At Miramar Bistro: Alaskan halibut and lobster (left); fruit and cheese plate (right)
Up in Highwood, Miramar Bistro is looking more aged than faux-aged these days. I still have a soft spot for the tan stucco walls with big distressed bistro mirrors and authentic New York subway tiles and the mismatched bare wood tables and chairs. But what I really like is that Gabriel Viti, the owner, hired Roland Liccioni—the veteran chef of Le Français, Les Nomades, and Old Town Brasserie and Viti’s old boss at Carlos’ around the corner. Since Liccioni took over Miramar’s kitchen in February, he’s made the menu his own and kicked it out of its rut.
The appetizers still center on signature shellfish platters—good, but there are better (and less expensive) ways to start a meal here: Liccioni’s artichoke terrine, for instance, an elegant triangle of marbled green served with a sprightly rémoulade and boutique lettuces. I can taste every denizen of his delicious crab, scallop, and lobster cake at the same time, but I don’t understand why the waiter called the big-flavored rosy sauce an Asian lobster “foam”—OK, there were a few bubbles, but it was not a foam. Wisely, there’s no avant-garde fussing with the duck consommé, a Le Français standard dating back to the reign of Jean Banchet.
Liccioni has made a career out of pairing different meats and seafood on the same plate. Witness his carnivore’s dream duo of braised short ribs and roasted rack of lamb, the first served over taro root purée and the second on excellent ratatouille. Sometimes the pairing is stealthy, as in his understated Alaskan halibut—that’s the two-word menu description—which is actually perfectly pan-seared halibut with roasted lobster, both served on house-made linguine lightly coated in a creamy lemony lobster nage. A squab special sounded so Roland I had to try it: juicy roasted squab on French green lentils, themselves atop braised red cabbage and finished with fava beans and squab jus. Liccioni’s sauces are always stellar: Check out the intense foie gras sauce gracing his roasted sweetbreads with fresh morels and favas. As you’d expect from Viti, the wine list is thoughtful, with many by the glass and carafe. Our fave was a 2006 Belleruche Côtes du Rhône by M. Chapoutier ($18.75 a carafe).
Leave it to Liccioni to produce a wonderful pineapple upside-down soufflé for dessert, but then he goes overboard with what looks like a tough cellophane sheet between the soufflé and the pineapple topping—tasteless as it dissolves in the mouth. I suspect he’s fooling around with one of those molecular cuisine mutants such as tapioca-starch-based Ultra-Sperse 3 (or Ultra-Tex 3) that make edible films. Hey, Chef: Drop the shenanigans and stick to your great soufflés or your equally wonderful lemon pistachio tarte.
I love most of what Liccioni is doing, but many things about Miramar confuse me. The signature Hemingway Daiquiri was so watery, Hemingway would have thrown it at one of the mirrors. The breadbaskets lined with tattered beige linen look grungy, echoing the tear in the red awning out front. And why is Gabe Viti keeping Liccioni’s involvement so low-key? The chef’s name does not appear on the menu (nor on the website), and I had to ask a waiter just to verify Liccioni’s position. Even under Viti’s ownership, service can be glacial, with more staffers hanging around than Jay-Z has in his entourage. And that shop down the block called The Bent Fork must have been where they got the forlorn one set by my plate. Miramar’s kitchen is on the rebound—but who’s watching the store?
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Quince at the Homestead is on hallowed restaurant turf. More than two decades ago Leslee Reis pioneered Café Provençal, and after her untimely death, Henry Adaniya took over the space for Trio, where he brought in a succession of brilliant chefs—Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz—and made this Evanston address an international destination. Now, under new ownership, can Quince’s chef, Pete Balodimas, fill those big kitchen clogs?
The Glen Ellyn native may find this North Shore audience more open to his modern style than the scarce customers for his short-lived Fahrenheit in St. Charles. One thing’s certain: His food is livelier than Quince’s room, done in subdued mushroom tones with bleached wood walls and the same enclosed parlor left over from Trio days. The look is either soothing or boring, depending on your tastes; on the other hand, the chairs are so uncomfortable, you could use them to coax a confession out of a robbery suspect.
One sip of Balodimas’s green garlic soup with duck confit proves he’s still oozing talent. A nicely rustic red 2004 Château Vaugelas le Prieuré Corbières ($38) makes it even better. Then there’s the German Hefeweizen beer sabayon he pours around a cylinder of rabbit rillettes coated in sesame brittle and topped with lemon marmalade—clever and delicious. Sautéed English pea tendrils and fresh spring peas on the plate up the ante on this and other dishes during the meal; when Balodimas latches on to fine seasonal produce, he’s not shy about spreading it around. But the chef’s buttermilk-fried soft-shell crab needs work: The fetching horseradish foam and beets with smoked spring onions couldn’t hide the fact that the not-so-soft-shell crab tasted mostly of breading.
Balodimas bounced right back with terrific golden seared Alaskan halibut enlightened with asparagus purée and morels. And then he did himself one better by setting an indulgent crisp-skinned Guinea hen on creamed ramps and surrounding it with luscious crayfish sauce laced with buttery La Quercia speck. Early on, I heard one of the black-garbed waiters tell a matron that the spicy roasted lamb loin “wasn’t really very spicy.” Bet she was surprised. One bite of the lamb, rubbed with cumin, sriracha, fennel and coriander seeds, and very hot chilies, and I made a beeline for the soothing cucumber mint yogurt accompaniment. I enjoy spice, but this was not integrated into the meat—instead, it seemed to have been maniacally rubbed on after cooking. Even Balodimas’s knack with vegetables—here an “artichoke trio” of raw artichoke salad, pickled baby artichoke heart, a pile of tremendous crispy fried sliced artichokes, and a little pool of artichoke purée—could not save the lamb. And by the way, isn’t that an artichoke quartet?
The tingling continued until I spooned into thick peanut butter pudding arrayed with sugar doughnut holes and grape gelée with a mini malted milk shake—so cute, so yummy, I wanted to supersize it. Not everything works at Quince, but entrancing dishes abound. I was a Balodimas fan when he was at Fahrenheit, and I’m rooting for him to stick around Quince so I can come back and try his vegetarian tasting menu.
301 Waukegan Ave., Highwood; 847-433-1078
MODEL MEAL Artichoke terrine, Alaskan halibut, pineapple upside-down soufflé
TIP Meet the chefs and create your own omelet in the kitchen at Sunday brunch.
HOURS Lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $50
QUINCE AT THE HOMESTEAD
1625 Hinman Ave., Evanston; 847-570-8400
MODEL MEAL Rabbit rillettes, Guinea hen, peanut butter pudding
TIP Harking back to Trio’s glory days, Quince introduces a chef’s table in the kitchen.
HOURS Dinner Tuesday–Sunday
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $40 to $55
Photography: Anna Knott