Michael Mina is one of those high-wattage celebrity chefs whose light shines so bright it makes me turn away. Didn’t really know much about the guy. Didn’t really care to. But he is a prolific restaurateur, with more than 30 spots to his name in ten states (plus D.C. and Dubai), so I suppose it was inevitable he would open one here, and that would be how I’d finally begin to get to know the food of Michael Mina.
Here he is: the chef behind Arcadia in San Jose, Pabu in Boston, Bourbon Steak in Phoenix, and of course the eponymous Michelin-starred spot in his hometown of San Francisco has checked in to the Waldorf Astoria Chicago with restaurants number 31 and 32. Petit Margeaux is a tiny patisserie on the first floor, conveniently adjacent to the lobby; three floors up, Margeaux Brasserie is a marbled, white-tiled, black-lacquered, brassy simulacrum of a jaunty French brasserie with a zinc bar, a cheese chariot, and a wine list the size of Les Misérables.
Plus ça change . . .
The fact that Mina can just waltz into any city he pleases and start slinging sole meunière, escargots à la bordelaise, and sea urchin à la grecque like he’s Mere Fillioux says a lot about the reach and power of his restaurant group and his willingness to gamble his good name on the itinerant, temporary inmates of a luxury hotel, not to mention the flush silver foxes of the Gold Coast and their contingent human trophies.
So what has he brought to the table for them? Or rather, what is former Dawson chef Brent Balika, who previously worked for Mina at Bourbon Steak in D.C., executing for him? You know the drill: moules frites, tartare, onion soup, and steak frites; the food of the sans-culottes. The prices aren’t quite so revolutionary, with less prosaic classics like that sole, the dish that seduced Julia Child, weighing in at $59 dollars.
It should be stated up front that money should be no object if you choose to visit Margeaux Brasserie. That single fillet is not Moby Dick. It’s an ignoble-looking fish relative to its extraordinary price (compare it to the whole sole served at, say, La Sardine for $54), so that might distract you from the legitimate deliciousness of the firm, lightly crisp flesh blanketed in lush emulsified lemon butter and studded with bits of citrus.
Other items are impressive at only moderately lower price points. A New York strip is the mineral-rich ideal accompaniment for creamy frites. Clean, garlicky escargots wear a half-moon top hat of buttery puff pastry. Dry-aged Rohan duck breast possesses an almost Wagyu level of fat marbling with a shattering-crisp skin, its formidable richness moderated with sweet Michigan cherries.
And with that Margeaux at least acknowledges there’s a season in the midwest. A summer-corn-and-leek veloute could be a sweet finish if not for a dose of black truffle and a lump of crabmeat. A layer of Camembert dissolves between a warm, flaky tarte Tatin and roasted red tomatoes. Chunky roasted summer vegetables tossed with pine nuts (oddly) is a ratatouille in name only.
But then an unnerving number of dishes in this extravagant experiment miss their obvious marks, or are conspicuous in their mediocrity. A compelling artichoke salad with crispy chicken skin and truffled vinaigrette and showered with granulated foie gras is dominated by the vegetable’s acidity. Much-needed livery depth seems whipped out of a foie gras parfait, while sweet-and-sour sweetbreads are rubbery and leached of flavor. Steak tartare overcompensates for a lack of beefiness with an off-putting hit of sweetness. A macaroni gratin—the brasserie’s answer to mac and cheese—is overcooked pasta swamped in a floury bechamel sauce. A $35 roasted half chicken, a basic indicator of kitchen competency, is oversalted to the point of inedibility.
Desserts are distinguished by a large chocolate macaron sandwiching raspberries and chocolate creme, and an irresistible banana tarte Tatin slathered in citrus-spiked caramel with a gob of melted honey ice cream. Don’t be tempted by the cheese chariot. The wan and limited selection makes it feel like choosing from a gurney in a cheese hospice.
The paucity of midrange-priced bottles on the wine list makes it impossible to drink well without spending a fortune. For this reason there are large portions of the book that are easy to skip over, like when Victor Hugo goes on about the Battle of Waterloo. In the case of quite a few you’ll have to squint to see which four-digit numbers refer to the price and which to the vintage. Like most ambitious wine lists it does have plenty of rare, fun, and pricey bottles that are too young to drink. Margeaux Brasserie wants to be a place where whales celebrate.
There is one circumstance under which I’d recommend a visit. Mark your calendar for a special day. Order the onion soup, a credit to the form, with deeply beefy broth and a reasonable restraint on onions, with a raft of melted aged Gruyere and slices of soup-sopped baguette. And treat yourself to a nice bottle, say a relatively affordable Syrah from René Rostaing or a funky white burgundy, Vincent Dancer’s Chassagne-Montrachet. That’s all you need from Margeaux Brasserie. Count your blessings, then return to real life.
Fans of Lettuce Entertain You’s late, great Brasserie Jo know that a massive restaurant company with a diverse portfolio can pull off a fake brasserie with aplomb. Yet Margeaux is more like LEYE’s successor to that space, and its less successful expression of French food: the little-mourned Paris Club. And while Margeaux doesn’t entirely cross over into Epcot territory—the front of the house is staffed with proud, efficient, charming service professionals, for one thing—it does flirt with the kind of ostentatious vulgarity that only someone with the aesthetics of the 1 percent could enjoy without shame. The rest of us will tune in elsewhere as Margeaux Brasserie settles among the ranks of hotel restaurants that mean little to the people who live in the city it just dropped into. v