January 19, 2012
Funny how a simple gesture, a little grace note, can render a dining experience memorable. For instance, I would send people to BLT American Brasserie just for the popovers.
Maybe it's because bread at restaurant tables these days is often missing, or available for a price. But these complimentary, crusty treats, tasting of Gruyere and black pepper (definitely a popover for grown-ups), put me in a happy mood.
There's quite a bit more to like about this restaurant, which marks the Chicago debut of Laurent Tourondel, the French chef who made a huge splash in New York with BLT (which stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel) and multiple spinoffs. Tourondel is no longer associated with the restaurant group that operates BLT restaurants in at least nine cities (as well as the Florentine in Chicago), but both sides are able to use the BLT monogram. If you're keeping score, right now the Chicago restaurant is the only BLT in which Tourondel is involved.
The brasserie sits where the star-crossed Brasserie Ruhlmann once operated a couple of years back, though the space underwent a snazzy makeover by designer Jordan Mozer, who gave the massive, 160-seat room a more approachable scale by a series of half-walls that separate the dining area from the lounge and bar. Low tables and chairs in the former, and counter-height tables and leather-seat chairs in the latter, give a tiered effect to a one-level room; it's quite clever.
Having established that BLT American Brasserie is a fine place to hang out, let's look at the menu. First-time visitors could be forgiven for shrugging at the modest-to-a-fault food descriptions, but they do give the well-versed waiters something to talk about. And chef de cuisine Aksel Theilkuhl revels in what he calls the "wow factor," when dishes look and taste better than anticipated.
And frankly, Theilkuhl cooks with such simple, unfussy style that ornate menu descriptions would seem silly. Two entrees, for example — the organic salmon in apple broth and the veal and pork meatballs — are on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum, but are twin examples of the virtues of simplicity and sourcing. The meatballs are pure comfort, a mix of fresh-ground meat and quality ricotta cheese, set on a bed of herbaceous polenta with mascarpone; home cooking on a higher level. The salmon is a study in subtlety, cold-smoked to acquire just the gentlest kiss of wood, pan-seared for exterior crispness and set over a butter-bolstered apple broth with a touch of mustard.
Stone-oven pizzas make fine starters, the crusts boasting crunchy outer layers but soft insides. Sushi options include a fine tuna tataki roll, each piece topped with a sliver of jalapeno, a bit of cilantro and a dot of sriracha sauce. The calamari salad is a colorful melange of good ingredients, not the least of which being the tender squid. And among the raw-bar offerings, the crab cocktail abounds with blue-crab lump meat alongside the standard cocktail and Dijonnaise sauces.
There are three desserts offered, all good. The star is the passion fruit crepe souffle, which looks like a giant croissant but provides the texture of a souffle with a delightfully tangy fruit component. The warm flourless chocolate cake is a dish everyone does, but this version, with a little hint of spice, is worth adding to your experiences. And the banana steamed pudding is another of BLTAB's prosaic-sounding dishes that dazzle you when they arrive.
I suspect that the BLT sandwich, accented with truffle paste, is a very good sandwich, but my version had so much pickled jalapeno (not listed among the ingredients) that it set my mouth on fire. I'm not a fan of the pewter-colored paper place mats on the table, which make every crumb and water spot stand out. The first two visits, the place mats remained untended from cocktails through dessert; my third visit, my place mats were replaced not once but twice, owing, I suspect, to my elevation to VIP status.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
BLT American Brasserie
500 W. Superior St.; 312-948-8744; bltamericanbrasserie.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Entree prices: $22-$27
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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