534 N. Clark St. 312-595-1616
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of 4) Heating up
Chef Carrie Nahabedian already has a nice restaurant. Naha, her Mediterranean-inspired contemporary American spot in River North, has netted her plenty of awards since it opened in 2000.
For her next move, I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if she opened a more casual spot, following the path of other top chefs such as Rick Bayless' street food cafe Xoco or Graham Elliot's sandwich shop Grahamwich. But Nahabedian does her own thing. So instead of going downscale, she stayed upscale—way up.
"We listened to our clients and customers and friends who want to go back to feeling pretty and feeling taken care of and tablecloths and [being] civilized and that feeling of refinement," Nahabedian said.
And so she and cousin Michael Nahabedian have branched out just a block north of Naha with Brindille, which means "branch" or "new growth" in French. I made a weekend reservation and prepared to revel in what Nahabedian calls a "refined Parisian" experience.
Expect some sticker shock
The canoodling couple next to us clearly was trying to keep their bill slim by ordering just entrees, and the server kindly told them that they'd go home hungry. Similar to the price point at Naha, a full dinner—first course, entree, dessert and drink—will cost you at least $100 per person. I do not doubt there are foodies out there who drop that kind of money a couple of times a week, and those people are definitely at Brindille, Nahabedian can attest. "I can honestly tell you, my hand to God, the first six days that we were open, we had 10 individuals that had dined with us over three times," she said. Real talk: Unless you have money to burn, Brindille is a special-occasion restaurant. The indulgent (read: inherently expensive) ingredients, from the AOC-designated roquefort cheese in the frisee salad ($16) to meaty king crab with black truffles ($21) live up to that status, no question. Servers looking oh-so-elegant in lilac sweaters and gray slacks describe dishes as if they are reciting poetry. There's a lot about "vibrancy" and "brightness" and "acidity."
Go ahead and order the lobster
Why pay $42 for chicken when it's just a few more bucks to go all-out and get the lobster? That was my thought looking at the entrees, though to be fair, Nahabedian's version of a chicken dish is guinea fowl, raised specially for the restaurant, served with morel mushrooms, sunchokes and cockscombs (the ruffle from atop a rooster's head, not the flower with the same name). The Lobster Brindille ($48) is a serious portion—a 1.5-pound bad boy from Maine—but the flavors are delicate and fragrant, with the scent of vanilla and verbena playing off the crispness of sugar snap peas and miner's lettuce as well as the creaminess of marble potatoes and French white coco beans. My server's recommendation to try the lamb saddle ($44) was the best advice of the night. It knocked the best lamb dish I've ever had—a course at Next's Paris dinner—out of first place with its tender, juicy slices of roasted meat, artichokes, tiny knob onions, eggplant and cheese crisps Nahabedian calls "parmesan leaves," all resting in the richest lamb jus that's OMG-I-must-lick-this-plate good.
Don't be afraid to laugh
Tables in the back of the dining room—especially one tucked into an alcove with a stunning sculptural light overhead—are more secluded, but sitting up front up against the curved glass facade that looks out onto Clark Street made for some unexpectedly funny moments. There's nothing like watching a stiletto-clad bachelorette party clumsily teetering its way to a drag show at Baton Show Lounge while sipping a $25 glass of champagne. My date and I struggled not to snicker as the gentleman at the table next to us complained to his server with utmost seriousness that he--or more specifically, his ears--were too cold. And every time a new table is set, a staffer came by with a cordless iron to steam out the creases in the white tablecloth, causing us to chuckle again.
Forget about souffle for dessert
Nahabedian has something to say about souffles. "Everybody thinks with French cuisine, is she going to do a souffle, is she going to do a souffle?" she said. "Which is great, but souffles wait for no one … if [diners] want to go outside and smoke a cigarette, they don't care that their souffle is ready." Instead, she's doing a different warm baked dessert, clafoutis. "Every French person's grandmother made clafoutis," she said. Though the Fantaisie au Chocolat ($14), an amalgam of mousse and cake inside a towering pulled sugar sleeve, looks more impressive, it's that clafoutis ($13), studded with cherries and almonds and served with a big bowl of whipped Chantilly cream, that's more satisfying.
Try the bar
If you're curious about Brindille but aren't ready to commit to dinner, don't discount the bar. With just one row of seats, it's much smaller than Naha's lounge, but you'll still benefit from the killer cocktails and quick wit of Steve Carrow, bar director for both restaurants. When I told him that I typically drink Old Fashioneds, he recommended the vieux carre ($14), a classic cocktail that he makes with Templeton rye, cognac, French herbal liqueur Benedictine and a stately chunk of ice that he chips by hand from a block behind the bar. A few sips were all I needed to declare it my new favorite. Carrow also keeps a close eye on those who order the Jeanne d'Arc ($15) a gin-based cocktail with black currant "caviar" that settles in the bottom of the glass. "It's the Roy Rogers decoder ring at the bottom of the Cracker Jacks," Carrow said. "Most people will consciously leave about three-quarters of an ounce of the drink in there and swirl it and toss it back, as is intended." I ordered this drink later at my table and earned the "you're doing it wrong" award for draining the glass, leaving the caviar stranded in the bottom. If I were at the bar, Carrow would have handed me a mother-of-pearl spoon to scoop them out. "We usually let them stare at it in bewilderment for about three or four minutes. And then when they start licking the inside of the glass, we give them the spoon."
The bottom line
If you want fun French, go to Paris Club. If you want elegant, indulgent, I-feel-like-being-pampered French, Brindille is just the ticket—provided that you can stand to shell out when the check arrives.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink
MORE BITES FROM BRINDILLE
How to say it: "Brawn-dee," not "Brin-deel."
The crowd: Old-money couples, new-money couples, white-haired couples and 20- and 30-something Naha bar regulars who cheek-kiss the staff before ordering glasses of bubbly.
Crazy about: Oysters served with creamed leeks and eggs brouilles (eggs scrambled with chives and creme fraiche) topped with osetra caviar ($19).
Not so crazy about: Broccoli soup, which was accompanied by tasty cheese-topped toast but didn't knock my socks off for $15.
I'll be back to try: The cheese plate ($22), which features 12 French cheeses with a baked-to-order raisin ficelle (like a baguette but thinner) and meyer lemon and huckleberry jam. "The Naha cheese course is one of the best cheese courses out there, but I think that Brindille is taking over," Nahabedian said. "I've seen a lot of people just wipe it out themselves, [with] one or two good glasses of red wine at the end of a meal." Don't mind if I do …
"I've been a collector of things since I was as young as I could possibly put my hands around something and decide I was going to keep it," said chef Carrie Nahabedian. "I've been a beachcomber since I was a child; I've been a forager; I've been a collector of things all nature, organic, environmental. But also I collect things of culture in my travels." Display cases between the host stand and bar showcase some of her goodies collected over the years, with the contents changing every few days. "Right now, that reflects some of my collections ... of obscure silverware, shells, some books, some things that I've received as gifts. Today, we might do white asparagus and turkey eggs and big apple blossoms because that's what it's all about today."Copyright © 2015, RedEye