Photo: Tyllie Barbosa
|A jumbo prawn and a ruby red beet chip garnish the filet of Dover sole at Michael.|
Three classically trained French chefs have resurfaced on the North Shore, but only one of them is truly plying his trade. At Narra in Evanston, Jacky Pluton and Eric Aubriot are dabbling in the steak-house concept, yet they seem to be marking time before returning to the real game. In Winnetka, Michael Lachowicz calls it “French country cooking” at his new Michael, supposedly in contrast to the luxe at Les Deux Gros and Le Français, his two previous stops. But the boy is still haute to his bones.
“I like to cook!” says Lachowicz, Michael’s chef and owner. “I like to be on the line. The last time I was this happy was when my brother Thomas and I first opened Les Deux Gros [in 1999].” A gregarious mountain of ebullience, Lachowicz also loves working the room, where he never fails to charm diners. Behind the talk is the finely honed technique he learned from Jean Banchet (of Le Français fame)-and his own understanding of distinctive flavors in appealing yet unfussy presentations. His cooking sensibility is reflected in the clean, polished design of the dining room, where sand-colored walls are decorated with pretty sconces, and lovely baskets of fresh wildflowers accent the white tablecloths.
Michael’s largess is incarnate from the first taste of his warm cheese puffs, a free treat that hints at the wonders to come. The feuillette of escargots in pinot noir sauce under a puff pastry crust captivates with its rich endowment of melted Roquefort cheese, but the appetizer that is mandatory is his Marseille-style soupe de poisson. It’s not a typical bouillabaisse: shellfish instead of fish fill the heady broth made from Dover sole, halibut, and monkfish bones and finished with lobster americaine sauce (with white wine, tomato, and fennel). This precious elixir is poured table-side over a lovely array of scallops, shrimp, mussels, and a crouton slathered with rouille. The aroma of the saffron, garlic, and cayenne in the mayonnaise permeates the soup, the shellfish, and your senses. It’s so perfumy, a friend wanted to dab it behind her ears.
Lachowicz is especially fond of poultry, so I was not surprised that two of my favorite entrées involved birds. A friend pronounced the roasted breast of guinea hen stuffed with savory bread pudding and flavored with rosemary and oven-dried tomatoes “perfect.” I couldn’t agree more, and had the same response to a duo of grilled quail stuffed with truffled risotto and served with morels in game juices. A pairing of filet mignon and short ribs in a sauce of mushroom reduction and pinot noir scores a delicious double whammy with red meat lovers.
The unlimited selection from the cheese cart for $10 is an incredible value, especially because the eight mostly French cheeses are all ripe beauties, served around dried Black Mission figs simmered in syrup with lemongrass, ginger, and cilantro. “I want people to be happy,” Lachowicz said on one visit, while serving the cheeses himself. “I want them to come back because they’re hungry, not just because it’s a destination.”
Then he returned with an amazing dessert amuse, a hot chocolate made with Valrhona chocolate and Grand Marnier. “It’s kind of like hot chocolate on acid,” he quipped. For dessert: a beautiful lemon tartlet on a shortbread crust perched on lavender-scented raspberries and surrounded by an excellent raspberry sauce. I was advised to break the crust and let the lemon curd seep into the sauce. Great idea.
Chef Lachowicz also offers five- and seven-course tasting menus at the bargain prices of $39 and $46 (regular entrées are a reasonable $23 to $25). “It’s a full-blown Michael experience,” says the French-accented maître d’ regarding the seven-course spread. “Even we don’t know from the moment we put in an order; sometimes he makes items that don’t exist on the menu.” French wines flights-lesser known producers, fine quality-are just $13 (three wines) and $16 (four wines). I hope Lachowicz can hold his prices at these levels. Go to Michael. Now.
At Narra in Evanston, I had high hopes for the pairing of Jacky Pluton, billed as “concept chef,” and chef de cuisine Eric Aubriot, but somehow their formidable French sensibilities have gone sadly wrong. Not sure why they teamed up for big American flavors at a modern steak house-especially combos of sweet and savory. Unfortunately, the results too often fall short, and someone in the kitchen is running amuck with the saltshaker. It’s as if each chef’s talents had canceled out the other’s rather than electrified them.
Located in the redone Hotel Orrington (in a former McDonald’s space), Narra is undeniably handsome. Floor-to-ceiling windows and narra shelves (a Southeast Asian wood) of empty wine bottles border curving banquettes upholstered in taupe and facing red-cushioned chairs at white-clothed tables. Overhead light fixtures in the low ceiling are Chihulyesque clusters of spiraling red and amber glass.
The sweet/savory theme gets off to a promising start with big slabs of sautéed sweetbreads and pickled chanterelles in caramel emulsion. Ditto the apple pancakes with melted goat cheese and walnut sauce-a long way from Walker Bros.’ famous breakfast. A BLT salad, with croutons subbing for toast, benefits from pickled red onions and house-made ranch dressing. I loved the foie gras with chocolate sauce that once was an Aubriot signature, but Narra’s seared foie gras on duck rillette–battered French toast was sunk by a cloying overdose of vanilla syrup-and I failed to see what the almost invisible duck rillette contributed to the tasty liver. Please: just bring back the chocolate foie gras.
Narra bills itself as a contemporary steak house with European flair, epitomized by the 16 different sauces available for the steaks and poultry. Diners choose three sauces, which come in ramekins set in holes in the platters. The multi-sauce concept-which I hate-is beneath Aubriot and Pluton. A kitchen with two fine French chefs on board should know what sauce to pair with what meat. Even if the kitchen can produce primo versions of that many sauces (from bordelaise to coconut curry), what’s the point? By default, your waiter tends to become your sauce adviser. When I asked our affable server what he recommended for the dry-aged New York strip, he immediately said, “The mushroom sauce, the cara-melized onion, and the harissa sauce-an aïoli, so it’s mayonnaise based.” When I asked him what was best for the Kansas City strip loin, I got the same answer.
Speaking of steaks, it turns out the Kansas City strip loin is aged but not dry aged, yet the waiter recommended it over the dry-aged strip. Both were good aged steaks, but with or without the sauces, nobody at Morton’s needs to pace nervously outside the meat lockers. And though the prices are modestly lower than prevailing rates at the top steak houses-$32 for the NY and $38 for the KC-the steaks served at Narra are also considerably smaller cuts. The sauces I sampled were far from compelling, and I soon found myself eating the meats straight up.
The lagging service didn’t help: the long waits I experienced were echoed on one visit by a diner across the room who angrily complained about his overcooked steak. When asked if he wanted a replacement, he said, “No, I don’t want to wait another hour.” The customer apparently was comped for part of his meal, but maybe he would have been more appeased had the manager sent out a bottle of the 2003 M. Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche ($58). It was a rich and toasty wine that enhanced our enjoyment of the steaks considerably more than the sauces did.
I was eager to try Narra’s bouillabaisse:
I had been blown away by Aubriot’s wonderful Provençal seafood stew in 2004 while he was chef at the short-lived Fuse. So I ordered it twice, and twice I was heartbroken. Once there was so much fennel floating in the soup that the anise flavor overpowered even the intoxicating rouille, not to mention the seafood-so why bother sending out a shaved fennel salad on the side? Second try was even worse: the fish, shrimp, clams, and mussels were all overcooked and stringy, and the broth was so heavily salted I felt as if I had guzzled seawater. I was relieved to move on to the very good sautéed Alaskan halibut served on porcini duxelles with candied apple vinaigrette.
There are 16 à la carte sides-many worth considering, especially the nicely browned Brussels sprouts and the french fries coated in fines herbes de Provence and Parmesan. But cipolline onions caramelized with maple syrup pushed me beyond my sweetness tolerance, and the roasted sunchokes were, again, over the top in saltiness.
One bite of the frangipane chocolate torte with coffee cream, overwhelmed by almond flavor, was enough dessert for me. As I reflected on my meals at Narra, I got the nagging feeling that, unlike Michael Lachowicz, Aubriot isn’t terribly hands-on-and Pluton’s “concept” could use some tweaking.
MICHAEL-64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka. Appetizers $5 to $14; entrées $23 to $25; desserts $7. Lunch Tuesday to Friday; dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Monday. Reservations: 847-441-3100.
NARRA-Hotel Orrington, 1710 Orrington Avenue, Evanston. Appetizers $6 to $16; entrées $18 to $38; desserts $7. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-556-2772.