Is it possible for one of your best meals to also turn out to be your most disappointing meal? On a pleasant, late Saturday afternoon, a great friend and I found ourselves pondering that question. Put a footnote there, as we shall return with the explanation of why we were disappointed.
We met at Henri at 18 S. Michigan Avenue. For years we had gone to an Asian restaurant next door to the restaurant and each time we said that we would have to go to Henri. Having been in a French mode as of late, we agreed that it was time that we actually went to Henri rather than simply talked about going.
With perfect weather for outdoor seating, we sat outside and had a brief review of the menu while enjoying complimentary homemade bread that had been glazed with honey. In our usual experimental mood, we chose to indulge our own degustation and wine pairing. We explained to the server what we liked — seafood, no pork, no beef, nothing with nuts in it — and told him to surprise us.
For our first course, we had diver scallops and escargot bourgogne. The diver scallops came surrounded by a champagne and grapefruit gelatin, and they sat atop a marmalade of endive that’s caramelized to give a hint of bitterness and sweetness. Also with it came a sliver of grapefruit with a mint purée. The escargot bourgogne was marinated in butter and garlic. The escargot were flat top cooked on toasted brioche with truffle, garlic hollandaise, and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette, preserved lemon, and fig purée. To keep our palates wet, the glass of sancerre was silk on the tongue.
The second course was split pea soup. The surprise in this dish was that there was tartness to the soup that was somehow cancelled out by the sweetness of the English peas. Yes, there was enough of a hint in the tartness, but not to the point of inducing a wince, much like what one experiences when getting the first taste of a lemon. The soup was divinely creamy, which was an indication of having been puréed to an extreme or indeed having cream added. And the oakiness chablis was splendid for cutting through the richness of the English peas.
Indulging the third course was when my friend and I had earmarked Henri as the most outstanding French restaurant in Chicago proper. Duck cassoulet and nettle ravioli were the two dishes that were our determining factors — and we probably would have said the same of any other dishes. The duck cassoulet is not a dish that you find to excess in Paris. Those in Southern France mostly partake of this casserole and Henri honoured that recipe very, very satisfactorily, and the glass of Pinot Noir was the perfect companion. This casserole of duck confit and black beans, instead of white beans as used in the recipe in France, was absolutely worthy of having the bowl licked afterwards. The plate on which the nettle ravioli came was also a candidate for losing tact and licking. Nettle pesto, truffle duxelle cream, shiitake, peas, and radish, coupled with insatiable appetites made for a work of art that fell victim to our knives, forks, and gnashing teeth. Vegetarians would overdose on the nettle ravioli, for it is that inviting to the palate. And like my friend, the rosé will be an excellent accompaniment to the ravioli.
The dessert course was light and exemplary of how marvelous the French are when it comes to desserts. We had a banana souffle, three-tier chocolate mousse, and coffee. The presentation for the souffle was unexpected. The souffle came to the table, the server poked a hole in it, and then poured bananas in a creamy sauce atop it while the souffle was falling. One may say, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it only takes one scoop to have a passive remark turn into, “Oh, my God, I need to have some more of that.” The three-tier chocolate mousse looked more like a small sculpture. Yes, it was culinary art, in all sense of the word. Chocolate cake on the bottom, white chocolate mousse in the middle, and a dollop of more white chocolate, and topped with a drizzled chocolate cap, this dessert was too dainty to devour. We devoured it and wrapped up with coffee and cafe au lait.
As you can tell, this was a meal to make most chefs jealous. Not only was the meal worthy of high praise, but the service was absolutely top. The server took time to explain the dishes. Then again, my friend and I had let him place the orders, so explanations were proper. Even with the wine pairings, the sommelier came to the table and not only gave the names of the wines, but also provided a brief history and location of the vineyards where the wines were produced. Nothing about the experience can be referenced as not being good.
Where the disappointment came into play was with the discovery that Henri will close its doors for business in June, 2014. We had the opportunity to shake hands with the owner, as he was welcoming customers to the restaurant and engaging them in polite banter. He remarked that he will open an Italian restaurant in Henri’s place. Henri, being in a section of Michigan Avenue that has a lot of foot traffic and tourists, can be “intimidating” when onlookers see everyone dressed in finery. Chicago has a few French restaurants and several others that have a French influence, which is not the same as being authentically French. The output from the kitchen at Henri is authentically French, reminiscent of meals I have had in Paris, Chalon-sur-Saône, Avignon, and Marseille. Chicago boasts a plethora of Italian restaurants. The same cannot be said of French restaurants. Those who had their first enjoyable experience at Henri and those who had become repeat customers will miss the richness of the flavours, the authenticity of the food, and the addiction that ensued thereafter.
Comment pourrait-on le faire?