Café des Architectes
I love it when a restaurant finds the right chef—and vice versa. Café des Architectes, tucked into the Sofitel lobby, has always been a black hole of dining in this luxurious Gold Coast hotel, despite its stylish French appointments and modern architectural design. Now Martial Noguier, a Paris native who never quite fit in on Randolph Street during his eight years at One Sixtyblue, has arrived, and the marriage is perfect. He’s dazzling diners with masterful French technique in a French hotel with a sharp French-accented staff. All is well.
The amuse—a bracing shot of hot potato-leek vichyssoise with nuggets of lobster—was my first hint that Café des Architectes had slammed the door on its past. The restaurant’s new confidence enables it to do light appetizers such as gossamer slices of hamachi carpaccio seasoned with satsuma tangerine segments and orange vinaigrette, paired with mellow artichoke purée. The bravado also extends to hearty starters including the braised short ribs in a heady star anise reduction with braised baby carrots, carrot sauce, and crisp carrot strips. Noguier is on fire here, coaxing every ounce of flavor out of a mushroom velouté poured tableside over a luxurious disk of black truffle gêlée that emits a beguiling aroma as it melts into the soup.
I zeroed in on Noguier’s meat entrées. They range from terrific rack of lamb with chanterelles, porcini oil, and Jerusalem artichoke mousseline to an even more inspired, and wondrously tender, Cervena venison strip loin on spicy Balinese long-pepper reduction with poached pears and parsley root purée. Pairing braised red meat with seafood is all the rage, and Noguier’s take stacks up with the best: braised veal cheek with red wine shallot sauce alongside the Midwest’s best-tasting fish—sweet-fleshed seared yellow pike (a variety of walleye)—with apple foam and chestnut purée. For these dishes I found a quite serviceable 2005 Château Haut Nadeau Bordeaux ($47), though the wine list doesn’t come close to being worthy of Noguier’s cuisine.
This is a guy who was fascinated with ripe rare cheeses at One Sixtyblue, and his French cheese flight continues in the same blue vein at CdA. He also wisely brought the pastry chef Suzanne Imaz with him. You’ll see what I mean when you tuck into her delightful pineapple coconut panna cotta on Marcona almond financier with passion fruit sabayon and Key lime sorbet. All Café des Architectes needs now is for Noguier to stick around for a long, long time.
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CAFÉ DES ARCHITECTES
Water Tower, 20 E. Chestnut St.; 312-324-4063
Model meal Hamachi carpaccio, venison loin, pineapple coconut panna cotta on Marcona almond financier
Tip Free validated valet parking; three-course prix fixe, Monday and Tuesday nights through April; $29/adults, $19/kids 6 to 10, free/kids 5 and under
Hours Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; Saturday, Sunday brunch
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $55
260 Green Bay Rd., Highwood; 847-433-7005
Model meal Crab cake, beef Wellington, cappuccino cheesecake
Tip The side of “3 cheese & little ear pasta” in a crisp potato nest is a super mac & cheese riff for just $5.
Hours Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $45
At Highwood’s Sage Grille, it feels right to indulge in a martini made with locally distilled North Shore Gin (either the elegant #6 or the bold #11). So I do and I’m glad, but I’m not here for the cocktail hour. Word is that the new chef, Adam Grandt, has revolutionized SG’s food and I’m eager to check it out. Grandt became executive chef of the handsome sage-toned space last December and, between his talent in the kitchen and the fine-tuned service in the dining room, the rumors are true: Sage Grille has reinvented itself as a North Shore destination. Recently the sous-chef at nearby Carlos’, Grandt has opted out of haute embellishments for a refined yet calm American bistro style that leaves the crowds focused more on the next bite of food than on the live jazz in the lounge.
Maine is not known for crab, but Grandt’s lump crab cakes from there are every bit as good as anything from Maryland. Wrapped in a crisp shredded phyllo wrapper, the sweet, subtly curried crab-meat enhanced by saffron cream and paired with a limoncello vinaigrette–dressed frisée salad won me over completely. The butter-poached jumbo shrimp appetizer, however, did not. Several wide pappardelle noodles snake aimlessly around shrimp set over soft cauliflower with coconut-curry cream and a few crispy sweet potato bits, but nothing ties the plate together. Grandt rebounds nicely with a salad deceptively called “garden mixed greens.” Tasty lettuces, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes come topped with crumbled soft artisanal cheese, dressed in a zippy red wine/ herb vinaigrette, and enclosed in a beautiful corral of skinny crunchy potatoes—shades of Carlos’.
Main courses can be confusing. They are divided between composed entrées and à la carte selections that allow you to pick the sauce and one side to go with your meat or fish. I like to think the chef knows best. Take the roasted herb-crusted Amish chicken that appears in both categories: As a $26 entrée, it comes on sage-mustard jus with leek gratin, sweet potato crisps, and roasted cauliflower. As a $20 à la carte choice, the waitress recommended the sage-mustard jus. So we chose the jus and cauliflower gratin side and reproduced the same entrée with fewer garnishes for $6 less. Seemed like a lot of unnecessary work but, either way, the chicken and sauce are top-notch.
Grilled mahi-mahi smartly paired with red wine–thyme sauce and a side of brandied forest mushrooms is one tasty fish, but it’s that old warhorse, beef Wellington, that appears on almost every table. Grandt has chucked the classic prep of rare filet and foie gras (or duxelles) in favor of braised short rib with mushrooms, baby spinach, and brandied onions inside good puff pastry served with Burgundy jus and celery root–fennel purée. Even without foie gras, Grandt’s modern spin is the most savory, luscious Wellington I’ve ever tasted. To go with the beef I was perfectly happy with a 2005 Rhône-style California red blend from Edmunds St. John misleadingly called Rocks and Gravel ($35)—it’s quite soft.
Even if you didn’t leave much room, consider one of the restrained, well-crafted mini desserts—just $3 each—from the tableside tray. The apricot torte and lemon tart are yummy but the creamy cappuccino cheesecake beats them both.
Photography: Anna Knott