Michael Mina manages more than 30 well-respected restaurants from San Francisco to Dubai. He has tennis legend Andre Agassi as a business partner, his own brand of burger seasoning at Williams Sonoma, and an entire food hall coming in a posh shopping center in Los Angeles. His pockets are deep enough that he could have opened any kind of establishment he wanted in Chicago. But Mina didn’t come up with Margeaux Brasserie, an ode to prewar Paris that opened recently in the Waldorf Astoria, by throwing a dart at his restaurant-concept board.
“We did our homework,” says Mina, 49. “When the wrong concept goes into a hotel, everyone knows it. I’ve done it a few times myself. But everyone loves a brasserie. There are certainly brasseries in Chicago, but not the retro style with a 1920s slant. Also, we all love cooking brasserie food—the smells in the kitchen are unbelievable.”
The Waldorf Astoria’s third-floor space, where Ria once earned two Michelin stars for creative fish dishes, feels as timeless as Paris itself. It’s outfitted in dark woods, leather booths, subway tiles, and every other brasserie signifier. The bar, all cast-zinc countertops and brass railings, is crowded with well-dressed sybarites delving deep into the Hemingway-inspired cocktail list (for instance, the Death in the Afternoon, which subs Malört for absinthe). Servers in black vests and ties push Champagne and cheese carts between tables. Look at the mirrored walls and you see yourself ensconced in bygone Parisian glamour—if you can ignore the Walgreens across the street.
Mina often succeeds by handing over his kitchens to chefs with strong local roots. At Margeaux, it’s St. Charles native Brent Balika, most recently head of the Dawson in West Town. “Brent knows the local purveyors,” Mina says. “He knows Midwestern farmers. And he knows the customers.” (And at $52 for a bowl of bouillabaisse, he damn well better.)
The menu hits familiar marks (onion soup gratinée, salade niçoise, moules frites) and sprinkles in enough outliers (artichoke with shaved foie gras and crispy chicken skin) to lend some personality. In Balika’s hands, standouts reside in both categories. A disk of steak tartare, flavored with dill, chives, and cornichons, gets mixed with an egg yolk and then, if you so desire, ladled onto delicate potato gaufrettes that heroically cradle every hefty scoop. You will desire. A similar approach emboldens the whipped foie gras parfait with macerated Michigan cherries and nectarines and grilled knob onion jam, all spread on warm rounds of toasted sourdough. It pummels you with richness, and yet you keep returning for more.
I could single out any number of hors d’oeuvres for commendation—say, the creamy velouté of sweet corn and leeks ennobled by black truffles and chunks of Maryland blue crab. But we’ve got to talk about the duck wings à l’orange. They started as a bar snack at Bardot, Mina’s brasserie in Las Vegas. Bardot’s dining room customers kept asking for the dish—a play on the hoary 1960s French classic—until Mina put it on the menu. He says it was a no-brainer for Chicago. Five deep-fried wings, crisp and sticky with a Grand Marnier gastrique, the decadent confit-like meat shredding off the bone in a blaze of gently bitter orange-zest glory, provide pure Neanderthal satisfaction with a veneer of old-school class.
The plats principaux bring the meal slightly back down to earth. There’s nothing wrong with that $52 bouillabaisse of Maine lobster, Prince Edward Island mussels, grilled prawns, and toast slathered with rouille, other than the price. And though the steak in the steak frites is an admirably well-marbled and wood-fire-charred New York strip, the frites are bland and uninspiring, and the too-lemony aïoli— which has the sole job of making you want to dip another frite—leaves a cloying aftertaste.
My party was most mystified by how Margeaux Brasserie desecrated one of history’s perfect dishes: Dover sole meunière. Instead of preserving the fish’s pristine appeal, Mina’s team sent out a strangely puffy version without the delicate crisp edges, and they topped the fillet with croutons, then waterboarded it with a blunt brown butter and lemon confit sauce so punishing that the white asparagus tucked beneath the fish appeared to be hiding in fear.
By contrast, when Margeaux goes over the top with desserts, it lands in some pretty memorable places. The buttery appeal of the caramelized banana tarte Tatin with citrus caramel and miel de Provence (lavender honey) ice cream cannot be overstated. And the giant chocolate macaron is a bonkers production involving a confection the size of a cheeseburger filled with raspberries, whipped cream, and milk chocolate crémeux and topped with thick Valrhona chocolate sauce, pistachio crumbles, and slivers of more Valrhona chocolate. It’s absurd and also a miracle: Somehow the macaron’s crunchy exterior holds up, and the filling retains its shape until the final bite.
The staff, while engaging, has not yet mastered the art of reading a table. At least not ours, where one meal’s unpredictable rhythm meant hurrying to make space for new dishes, then waiting eons for later courses. It left a general sense that we were working around the servers instead of vice versa. More troubling was the blatant price gouging. Five dollars for a mineral water is bad enough, but another five for a refill seems awfully cynical, even at the Waldorf.
Michael Mina didn’t just swoop into town and wait for everyone to thank him for coming. The Mina Group, which obsessively tracks the demographics of its diners, decided that enough Chicagoans had visited his other restaurants that he would have a built-in clientele when he landed here. “It’s a city with lots of foodies that would hopefully give our restaurant a try,” says Mina. I agree with that part.
The question is, Does Margeaux Brasserie add anything to Chicago’s scene? Aside from Roland Liccioni’s Cochon Volant in the Loop, Mina’s team appears to have the local brasserie field to themselves at the moment, and they’re making the most of it. Though the steep prices are unlikely to change, service should smooth out if Mina’s other restaurants are any indication. The gorgeous, urbane room is undeniably comfortable. That leaves only the food, and if you can get past the Dover sole, Margeaux’s food is quite good. I’m beginning to think maybe the man knows what he’s doing.