Saturday, November 6, 2010

Everest, Chicago IL

Next to Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant, Everest stands as perhaps the most well known elder statesman in a dining scene dominated by cutting edge technique and “hyper-modern” cuisine. While both styles clearly have their place in 21st century dining, Chicago’s predilection for molecular gastronomy somehow makes a place such as Everest stand out in a way it may not in San Francisco or New York. Other factors that makes Everest stand out – its glorious location on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, four star reviews by the Tribune and Sun Times, designations by Relais & Chateaux/Relais Gourmand, Traditions & Qualite, and Le Grande Table du Monde – and just days ago, a Michelin Star.

Helmed by Chef Jean Joho, a native of Alsace and a James Beard and Bon Appetit Chef of the Year award winner, and part of the LettuceEntertainYou (TRU, L2o, etc) empire Everest had been on my list for some time but always seemed to get overlooked for someplace less traditional and more innovative. Having originally planned this meal with my friend Dave who dined with me the night prior at Schwa due to Saturday family obligations, I opted to keep my reservation this time and dine alone – after all, I’d communicated extensively with the lovely special events manager, Megan Laskoski, who had helped to set up a personalized extended tasting menu by Chef Joho for evening – I’d have been a fool to take a pass.

Arriving minutes early for my 7:00pm reservation after a brisk walk from Millennium Park I made my way into the building, through security, and to the first of two sets of elevators – I guess the location comes with a price. Checking my bag after the specially designated elevator transported myself and another couple from thirty-nine to forty I headed for the end of the hall and turned left to find one of the most grand dining rooms I’ve seen. Thick white tablecloths, elegant monogrammed carpeting, chandeliers, and a view that went for miles to the right and the hostess stand with none other than Ms. Laskoski at my left – greeted pleasantly I was led swiftly to a table towards the windows – surprisingly given the current economic climate the restaurant was packed.

Seated in a comfortable padded chair I was to decide between still/sparkling/tap and I was next presented with a wine-list slightly thinner than the phonebook in my home town. With my special menu noted I was left to browse the drinks and upon deciding against alcohol I was asked if I might enjoy a non-alcoholic option such as Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider, an option that actually sounded quite nice. Having never had a $10 cider before I will definitely note it was sweeter and more punchy than the average apple cider the mouth feel was quite similar to champagne.

With a female captain and two younger males managing my table service was excellent throughout the evening – everything was presented with full description, the team was aware of preparation techniques, and my water glass remained persistently full. Presented with a signed copy of my night’s menu I did have to inform the team that I’d specifically requested the Foie Gras be included in the meal (it was not on the menu, but was added without question) and I was a little disappointed that the Duck Margaret would not be part of the evening, but otherwise everything sounded wonderful – even the timing was exacting with each dish arriving approximately 10-15 minutes following my completion of the prior course.

Beginning the night’s dining would be a trio of les amuses bouche – left to right the choices included Wild Mushroom Crème Brulee, Maine Lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer Butter, and Sweet corn Panna Cotta with bacon. While it is tough to trump lobster in butter, the highlight of the amuses would actually be the brulee with its darker earthy tones nicely melding with the sweetness of the crystallized sugar. The panna cotta, while good, was perhaps a little too heavily buttered for my taste and the corn did not shine through the salty bacon as I’d have hoped.

For bread service I was next presented with a slice of Midwestern unsalted butter from Ohio – smooth and sweet on its own, Everest is rare in that each table has a small salt and pepper shaker and the butter was even more impressive with a touch of salt. Amongst the evening’s breads were Rye, 9-Grain, Baguette, Sourdough, Potato, and Milk. House baked but unfortunately served less than warm I tried each and found the crumb of the baguette and milk bread quite wonderful while the standout flavor wise was certainly the nine grain with obvious notes of sesame and wheat.

Beginning the meal proper, approximately 25 minutes after I sat down, would be my specially requested Pressé of Cold New York State Foie Gras, Rosehips, Heirloom Apples, Marinated Melon with toasted brioche. Thin and perfect the strip of liver clearly highlighted the dish – not quite mousse like that at The French Laundry, but more so than that at Henri. Topped with a compote of apple and cinnamon and complimented with a twirl of honeydew and cubes of watermelon I actually found the most intriguing part of this plate a flower spiked balsamic spread on the plate – savory but with floral notes evident and especially nicely complimenting the apples.

For my second course I was served a dish I’ll certainly look back on as one of the best of the trip - Farm Fresh Shirred Egg, Champagne Cream, Smoked Sturgeon Caviar. Featuring half an ounce of glistening black eggs both topping the egg and filling the molten yolk interior, the layer in between was a piped sponge of bracing contrast, something like whipped cream made of dry champagne. Perhaps the most memorable savory of a meal full of top notch preparations.

Continuing the parade of well executed preparations using superior ingredients dish number three would prepare Vintage Carnaroli Risotto with a Compote of Cinderella Pumpkin and Boneless Quail Supreme. With crispy skinned quail at the center and a drizzle of pan jus surrounding the bird the highlight of this dish was the creamy rice, just toothsome enough to make itself known in a broth that tasted somewhere between chicken soup and sweet potato pie. I’ve realized over the years that I am in the minority of persons not wowed by Risotto, but this was a great interpretation.

The fourth course to arrive at my two-top was Sautéed Casco Bay Sea Scallop, Pomme Mousseline, Jus de Poulet – and by sautéed I’m pretty sure the kitchen meant “soaked in butter, caramelized atop, and sashimi style within.” With the seemingly hockey puck sized scallop dominating the plate’s center and a pool of buttery sieved potato beneath the jus was merely a savory afterthought.

Plate five would present the most aggressive flavor pairing of the evening in the form of Crepinette of Wild Sturgeon, Wrapped and Roasted in Cured Ham and Cabbage, Pinot Noir. With the sturgeon nicely prepared and flakey, the typically mild fish was somewhat overwhelmed by the combination of aromatic cabbage, savory pork, and reduced wine. A decent sized portion for a long tasting menu my favorite aspect of the dish was the buttery “cabbage crust” and the texture lent by the crispy pork.

The final savory of the evening would be Filet of Venison, Wild Huckelberries, Braised Pear, Alsace Knepfla. Never one to order deer by choice I must admit I’m always happy when it arrives as part of a tasting. Mildly gamey the rolled loin was coated in what I believe to be graham cracker and seared on the exterior with a crimson center. Adding levity to the hefty meat would be a puree of membrillo, sliced braised pear, and a reduction of huckleberry. Served as a “bonus,” a small bowl of buttery pasta knepfla pasta with a texture not dissimilar to spaetzle – tasty, but oddly presented in my opinion.

Always one to take notes I am remiss to note that I did not detail the night’s cheese selection – an Assortment of Small Midwestern Farmer’s Cheeses. Presented as a quartet with mild to pungent from left to right I do remember that two were from Indiana, one from Ohio, and another from Michigan and that there was a blue, a raw cow, a sheep, and a goat. Overall each of the selections were pleasant and the accompanying walnut raisin bread and compote of candied fruits and nuts were quite tasty.

Marking my transition from savory to sweet, the palate cleanser of the day would be Composition of Heirloom Apples en Gelee. Pale green on pale green on pale green the course featured silky smooth green apple gelato over tart apple jello. With a crystallized apple chip topping the gelato and small cubes of apple dotting the dish the serving was actually quite large for a palate cleanser and quite good, to boot.

For my desserts I’d mentioned to Megan when I made the reservation that there were two I was quite interested in, something old and something new – both would find their way to my table that evening. Starting first with the Classic Old Rhum Infused Baba, Raisin Pineapple Glace, 18th Century Alsace Recipe all I can say is that it was as classic as the name portrays, aside from the ice cream. Topped tableside with a spicy and boozy shot of rum the baba was flawless and the ethereal buttery pastry simply melted in the mouth. An equally competent counterpart, the rum raisin and pineapple ice cream was served atop a compote of candied pineapple and raisin. Having had far less traditional Baba Au Rhum from Ducasse and Kruether, this classic presentation was an equal delight.

As good as the first was in its tradition, the second succeeded in its novelty. Presented and topped tableside with a “free form” soufflé standing tall and proud at the center, the New Wave Fromage Blanc Soufflé with Persimmon Coulis, Squash Confit, and Alsace Spice Cake Glace was sublime. Light yet harboring the essence of cheesecake with a base of “spice cake crumble” the soufflé itself was a marvel. With chunks of confit squash alongside and room temperature coulis adding fructose sweetness the main portion of the dish alone was worth the hefty price tag ($22 if ordered a la carte.) Equally impressive as the soufflé and served over the spice cake crumble at the bowl’s edge would be one of the five best ice creams to ever grace my palate – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice – and smooth as silk.

Sipping my coffee – appropriately Intelligentsia given our location in Chicago – I was next presented with a tray of mignardises. Rather full from the day of eating I opted to taste only one of each (the waiter quickly said “as many as you’d like” when I asked if he could just leave the tray.) Featuring a Marshmallow Chocolate Cone, Anise cookie, Pistachio Financier, Rum Square, and Lemon Pate a fruit I loved the Marshmallow cone’s presentation, texture, and flavor while the cookie and financier were rather dry.

Settling the tab - $200 for the meal, $10 for the cider, plus tax and tip – I bid my team farewell and made my way to the exit where Megan greeted me. Stemming from a mere comment to my server (when I noted the Foie Gras) about my menu being dated “October 6th” as opposed to November Megan apologized and stated she would take my name and have a menu sent out immediately. Insisting it was not a big deal she persisted and I left my name and address – four days later I received a new copy of the menu, with the Foie Gras and correct date – plus a signed card from the team and some promotional information.

Similar to my TRU and L2o experiences there is no doubt in my mind that LettuceEntertainYou is similar to the Danny Meyer Empire in NYC – a “yes” organization where the diner’s enjoyment is of the utmost importance. While it certainly is not a cheap meal, the combination of atmosphere, food, and service at Everest is amongst the best in Chicago – if I were with Michelin they’d have gotten two stars, just like Trotter’s.

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