Goosefoot’s chestnut soup, Cinderella pumpkin with nougatine, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese on a tapioca cracker
If you want to see where upscale dining has been, go to Les Nomades. Want to know where it’s going? Goosefoot. The bridge between the two special restaurants is the classically trained chef Chris Nugent, who recently ended a celebrated seven-year tenure at the former to open the latter. In doing so, he traded a luxe Streeterville brownstone for a tiny BYO storefront on a stretch in Lincoln Square so desolate it prompted one local reporter to wonder if Nugent had lost a bet.
Turns out Nugent and his wife, Nina, live right around the corner, where they grow their own red sorrel, goosefoot, nasturtium, Ruby Red chard, and countless other varieties of microgreens. “I have a light system set up so we can keep going through the winter,” says Nugent, 38. Don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of thing I want to hear from a chef.
They didn’t lose a bet, but the Nugents have placed a bold wager with Goosefoot. They designed the 34-seat restaurant themselves, with custom fixtures including gold-toned banquettes and large maple-topped tables. Rodin sculptures and elegant wall niches give the room a beatific vibe; lose the brown carpet and it would be downright Zen. As for the opening eight-course prix fixe menu, it hit the ground running at three stars.
Nugent’s satisfying flavors haven’t changed much from his Les Nomades days, but his approach is leaner and cleaner. A good example is the crisp roasted quail with fiery beluga lentils, ginger gelées, vinegar-soaked “compressed apple,” and dots of parsnip purée and whole-grain mustard vinaigrette—an exquisite L2O-ish tableau that has been composed to within an inch of its life. Then there’s the miraculous chestnut soup with white Alba mushrooms and truffle essence and the impeccable Angus beef with goosefoot greens, cumin, shallot jus, and ingenious variations on heirloom carrots: Both manage to feel light while oozing decadent flavor.
Instead of presenting the usual no-brainer cheese plate with precious piles of quince paste and whatnot, Nugent sprinkles celery salt on ribbons of Pleasant Ridge Reserve from southern Wisconsin, rests them on a cracker made of tapioca balls, and puts that on a celery-truffle caponata and almond mascarpone. That’s not a cheese plate—it’s a fully realized dish. And Nugent does desserts better than most pastry chefs in town: His masterpiece is a square of chocolate mousse on a crispy hazelnut and praline feuilletine base. It’s topped with chocolate-dipped sea beans and served with orange blossom water. Once the mousse sets, Nugent sprays it with a paint gun containing a mix of cocoa butter and 56 percent chocolate. The result is a brittle outside layer—and the best dessert of the year.
When a new restaurant already has food this good, you almost expect lousy service. Yet Goosefoot’s quiet crew is as polished as waitstaffs that have been together for years. If I have any criticism, it’s that the staff’s manner is understated almost to the point of cold and stiff—but the giddy BYO vibe and relaxed dress code (Nugent: “We have seen everything from Dior and Valentino to Levi’s”) cancel that out in short order. I saw one group bring in ten bottles; things weren’t stiff for long. Goosefoot’s air flows with the particular bliss that permeates any young restaurant when diners realize they’re in a special place, and the smile on every face says the same thing: This is my first visit of many.
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Photograph: Anna Knott
“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.