In September of 2009 I ate at The Gage prior to U2’s opening date of the US tour at Soldier Field – it was a great meal in the most unlikely of spaces for someone who doesn’t fancy bars, beer, or “pub” food…and the concert was excellent too. Preferring French to any other cuisine I was particularly interested when I heard that Executive Chef Dirk Flanigan and Chef de Cuisine Christopher Cubberley had decided to expand their line of restaurants one door down from the Gage – a new concept called Henri with a menu “influenced by the refining principles of classical cuisine.”
Named after architect Louis Henri Sullivan, a huge influence on the Chicago city-scape, Henri sits nicely just off of Millennium Park and knowing my sister and friends would not be arriving until mid-day I made reservations for one at noon. Arriving early I wandered the park for a while before returning to the restaurant where I was greeted warmly and sat immediately – still carrying my bags they were checked at once by a friendly hostess. Offered the option of a table near the front or the back I chose the back – as it turns out there were only 2 tables open in the entire restaurant.
Led through the bustling dining room and seated at a cozy two-top everything about Henri felt the part of classic French Bistro - heavy drapery, velvet walls, hardwood floors, crown molding, crystal chandeliers, and an oyster bar to boot. With water filled I was handed the daily menu and a cocktail list with my waiter returning shortly thereafter to ask if I had any questions and subsequently to take orders. Without belaboring service I will note that for a “bistro” the service was excellent – water never reached half empty, food arrived with adequate description, and timing was excellent – I was never left to want for anything despite the busy nature of the lunch hour at such a popular location.
Merely moments after my orders were taken I was greeted by the bread man – a friendly fellow presenting a single option, but an excellent one. Described as a “mini baguette” and served with a sweet room temperature butter the roll arrived warm from the oven and a crispy golden crust yielded a soft and supple interior with a delicate crumb. Akin in texture and flavor to Keller’s Epi at Bouchon I ended up eating three of these rolls and gladly would’ve eaten more had I not been trying to pace myself.
Arriving approximately 20 minutes after seating my first course was obvious – and at $22 the most expensive appetizer choice on the menu. Served with golden pan-grilled brioche the Torchon of Foie Gras with apricot and aged balsamic would turn out to be every bit as good as I’d hoped. Classic in presentation the liver itself was served in three large slices, each topped with salt and pepper plus flowers for garnish. Perfectly cleaned and nicely textured the unctuous liver paired nicely with the sweet and savory aspects of the fruit and vinegar while the brioche was crisp, warm, and buttery. Quality ingredients, excellent presentation – exactly what I expected.
Finishing up the Foie Gras I sat back and waited for my main course – my other “must order” on the menu loaded with wonderful choices. Arriving piping hot and with a side of crispy pommes frites and ketchup, the Croque Madame with aged French ham, Comte, and Gruyere on Brioche was every bit as classic as the Foie Gras – and every bit as strong a representation. Thick with a sweet and smoky ham the crisp brioche stood up nicely to Gruyere both inside and out while a layer of Comte coated the top of the sandwich. Topped with a single fresh farm egg served over easy I sliced the sandwich bite by bite with the provided Laguiole knife and was absolutely delighted – a dish on par with my favorite Croque of all time at The Butler and the Chef and every bit worth the hefty $18.50 price tag.
Impressed by the savories I strongly considered dessert until I received a text from my sister saying they’d arrived in town and I was informed by my waiter that the lemon soufflé was only available at dinner. Sated but not stuffed I opted to settle the bill – a bill arriving with a lemon pate de fruit - and thanked my server and hostess for an excellent experience. While I’m sure the hype surrounding Henri will wane as the restaurant ages I certainly hope the quality of food and service doesn’t change. While it certainly isn’t a cheap lunch, the quality and location justifies the cost and a reservation is definitely worth the effort. With Irish Pub and French Bistro exemplified one can only wonder what is next for Chef Flanigan and team, but whatever it is I’ll be sure to check it out.
Leaving Henri I received a text from my sister saying they were hungry and headed to Pizzeria Uno as they do each year at SOFA. Having never been to Uno on my many visits to Chicago due to the lines and lack of reservations I texted her back – I’d meet them there – I still had stomach real estate to spare. Turning north and walking quickly I arrived at the restaurant in approximately 20 minutes and found the crew seated at a small table in the jam packed restaurant – an order already placed and due in 20 minutes.
Regardless of what rumor you believe about the invention of Chicago-Style pizza, whether it be 1941 or 1943, Sewell or Malnati, there is no doubt Uno is the name most folks think of when they think of Deep Dish Pizza and as such I expected something special. Arriving a mere 10 minutes after I sat down the pizza arrived piping hot and thick as expected. With a plethoric crust in a well seasoned pan and sides pulled up high the crust was covered with cheese and then, per my sister’s order, Spinach, broccoli, chunky tomatoes, feta, Cheddar, mozzarella and grated Romano forming the Spinoccoli pizza.
With servings plated for each of us I took a bite of the hot pie and instantly felt a hint of disappointment. Perhaps it was the choice of pie – certainly not what I’d have ordered – but the taste was largely butter and broccoli, no tomato and certainly no bite. Unlike the spicy and acidic sauce melding with creamy mozzarella at Art of Pizza or the caramelized crust herbal sauce at Lou Malnati’s there was simply nothing special to the pie and I certainly couldn’t taste 2 different cheeses, let alone four.
Paying the modest tab and making our way to the door we passed by a waiting throng of at least forty – I wanted to tell them it wasn’t worth it – to walk down to Lou’s where there is no wait and better pizza. Obviously I refrained – perhaps someday I’ll go back and try something a bit more traditional – but with so many great places left to try I somehow doubt it.