In the evening, if you stand on certain corners in River North and take in the spectacle unfolding around you, you have to resign yourself to an inevitable, unhappy conclusion: “This is why the French hate us.” It’s our willingness to accept and support the nightlife equivalent of the zombie apocalypse. You want to flee the hordes of dead-eyed walkers who mob those yawning restaurants that possess little more focus and imagination than corporate cafeterias managed by circus clowns—and who dutifully shovel in whatever incompatible assortment of culinary gimmicks they’ve been told they must eat now: Croque monsieur fingers! Pig sticks! Counterfeit cowballs!
Apart from a minority of exceptions, one of our most visible restaurant districts is also our most embarrassing. And so you have to credit chef Carrie Nahabedian and her business partner (and cousin) Michael Nahabedian for taking a stand against the waves of nonsense by opening Brindille, a spendy, chill, nominally “Parisian” (say “brawn-DEE”) white-tablecloth concept that’s unlikely to ever offer personal vodka taps or require vomit remediation in the restroom. Then again, their flagship, Naha, has always been a refuge—for those who can afford it, anyway.
That’s the biggest challenge in this sedate, slate-accented room, naturally lit from tall windows facing Clark Street. The price points on this focused menu of appetizers and entrees—filled with enticing premium ingredients—is likely to keep out all but the highest income brackets on any regular basis. But is it worth a splurge for rest of us?
In the middle of May you could easily see Nahabedian’s commitment to seasonality paired with extravagance: spring peas with truffles and Sauternes, fava beans with morels, rhubarb with foie gras. These combinations generally accent precious pieces of protein: the truffles adorn a length of king crab merus—the fattest, most prized piece of the claw—resting across a puree of the peas. The morels and favas are arranged among a roasted guinea fowl breast sauced in a thick reduction of sherrylike vin jaune, the dish garnished with a tenderized upright cockscomb (the poultry appendage, not the flower), and the mushrooms stuffed with a farce of leg meat. The silkiest, most tender sweetbreads I’ve ever come across are plated with a tiny rabbit chop and loin and are strewn with the snappy, faintly bitter coils of fiddlehead fern, comprising a dish that couldn’t effuse more spring unless it squirted pollen in your face. The crosshatched and seared foie gras is also a perfectly executed treatment of this delicate organ, perfumed by lavender and licorice from the slice of charred fennel at its side, and sweet-tarted with rhubarb.
Most of these dishes are prepared flawlessly by chef de cuisine Ali Ratcliffe-Bauer, a former sous chef at Naha, but they are muted in seasoning with such consistency that I have to guess it’s a deliberate choice. So while you may find yourself marveling at the freshness of the claw meat in the signature lobster Brindille, with sauteed hen of the woods mushrooms and tiny potatoes, you might also wish for a bit more acidity or salt in the sauce, made from butter and emulsified with lobster roe and vanilla.
The conservative approach to seasoning extends across the menu. Raw oysters presented on beds of seaweed are soaked in cream and soft scrambled egg, and topped with a spoonful of caviar. They’re rich and delicious, but you wonder what the oysters have to say about their inherent beauty getting smothered by so much rich raiment. The king crab merus I mentioned? The dish is generously showered with truffle slices, which are hard to ignore, but the sweet meat itself was stringy and accompanied by a spongy, bland tapioca cake. A swoosh of broiled monkfish tail is prettily adorned with snail and dainty white beans but flat in flavors, just as the youth of the spring vegetables and artichokes can’t elevate a lamb saddle to anything more remarkable than some nicely cooked pieces of red meat.
Desserts are a bit livelier. A distorted, glassy sugar flume houses levels of chocolate mousse, chocolate pound cake, souffle, and cream for a surreally constructed dessert, while a more classic circular pate a choux pastry, Paris-Brest, is fused to a cookie crust and filled with rose water ice cream and fromage blanc, then mounted on a bed of wine-soaked strawberries. Both are magnificent, but even better is a flanlike cherry-almond clafoutis—a creamy, oven-baked tart that’s worth the 20-minute wait. Barring those, there is a selection of a dozen French cheeses and a staff well equipped to pair wines with them—or any of the courses, for that matter—from a list dominated by France, with healthy representations from Italy, Spain, and California.
Perhaps the staff is less adept with numbers. On one occasion I had to point out to a server that he’d somehow managed to run the credit card for twice what I’d owed. A problem easily fixed, but distracting enough that I failed to notice he’d charged me for a coffee I’d never ordered.
As technically sound as these dishes are, it’s hard to feel comfortable paying for such subdued, though pleasant, flavors (first courses run $14 to $27, entrees $35 to $48), to say nothing of some of the dizzying markups on the wine list. But maybe Brindille is so out of step with its surroundings that it’s easy to forget you don’t need to be smacked in the face to appreciate food. Sometimes you’ll pay to be kissed.
Correction:This story has been amended to reflect the appetizers’ price range and that Carrie and Michael Nahabedian are cousins, not husband and wife.