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I was worried. Two of my favorite restaurants, Le Lan and Boka, recently lost the only chefs their young kitchens had ever known. Good thing there’s a pipeline of talented personnel coming out of Charlie Trotter’s. Both spots nabbed veterans of the hallowed Lincoln Park temple, well-seasoned chefs with well-seasoned dishes that do more than carry on the theme of their respective restaurants. Whew.
Le Lan’s new executive chef, Korean-born Bill Kim, rose to chef de cuisine at Trotter’s, and he also learned from masters at Trio in Evanston and Susanna Foo’s in Philadelphia. Now he’s got two more legends to contend with: Le Lan’s owners, Roland Liccioni (Le Français) and Arun Sampanthavivat (Arun’s). As they did with the former Le Lan chef Andy Motto, that formidable duo worked with Kim on the new menu, melding classic French and Pan-Asian in new, inventive ways.
The first thing that hit our table, sticky buns with orange oyster sauce, was so addictive we quickly asked for, and devoured, a second round. That just whetted my appetite for the menu, starting with soups like young Thai coconut soup flavored with galangal (similar to ginger root) and lemongrass, brimming with plump olive oil–poached shrimp and bean sprouts, or a delicious take on hot-and-sour soup with crimson lentils, lump crab, tofu, taro, and egg crêpe. Chef Kim’s mother consults on the dumplings. Bless her: the Asian squash dumplings with passion-fruit orange vinaigrette, bacon, and toasted garlic are terrific, and so are the juicy ones filled with vermicelli noodles, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and dashi broth.
Le Lan’s entrées are every bit as enticing as its appetizers. Asian-spiced sizzling short ribs make a fine meal, served with wok-seared scallions, portobello mushrooms, and brown sticky rice, plus an Asian pear/kiwi/soy marinade passed down from Kim’s grandmother. Slightly more exotic, but equally good: the tea-smoked duck breast with kumquat/star anise reduction and big cubes of very Western savory bread pudding. Or you might prefer the whole roasted bobwhite quail ballooned with a reddish Asian “risotto” stuffing that comes tumbling out when cut. It’s a slam dunk with the side of caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Never really cared for tilapia-it’s too bland in most preparations-but Le Lan’s zucchini-wrapped number stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and minced vegetables on a bed of flageolet beans is as delicious as it is lovely. And, true to his Korean roots, Kim also offers daily house-made kimchis, which are enjoyable but so pungent they must be treated lightly, lest they overwhelm the balance of his other dishes. A delicate 2004 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley pinot noir ($65) worked overtime to keep the equilibrium.
Nicole Swarz, the new pastry chef, comes from HotChocolate. She has crafted a compact but strong dessert list; each selection features an offbeat scoop of ice cream (such as caramel coriander). The centerpiece is a meticulous pineapple napoleon layered with won tons, brown-butter custard, and thinly sliced caramelized pineapple, accompanied by a sweet-onion sage ice cream. As I was sipping the last of the wine with nibbles of the napoleon, I looked around the room. This is a pleasant setting, from the moon-shaped front window to the gorgeous dragon mural on the back wall by Sampanthavivat’s brother, Noi. There’s just one incongruity: the serene design gets undercut by a buzzy room that approaches noisy at peak hours-but I suppose this translates into a sense of energy and liveliness. That certainly echoes what’s on the plate.