Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bonsoiree, Chicago IL

The circumstances that led my sister and I to a table at BonSoiree on the evening of November the 4th are a bit complex but I’ll try to explain. When I originally booked the trip I knew I would have 4 dinners available, the 4th was to be Schwa with my sister, the 5th undecided, the 6th an Extended Tasting at Everest with a local friend, and the 7th at The Girl and the Goat prior to my flight home. After much debate I selected BonSoiree over Avenues and Graham Elliot as my Friday meal largely due to the excellent looking menu and tremendous customer service provided by Dozzy Ibekwe – the 13 course menu was selected and I was told the chef would be ordering some “unique” ingredients for the evening.

Excited as I was, things change. First my friend had to change his date due to family issues, then Schwa called me to cancel my reservation only 2 hours beforehand due to issues in their building (more on this in a future review) – scrambling for an ideal situation I called BonSoiree and asked if my sister and I could come in on the 4th. Speaking with Chef Shin I was told that they’d be glad to have us on the 4th but the 13 course would not be available – instead they could do 10-11 courses – and happily we accepted a reservation for 6:00pm – a reservation for which we’d be 45 minutes late due to rain that became hale and traffic that went from slow to stopped. Finally arriving we drove right past the unmarked restaurant at first but then realized our error, parked for free, and walked back in the suddenly clear weather.

Entering Bonsoiree we were greeted promptly and given our choice of “any two top” as the restaurants 26 seats were less than 1/3 full. Seated towards the front and away from the kitchen I have to admit I was somewhat taken back by the design of the space – intimate to say the least a combination of exposed brick walls, dangling track lighting, and floral sculptures plus a soundtrack of the kitchen’s sounds were all the ambiance provided and small details such as chipped paint seemed a tad out of place. Notably the hand selected plates at each course were an excellent touch but unfortunately a few were chipped and certainly needing replacement in the coming months, the silverware too was dingy.

Hanging our server her BYO “S.O.S.” beer we were provided with filtered tap water and our somewhat extended menu was confirmed. BonSoiree does not offer bread service or any beverages outside of water and while I will note that service was adequate, it certainly was not on the level of that provided by Dozzy in arranging the evening. Certainly everything arrived nicely and with excellent temperature and adequate description plus I was even presented with a hand printed copy of the menu at night’s end, but plates often sat empty for several minutes prior to clearing, water thrice reached empty, and servers largely seemed disengaged from the diners until the very last two courses.


Beginning the meal would be the nightly amuse a Frozen Black Grape topped tableside with a creamy Warm White Grape Cider. An interesting texture and temperature contrast this opening volley was simple in concept but dynamic on the palate as it was downed in a single gulp.

The first proper course of the meal would be Pumpkin Salad with Escargot, White Anchovy, Baby Frissee, and Pumpkin 5 ways. Served on an elaborate plate made of hand-blown glass this salad was a great introduction to the chefs’ style with a unique interplay of sweet and savory, textured and smooth, and French technique meets Eastern styling. With pumpkin seeds, vinaigrette, boiled, tempurad, and pickled forming the majority of the dish the varying styles were appealing to both the eye and the mouth while the nicely prepared Escargot melted on the tongue. Not particularly a fan of Anchovies in general I will note that these were actually quite mild and nicely balanced by the bitter greens and punchy vinaigrette.

The second course would prove to be the most traditional Japanese presentation of the night, but at the same time not traditional at all in its flavor profile. Titled Crab and Scallop Motoyaki with Torched Ponzu Aioli the dish was served in a shell with sizeable chunks of fresh crab and scallops interspersed in the creamy admixture with hints of soy and yuzu. First cooked in the oven and then bruleed for a crackling crust the dish was potentially the most sweet of the evening, even compared to the desserts.

Dish number three was perhaps Chef Shin’s “signature,” an item always available at a supplemental cost. Entitled Duck Duck Goose the course featured a nicely prepared slice of Seared Duck Breast atop melt-in-the-mouth and surprisingly un-crispy Duck Confit alongside a seared slice of Foie Gras, fig puree, crabapple, and smooth saffron gastrique. Served elegantly in stackable Plexiglas boxes I was pleasantly surprised that my sister actually enjoyed this rather firm preparation of Foie as she generally does not. A solid dish I must say that as a supplement it really did not seem to “fit” the East meets West theme of the rest of the meal.

Getting back to the seasonal menu, plate four was a shallow yet enormous rimmed bowl featuring Kabocha and Nasturtium Soup with Tempura Chive Bites, Japanese Cajun Spice, Oberon Caramel, Maitake Chip, and Cognac Apple Melt. Boozy and spicy, sweet and savory, and smooth as silk until you added the tempura bites the nutty sweetness of the Japanese Pumpkin was perfectly highlighted by the multitude of ingredients, each detectable but none overwhelming save for the mild aftertaste of cognac.

Dish five was another “always available” supplement on the Bonsoiree menu – the Smoking Bacon Box with house cured pork belly bacon, sunny side quail eggs, toasted ouzo marshmallow, and applewood smoke. Served in a small box and opened tableside with a puff of smoke arising from the marshmallow that filled the room with a lovely smell of pork and spice we both found this dish to be far more successful than the Duck Duck Goose – it was the second best dish of the night by both our palates. Crispy and slightly sweet the pork was divine while the egg added its characteristic smoothness – a dish worth visiting Bonsoiree for any time of the year.

Arriving after the box was my sister’s favorite dish of the night, served in a long hollowed out porcelain bowl, Slow cooked Rabbit with Madeira Beurre Blanc, Pancetta Gnocchi, Tomato Intensity, and Sage Silhouette. Nutty and supple the rabbit was the best I’ve tasted and it paired nicely with the robust sweetness of the Madeira. Flanking the rabbit were two fluffy pillows of savory gnocchi, tomato confit, and dehydrated sage that had been concentrated and melded with gelatin to form a single blade of “sage” that tasted, if possible, more sage-like than the herb itself. While I wasn’t quite as wowed as my sister who was still talking about it days later it was certainly an outstanding dish.

For our “main course” we saw a return to Shin’s French meets Asian ingredient style in the form of Pumpernickle Crusted Lamb Loin with Karashi, Japanese BBQ, Furikake matchsticks, nori-roasted sunchoke. Not a fan of mustard in 95% of instances I certainly could have done without the karashi, but aside from that small detail this dish was quite good, albeit not quite as adventurous as others of the meal. Nicely prepared the lamb itself was excellent and ample in portion. Flanking the lamb loin was a lamb-neck meatball with spiciness reminiscent of chorizo and crispy sunchokes plus matchstick “fries” both tasting somewhat briny. Served horizontally on an unfortunately chipped porcelain plate the dish was potentially the most oriental “looking” of the meal.

Moving on to our cheese course, my favorite of the night, the 8th dish of the evening featured Uni Grilled Cheese with Candied Brussels Sprouts, French Onion Dust, and Pomegranate Molasses. While my sister did not fancy this dish, largely because she does not prefer the unctuous nature of urchin, I personally loved the manner in which the uni butter and small section of mollusk accented the aged white cheddar. Featuring untraditional cheese-course sides like a crisp candy-like Brussels Sprout and intensely fructose molasses I could’ve eaten about 5 of these instead of the two I ended up having.

After a short break and chit-chat with our neighbor (a single female Chicagoan who’d obviously been to Bonsoiree multiple times but had never heard of Alinea - confusing, yes) we were informed it was time for dessert – the first of which was served on a simple white plate and entitled Boston Cream Beignets with Cardamom Fudge, Almond Icing, Charred Nectarine, Creme Brulee Ice Cream. A stunning dessert in all ways this dish featured a Cocoa Laden Beignet coated with Almond Icing and a Vanilla Cream Beignet with a gingery fudge situated atop a drizzle of smoky nectarine puree. In a small cup sat a smooth frozen custard topped with a crystal chip – it too was delicious, but almost “too sweet.”

The final course of our evening was served with instructions – specifically to “break” the yolk and to eat the “Button” last. Clever and whimsical the Eggs Benedict with Sweet English Muffin, Candied Bacon, Lavender Hollandaise, Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, Encapsulated Mango, and Sansho Pepper Button looked very much like its namesake breakfast dish. With a scone-like muffin sliced lengthwise and topped with candied pork, a ring of smooth vanilla, and a Moto-like fruit capsule the true star of this dish was actually the Hollandaise – a thick and creamy sauce with excellent floral tones that seemed to bring everything to a peak on the palate. Having never experienced Sichuan (Sansho) pepper in the past I have to admit I was a bit curious on why we were instructed to eat this last and separate from the dish but a single taste set aside all question – talk about the ultimate palate cleanser.

When it was all said and done the total with tax and tip was approximately $140 per person – certainly not cheap, but also not out of line when compared with other 9+ course tasting menus in the city (Avenues, TRU, Moto, L2o, Alinea, Graham Elliot, Schwa, etc.) Settling the bill I thanked everyone for a great meal and for being so accommodating, but I still felt somewhat guilty for changing plans last minute – I still wonder what could’ve been had we done the 13 course with specially ordered items.

That noted, I feel Bonsoiree sits amongst the top 10 restaurants I’ve experienced in Chicago and the setting and price point (especially for those who choose to bring alcohol) is quite nice for both the shorter and longer menu. An excellent reservationist and a talented chef could very well net Bonsoiree a star when Michelin hands out rankings in a week but considering Shin’s talents I rather wonder if they could aspire for more by focusing on the little things like silverware, plating, and service. Overall I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Bonsoiree for a nice night out – but I’d also not rush back before returning to a number of other Windy City top tables.


Leanne said...

I love Bonsoiree, I agree with the service comments. Each time I come to Chicago to visit my friends we always have one meal here.

Anonymous said...

You need to try Girl and Goat on your next visit.

uhockey said...

I went to Girl and the Goat on the evening of the 7th - just haven't had time to get the review up. Patience. :)

Zephram said...

Hi Mike, great reviews as usual. I'm curious why you chose to bypass Avenues? After reading about UE's recent meal there, it looked amazing and right up your alley given the style of cuisine and the chef's relation to Alinea.

uhockey said...

There are only 4 dinners in a 4 day trip. :)

I'm already planning my next visit to Chicago, once NEXT opens, and the lineup is likely to be NEXT, Avenues, BOKA, and Graham Elliot unless something else makes itself irresistable. :)