Say things go so bad the 99 percent really get angry. They’re not going to torch the Vietnamese pool hall, the abandoned laundromat, or the Korean blanket store on Lawrence. At least not right away. First they’ll smash the Mag Mile, and take dinner in the ashes of Les Nomades around the corner on Ontario. You may know it as one of the city’s most storied, exclusive, and expensive fine-dining temples—and for seven years the home of executive chef Chris Nugent, who followed the legendary Roland Liccioni (who’s since returned). Nugent left Les Nomades in October to open Goosefoot in a storefront at the confluence of Ravenswood Manor, Lincoln Square, and Albany Park, and it might appear he was looking for a quiet place to ride out the coming Occupation. But he isn’t downscaling the way so many of his fine-dining compadres have. Instead he “made a promise he would not waste another day cooking unless it was food with great culinary vision and artistry,” as goes the boilerplate on Goosefoot’s website.
Nor has Nugent opened an irreverent venue for fine dining in the mold of other BYOBs such as Schwa or El Ideas, where the music, the free-flowing booze, and the chefs’ personalities contribute a crucial informality that makes sitting through a technically brilliant multicourse menu more of a raucous party than a worship service.
This is more as if Cardinal Francis George began saying mass at Saint Sabina, with black-clad servers delivering a regimented $90 eight-course menu of precisely plated, flawlessly executed compositions, reciting each and every ingredient as if reading scripture: “There is a pea pod. There is a celery leaf. There is orange espuma.”
On its inaugural winter menu, this service begins with a spoonful of roasted golden beet in a drip of citrus olive oil, balancing a mini gob of goat cheese and a single green leaf, a relatively simple amuse bouche to set the stage for a succession of painterly studies—foams, powders, purees, reductions, plant life, and tiny flowers dancing around their centerpieces but rarely getting down with them.
That may not be immediately apparent with early courses: lobster nuggets and delicate squash agnolotti in a mild Thai-like curry washed in a licorice-root infusion is an auspiciously cohesive pasta dish, exceeded in its richness by a chestnut soup topped again with another foam—truffle this time—a flavor duplicated on the side (and not for the last time) with a gougere bursting with creamy Parmesan alongside some precisely arranged vegetables. Both are filling, stomach-priming first courses.
But what do you do with that sliver of cauliflower, that chive needle, the squib of parsnip puree on the side? They’re too small to scoop with your soup or to spear with your fork. Just look pretty, you’ll tell them. And so it goes with these ancillary garnishes that rarely harmonize with the whole; a gamete of fennel puree and powder twisted in a deep well separated from a perfect sea bass fillet in a pool of Meyer lemon tapioca sauce; a sculpture of truffle powder (again!) and carrot “expressions,” carved, pureed, and spherified next to a poached and seared beef tenderloin; marbles of compressed apple and dribbles of mustard oil arranged like a DNA chain to the side of a roasted half quail. And flowers. Nugent won’t admit this, but he’s enslaved a guild of Lilliputian florists to dress up these dishes.
That’s not to say everything isn’t delicious. It all is. I could eat a whole bowl of the cumin-and-sherry-spiced lentils that hide under the quail. The cheese course, a celery salt-flavored tapioca cracker with a scoop of mascarpone mousse, almond caponata, and shavings of nutty Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese would make an unstoppable alliance if the ingredients could unify. A square of chocolate mousse with reduced mulled wine sauce could be the synergistic template for the next Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup—if only the two could bridge the one-inch gulf that separates them.
The meal follows a seamlessly logical progression, and it marries highly professional and informed service with our current agricultural mores—the produce is dutifully locally sourced, and the menu is printed on seed paper (take it home and plant it and it’ll sprout something). But it is culinary compartmentalizing at its most frustrating, too fastidious for its own good, too self-serious. Nugent has promised to unveil a 12-course option soon, and by then I hope he loosens up a bit. Les Nomades regulars might huff, but the neighbors won’t care.