, 26-year-old executive chef Frank Mnuk (Thomas Keller's Bouchon, Eleven Madison Park in New York, NoMi) has mastered the art of French cooking. His escargots de bourgogne en croute, plump snails in individual snail-dish compartments crowned by tiny pastry puffs, came in fragrant garlic-parsley butter that wasn't too salty, a common flaw. Robust onion soup with lots of sweet onions bubbled beneath a blanket of tasty melted Emmental. A beautifully poached farm egg with a runny yolk nestled in the salade lyonnaise, a mix of frisee and herbs that for my money could have used just a few more of the lardons and itty-bitty croutons. Our only disappointing opener was the terrine de foie gras de canard: the texture of a silken mousse, it wasn't as full-flavored as it could have been. Despite a well-made Bordeaux wine sauce, skate wing a la bordelaise "Chef Auguste Escoffier" also let us down: the roasted skate was a bit dry, and the heavily confited fennel was bland. On the other hand, the blanquette de veau with firm baby root vegetables in creamy veloute was so tender and delicious I only felt a twinge of guilt about ordering veal. Coq au vin, roast pheasant for two, and flatiron steak frites also are among the nine main courses. Sides include classic pommes frites, but we went for brussels sprouts in mild mustard sauce and loved every bite. The cheese cart—with five selections, among them Saint Andre and raw-milk Camembert—wasn't brought automatically as it would be in France, so ask. You might also want to request the cellar list of great Bordeaux, but in truth the regular list, which showcases small producers and has 16 wines by the glass ($8-$11), is more than adequate. Dark chocolate mousse outclassed soggy tarte tatin for dessert, but next time—and there will be a next time—we'll try the profiteroles and floating island. —Anne Spiselman