Once-dominant restaurants such as Le Francais and Ambria surrendered their prominence and then vanished. New restaurants were bigger, brighter, louder. New ingredients and chemistry-lab cooking techniques seized our collective imagination, and somehow, "contemporary French" became more and more of an oxymoron.
Step past the fenced-in front garden and through the narrow door, and Mary Beth Liccioni, who has owned Les Nomades since 1993, is there to welcome you. When's the last time you were greeted at the door by any restaurant's owner, let alone one who is grace personified?
"This is what we want to be; what we do is what I love doing," she says. "It's a style, and an ambience. I love avant garde restaurants; they're so interesting. But that's not who we are."
Chris Nugent, at 36 quite possibly the youngest Old School chef in Chicago, gets it. He understands the clientele, some of whom were members back when Les Nomades was a private club under the legendary Jovan Trboyevic. Nugent was 5 years old when Trboyevic opened Les Nomades in 1978, and five years is how long Nugent has been Les Nomades' cuisinier, as the plaque out front identifies him. "You need to respect the clientele who got us where we are," he says. "It's not just about what I want to cook."
And so, even on the hottest day of the summer, the menu includes the duck consomme, a labor-intensive dish that is like drinking liquid duck, except for the delicate dices of carrot and confit-filled ravioli in the bowl. It's as richly satisfying now as it was when I first sampled it in 1982.
But there is also white-asparagus soup, with a hidden bounty of shrimp beneath the surface and a heady white truffle froth -- yes, froth -- on top. And the hippest chef in town would be happy to lay claim to Nugent's "ham and egg" salad of gently dressed mache and frisee lettuces, supporting a farm egg (poached and rolled in toasted breadcrumbs), white and green asparagus tips, morel mushrooms and Iberico ham. There's also an inventive composition of smoked trout that includes thin-sliced salmon rolled around a tartare of salmon trout (a.k.a. arctic char), alongside a soupcon of hot-smoked salmon over fennel emulsion.
Long before salumi became a household word, there was house-made pate, and sampling the pates maison was a good way to predict what sort of evening lay ahead. Restaurants that go to the trouble of creating pates will offer two or three. Nugent proffers five, ranging from the silky chicken- liver mousse to the grainier, fuller-flavored duck and pork rillette, all the way to the exquisite, melt-in-your-mouth squab-liver mousse.
Highlights of the main courses include buttery Kona Kampachi, dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and matched to sliced Tokyo turnips and sunchoke puree over a rich langoustine sauce. Sweetbreads with remarkably mild and sweet squab breast make a fine duo, abetted by quenelles of quinoa with zucchini and tomato confit. I loved the rack and loin of lamb with a zippy artichoke soubise, but these days the lamb duo shares the plate with chanterelles, lardons and Lyonnaise onions cooked so slowly over low heat that Nugent dubs it "onion soup, without the soup."
There is something very comforting about Les Nomades. The downstairs dining room, so Parisian in its clean lines and art-filled walls, and the romantic upstairs room, clad in wood and draped in heavy fabric, are as familiar and comfortable as old friends. The menu format hasn't changed in years; customers select a four- or five-course menu ($115 and $130, respectively), making selections within each course category. There's an early-seating three-course menu for $65 (though the menu is available on request at any time), and the truly indulgent can opt for the 11-course tasting menu for $165 ($225 with wine pairings). The only difficulty is in choosing which dishes to forgo -- which is why you bring friends.
Nowhere is the choosing more difficult than in the dessert course. Desserts remain Liccioni's special area of interest, though they're executed with uncommon precision, as they have been for years, by pastry chef Alejandro Sanchez. Souffles are excellent, whatever flavor one might choose, as is the apple tart tatin with green-apple sorbet.
Service remains exemplary; the default mode is reserved, but once they sense a desire for direction or information (and they border on clairvoyance in that regard), they are quick with help. Wine service is especially helpful, which is good; with a list this deep and pricey, you don't want to make any mistakes. (Thursdays, incidentally, are no-corkage wine nights.)
Les Nomades is one of the few dining rooms that still requires gentlemen to wear jackets. It is yet another civilized touch that seems almost quaint these days, but I know that Liccioni -- and likely most of her regulars -- wouldn't have it any other way.
But while Les Nomades clings to a few forgotten niceties, Nugent's kitchen ably demonstrates that the world has yet to pass this restaurant by.
Nor should it. It should stop, and stare. And pay its respects.
Les Nomades222 E. Ontario St.; 312-649-9010
Open: Dinner Tue.-Sat.
Prices: Four-course menu $115; five-course $130
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Valet parking; jackets required