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Dining Out: Head of the Brass

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It’s all hustle and bustle at Brasserie Ruhlmann.


Twenty-first-century brasseries bear little resemblance to the original breweries they started out to be or, more recently, to restaurants where beer is served, and Chicago’s newest bids to the title are no exception. Old Town Brasserie and Brasserie Ruhlmann emphasize fairly classic food and wine by acclaimed French chefs in polished surroundings but neither recreates the fabled brasseries of Paris—such as Au Pied de Cochon, near Les Halles (the food market), where patrons would often sack out on banquettes after gorging on oysters and quaffing copious amounts  and Beaujolais. Just as well, I suppose.

Old Town Brasserie has a small menu, but pay attention: Chef Roland Liccioni achieved legendary status at Le Français and Les Nomades. I’ve always been a fool for his appetizer terrines, and at OTB Liccioni has done it again. It’s a tough choice between his sherry vinaigrette–braised artichoke and hearts of palm with a ravigote sauce (here made with chopped hard-boiled eggs, capers, onions, and herbs) and an equally elegant and delicious terrine of house-smoked salmon wrapped around seared salmon and king crab with balsamic reduction and dill sauce. If you have sworn off typically garlicky escargots, indulge in Liccioni’s wonderful Burgundy snails bathed in tomato confit and Roquefort cheese. Duck consommé with truffle ravioli and vegetable brunoise is a dead ringer for the sublime broth Liccioni prepared at Le Français. A perfect lyonnaise salad rounds out the impressive appetizer lineup.

Liccioni’s entrées hardly smack of brasserie fare, but who cares? I love his nage de homard—oil-poached lobster, seared scallops, and shrimp with Israeli couscous and lobster sauce—and rare roasted duck breast with crackly-skinned duck leg confit on thyme-infused beluga lentils with bacony savoy cabbage and a terrific rouennaise sauce made with red wine and duck liver. Beef Wellington, a recurring special, comes wrapped in pastry with mushroom mousse and spinach. The thick slice of medium-rare meat is tender and delicious, served with bordelaise sauce and wild mushrooms. An elegant 2005 Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley ($66) was perfect with the meats and harmonized with the lobster as well.

The velvety chocolate moelleux, a warm chocolate cake with raspberry ganache, thyme ice cream, and chocolate sauce, provides a good French finale, but I usually go for the hazelnut soufflé. It’s good to see Liccioni back in top form—and at surprisingly reasonable prices in a handsome setting with soothing lemon-yellow walls, a wall-size wine rack, geometric detailing, and leatherette-cushioned dark wood chairs designed by Vicky Tesmer and Joan Savage. I tip my beret to veteran restaurateur Bob Djahanguiri (remember Toulouse/Cognac Bar and Yvette’s Wintergarden?) for making it happen.


Photograph: Kendall Karmanian

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