It's a truism in the food business that we feast with our eyes before our palates; everyone knows presentation strongly influences the way we respond to a meal. In olden days presentation involved fancy china, silverware, and napery, plus ornate displays of serving dishes on the sideboard. By the era of nouvelle cuisine--late 60s, early 70s--chefs began to create artistic presentations on the plate itself, arranging the food just so, and even "painting" it with thickened sauces of various colors. The latest trend is "architectural" plates, where foodstuffs axe stacked into small towers or herbs and wafers are propped upright to achieve a third dimension. But too often these artistic endeavors fail in the most important dimension of all: true flavor. A lot of places get so caught up in style that they fall short on substance.
A new place in Evanston, however, on the site of the revered Cafe Provencal, manages to carry presentation to unique heights while still keeping flavor foremost. The food--contemporary French, American, and a bit of Italian--is served on the most unusual platters you'll find anywhere: rough-edged slabs of polished black granite, fabulous white marble squares, wildly decorated pottery. The arrangements are architectural in most cases, and they are often painted with today's cutting-edge ingredient, oils infused with herbs, spices, and other flavors. In short, everything that's happening in the avant-garde of food service is happening here.
The restaurant is called Trio, after its three partners: Henry Adaniya, who works the front of the house, and chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, who are a duo, with Gand specializing in desserts. Their pedigrees axe impressive: Adaniya was maitre d' at Cafe Provencal until it closed and more recently at Va Pensiero; he's also worked as a waiter and captain at the four-star Ambria in Lincoln Park. Tramonto's wanderings have landed him in the kitchens of several Rich Melman restaurants, Charlie Trotter's and Bice in Chicago, the Gotham Bar and Grill in New York, and several major restaurants in London. Gand, too, has produced award-winning desserts in London and at Trotter's as well as at Jams in New York and at Carlos in Highland Park. They opened Trio last October, remodeling the once faux-rustic room into something contemporary. The wood paneling has been weathered and the walls covered with a rich-looking textured paper. And the new sound system pipes in an occasional Charlie Parker disc.
But even with the style, the chic, and the excellent resumes, it's the food that you really want to come here for. You can get under way with a gorgeous plate of caviar ($18.95): red, golden yellow, and charcoal all laid out on a huge white painter's palette, the dollops of fish eggs separated by extra-fine mincings of onion and hard-cooked eggs and colored with smears of infused oils. Gimmicky? Sure. But still a delight. Two can share it; if you really want to splurge, they'll add a batch of beluga ($29.95).
Or try the assortment of fish tartares, ($12.95). There are always three, varying with availability, each distinctively seasoned. One night it was yellowtall tuna, lobster ceviche, and salmon, with a bit of smoked salmon mixed in with the raw. The yellowtall incorporated Japanese seasonings, and there was also ginger oil and a dab of wasabi. Vegetable chips--another current conceit of the gustatory avant-garde accompanied as well. They take thin slices of root veggies--lotus, beets, even turnips--and quickly deep-fry them into something that looks a potato chip but tastes like the concentrated vegetable with a pleasingly crunchy texture.
Another winner was the beef carpaccio, charred in a wok and given a hint of Szechuan peppercorn, the flavor of the paper-thin raw beef shining through ($8.50). Rounding this out was a potato salad touched with a sprinkle of truffle and an oil infused with basil.
Perhaps overly cute but nonetheless appealing is the porcini "cappuccino," an intense cream-based soup made from an infusion of earthy porcini mushrooms ($4.95). it's served in a tiny cappuccino cup, topped with whipped cream. But maybe the nicest starter of all was a batch of grilled shrimp wrapped in a film of prosciutto ($9.95), served with four aiolis--flavored mayonnaiselike sauces--that elevated the flavors. My vote went to the garlic and the red pepper aiolis (the others were pesto and saffron), but all were great on the shrimp.
I could just keep going with the appetizers, but they do an equally good job with the entrees. The roasted duck breast ($18.95) was cooked to a rosy rare perfection and served with a sauce made of lightly sweet tawny port touched with the licorice flavor of star anise. On the platter with the fanned-out slices of meat were a rich polenta, and a compote of turnip and prunes--a fine foil for the duck.
Grilled yellowfin tuna ($19.50) was steaklike in its intensity and mated with Chinese greens. Rounding out the Asian trimmings was an oil infused with Szechuan peppercorns and a haystack of fine noodles.
Desserts include an ethereal creme brulee with the lightness of cotton candy, adorned with chocolate shavings and a raspberry and mint "salad" ($6.50). The toffee pudding ($7.50) comes with a real dazzler, white pepper ice cream. Yes, it works just fine. Cant choose among the sweet things? There's a three-course tasting for $10 that two can happily share.
Fans of Cafe Provencal can safely shed their mourning clothes; despite its striking differences in style and product, Trio is well worth the trip to Evanston. It's located inside the Homestead Hotel, at 1625 Hinman and open 5:30 to 9:30 Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 Sunday. Call 708-733-8746.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.