On a recent Monday evening, the otherwise underpopulated dining room in the Sofitel hotel was inhabited by French speakers at no fewer than five tables. Our extremely capable server, himself a native of Lille, said it was an anomaly—that week for mysterious reasons he'd attended to an unusual number of diners hailing from the Basque regions of France and Spain. Was there a separatist shepherds' convention in town?
In any case, a quorum of European tourists skipping over Chicago's entire anointed Michelin class for a relatively low-profile hotel restaurant would seem only a little less strange if they were coming to eat the food of former chef Martial Noguier—but he's cooking around the corner at Bistronomic now. I can't imagine what this says about the reach and reputation of new guy Greg Biggers, who was born in Alabama and has worked no further abroad than Philadelphia (at Morimoto) between stints at Tru and the late Tramonto's Steak & Seafood.
Biggers eased in gradually in January, only last month introducing a new menu that's already changing with the season. Last week he greeted spring with a sumptuous ramp-and-green-garlic veloute. Poured hot around a scoop of lemon verbena sorbet and served with a maple-flavored cracker on the side, it presented a sweet-ascendant formula that repeats itself across much of the menu, with varying degrees of success. I like it a lot as applied to a fat seared scallop plopped on a measure of duck confit in a thick pool of curried cauliflower puree with golden raisins. It also works in a balsamic-dressed Bibb lettuce salad with crispy planks of gingerbread offset by rich shavings of foie gras.
These dishes work in spite of a lack of acidity that throws off the balance of others, such as a plate of west-coast Kumamoto oysters drowned by cloying pomegranate granité or a slightly bloody seared foie gras with muffinlike black pepper financiers, syrupy blackberry jam, and braised pear.
But it's not that Biggers isn't capable of creating perfectly harmonious dishes like a nicoise salad with tiny purple potatoes, green beans, and pureed salsify every bit as rich as the scallop's cauliflower bed or the stuffed guinea hen on cheesy thick polenta, garnished by chewy, coffeelike black garlic cloves and a floret of mitaki mushroom (which really does taste like chicken). So far it's among my favorite fowls of the year.
Some things haven't changed much. Among my favorite things here under Noguier were the desserts, and pastry chef Meg Galus (also a Tru vet) has maintained the standard. And after all that, Cafe des Architectes remains the kind of service-oriented place where your choices are likely to be met with an approving "Formidable!" —Mike Sula