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Four-Star Chefs Play Musical Chairs

Transformations

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Les Nomades

222 E. Ontario

312-649-9010

Despite some dramatic changes in the kitchen, LES NOMADES is still the best fine restaurant in Chicago. Roland Liccioni left in December; his ex-wife, Mary Beth Liccioni, who owns the restaurant, replaced him with chef Charlie McKenna and sous-chef David Hayden, both from Avenues. Within a month she'd fired them both--their modern, eclectic approach wasn't in keeping with the classic French fare this venerable establishment is known for--and hired Chris Nugent, who's worked at Betise, MK, and the Park Avenue Cafe. Nugent has restored the menu's traditional tone, marked by refined sauces, decadent ingredients in intricate flavor combinations, and gorgeous plate presentations. His duck consomme is clear as day, with concentrated, rich duck flavor, and decorated with diced carrots and mushrooms. In another dish, two diver scallops are served with thin-sliced seared veal cheeks, cauliflower mousseline (pureed cauliflower and cream whipped until airy), and a drizzle of mustard oil. Glistening yellow and red beets and juicy orange sections are gently tossed in a citrus balsamic vinaigrette and served with rich goat cheese quenelles. Roasted veal tenderloin and crispy veal sweetbreads are accompanied by al dente wild mushroom risotto and wilted Swiss chard, all in a perigueux sauce (a veal stock reduction with truffles). The wine list is broad in terms of variety, vintage, and price, and it's served by attentive, competent waiters who've mastered pairing.

Le Francais

269 S. Milwaukee, Wheeling

847-541-7470

From 1989 to '99, before he went to Les Nomades, Roland Liccioni was executive chef at LE FRANCAIS in Wheeling. In the years following his departure, the restaurant changed chefs and concepts a few times, never with much success. Now Liccioni's back, and owner Mike Moran hopes he'll bring his many fans with him. On a recent visit Liccioni's perfectly prepared dishes included caviar en gelee et foie gras en toast--a tiny porcelain cup of osetra caviar suspended in gelatin and topped with cauliflower cream occupied one corner of an oversize rectangular plate, across from a slice of toasted brioche covered with creamy chilled foie gras; between them was a bed of microgreens. While the lobster bisque served with the gateau de St. Jacques (scallop cake) was heavily salted, the cucumber salad that accompanied it alleviated the salt a bit, and the cake itself was pan-seared to crispy perfection. A moist skin-side-up sea bass fillet was served with pureed eggplant and a refreshing watercress sauce, with extremely thin strands of spaetzle tossed across the fish. Liccioni's signature duos and trios don't dominate the menu as they did at Les Nomades and still do at Le Lan, although the duo de veau poche et entrecote age--an ample portion of veal wrapped first in steamed cabbage and then in a thin layer of crispy dough--was served during his first tenure here and makes a welcome comeback. Sadly, while Liccioni has brought Le Francais' food back to its original glory, the artificial flower arrangement in the entryway is only the worst example of the room's stilted interior design.

Avenues

108 E. Superior

312-573-6754

When Charlie McKenna and David Hayden split for their brief stint at Les Nomades, AVENUES, the restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel, hired Food & Wine 2004 New Chef of the Year Graham Elliot Bowles away from the Jackson House Inn & Restaurant in Woodstock, Vermont. Bowles has changed the menu here radically, withdrawing from McKenna's seafood focus to offer creative, ambitious dishes including lots of meat--Kobe beef, ribs, and wild game. Starters include a tart with thin layers of potato and leek encased in steamed leeks then sliced on a bias to look like a maki; and a thick chestnut soup, ladled tableside into a shallow bowl, with a nutty, smoky flavor thanks to a dose of diced bacon. A frog's leg risotto contained tender meat and aromatic truffle oil. There's still plenty of seafood: one night's amuse-gueule consisted of a light crab salad served in a small cup of curry broth; a mild black bass entree the same evening was served on a crisp polenta cake and accompanied by two red-onion marmalade quenelles. The most interesting dessert was the chocolate napoleon--impossibly thin squares of bittersweet chocolate layered with chocolate-cinnamon cream, served with plump raspberries and a scoop of magenta beet gelato. The global wine list has many French, Italian, and Austrian options, but it was presented by an inadequately prepared server who couldn't answer some simple questions about wine styles--the only flaw in an otherwise ideal evening.

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton

160 E. Pearson

312-573-5223

Chef Sarah Stegner left the DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON last fall to open her own place, Prairie Grass Cafe, in Northbrook, taking with her George Bumbaris, who'd worked under her at the Ritz for 21 years. They've been replaced by 35-year-old Chicago native Kevin Hickey, who ran the kitchen at Four Seasons Atlanta before moving back here to be closer to his family. Hickey's menu moves markedly away from Stegner's refined contemporary French fare and toward a more modern, American palette with global influences. The courses are served in a modern way too--in three-, four-, and five-course degustations ($65, $75, and $85) where you choose among several options for each course. (There's a preset chef's menu for $110 too, if you don't like making decisions.) Hickey sure loves the sweets--a sweetbread risotto starter, for instance, was overwhelmed by caramelized honey crisp apples. The lacquered duck was served in a sugary demi-glace studded with figs and dried strawberries, the confit stuffed into a too-sweet cranberry cake. The mushroom strudel, on the other hand, stuffed with chanterelles, black trumpets, and salsify, was savory and good; and the snow-white flaky halibut with lobster-stuffed ravioli was bathed in a perfectly clear and intensely flavorful lobster consomme with a sprinkling of fine vegetable confetti. The wine list is predominantly French and American and will, like the menu, change with the seasons. The waitstaff is young and oddly insecure, getting a little too chummy with diners--what might feel like friendliness at a neighborhood restaurant seems out of place at a four-star establishment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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