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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Brasserie Ruhlmann Steakhouse, located in the former Montgomery Ward headquarters, with its soaring ceiling and beautiful hand-laid tile floor, is dramatically appointed in the style of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann—a famed art deco designer of the 1920s—with details such as crushed red velvet banquettes and alabaster chandeliers.
Its owners include Miae Lim and Rick Wahlstedt (the folks behind Japonais), as well as Jean Denoyer, a collector of Ruhlmann’s work. The place is as breathtakingly expensive as it is lovely, but offers very good food by star chef Christian Delouvrier, whose résumé includes New York temples of gastronomy such as Alain Ducasse and Lespinasse, where he won four stars from The New York Times.
In typical brasserie style, there’s a shellfish bar and seafood platters in various sizes. Our $55 assortment held oysters, huge shrimp, mussels, cherrystone and Manila clams, and Taylor Bay scallops. Our cherrystones had some distracting grit but the steamed mussels won the approval of a Belgian companion, who should know. The puffy cheese soufflé is eminently shareable, as are other yummy starters like a well-seasoned steak tartare topped with a quail egg to mix in, and a welcome side of crisp frites. The tartare also comes as an entrée, which makes sense if you want an awesome mound of raw meat for yourself. My favorite appetizer, however, is duck confit rillettes packed in a traditional glass jar and served with crisp toast, grainy mustard, and pickled onions. So good—and so rich. A medium-bodied 2004 Château Grand Village Bordeaux Supérieur ($48) nicely cut the rillettes’ intensity.
Brasserie Ruhlmann bills itself as a steak house, and the broiled Black Angus New York strip is certainly respectable, served with three sauces, béarnaise, Choron (tomato béarnaise), and cilantro garlic. But for a truly memorable French steak, choose the retro chateaubriand: It’s a beautifully grilled tenderloin for two, served in thick slices over Yukon Gold potatoes cooked in duck fat with a fragrant sprinkling of garlic and chives along with the same three sauces. I wasn’t so taken with the bouillabaisse made with six kinds of slightly overcooked seafood with saffron aïoli rouille and Parmesan crostini. It was difficult to spoon up from the deep cast-iron cauldron, and the broth tasted oily. Delouvrier redeemed himself, however, with lamb navarin, a wonderful stew served in a cast-iron kettle with root vegetables and topped with a grilled lamb chop. Sautéed skate with haricots verts, diced bacon, capers, croutons, and lemon butter sauce excels, too.
The raspberry napoleon with thin layers of pastry, raspberries, and pastry cream melts in your mouth. So does the chocolate marjolaine, a cross between icing and chocolate whipped cream, topped with praline ice cream and garnished with lines of thick chocolate sauce capped with gold leaf—a perfect accent for these sumptuous digs.
OLD TOWN BRASSERIE 1209 N. Wells St.; 312-943-3000 A model meal Artichoke and hearts of palm terrine, nage de homard, soufflé Tip Bar turns cabaret on weekends. Hours Dinner nightly Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $50
BRASSERIE RUHLMANN STEAKHOUSE 500 W. Superior St.; 312-494-1900 A model meal Duck rillettes, chateaubriand, raspberry napoleon Tip Make an excellent meal out of big appetizers and dessert for less. Hours Brunch Saturday, Sunday; lunch Monday-Friday; dinner nightly Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip) $50 to $55