Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dinner at Everest

This will be the first review of the restaurant Everest not to open by mentioning its "soaring views." We had received some gift certificates for dinner at any of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, and they were set to expire this week. I mentioned this to Stephanie and listed our choices, and to my surprise and immense delight she chose Everest for our destination. Everest is a world-renowned home of Chef Jean Joho, although given the considerable amount of time he spent schmoozing with the patrons, I doubt he does much cooking these days. Chef Joho hails from Alsace, France, and his cooking New French cooking is inspired by that region.

The restaurant offers 3-course menu ($79) with choices of appetizer, main course, and dessert, a 4-course menu ($96) with the same choices plus an additional appetizer from the same list, and a 7-course degustation menu ($120). We selected the 4-course menu since many of the most attractive dishes weren't available on the degustation menu.

Dinner began with a trio of amuses, including an indescribably fluffy brandade, a surprisingly deep and earthy watercress soup, and a truly amusing fried halibut cheek with a touch of slaw. Stephanie began the meal with raw oysters (Wellfleet, I think) with horseradish, cucumber, and melfor fleurette (whatever that is). She loved them, and I pronounced them the best "dressed" oysters I had ever tasted. Despite the powerful flavors, the briny oyster really showed through. I ordered the boneless rabbit presskopf but sadly was never given the opportunity to learn what kind of preparation this entailed, as the waiter misheard or misremembered my order and brought "Vintage Carnaroli Risotto, English Peas, Roasted Quail Breast." My disappointment at not getting to taste the rabbit didn't last long; the risotto was delicious (if occasionally verging on excessively al dente) and the quail was beautifully cooked.

For our second course, Stephanie ordered the "Line Caught Black Cod, Pumpernickel Horseradish Crust, Pickled Cucumbers," and I chose the "Casco Bay Sea Scallops, Potato Mousseline, Alsace Tokay Jus de Poulet." Stephanie preferred the scallops, and after I ate one, we switched. The scallops were rich and succulent, balanced with the unique oceaney flavor of sea beans and magnificently creamy potatoes (which I suspect were made of equal amounts of butter and potato, if not more of the former than the latter). Although the scallops were delicious, I found myself enjoying the inventiveness of the cod more. The cod itself was rather mild, but when combined with the pumpernickel and pickles, the resulting dish was an excellent example of the art of contemporary cooking, marrying traditional flavors in unexpected and thoroughly satisfying ways.

Everest boasts of having the largest collection of Alsatian wines in the world. The winelist is magnificent, reasonably priced, full of old treasures, and superbly managed by the sommelier. My knowledge of French wine is weakest for Alsace, and I was glad to have the help of sommelier. He directed us to exactly what were looking for - dry, old, and unusual wines. He matched the first two courses with a half bottle of Lorentz Riesling Altenberg de Bergheim 1989. After 17 years in the bottle, its color had matured to a deep honey tone. The aromas were initially muted, but over time and with the food it showed a complex density of fruit and a backbone of petrol (a common descriptor for rieslings and one that sounds so much more appetizing that "gasoline"). The palate was expansive and more than made up for a noticeable lack of acidity on the finish.

Returning to the food, Stephanie ordered "Slow Cooked Salmon Confit Medium Rare, Swiss Chard Gratin, Jus de Pinot Gris." It was an interesting dish, evocative of the still-yet-to-arrive spring. The fish was cooked beyond the advertised medium rare, but it remained delicate. When tasted with the the not mentioned accompanying ramps, it filled the mouth with bright and happy flavors. Stephanie wasn't pleased, but I enjoyed the concept.

My choice of main course was an unqualified success. The "Filet of Wild Sturgeon Wrapped and Roasted in Cured Ham, Alsace Cabbage" was the essence of Alsatian flavors prepared in a traditional yet thoroughly modern tasting manner. The fish was meaty and rich, the ham was crisp and smoky, and it was all covered with a syrupy reduction of pinot noir. The three generous slices of fish were accompanied by mixed spring vegetables (including the most profound beets I've ever tasted) and a dish of the same potato mousseline from the scallop dish. The dish was, without question, the best thing I have eaten (except perhaps for Stephanie's fried chicken) at least since the lamb trio at Cafe Boulud and maybe dating further back.

As fantastic as the dish was alone, it was further improved by a half bottle of Leon Beyer Pinot Noir Reserve 1990. Alsace is known more for its white wines than its reds, which is produces in much smaller quantities. The sommelier directed me to this bottle following my request for old and unusual wines. He warned us that of the six previous bottled he'd opened, three had been excellent but another three had been undrinkable due to oxidation. At only $38, it was worth the chance (even if he hadn't offered to not charge us if it was bad). After much anticipation, he finally presented the bottle to us, declaring it the best of the bunch! It was gorgeous - light brick colored, light-medium bodied, and a mesmerizing aroma of dried cherries and earth. It was sophisticated and satisfying while remaining restrained. With the pinot reduction on my sturgeon, it was the ideal mate.

After this experience the desserts simply couldn't hope to complete. Stephanie had a disappointing lemon cheesecake that came with seriously delicious accoutrements, including a pear sorbet. I had a cleverly prepared apple beignet, and we were compensated for the waiter's mistake on my appetizer with a tasting of chocolates. Frankly, I would have rather had a bowl of soup or a glass of Vendage Tardives. At the end of the meal there was some problem with their credit card machine, and we waited half an hour after giving them our card and receiving the printout. Late on a Tuesday night while American Idol and House were on, this was more than Stephanie could stand.

In sum, the meal was delicious - absolutely competitive with the other "temples of gastronomy," to borrow Gary Fine's phrase. Chef Joho's staff produced a successfully modern but fundamentally traditional meal that tasted really really good.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The restaurant time forgot

We celebrated John's birthday on Friday night with dinner at one of Chicago's long-standing French bistros. John had indicated his desire for old-fashioned French bistro fare, so I suggested this restaurant (which shall remain nameless for its own protection). The cafe was not affected by the 1970s culinary revolution of Nouvelle Cuisine. It seemingly broke all of the rules established by Gault and Millau for contemporary cooking - there were heavily reduced sauces, well-done vegetables, identical side dishes for all entrees. But this isn't to say that it wasn't delicious. As John rightly anticipated, there should always be a niche for classics like these.

John and I started with "sauteed duck liver." The duck liver (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) was served with a unctuous port and juniper reduction that was perfect for sopping. This cafe is one of many in Chicago defying the ban on foie gras by calling it something else or selling bread appetizers for $15 and giving away free sides of liver (the ban only prohibits selling it). Jonathan wasn't feeling well and opted for the mushroom soup. He then had the filet au poivre for his main course, while John and I stuck with the duck theme - a l'orange for him and rabbit stuffed with "duck liver" for me. We each enjoyed creme brulee for dessert. All of the food was quite good and tinged with a bit of nostalgia, even for diners like us who've lived entirely in the era of nouvelle cuisine.

The cafe's wine list is certainly its best feature. It consists almost entirely of French wines from obscure regions and producers. Among its three "New World" wines is a California zinfandel from 1993, presumably from purchased during the restaurant's first year in operation. Passing up a number of interesting wines most of which were well-priced and well-aged (7-10 years), we chose wine that had recently been brought up from the cellar - a 1990 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru rouge from Gagnard-Delagrange. 1990 was perhaps the greatest vintage the world has ever seen; every major northern hemisphere wine-growing region from California to Germany was warm and dry. Chassagne-Montrachet is in the southern portion of Burgundy and is better known for its white wines, but this 16 year old pinot noir was really fantastic. Perhaps not as symphonically complex as its northern Burgundy brethren, the one chord this wine struck was beautiful and satisfying. Age had dampened almost all of the wine's fruit, but it was replaced by a pervasive and endless bouquet of truffles, mushrooms, and earth, but mostly just truffles. It was medium bodied and an excellent companion to the rabbit. It was also a great value. And very truffley.