In the US, people often treat French cuisine as one single category. True, there’s a set of French cooking techniques and classic dishes that are well institutionalized in Western cultures. However, there are regional-specific dishes and cooking styles in different parts of France. And these nuances are largely de-emphasized in America, especially in the context of fine-dining, probably in the name of versatility to deal with a market relentlessly driven by media and trends. Well, you’re not going to find Everest serving bouillabaisse or canelé any time soon. Chef Jean Joho has marked his culinary territory clearly, and that territory is Alsace.
Born and raised in Alsace, Joho started his cooking career at L’Auberge de L’Ill, a 3-Michelin-stars mainstay in Alsace where Jean George Vongerichten and Hubert Keller also trained at. In fact, to this day Joho still features Paul Haeberlin’s famous mousse-covered salmon soufflé on Everest’s menu (I had tried it in a previous visit, and it was divine). Joho also went to culinary school in Strasbourg. You can’t get any more Alsatian than that.
Everest was the middle name of the building’s owner. A rather odd namesake, but not entirely inappropriate, as the restaurant, situated on the 40th floor of Chicago Stock Exchange Building, proffers a bird’s-eye-view of the South Side. Everest provided complimentary valet parking, which was a nice touch given its location in the Loop. One had to take multiple elevator rides to get to the dining room, adding to the feeling of exclusivity prior to arrival. Upon entering the dining room, one would immediately encounter the breath-taking view. Although there was little architectural interest in the south side of Chicago, it was hard not to be taken by the colorful afterglow of sunset. The design of the dining room was based on subtle contrasts. Austere looking chairs and clothed tables were set on a dark rug with simple and organic patterns, which provided a sense of movement. The white walls were a canvas for an eclectic collection of textured and colorful contemporary arts.
Per the recommendation of my dining companion, I settled on the tasting menu with a duck dish as the substituted entrée. The meal began with a rather disappointing bread service. The breads were rather lacking in texture and aroma, with the exception of the outstanding Kalamata-olive bread, which was very flavorful. The butter was none other than a generous chunk of Land O’Lakes – quite shocking in the context of Michelin-level fine-dining.
The amuse bouche was a trio of small bites. The cod fritter, accompanied by a squash puree, exhibited a good textural interplay between the lightly-crunchy exterior and the delicate interior. The second one was Maine lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer butter and ginger. The concept of incorporating Gewurztraminer wine in butter was quite interesting. It provided a sweetness that worked well with the ginger flavor. The lobster itself was somewhat forgettable – it seemed to be just an excuse to enjoy the sinfully buttery broth. The third was a spoonful of wild mushroom panna cotta, which was rich with creaminess and umami.
After having the three bites in the first course, the second course jumped right into a substantial seafood preparation – an attractive and sculptural lobster dish. The lobster was competently roasted. Tossed with a subtle celery rémoulade, the lobster was slightly sweet. The green sauce was a refreshing watercress coulis, and the ivory outer ring was a richer cauliflower mousseline. The contemporary duo-sauce presentation was successful, as each sauce gave a distinct experience but worked just as well in concert if the diner elected to “double dip,” so to speak.
Next was foie gras. Alsace is the capital of goose foie gras production. A tasting menu at a fine-dining Alsatian restaurant simply won’t be complete without foie gras. Our foie gras was sourced from New York State, not from Alsace; but the preparation was classic Alsatian. The perfectly seared foie gras was supple and unctuous. The foie gras was lying on top a bed of small dices of mango and pineapple, which balanced the richness of the dish. Topping everything was pain d’épices – a spiced cake that is apparently a specialty of Alsace. The cake, which was spiced with ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, cut into the fattiness of the foie gras very well, and together with the foie gras jus, it provided a piquant combination of sweet and savory. This was my favorite dish of the night.
After the rich foie gras was a relatively light dish – smoked trout. The trout was perfectly medium, which fell apart at the touch of my fork into thick slices without being overly flaky. The fish was sitting on top of a bed of crosne and fruit compote. There were again two distinct sauces. One was blackened garlic puree, which was smoky and intensely flavorful. The other sauce was Granny Smith-based, either white-bean or celeriac puree (I cannot recall which). I generally find smoked red-flesh fish (such as trout, salmon, and arctic char) to be too potent to not remind me of deli-food. But the strong sauces created by Joho stood up to the smokiness of the fish quite well.
The pièce de résistance was magret of Mulard duck – a signature dish at Everest. Magret is the breast meat of a Mulard duck fattened for foie gras. This was a double edged sword, as the meat had a pleasantly sweet game-flavor that is usually undetectable in regular ducks, but it was not as tender. One would expect a fattened duck to have a fatty breast; but such was not the case. Perhaps the enlarged liver was making the duck exercise its muscles more? Either way, this was not the fat-layered duck breast I had hoped for. However, the meat was flawlessly executed with a delightful natural flavor. The sauce was made with wild pine honey and duck jus. I had never heard of wild pine honey before. Apparently, it came from bees that collect honeydew secreted by insects that live in certain species of pine trees. The honey did not have the cloying sweetness of nectar-based honey. Combined with the flavorful and beautifully-colored duck jus, this was the best sauce for a duck dish I have ever had. The accompanying vegetables were turnips marinated a la Colmarienne. I had no idea what made it unique to Colmar, but the turnips essentially tasted like sauerkraut, which reflected the German influence of Alsatian cuisine. I thought the turnips were just a touch too sour and would have worked better with pork or with a fattier duck.
Before the dessert was a cheese plate that showcased four selections of Midwestern cheeses. Despite fierce competition from California, the Midwest is still the most fecund cheese-producing region in the US. As such, I was not surprised to find a cheese plate that consisted of only Midwestern cheeses. What was surprising, however, was that none of the four cheeses was from Wisconsin (by far the biggest cheese producer in the Midwest). In fact, two were from Indiana, one was from Michigan, and one from Ohio. The composition of the plate was classic – from light to pungent, from creamy to firm, and from cow, sheep, to goat. It was the accompaniment that stole the show. Specifically, the black mission fig compote and the pine nuts tossed in wild-pine-honey were perfect compliments to the firmer and more pungent cheeses on the plate.
Palate cleanser was blood orange glacé with tapioca and ruby-red grapefruit gelée. Refreshing, beautifully composed, this worked well as a palate cleanser but was also substantial enough to stand as a dessert course on its own.
The main dessert was a fromage blanc soufflé. The soufflé was not served in a traditional ramekin. Rather, it was cut short and sitting on a plate. The panade must have been tweaked, as the soufflé was firmer than customary. The fromage blanc imparted a subtle yogurt note that was light and pleasant. The ratio of egg yolk in the crème anglaise was visibly high and imparted a wonderful richness similar to eggnog. The real benefit of this contemporary presentation was that the kitchen was able to include an un-melted chestnut ice cream that sat on the side of the plate. The nuttiness of the ice cream worked perfectly with the soufflé and the crème anglaise.
There was a good selection of mignardises, the best of which was the pate de fruits, which had the perfect springy texture and a nice balance between the tartness of the soft candy and the sweetness of the granulated sugar. The wine list was decidedly French. I had never seen so many Alsatian bottles on a wine menu. I ended up asking the waiter to select three wines from the pairing for me to sample. The pairing was rather predictable, but I was glad that he selected all Alsatian wines. I especially enjoyed the Crémant d’Alsace, which rivaled the complexity of a good Champagne.
Service was adequate, but not particularly impressive. Like all Lettuce Entertain You Michelin-starred restaurants, there was a severe lack of competence when it comes to doing separate checks and dining points. Our waiter messed it up and promised that “Corporate” would fix it come Monday. The problem was never fixed. And while most wait staffs were helpful, only a select few were knowledgeable about the food. The old-school front of the house hierarchy was among the most apparent in any Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to.
Compared to other Michelin-level contemporary French restaurants such as Daniel and Jean-Georges, Everest is remarkably regional. Not only does it seem to avoid the Asian and Spanish influences sweeping across France nowadays, it also doesn’t embrace other parts of France in its repertoire. In fact, you’d more likely find shadows of Germany than Southern France in Joho’s creations. It was a pleasant and somewhat comical surprise to see a substantial protein preparation in course #2 (Joho couldn’t bother to do a soup or salad course). The convivial sentiment of the tasting menu is not something you’d find in other über French haute cuisine restaurants such as Les Nomades or Adour.
Everest’s regional focus, which admittedly is part of its appeal, can however be a limiting factor. I have had two distinct tasting menus at Everest. While both meals were flawless in terms of spot-on seasoning and consistent executions, neither was particularly exciting. Joho seems more interested in duplicating the Alsatian experience he knows rather than revolutionizing Alsatian cooking the way his peers are doing to American cooking in Chicago. Honestly I think that (oh and the butter) is why Everest hasn’t received a second Michelin star. But that (not referring to the butter) is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it is just as satisfying to know that thousands of miles away from Alsace, someone other than Paul Haeberlin’s son is still making that perfect salmon soufflé.