(Michael Dining Room; Taken from Restaurant Website)
Michael is a French restaurant in Winnetka, IL. Chef Michael Lachowicz has an extensive background cooking in French restaurants in Chicago, including a stint cooking under Roland Liccioni, who is now the chef at Les Nomades. The restaurant was not really on my radar until a friend purchased a Groupon for a seven-course dinner there, and with the NATO summit taking place it made good sense to avoid downtown Chicago and head up to the suburbs for dinner.
The traffic up from Hyde Park was shockingly light and we arrived about 45 minutes early for our 6pm reservation. We were seated right away although the kitchen doesn’t start cooking until 5:30, so this gave us some time to absorb the dining room. The décor was very conservative: lots of dark brown, with brown curtains and tablecloths. The room was not very distinctive as it was completely rectangular and while quite clean the atmosphere wasn’t especially stimulating.
The sterile feel of the dining room was a bit surprising given that my initial impressions of Chef Lachowicz were formed through reading his blog, which is linked to through the restaurant’s website. The blog is very candid and somewhat shocking, and Chef Michael is not shy about bringing up his drug and alcohol rehab and contentious topics such as dealing with employees who are not proficient in English. Based on the persona that he establishes through his blog, the conservative ambiance was surprising and one has to wonder whether any of the chef’s personality went into designing the dining room.
We were not given menus since the Groupon was for a set 7-course menu. It is not clear whether the tasting menu is an option on the regular menu; it is not advertised on the website, although some restaurants (Naha, for example) offer a tasting menu but simply choose not to mention it on the website. It’s worth noting that the price for the Groupon was $80 for 2 people (wine pairings included, though we each declined alcohol) so I have no idea how they made money on the meal. I can understand a suburban restaurant making an effort to draw people up to Winnetka from the city, but the dining room was mostly filled so it isn’t too likely that they are hurting for customers. My friend and I were easily the youngest diners and it seemed as though Michael’s clientele consists mostly of elderly suburbanites.
To start, we were each given a gougere filled with parmesan, mascarpone, and gruyere. It was much heavier than expected and the cheese was actually in liquid form. The bread service was a lone roll, and the butter is not made in house. The roll was warm but tasted no different from what one would find at the supermarket. I understand that restaurants don’t make money off of it, but Michael clearly expends no effort into their bread service, either in quality or quantity. This is a shame since (provided one isn’t using a Groupon) it is priced similarly to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. It is understandable that they would expend most of their effort toward the menu itself, but given that one’s initial interaction with the restaurant involves absorbing the décor and tasting the bread service, it was disappointing that very little thought seemed to go into either.
The first course was an English pea soup with cappuccino foam. I don’t typically care for English peas but it was refreshing. However, the serving vessel was slightly closed at the top, making it very difficult to consume. Moreover, the portion size was small to the point that we were not sure whether it was an amuse bouche or not. The flavor profile and portion size would have made it a perfect amuse, but to start a tasting menu with a miniscule portion of soup was quite strange and would be very surprising to someone accustomed to tasting menus. It would make more sense to advertise the tasting menu as 6 courses and then serve the soup as a complimentary pre-course, although I suppose that this might limit the amount of Groupons that they would sell.
The second course was even more curious than the first: pork and pistachio pate with squab mousse, garlic-cured sausage, nicoise olives, cornichons, Dijon mustard, and flatbread crisps. I have never had a charcuterie plate as part of a tasting menu, and one would think that if the chef were attempting to lure new customers to his restaurant with the Groupon deal, he would include dishes that are more inventive. I can only imagine that the charcuterie dish was included as a generic gesture toward French cuisine. The flatbread crisps were also too brittle to accommodate the mousse, and the Dijon mustard was identifiably Grey Poupon; I enjoyed the meats very much, so it was a shame that very little effort seemed to have been expended into the accompaniments.
For the lone fish course of the evening, we were served grilled salmon with ramps, English pea puree, and a saffron-cream sauce. This was the most inventive dish in the tasting menu although it was also the most incoherent. The salmon itself was terrific and I loved the smoky flavor, even if it was odd to be served grilled fish in a classical French restaurant. The pea puree, though, was too sweet for the smokiness of the fish. Even more obstructive was the saffron sauce, which was overwhelming and clashed with the fish. We both felt that there were too many bold, contrasting flavors in this dish. It was also the most unusual presentation of the evening; I liked the composition but it was odd that this was the only course that wasn’t served on a white plate.
The first meat course was guinea hen stuffed with pain perdu, served with morel mushrooms, summer squash, and hen jus (this picture was taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com, which explains its high quality.) Our runner described the sauce as a mushroom sauce, but this didn’t seem correct so we asked our waiter and he informed us that the sauce was indeed a hen jus. The confusion over the ingredients was a bit sloppy although the sauce was terrific and the meat held its characteristically gamey flavor. I have always loved morel mushrooms and they did not disappoint either. The summer squash was superfluous and would have been more appropriate as a mild accompaniment to the aggressively-flavored salmon in the previous course. Although I would not characterize this as stunningly creative, it was comfortably satisfying and the first dish of the meal that resonated as the sort one would expect to receive in a classical French tasting menu. After having been disappointed by the chef’s more creative offering in the prior course, this course revealed his talent in more classical preparations.
Progressing to heavier meat, our final savory dish was roasted Kurabata pork tenderloin with potato gallette, green beans, carrots, and roast pork jus. The potato gallette was hidden under the pork. I don’t care for pork and actually have not had pork tenderloin in a restaurant context since dining at Charlie Trotter’s last fall. This preparation was simply overcooked and completely dry. We did not send it back since we were receiving such a great deal from the Groupon. When a restaurant prepares a classical dish, execution errors are all the more disappointing since there is no novelty at work that would add excitement to the dish. I did enjoy the roast pork jus and the potato gallette, but the vegetables were insipid and had I not known better I would have assumed they were cooked in a microwave.
The next course was a cheese plate, with Manchego, triple crème brie, bleu cheese, and Taleggio. Accompaniments were a lacerated fig and the same flatbread crackers that had been served with the charcuterie. It was strange that a French restaurant would serve 2 cheeses that weren’t from France. I had predicted that we would receive cheese for the sixth course; similar to the charcuterie, it seemed as though Michael just wanted to provide a generic sampling of ‘typical’ French cuisine, something like a French Dining 101 experience. Unfortunately, this occurred at the expense of showcasing the chef’s individual style.
My companion guessed that the dessert course would be a soufflé preparation and he was correct; the menu progression was in many ways a generic script, although this was not necessarily a problem since I enjoy soufflés. However, the execution was somewhat sloppy; there was no firm crust and the texture was like a moist brownie, although the dessert was redeemed by the chocolate, which was rich and high-quality. The mignardise was a Grand Marnier truffle, although unfortunately there was no taste of Grand Marnier to be found.
I left Michael conflicted, and my main impression is that my companion and I are simply not the audience that the restaurant is targeting. Michael seems to have cultivated a loyal following of wealthy, elderly folks and I can easily imagine someone latching onto a particular favorite dish and ordering it on repeated visits. It is crucial that restaurants establish a relationship with their audience, and it does seem as though Michael is successful in that regard. For me personally, however, the atmosphere felt somewhat uninspired and the tasting menu progression basically an encyclopedia of stereotypical French cuisine crammed within a 7-course format. I wish that there had been more originality, but the most eclectic dish—the salmon—felt like a misfire. The most disappointing aspect of the meal was that the kitchen restricted itself to classical preparations yet often executed them in a sloppy way. I don’t understand why Chef Michael links to his blog from the restaurant’s website, since his establishment seemed diametrically opposed to the sensibility that he presents through his blog; there was none of the candid effusiveness of his writing style. The restaurant certainly seems like a profitable operation, but one has to wonder whether the chef has subordinated his personal style in the interests of a safe business venture.