chef tested hard to find and unusual products

By Odyll Santos


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Le Français
It isn't everyday that I get to dine on what many consider Chicago's (perhaps the country's) best French cuisine. A meal at the legendary Le Français, the bastion of fine dining created by Frenchman Jean Banchet in Wheeling, III., is quite an opportunity.

Banchet is no longer the man at the helm, having retired after nearly 30 years of hard work, selling the restaurant in the spring of 200I. But new owners Philip Mott and Chef Don Yamauchi continue the tradition of fine dining at Le Français. While Banchet gave his guests the opportunity to indulge in classically inspired French food, the youthful Yamauchi presents a more modern interpretation.

Yamauchi, who early in his career had been selected by Food & Wine magazine as one of the country's rising stars, was chef at Gordon, known in Chicago for its contemporary American style. He also worked for nine years at the four-star Carlos in Highland Park, III. Yamauchi gives Le Français a new identity with French dishes and tasting menus drawing inspiration from world cuisines.

Lunch is a tranquil affair at Le Français, with regular guests attired in workday suits chatting in hushed voices amid the soft music, comfortably seated in a brightly lit, gold-toned space. While less formal than an evening meal, when patrons like to dress to the nines, lunch nevertheless allows an indulgence in the best of Chef Yamauchi's artistry.

His French creations have an eclectic twist. Oxtail cleverly becomes a rich filling for ravioli, an appetizer that arrives in a mushroom sauce with asiago cheese and creamed spinach. Yellow Fin tuna is skillfully seared, with an accompaniment of artichokes and black olives, baby vegetables and fresh herbs. Among the entrees, a favorite is the cold lobster salad, accented by the tart and sweet combination of mango-basil vinaigrette, and paired with crisp baricot verts and lotus root chips. Pan roasted monkfish comes with coconut curry cream, sweet green peas and parsnip-potato puree rounding out the flavors.

Dinner features first courses like cold foie gras terrine, toasted brioche and rhubarb jam, and hot foie gras with apples and oranges cooked with vanilla and cayenne. Notable entrees include monkfish wrapped in prosriutto with baricot verts, fresh hearts of palm, black truffle cream and truffle vinaigrette. The menu also features signature French entrees like herb-crusted rack of lamb with roasted potato, taro root purée with black truffles, asparagus, artichokes and Gaufrettte potatoes.

Desserts are made by Pastry Chef Caroline Blanc, whose creations include a blue cheese-apple tart with pine nuts and caramel sauce, and chocolate macaroons served with a cilantro ganache and vanilla ice cream.

Owners Philip Mott and Yamauchi have high expectations for Le Francais, and their efforts are paying off. Out-of-town guests have even been known to fly their private planes into nearby Palwaukee Municipal Airport, making a trip just to dine at Le Francais.

As for Banchet, he's never far away. Comfortable that he has left Le Francais in the most capable of hands, Banchet visits from time to time, catching up on the latest news from his handpicked successors.

Le Francais
269 South Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling, IL
847 541-7470


Trotter's to Go
Another day, another legend, this time Charlie Trotter, whose upscale gourmet take-out, Trotter's to Go, catered an event at a Michigan Avenue store one windy fall day.

Taking his cue from the store's fruit and grain-based leisure care products, Trotter used ingredients like rice, soy products and cranberries to create bite-size sweet and savory pastries for wandering customers. It was the smallest hint of what he could do, and few in the store knew who Trotter was - a surprising fact, especially to an award-winning chef and author whose restaurant has received grand acclaim.

A longtime Chicago resident could be reproached for not having been to the restaurant Charlie Trotter's in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Imagine Chef Trotter's shock at the thought. Trotter's courteous, formal demeanor would register mild horror. There are many reasons to go.

Those with an eye for the smallest detail would be "impressed with the precision" at Charlie Trotter's, the chef said. Meticulously prepared, cut and cooked, with a melange of spices to enhance certain flavors, its accompaniments, textures, colors and tastes carefully chosen, an entire dish artfully laid out on a plate as if it were a master painter's canvass. Precision amid inventiveness is the order of the day when Trotter is chef.

If one couldn't visit Charlie Trotter's to experience its daily degustation menus, then he could at least observe the chef's food philosophy at work in the more casual creations at Trotter's to Go. Customers pressed for time can take home a lavish meal made with the freshest ingredients. Trotter's to Go menus change periodically, depending on the seasonal availability of certain foods. Salad choices feature organic soft wheat berries with roasted mango and dried cherries and marinated Ahi tuna poke with ginger and sesame oil. Meat creations included tamarind-glazed Muscovy Duck and bay leaf and aromatic vegetable braised veal shanks. With a commitment to pairing food and wine, Trotter's to Go also provides shoppers with color-coded note cards that direct them to the style of wine that best accompanies the food they buy.

Trotter himself lends his culinary expertise to yet another book, released last year. Entitled Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game, it is the fifth installment in the chef's series of books. In these pages, Trotter highlights his interpretation of French techniques and Asian minimalism in the preparation, pairing and presentation of exotic meats like pheasant, duck, wild boar and venison as well as lamb, pork and chicken.

Charlie Trotter's
1337 West Fullerton, Chicago, IL
773 868-6510




Trotter to Stay
And finally . . . Ever imagine Chicago without Charlie Trotter? Heavens, no! Luckily, stories that Trotter would shut down his namesake restaurant and move to Europe were untrue (word is, he made a comment that was taken out of context). Trotter looks to be around for sometime. His award-winning restaurant in Chicago's Lincoln Park will be celebrating its 15th anniversary.

Trotter's to Go
1337 West Fullerton, Chicago, IL
773 868-6510




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