Archive for the 'Chicago' Category

Les Nomades – Chicago

On Wednesday, October 28, the roving reporter was in Chicago.  Business associates suggested and arranged for dinner at Les Nomades.   I knew Mary Beth Liccioni from the Merci Julia event in 1993. 

The Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2009 review headline says a lot:

“Times change; Les Nomades does not.  And that’s a good thing. Ontario Street restaurant requires jackets and our respect.”

What a pleasure to visit a restaurant where the patrons are well dressed, the noise level is muted allowing conversation, and the servers and sommelier are totally professional.

The menu is designed for DIY tasting menus. 4 courses $115 and 5 $130. One of my associates did not want dessert.  Could he have an additional main.  “Of course, sir!”   Later the same gentleman wanted an extra ravioli for the duck consommé.  He had only gotten one and he loved it.  “I’ll be right back, sir!”

That says it all.  The food is not timed out.  It is solid French with beautiful presentation.  The wine list is excellent.   It is not cheap, but it is a good value for expense account dining and special occasions.

the room

The Room




 Amuse – Pumpkin soup with a gougere

sweetbreads app

 Roasted Veal Sweetbreads, Spanish chorizo, smoked paprika and potato


 Pates Maison – assorted house-prepared pates served with cornichons and toasted brioche

duck consomme

 Duck consommé with organic root vegetables and duck confit ravioli

crispy farm egg, crawfish, smoked bacon

 Crispy farm egg, rouge vif d’etampes, crawfish, smoked bacon, Chanterelle mushrooms and Iberico ham


Red wine

Red wine



Roasted Venison Loin, parsnip puree, pickled cherry, Swiss chard, pearl onion and bacon aigre-doux



Slow-Roasted Veal Tenderloin, wild mushroom ragout, pommes puree, preserved lemon and sauce Perigueux



 Rack and Loin of Lamb, Lyonnaise onions, Chanterelle mushrooms, English peas and lardons


tarte tartin

  Fresh Apple Tart with green apple sorbet



  Artisan Cheese


petits fours

 Petits fours


Shawn McClain is the executive chef and partner of Spring. The restaurant opened in 2001 and was nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant” award. Spring is essentially a seafood restaurant “juxtaposing Eastern influence with Western foundations.” 

Chef McClain was not in the kitchen the night we were there as his wife had just had a baby.

Amuse – Spiced White bean espuma, beet chip, micro-basil – delicate, but well-seasoned.


Wine with beginning dishes


Cortes Island Oysters, coriander spiced ginger, tabasco and citrus caviar – excellent


Nori-cured Hamachi sashimi, spiced watermelon, cucumber-sake gelee, citrus and cilantro – first rate quality fish and I really enjoyed the pairing with the watermelon.


Tuna tartare, banana miso, toasted cashews, poached shallots, soy-lime dressing – the key ingredient in this dish was the banana – again a surprise element but excellent.

Tuna up-close


Charred Tuna sashimi, in the style of Nicoise, soft quail egg, black olive-lemon vinaigrette – In retrospect, we should not have ordered two tuna dishes, but as we were doing splits one for two, we thought it would work. 


Hoisin Glazed Baby octopus, Thai Pancetta, caramelized onion and Japanese eggplant – this was so tough and chewy that 2 bites was all we could manage. Compare the above dish to the tender, flavorable squid at Mercat.


Mercat octopus


Barramundi, Chinese mustard and yukon gold potato gnocchi, shiitake mushroom, edamame – The gnocchi were excellent, but I was underwhelmed by the fish. To be honest, I am not sure why. Perhaps, it was under seasoning, but I don’t have a clear taste-memory of this dish.


For me, the chilled appetizer dishes at Spring were far superior to the warm appetizer and main that we ordered. It could be that we ordered badly and didn’t pick the best dishes to showcase Spring’s cuisine. This post is based on a one-time dining experience so it must be viewed in that context.  As for service, it was absolutely stellar.  Ann, our server, was superb as was Fletcher, the GM.


I just love this restaurant. It is so comfortable, so welcoming, so inviting with great service and equally delicious food. You can actually carry on a decent conversation and the vibe is just enjoy the food and the wine. If we lived close by, we would be, at the very least, bi-monthly diners and my husband would probably be at Naha weekly for business lunches. 

Sarah, our waitress, was terrific and as always, Carrie Nahabedian is one of the nicest and most talented chefs. She deserved to get the James Beard award this year. Well done, Carrie!

My notes are not the greatest, particularly at the end of this meal – lots of wine is always my excuse. Also, Carrie changed some of what we ordered at the last minute so….. All dishes were splits, one for two.


Yellow corn soup, caramelized corn, bulb onions and basil with a “griddled” sandwich of Kentuckiana “Mont St. Francis” Goat Cheese and a tempura of squash blossom on a bed of corn kernels. This was just yummy – I know not exactly a haute cuisine word, but it just tasted perfect.


Tartare of Hawaiian “Yellowfin” Tuna and  Cured Tasmanian Red trout with Mosaic of Nicoise Garnsihes, Aigrelette Sauce and Toasted Brioche – First you look at this dish and just marvel at how beautiful it is. Then, you taste and realize each element is not just for show but is essential component to the whole.


“Coddled” Organic Farm Egg “Benedict”, Kurobuta Pork Belly and Housemade English Muffin with Smoked Homegrown Wisconsin “Red Thumb” Potatoes, Italian Frisee and Yellow Helios Radishes – John is an egg freak and I think he inhaled this dish. I was a little slower as I wanted to savor each and every bite.


Lake Ontario “Smelts”, lightly fried with lemon and parsley and salted capers, “Pimenton de la Vera” – It was as if these smelts were just caught – fresh is an understatement. There was not one hint of grease – the white napkin stayed white. The sauce had just enough heat to accent the smelts.


This was an improvisational dish on Carrie’s part so I can’t vouch for complete accuracy.  Wild Alaskan Halibut sat on top of cannelloni of Swiss chard, “fondue” of Blue Marble Family Farm Buttermilk Ricotta cheese, Sungold tomatoes – What more could one ask for? – farm fresh ingredients plus fish that was perfectly executed.

A warning – my notes get worse so hopefully the photos will do the talking and I apologize in advance for any mistakes – trust me there are probably plenty.


Whole roasted squab, foie gras and crisp potato cake with black currants, Harlane apricots and Cipollini onions, Armenian Rose Petal marmalade, Licorice Root and Flowering Cilanto Pods. Carrie was very unhappy with the squab as it was delivered without feet. I just hope this glistening photo displays the tastiness of this dish.


Braised Pheasant Valley Farm Goat and Duck Confit Potatoes, Cavaillon Melon and Persian Cucumbers with Charred Tropea Onions, candied Valencia Orange and Dill Seed Heads – this was an add-on from Carrie so I am hoping that the menu accurately describes this dish. In any case, it was delicious, balanced and perfectly executed. Look at the beauty of that sauce – this is not “quick quick” cuisine, but cuisine based on classical sauces done with finesse.


Not one note so I am not even going to try.

All I can say is that if you are in Chicago, Naha is a must restaurant for anyone who loves good food and good service.

 PS I had John read this before posting and all he said was “Boy, wasn’t that delicious” after every photo.

Primehouse – American Dim Sum Brunch

On Sundays, David Burke’s Primehouse serves an American Dim Sum Brunch.  Its a buffet brunch served on rolling carts, in the style of Chinese dim sum. It’s a unique idea that doesn’t work. 


The first cart featured cold “Asian goodies.” Because the food is served cold, this was one of the better offerings.


Asian shrimp cocktail with seaweed salad, chili miso dressing – the shrimp was cut in half and poached- not bad.

Beef carpaccio on a toasted baguette slice – this was made way ahead of time so the bread was stale.


Tuna and Salmon tartar on a wonton crisp – tasteless salmon and tuna


The next cart was labeled “Brunch and Crunch”


Smoked Salmon Pastrami, red onion, crème fraiche and chives


Oatmeal crème brulee –  incredibly sweet


Mini pancakes with mango butter – these were cold. This was to be a constant problem. It seems that it is very difficult to serve food fresh and warm from this type of delivery system.


Yogurt Parfait with Granola and Fruit– I didn’t taste this and John only took one bite


Bread Pudding with Chocolate sauce – this was sickly sweet and inedible.


Cheese and Salmon Strudel – another cold dish with soggy pastry


A plate from the kitchen – Eggs Benedict – John’s dish was fine, mine was cold.


Hot “Asian Goodies”

Tempura Green Beans – think tons of grease

Sesame Crab Balls – completely dried out

Some sort of stale bun filled with ????


Now a cart is wheeled to your table with a hot stone. Pepper-crusted beef tenderloin is cooked to order on the stone. The table next to us ordered their steak very well-done. We ordered ours rare. It is served with creamed spinach.


The steak was OK, but the creamed spinach was poor.


More Hot “Asian goodies”

Pork dumplings and Vegetable Egg Rolls. These must have been fried hours before they were served. Think cold and greasy inedible bites.



Another cart with wonton soup and shrimp dumplings – wonders of wonders hot and tasty.


Oysters on the half shell – John forgot to snap the picture until there was only one oyster left.


Little Hamburgers with a sausage stick. This comes from the kitchen and you order it at the beginning of your meal. We rejected the first burgers as they were medium well. The second batch was very good. It shows that when something is cooked to order, it can be done right.


The dessert cart – we didn’t choose anything.


I should have known better and gone for real dim sum or just let John pig out on pizza. The day before, we had gone to Pizzeria Due and he was one very happy camper.

Mercat a la Planxa

Mercat a la Planxa was a real surprise on this trip. It was our last meal in Chicago and we made early lunch reservations before having to go to the airport.  Mercat is located in the newly restored Blackstone Hotel. Sage Hospitality bought the Blackstone and partnered with Chef Jose Garces (owner and operator of the highly regarded Amada and Tinto restaurants in Philadelphia.

Although Chef Garces is rarely there, Chef J. Michael Fiorello is chef de cuisine. Judging from our meal on Monday, he is absolutely up to the task.

The room is gorgeous with a mosaic-tiled open kitchen and an explosion of color.



The menu is a modern take on tapas. Our server, Frank was wonderful and helped us devise a diverse selection of small plates, even including some items not usually offered on the lunch menu.

Croquetas de Jamon – Serrano Ham Croquettes – absolutely delicious.


Truita de Patata con Espinacas – Spanish omelet (more like a frittata) with spinach, potatoes and saffron aioli – another absolute winner


Inside of the omelet


Pulpo con Patatas – Spanish Octopus, Confit Potato, Smoked paprika – octopus if done improperly can be tough and chewy. This was anything but – tender, well-seasoned octopus bites. I hope the photos convey how vibrant this cuisine is.


Frank surprised us with an order of Bacon-wrapped Dates stuffed with almonds, frisee. Then he poured an applewood/manchego cheese fondue on top. Sensational.

Fondue on top


Habas a la Catalana – Warm Fava and Lima Bean salad with shaved Serrano Ham – we were on a roll – another winner


Mercat has an entire list of fish and meats done on the grill.

Hamachi done on the grill and served with Guindilla Chili Aioli and Romesco – perfect


We then ordered 2 sandwiches to go for the plane – not pictured.

The Shoko Club – smoked turkey breast, mahon cheese, bacon, honey mustard and almonds on mutigrain artisan bread done like a panini

El Borne – Serrano Ham, Manchego Cheese, Roasted Peppers and Basil Aioli on a baguette

We certainly didn’t need United’s lousy airplane food.

I would love to go back to Mercat for dinner and eat my way through the menu.


I have been following L2O’s evolution from Chef Gras’ first blog entry – to say that Laurent Gras is meticulous is an oxymoron. He is obsessed with every single detail in this restaurant.

Outside of restaurant


As we were early for our 6:15 reservation, we decided to go to the lounge and start the evening with champagne – 2 coupes of Dom Perignon 1999. 


Water Glass


We were then escorted to the small tatami room by our server for the evening, Mona Lisa (real name). After removing our shoes, we entered a small room with sliding doors to ensure absolute privacy. There was no decoration, no flowers, just 3 flickering candles. The private space was appointed with a grass mat floor, yellow cedar sunken table and leather upholstered Zaisu seats. A foot pit allowed for comfortable seating.

Tatami Room pictured on L20 blog:

A word of warning —– If you don’t know or like the person you are dining with, do not book this room. The only people you interact with all night is your server and your dining companion.

Table setting


Mona (she doesn’t use her full name) was terrific. We did get to know her fairly well as the evening progressed and she was engaging, knowledgeable and anticipated our every need. Dressed in a kimono, Mona presented each dish on her knees, in the Japanese fashion. Quite a work-out given that we had 20 different dishes plus a wine pairing of 8 different wines, not finishing until after midnight.



All dishes were described by Mona in minute detail and hopefully faithfully transcribed.

First Course – 5 small dishes are presented. 

All 5 dishes


Mussel with coconut curry gelee, green apple, jalapeno, cilantro salad


Ishidai (parrot fish), shiso sprinkled with preserved Meyer lemon, smoked bonito, grated Sudashi, Heart of palm, Sea trout roe, red ribbon sorrel


Long-cove oyster, tapioca pearl, rice wine vinegar, sake (frozen in liquid nitrogen)


Tuna/Kampachi, Soy sauce, Yuzu, micro chives, extra virgin olive oil


Escolar, “served in the style of jamon” (smoked), olive oil emulsion, crystal ice lettuce, Espelette


Bread is now presented 

The butter is churned in house. The dish for the butter is very expensive, about $400 a piece – no expense was spared at L20.

butter covered

butter uncovered



Second Course – Fluke, thinly sliced with thin shreds of shiso topped with Oscetra cviar from the caspian Sea. What set this dish apart was that the fluke had not been treated as tartare. The thin slices of fluke gave the dish texture.


Third Course – Sashimi Platter – from left to right – Fluke, Ishi-Karei (stone flounder), Ishidai, Suzuki (sea bass) Over the top was a ginger marshmallow. Also on the plate was kinome leaf (prickly ash tree), freeze-dried soy salt, ponzu, mirin dotted with liquid soy ginger gel, grated wasabi and a thin decorately carved slice of heart of palm


The ice block for the sashimi – unbelievable attention to detail.


Fourth Course- Lobster Mushroom served 2 ways – poached in butter and grilled topped with chives and nori, browned garlic, garlic bouillon puree. On the left butter powder, middle orange powder, right saffron powder. Nothing is for show on the plate.


Fifth Course – House-made Tofu (from soy milk from Kyoto), shaved bonito, miso, soy sauce blend, shiso buds, scallion, tomato pulp puree. The tofu is first presented without the tomato puree and then it is poured on tableside. 


Spoon presentation


Sixth Course – Octopus, peeled and sliced then poached in olive oil, topped with coconut emulsion, soy salt, sea bean 


Seared Foie Gras with Hamachi, crumbled air-dried, salt-cured Spanish tuna – Mojama, freeze-dried raspberry powder, raspberry with balsamic, tomato foam, raspberry dome, raspberry jus poured on top


Tomato gelee with Ebi (shrimp), parsley emuslion, tomato emulsion, freeze-dried tomato, shiso buds


Amadai with crispy scales, yuzu butter, grated black lime, sudachi, topiko, beurre blanc sauce


Butter poached lobster and warmed uni, Kinome leaf, Lobster and uni emulsion


Pickled Chanterelle mushrooms, rice wine vinegar, salmon roe, sea bean and grapefruit. My notes say this was a palate awakener.


Miyazaki Wagyu beef brushed with soy, sake, braised little gem lettuce, grated sudachi lime, caramelized hearts of palm, pickled beet root, pansies, smoked Murray River salt from Australia.


Dashi with junsai (water lily)


Exotic fruit Consomme, brunoise of mango, pineapple, passion fruit, mango sorbet, lemon grass marshmallows, passion fruit seeds, mint. The consomme consisted of 14 ingredients, basically based on citrus and tropical fruit with black peppercorn, cardamon and mint


Macaroons, Yuzu, Pistachio

Considering that we didn’t know what would be on the menu and also that it was quite extensive, we decided on a wine pairing. Mona kept raving about the wine director, Chantelle Pabros all evening. During one of my breaks, this very attractive lady looks at me and does a double take. She says I know you. Are you Liz who used to go to Bastide? Yes, I answered. She said she was Chantelle!


The wine pairing was excellent, but I do have one criticism. Mona, who is not a wine expert, served and explained all the wines. It would have been so much better to have Chantelle handle this or at the very least to have a printed copy of the wines at the beginning of the meal.

Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo (first three courses)  nice match and good starter…sometimes sake gets a bit boring with the food.  This one held up very nicely.

Kiralyudar Tokaji Sec 2005 (Mushrooms, Tofu)–good Tokaji, not too sweet and cloying, very nice finish, bright and fruity.

Riesling Spatlese, Max. Ferd. Richter, Erdner Trepchen, Mosel 1988 (Octopus, Foie)–great match, clean, bright and sharp

Arbois, Grande Elevage, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Rijakaert, 2004 (Ebi, Amadai)–I don’t know this wine at was very good and worked well with the food.

Pinot Blanc Auxerrois, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Schoffit, 2005 (Lobster/Uni)–good, especially with the Uni.

Obata Shuzo, Manotsuru, Four Diamonds, Junmai Ginjo Genshu, Niigata (Mushroom, Wagyu)–very good match and a nice way to pair with the mushroom and then the meat.

Szigeti Brut Gruner Veltliner (Dashi)–this was a special sparkling Gruner…very nice.

Gourmandise Jurancon 1995 Petit Manseng Grape (Mango)–I always enjoy these wines because they are Sauternes like but not as heavy.

Over-all the pairing was very good.  And, at $ 100.00 it was a definite bargain.

After our meal, Chantelle graciously offered to show us the kitchen. Everyone was busy scrubbing down the kitchen to only what I can compare to as Thomas Keller’s standards. Chef Gras was on the floor by a grate and was too busy to look up from his task to acknowledge us.

Final thoughts:

I think when you evaluate a tatami room meal at L2O you do so based on the totality of the experience, not dish by dish. You feel as if you are suspended in time and the experience becomes a total food and wine immersion. For 6 hours all of our focus was on taste after taste after taste. Each segment was an important part of the whole. Each element of the experience from the silverware to the china to the ambiance has been carefully crafted. In many respects, this is a meal that isn’t meant to be dissected or each dish graded. Not having been to Japan, I don’t have a reference point re staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan, but I would imagine that is what Chef Gras is attempting to emulate 






We have known Carrie Nahabedian for years. First at the 4 Seasons in Santa Barbara, then when she did the Merci Julia Event in LA and finally at the 4 Seasons in LA. Carrie moved to her hometown of Chicago to open a restaurant with her cousin, Michael. My husband had been many times and since I hadn’t seen Carrie in years, I felt it was important that I should go as well.

Tom, Michael’s brother, was charged with complete architecture and design of the restaurant, including furniture and accessories.

From Nancy Ross Ryan’s review:

“Today’s front door is in a different place (at the far north end of the restaurant — Gordon’s was on south end), and stepping into Naha was flabbergasting: not an Oriental rug in sight! Underfoot were artfully stained concrete slabs. And although Naha’s front door leads into a bar — as did Gordon’s — this is a different world. The leather and concrete bar (an unheard of use of materials in the hey day of Gordon’s) is at the back of an airy, spacious lounge, and an enormous window that runs the length of the facade bathes the restaurant in natural light by day or city lights by night. But what captivated me completely was rows of fragrant golden quince, lined up single file on trays throughout the restaurant. The restaurant was rebuilt and redesigned by Tom Nahabedian, Carrie’s cousin, an IIT school of architecture graduate and founder of a Beverly Hills design firm. The dining room has a rich walnut floor, comfortable contemporary chairs designed by Tom, and the long banquettes and round booths are upholstered in understated fabric woven of linen, silk, wool and cotton yarns. The colors are natural — chocolate, slate, fawn and blue. The walls are light and creamy, and there is ample space between tables — a sacrifice of revenue in the service of comfort for guests. Naha is completely contemporary with no hard edges, but there is a meticulous attention to aesthetic detail: elegant expensive wine glasses, thick white table linens, and planters filled with seasonal flora — grasses, twigs, buds, fruit — that are both visual and functional as space dividers.”

I think what is important about the above review in “setting the scene” is that Naha is not a “scene.” You are not packed in like at Blackbird. You can actually have a decent conversation without hearing everyone else’s chatter.

The cuisine is billed as a “seasonal American menu with influences of the Mediterranean.” Carrie asked us what we wanted to eat and she helped us devise a menu.

Tartare of Hawaiian Yellowfin Tuna, Cured King Salmon and Door County Golden Whitefish Caviar with a Mosaic of Vegetables, Nicoise Garnishes and Aigrelette Sauce

The sliced salmon was on the bottom of the plate. On top of that was the diced tuna topped with the golden caviar and surrounded by the capers, tomato, nicoise olives and other assorted “veggies.” It is truly a work of art and an interesting take on the ubiquitous tuna tartar.


Hot Smoked Chicken and Carnaroli Risotto with Delicata and Spaghetti Squash, Sage and Styrian Pumpkin Seed Oil

What made this dish interesting was that the skin was left on the chicken so that you had a wonderful texture contrast with the risotto.


Organic Farm Egg with a Warm salad of Italian Frisee, Flageolets, Applewood Slab Bacon and Herbs

This was just delicious – poached egg with runny yolk, crunchy flageolets, crispy bacon, warm frisee – what more could one ask for comfort food.


Hudson Valley Foie Gras with a “Tarte Tatin” of Italian Plums, Mache and Rhubarb Syrup – The foie was perfect, but what elevated the dish was the plum tarte tatin. The combination of the tart, the foie and the rhubarb syrup was superb.


Wild Alaskan Halibut with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Cauliflower Puree, Herb Jus and “Frothy” Mushroom Broth – The halibut had been encrusted with dried black trumpet mushrooms and then fresh pieces of mushrooms ringed the plate.


Wood-Grilled 18oz. Prime Ribeye of Beef and Glazed Shallots, Macaroni Goat Cheese “Gratin”, Oxtail Red Wine Sauce and Fleur de Sel – The beef was excellent, but the gratin was gooey, rich and delicious.


Mascarpone Sorbet, Concord Grape Consomme with a Shortbread Tuile on top


Why go to Naha? Obviously, Chicago at the moment, is doing cutting edge cuisine – Moto, Avenues, Alinea, L2O et al. It also has some great ethic restaurants. So, why go? Because, if you want very good food, prepared well, in a beautiful setting, where you can have a decent conversation sans noise, without pretension and also dine on food that will not disappoint, Naha delivers and then some.