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“I was told I could take it off when I sat down!” the man barked, tugging at his sports coat. The waiter, smooth as Egyptian cotton, reiterated the dress code at Les Nomades, adding: “But if it’s making you that uncomfortable, feel free to remove the jacket.” Which the customer, a thirty-something dude with a jaw that could cut diamonds, did. Then he continued to kvetch about the policy with such vehemence that his wife appeared ready to file divorce papers before dessert.
In our quiet corner, No Jacket Guy’s popularity level hovered somewhere between that of Pol Pot and Lyme disease. But he was onto something: I didn’t want to wear my blazer either. The flattening of the restaurant landscape leads us to believe we are entitled to eat terrific food in a gorgeous room where servers treat us like royalty—and that we can do so in a Patagonia fleece. It’s hard to fault No Jacket’s befuddlement at stepping into one of the last places that treat dining out less like a pleasant diversion and more like a ritual requiring the appropriate attire. Ninety-nine percent of the world no longer bothers with such formalities.
But Les Nomades does. Mary Beth Liccioni, the courteous proprietor, lured ex-husband Roland Liccioni back to the Streeterville brownstone’s hallowed kitchen, over which he presided from 2000 to 2002. (The pair also ruled Wheeling’s legendary Le Français from 1989 to 1999.) He has returned to the world of soufflés and wine captains with a four-course prix fixe menu loaded with gilded classics, such as a perfect risotto topped with a loose lobe of foie gras and black truffle shavings. The French-Asian mind-meld that once felt so progressive now seems almost quaint, as in a lovely Arctic char with a maitake mushroom topped with an olive tapenade and resting on forbidden rice and a sauce of yellow tomato and lemongrass. Liccioni even pulls that old Le Français trick of pairing two treasures—for example, slow-roasted veal and lamb chop, adding pommes purée, a maitake mushroom ragoût, and truffle-heavy Périgueux sauce—to push diners over the edge of ecstasy. If all this feels straight out of 2000, that’s fine with me—2000 was a pretty good year.
Liccioni executes elaborate dishes as well as he ever did, like the smoked salmon trio (a buttery roll, a scorching poached fillet, and a creamy mousse with celery root, fennel, and preserved Meyer lemon). Periodically, sauces fall on the wrong side of the line between opulent and oppressive, as with the coconut milk curry that overwhelms a delicate loup de mer and accompanying lobster ragoût. But a generous spirit colors everything about Les Nomades, from affable servers to liberal wine pours. I’m still a sucker for a good warm-centered flourless cake, and Liccioni plays up the contrast between solid and liquid with a gentle chocolate fortress surrounding a magnificent center of molten ganache.
“Please maintain a subdued voice level,” Les Nomades’ menu scolds. Are the Liccionis wrong in wanting to preserve a refuge of manners? Obviously not. But the salon’s stubbornness also makes it something of a curiosity today, when so few restaurants treat diners like ladies and gentlemen and expect them to behave accordingly. In the end, I’m happy Les Nomades exists, and I’d recommend it for a special occasion. But I’d suggest Goosefoot to anyone who’s hungry and has $90 to spare.