Thursday, January 20, 2011

Henri: The best meal I've had in Chicago

Well, as the title suggests...I went to Henri this past Monday and had what was truly the best, most satisfying meal I have had since moving to Chicago. Every last detail was near perfect, and I cannot wait to return. Since starting my dining adventures in Chicago, I have heard bits about how there was this great new restaurant, sure to become a classic. For some reason I kind of brushed it aside. That is until a fellow student mentioned that she had a truly memorable meal there. After telling me a bit about it, I immediately made a reservation for the following Monday. Why monday? Because the plat du jour is cassoulet on Monday...that why. And boy am I glad I picked Monday.

So I arrived at the restaurant and was quickly seated. As many people have said, the dining room is gorgeous. Its elegant without being stuffy. After being super indecisive, my lovely waitress Megan (sorry I forgot your name! you're great!) suggested a Manhattan...So thats what I started with.

Burnham Manhattan - Wild Turkey Rye, Vya Sweet Vermouth, Fee's Aromatic Bitters, Michigan Cherries - This was a seriously solid Manhattan. At least on par with the barrel aged Manhattan I had at Boka. Super smooth and delicious.
Bread Service:

Bread service was a mini baguette. It seemed pretty obvious it was made in house, due to the irregular shape. This was the only part of the meal that was just OK. The bread was a little dense. It was served warm, which as my bread professor says, 'all bread tastes good warm - only good bread tastes good cold'. So..yeah, it tasted fine, but nothing special.

Course 1:

Smoked Steak Tartare, Quail Egg, Potato Chips - There were a few appetizers that I was torn between but again, my waitress suggested the cold tartare would be a nice counterpart to the warm and rich Cassoulet. So I had the tartare. And it ruled. As you can see, it was dressed with a frisee salad and cornichons, and served with the thinnest, and most delicate potato chips I have ever had. The beef was incredibly rich and of the highest quality - and made even more rich when I mixed in the quail egg. The tartare had paper thin slices of garlic and a generous portion of capers (I couldn't tell if these were smoked as well, a little trick I picked up from Ideas in Food, and one of my favorite things). The smoke flavor was present, and very nice, without being the least bit overpowering. A lot of people look at dishes like tartare or carpaccio as too basic to be anything special, but a lot of care had to be put into this to achieve the balance of flavors and textures. Hands down, the best tartare I have ever had.

Course 2:

Cassoulet - Duck confit, housemade Toulouse sausage, pork belly, haricots coco - This dish sent me into a frenzy, for days after I had a incurable craving for Cassoulet. I almost ordered it again, immediately after finishing it. When I got home from dinner I spent probably an hour trying to find the best Cassoulet in Chicago, or even just french restaurants close to my apartment with it on the menu. I've always loved Cassoulet but this was if I have never had it before. I did wind up getting it again later in the week, at a place in Old Town. Im sure it was a fine example, but difficult to finish in comparison to what I had at Henri. I'm trying my hardest to not go back on Monday, which would sandwich me between a dinner at Trotters and Toplobampo. Maybe the following week. Now I suppose I should actually describe the dish. The beans were wonderfully tender without being mush - the sauce was rich and salty and heavy with thyme. The sausage and pork belly were both great, but the highlight was the duck confit. Meltingly tender with skin that remained perfectly crispy to the last bite.

Course 3:

Paris Brest - So Paris Brest is probably my favorite pastry. I used it as a component on a plated dessert I did for competition last year and consequently ate it several times a week for several months. The beauty in a Paris Brest, is the same as an Eclair (a very similar pastry, so maybe not the best comparison). When everything is on, you want to cry its so good. Yet its so simple. With this, and other pate a choux based pastries, I get all misty and philosophical - not unlike most bread bakers get about bread. Anyway, if you're not familiar with a Paris Brest, as many Americans seem, its a pate a choux ring (which is supposed to represent a bicycle tire, the pastry was made to commemorate the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race) filled with a praline cream. This was a very nice example, my only complaint was the pate a choux was either soft from being filled and held too long, or was not baked quite long enough (which is very easy to do). Either way, minor complaint as I was dizzy from joy.

As I was finishing my dessert, the incredibly hospitable Director of Operations, Terry McNeese came to my table (which he had done during my second course, to ask how I was enjoying it and to mention it was one of his favorite dishes as well). He commented that this was also one of his favorite desserts and we chatted for a minute. He returned to my table shortly after and poured me a glass of Pineau des Charentes. He explained that it is a fortified wine made from lightly fermented grapes and cognac. He went on to explain it is typically drank as an aperitif, but he likes it as a dessert pour. In the interest of full disclosure, this drink was on the house. And it was good. Unlike anything I have had before, and difficult to describe. Next time I am at Henri, I will order a drink that uses this (its in a couple of their cocktails).

After settling the check I was brought a mignardise (mignardi?):

This was a dark chocolate truffle with caramel and banana. It was yum.

As I was putting on my jacket, I thanked Terry for the drink and we started chatting. I mentioned how I was new in town and he started listing off places (restaurants and bars) I should check out. This was incredibly kind of him, and it seemed so genuine for him to be doing, rather than just trying to please the customer. He even pulled a waiter over to help come up with some ideas.

I cannot stress how great this meal was. Every course was carefully thought out and executed with such care and precision, its hard to fathom. That cassoulet was not only the best single dish I have had in Chicago, its the best thing I can remember having in a VERY long time. I'm still in awe of it. The service from start to finish was incredibly personal and friendly while remaining professional. Its very difficult to balance these things, and not come off as a phony. The people here love what they're doing. And so do I.


  1. The service from start to finish was incredibly personal and friendly while remaining professional. Its very difficult to balance these things, and not come off as a phony. The people here love what they're doing. And so do I.

    Do you mind if I lift this from you and quote you in my dining room class. I call it "formal familiarity" and as you know, I try desperately to get my culinary students to appreciate the importance of what happens once the plate leaves the kitchen.