Daily Herald

Great Expectations: Le Francais on Course to Recapture Glory Days

Daily Herald Food Editor
Posted Thursday, March 24, 2005

When chef Jean Banchet opened the doors to Le Francais in Wheeling more than 30 years ago it was one of just a handful of fine French restaurants in the Chicago area. Today, nearly every suburb has a French eatery, whether it be under the guise of bistro food or modern French.

And it's that dining landscape that makes chef Roland Liccioni's job that much harder as he sets out to bring Le Francais back to the high level of dining that earned it the Best Restaurant in the Nation honor in 1985 by Bon Appetit magazine.
Liccioni, however, is no stranger to Le Francais. He was hand-picked by Banchet to run the restaurant when Banchet first retired in 1989, and the restaurant maintained critical acclaim until Liccioni left in 1999 to concentrate on his Chicago property, Les Nomades.

Current owner and longtime Le Francais faithful Michael Moran lured Liccioni from Les Nomades late last year with visions of culinary accolades dancing in his consomme. Liccioni's Vietnamese-tinged cuisine appears to be up to the challenge. While his menu is tighter than that offered under chef Michael Lachowicz, whose departure prompted Liccioni's return, the items are no less spectacular. Take for example, the lobster ravioli appetizer. Handmade pasta plated alongside a crisp and delicate tempura-fried shrimp reveled in a ginger-infused lobster sauce.

The artichoke terrine appetizer looked promising, with cool, creamy texture and a sublime eggy sauce, but the terrine itself was disappointingly salty. Liccioni did better with the chestnut soup, which I salivated over when I saw the picture in the Food section. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the photo couldn't do justice to the richly flavored bowl in front of me. An airy potato foam and black truffle shavings pushed this dish off the charts.
Likewise the roasted beets and wild mushrooms provided earthy partners for the fresh goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.

The entree listing is where the menu seems the thinnest, but admittedly where Liccioni is at his most creative.
Liccioni puts forth three seafood selections, albeit one is a fish-of-the-day duo. The trio of lobster, scallops and shrimp lured, but failed to hook me. I've been so impressed by Le Francais' fish during previous visits my expectations might have been set too high. I enjoyed how the tender couscous played in the tarragon-scented sauce, but the seafood trio fell flat.

The beef, on the other hand, was outstanding. A delicately poached veal fillet and hearty smoked rib-eye romped with piquant braised cabbage and a velvety cepe sauce. Accompanying those entrees was a side of potato foam (the same as topped the chestnut soup), and while I appreciate the cutting-edge creativity that goes into this ethereal dish, I missed the copper pot of mashed potatoes from days of old.

Instead of a traditional sorbet course before the entree, the table captain delivered a quaint scoop of coconut sorbet swimming among raspberries in a vibrant berry soup. Instead of cleansing the palate, it whets the appetite for the sweets to come. It also provides a diversion while waiting for the cooked-to-order souffle. The signature souffles are available in several varieties each evening and you just can't go wrong with any of them. The classic dark chocolate with warm crème anglaise hits a high note.

While there's also traditional crème brulee and a selection of cheeses, there's also a fun plate of coconut panacotta and pineapple upside-down cake, tied together with a pina colada ice cream.

The menu is prix-fixe of sorts. All the appetizers cost $14 (though they do charge an extra $6 if you want the foie gras) and the entrees go for $35, whether you get the duck breast with a curried au jus or the chef's special Atlantic char preparation.

Le Francais also offers a seven-course chef's choice degustation menu for $90 a person that typically includes the luxury foods like foie gras, lobster, escargot. However, you must convince the whole table to order it, and while I understand the reasoning - the meal needs to be paced and they don't want one diner enjoying his fish course while his partner sits without a plate in front of her - I don't like the rigidity. If you head to Le Francais for a special occasion, as many diners still do, I think you'd want to try a broad variety, not everyone served the same thing.

Word of Liccioni's reappearance in the kitchen has translated into more diners in the dining room. While previous owners have cited low attendance, that doesn't appear to be the case now. The room on a recent Saturday night was alive with conversation - too lively, actually, for my taste. I would have preferred the manager dim the lights in an effort to turn down the decibels. The lighting gave a feeling more like a business meeting than the romantic interlude that many associate with French restaurants of this stature.

The crowd didn't affect the service, however, which was unpretentious and helpful. While Le Francais sommelier Bruce Kroft (who crossed paths with Liccioni at Carlos' in Highwood) didn't drop by our table, our server was well-versed on the voluminous wine list and hit the mark when recommending a Spanish red, the 2001 Artadi, Vinas de Gain Alavesa to pair with the veal. While wine flights are not offered on the menu, servers will put together a selection of wines to complement the food if asked. For those still timid about wine and French dining, that's something I'd like to see spelled out to make the experience less intimidating.

Reservations: 847.541.7470

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