Left to right: Michael McDonald, Jerome Bacle
8989 S. Archer Ave., Willow Springs; 708-839-8000
Model meal Salmon gravlax, rack of lamb, lemon semolina cake
Tip Ask for the story behind the photo of Keanu Reeves.
Hours Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $50 to $60
1400 W. Randolph St.; 312-850-0303
Model meal Leek gnocchi, pork chop with sauerkraut, doughnuts with apple and quince butter
Tip It’s always possible that Michael Jordan, a part owner, might show up.
Hours Dinner Monday-Saturday
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $55
For several years, seasonal menus at COURTRIGHT’S in Willow Springs have meant seasons of good cooking followed by seasons of not-so-good cooking. But now a new executive chef is in charge of this southwest suburban kitchen—a talented guy who makes me salivate in anticipation as I head down I-55. The French-born Jerome Bacle has worked in Michelin three-star French restaurants and at Philadelphia’s renowned Le Bec-Fin. And voilà!—his seasonal contemporary menus have quickly put the handsome Arts and Crafts–style Courtright’s back on the must-go list for serious foodies.
I always take a few minutes to soak in the panoramic view of gardens and woods outside and the beautiful details inside, including a grand fireplace with a hand-carved mantelpiece, before turning my gaze to the table. But on a recent visit, once the amuse kicked in—a Chinese soup spoon of intense beet purée with soft nuggets of truffle-infused cheese—Bacle had my full attention.
And he kept it all evening, starting with hefty slabs of coarse-textured pistachio-studded venison terrine that come with mellow apple citrus compote and an egg-sized oval of pickled onion aigre-doux (combined sour and sweet flavors). Cubes of house-cured salmon gravlax shaped into a thick block get topped with creamy yogurt curry sauce next to a crisp apple salad. The soup of the day—on one visit a smoky lentil sporting a generous duck confit dumpling—deftly melds the homey and the elegant. With astute advice from the longtime sommelier Brian Egebrecht on the 1,100-plus wine choices in the downstairs cellar, we chose a bottle of 2006 Bohan-Dillon Sonoma pinot noir ($64), light yet complex, to match these appetizers.
Bacle’s entrées showcase global flavors seamlessly knit into the current French-influenced modern American style. He puts a lot onto his plates, but smartly avoids the overload that impedes many lesser chefs. Sautéed mahi-mahi capped with ginger emulsion rests atop rich and creamy orzo pasta alongside a relish of sautéed corn and tomatillos. Roasted rack of lamb in Middle Eastern–scented arabica lamb jus is cleverly arrayed with sautéed romaine and chestnuts surrounded by a ring of celeriac and gingerbread purée. A grilled Duroc pork chop, skirted with just the right amount of fat, exudes excellent porky flavor bolstered by a bacon-studded fricassee of corn and onions and a thick slice of roasted pineapple brightly flavored with smoked paprika and tarragon.
Bacle first trained as a pastry chef, so, of course, desserts are knockouts. A small round coconut financier (sponge biscuit cake made with ground almonds) is set with spicy mace-roasted apples and a marvelous passion fruit and beer sorbet. But the showstopper is a moist lemon semolina cake ringed with tart lemon curd and topped with sweetened whipped cream—a sweet and puckery lemon powerhouse.
Service could use more polish. Waiters and bussers are certainly friendly and well intentioned—which makes up for lapses in knowledge—but at these prices someone ought to crumb the tablecloth between courses and refold your napkin when you step away. Even so, my recent meals here were just about the best I’ve had at Courtright’s since William and Rebecca Courtright opened it in 1995. I hope chef Bacle stays with them through many seasons.
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Another promising new executive chef has commandeered the open kitchen at ONE SIXTYBLUE. That stylish cobalt blue revamp of an old pickle factory on the Market District’s western fringe is now home to Michael McDonald, lately under the wing of Charlie Trotter at his Las Vegas and Los Cabos (Mexico) ventures. Affable but serious, McDonald often slides by tables to chat about his creations, which navigate the intricacies of contemporary cuisine with high style and exquisite taste. He’s a worthy replacement for the longtime chef Martial Noguier, who has taken his French flair to the Hotel Sofitel’s Café des Architectes.
It’s been a banner year for Burgundy truffles (from England, oddly enough), a phenomenon not lost on McDonald. He shaves the black beauties into a wonderful leek emulsion, just the right touch for his gnocchi—pale-green leek pillows that are soft, doughy, and light all at the same time. McDonald neatly sidesteps tuna tartare cliché hell by serving chunks of pristine Asian-seasoned ahi mixed with toasted sesame seeds and pieces of dried kombu (seaweed used in Osaka-style pressed sushi). Lovely. I’m also a big fan of his soups, the last one I had being a comforting, lush potato leek with smoky bacon morsels and a perfect poached egg that somehow arrives atop the superhot soup with its yolk runny enough to mix in.
No surprise that a terrific pork chop beckons from the entrée list (is there a major restaurant anywhere not serving pork chops?). McDonald coats a thick and impossibly juicy Berkshire babe with mustard seeds and serves it with tart homemade caraway-scented sauerkraut cleverly topped with a ball of fried sauerkraut alongside a crisp potato noodle. Lest you think chicken and biscuits has no business on this menu, here it includes a young chicken’s perfectly roasted white meat and a yummy disk of breaded dark meat elegantly graced with foie gras sauce and braised kale. Oh, and a pair of flaky biscuits. A 2003 Château la Caminade, La Comandarie Cahors ($38), a plummy rich red made with the malbec grape, serves these dishes just fine.
Fill out the table with the amazing side of hash browns with caramelized shallots, sprinkled with duck-fat powder. “What the heck is duck-fat powder?” we ask the chef when he strolls by. “The best fries in the world are cooked in duck fat,” he says. “These crisp hash browns are not cooked in duck fat because we don’t want it that heavy. But you can take the duck fat and emulsify it with tapioca starch and turn it into a powder and then sprinkle it on for a bit of duck-fat taste without the greasiness.” I’m all for that.
And kudos to the new pastry chef, Stephanie Prida, for her originality in treating familiar flavors in high fashion. Case in point: aromatic doughnuts filled with roasted apple and quince butter served with delicious walnut crumble buttermilk sorbet.
One Sixtyblue is still the same sharp-looking, smooth-running place it’s always been, but Michael McDonald’s contemporary cuisine is less French and more American than the 11-year-old spot has been in the past. Maybe it was time.
Photography: Anna Knott