Chicago Tribune 2/18/05

Advanced French: Chef Liccioni’s back, and Le Francais is better than ever

By Phil Vettel

"It doesn't feel strange at all," says chef Roland Liccioni, back in the Le Francais kitchen after 6 1/2 years. "The building is the same. The kitchen is the same."

That sense of easy familiarity pervades Le Francais these days. It's as though you've crashed a culinary reunion. In the front room are the Le Francais captains, whose self-assurance and easy manner take the intimidation factor right out of the dining equation. Running the wine program is sommelier Bruce Cost, who once guided the wine program at Carlos'.

And in the back is Liccioni, who guided this four-star kitchen from 1989 to 1999 after the "retirement" (it didn't take) of founder Jean Banchet-and who is cooking with the same vigor that marked his glory days.

There was a time when this temple of modern French cuisine in northwest suburban Wheeling was considered the finest restaurant in the country. It's hard to imagine that happening again; the culinary world has changed too much (Le Francais celebrated its 14th birthday before Charlie Trotter's opened its doors), and more attention is paid to cutting-edge experimentalism than classic cuisine.

But Le Francais endures, and as Liccioni's cooking ably demonstrates, it's not because of nostalgia.

True, some ghosts of the past remain on Liccioni's menu, including such well-loved dishes as his double duck consomme, a virtually clear broth packed with an impossible amount of flavor, and his always-stellar smoked-salmon terrine, these days paired with a thimble of tuna tartare.

But dining at Le Francais is no mere amble down Memory Lane. There is plenty of contemporary thought on display, such as a cappuccino-style chestnut soup showered with black-truffle shavings. More impressive still is a cunning composition of osetra-caviar gelee surrounded by a lightly sweet cauliflower foam, served on a long tray that also includes a beet sorbet and foie-gras terrine with an East-West pickle pairing-Asian daikon radish with French cornichons.

The hits just keep coming. A scallop cake with the consistency of soft bread pudding, topped with a lobster medallion and surrounded by a lobster bisque jolted alive with Vietnamese spices. Warm foie gras with quince confit, receiving a hint of sweetness from maple foam. Pure indulgence in the form of ravioli filled with black-truffle mousse with foamed truffle sauce and yet another sliver of foie gras.

Little touches raise entrees that one extra notch. A thick slice of Kobe-style beef with roasted squab meat is presented with a miniature cannelloni stuffed with truffled celery mousse. Roasted sea bass, set in a vivid-green watercress sauce with thin twists of homemade spaetzel, is topped with a solitary mini-raviolo filled with liquid truffle--an homage perhaps to Grant Achatz, who introduced that creation to Chicago while at Trio.

And yet the entree that absolutely knocked me out was probably the simplest: incredibly tasty slow-poached veal with slices of dry-aged ribeye steak, with cepes-mushroom sauce. No extra flourishes; just superb-quality ingredients, perfectly prepared.

The dessert course begins with what your captain will call a "pre-dessert," likely a clean and delicious berry soup filled with fresh berries and a scoop of coconut sorbet.

Then it's on to such treasures as a phenomenal raspberry souffle, the raspberry flavor just sweet enough and the souffle itself feather-light on the tongue, like eating a cloud. At the other textural extreme is a chocolate marjolaine, a dense layering of crispy hazelnut-almond wafers, praline and pistachio and chocolate mousses.

And of course there is the cheese option, though at the moment the assortment is a little small (about seven cheeses).
With the degustation option, dessert is an assortment that included (in my visit) a rich chocolate tartlet with a perfectly flaky shell (echoed in the butterfly-shaped cookie on top), a pineapple financier cake with pina colada ice cream and a hazelnut mini-souffle with a tiny pitcher of hazelnut cream to pour inside.

Throughout it all, the ever-alert staff strives to make things easy. For instance, on our first visit we were served an amuse-bouche of a crunchy croquette, which cracked open to reveal a plump escargot with chives and garlic butter. It's not unlike a miniaturized snail Kiev, if there were such a thing. Sadly, my wife is allergic to snails, and so the kitchen improvised a smoked-salmon amuse for her instead.

On our return visit, the amuse was an onion tartlet topped by a single escargot. But without having to ask, my wife received an onion tartlet with eggplant caviar from our pleased-with-himself waiter, who beamed, "You see! I remembered!"
Pricing is simple as well; on the a la carte menu, appetizers are all $14, soups and salads $10, entrees $35 and desserts $12. There is also a seven-course degustation menu, generally $90 except for special occasions. Lunch is a three-course menu priced at $35.

And though Le Francais required men to wear a jacket and tie when Liccioni last ran the kitchen, these are different times. Jackets are merely recommended now, though most men I saw during my visits were wearing them. Quite a few ties, too.

"I would like people to wear a jacket at least," Liccioni says. "But I have more important things to worry about."

I can't imagine what. This place seems to have everything under control.

Phil Vettel is the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic.


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