Chicago Magazine

Haute and Mighty
By Dennis Ray Wheaton, Chicago Magazine, April 2005

Le Francais is back in the game. And so is the seriously talented Roland Liccioni, who had a brilliant reign in the nineties at Wheeling’s most famous spot. The restaurant’s latest owner, Mike Moran, scored a major coup when he inked Liccioni to a deal last November, which I hope will end a tumultuous period for the restaurant. Many of the veteran waiters from Liccioni’s first tour of duty have returned as well–the only player missing is Mary Beth Liccioni to run the room. She and Roland have split; she’s still calling the shots at Les Nomades, the clubby downtown restaurant that her ex just left.

As one seasoned staffer tells, “We’re still the same group of old guys and we’re trying to pull it back together. Hopefully, [this is] going to be the last change. My heart is up and down all the time. I cannot take it anymore.” My sentiments, exactly. I’ve thought for some time that Le Francais had lived out its glory days and should be permanently laid to rest, but a few months into the Liccioni restoration, I have to concede that the venerable dining room has been resuscitated with honor.

Like most high-end restaurants, Le Francais offers an a la carte menu and a degustation. Either way, the truffles and foie gras are laid on lavishly–but the seven-course, $90 tasting menu is where Liccioni shines brightest. Especially when you let the exuberant sommelier, Bruce Crofts, a delightfully happy former lawyer, match wines to each stellar course. He loves to describe the producers of his fine Burgundy and California pinot noirs and gets almost giddy discussing rarer selections. On one visit he said he wouldn’t be reordering one bottle because “now you can buy it anywhere.”

A memorable degustation began with a wonderful trio: cold foie gras on brioche, ostera caviar on gelee with a crown of cauliflower crème, and mache lettuce topped with red beet sorbet and truffle oil (imagine a salad every bit as fabulous as the greatest foie gras and caviar). Next, truffle ravioli over seared foie gras with brown butter foam and truffle jus would have made my knees buckle if I hadn’t been sitting down. A variation on a decades-old classic of Le Francais original chef/owner, Jean Banchet, the a la carte double duck consommé with peas and celery root alongside shitake mushroom mousse was equally splendid–as was a foamed chestnut cappuccino soup with shaved truffles. For that updated chestnut, Crofts prescribes a delicious 2001 Russian River Valley Failla Pinot Noir “Keefer Ranch.” This lawyer is well briefed.

Liccioni’s penchant for entrée combinations of meat or fish has not waned. On the degustation I lucked into, he paired lamb rack and flatiron steak in a red wine reduction enriched with merguez (spicy lamb sausage). Underneath I found a bed of French lentils; on the side, potato and sweet green pea foams covered with morels–and to cap the captivating largess–a medjool date filled with orange compote and a hint of ginger. LF Loyalists will recall the impossibly rich potato puree that came with every entrée. The waiters used to say it was made with just enough potato to bind the butter; now those spuds have been replaced with a lighter-than-air potato foam. Wow: Even this classic place, like the rest of the world, is foaming at the mouth. But in the typical Le Francais fashion, they sprinkle the foam with even more truffles.

Desserts are excellent, but not as amazing as many I’ve had in the past here. Still, any of the soufflés will do the job, as will the bittersweet chocolate cake or a Grand Marnier crème brulee topped with pear. I wish I liked the décor as much as the service and food: The rooms’s dull pea-soup-green color scheme is nowhere near as appealing as its former French country cottage motif, although I’m happy the romantic booths are back. Several friends have described the room as tired-looking, like an aging star who’s had one too many less-than-perfect face-lifts. I have to agree.


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