Omnivorous: Changing of the Guard | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Changing of the Guard 

Martial Noguier's rocky landing on the Gold Coast, and his replacement at One SixtyBlue

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Among many restaurants offering promotional prix fixe stimulus packages these days, Cafe des Architectes recently announced a three-course, $29 "Neighborhood Friends Menu" featuring seasonal local ingredients. Even if you aren't a Gold Coast hood rat, the offer, available Sunday and Monday nights, is a great chance to taste the work of premier chef Martial Noguier, who promised when he started there last October to make the cafe, located in the Sofitel Hotel, more of a neighborhood restaurant than an undistinguished default for weary travelers.

Prior to his eight-year reign at One SixtyBlue, the Parisian-born Noguier had two significant experiences as a turnaround artist, breathing new life into D.C.'s moribund Citronelle in the mid-90s and then at our own legendary Pump Room beginning in 1998. If anyone could elevate Cafe des Architectes' delivery and raise its profile it should've been Noguier, and the early reviews seemed to indicate that he'd done it. So why, my table collectively wondered on a recent Sunday, was our meal so uneven? Even ordering from all over the various menus, we wound up with baffling, one-note entrees bracketed by solid appetizers and stellar desserts and cocktails.

The chief culprit among those main plates was an old friend from One SixtyBlue—Michael Jordan's favorite—a 14-ounce prime Delmonico steak with shallot marmalade (described as "caramelized" at the old place), accompanied by a potato gratin. At $38 this piece of cow shouldn't have been as chewy and rangy as it was, nor should the gratin have been as tepid and gelid. Also disappointing: mushy diver scallops with a pair of tasteless frenched chicken wings, and wild striped bass with shredded, glazed veal cheeks. These dishes were so stridently one-dimensional they prompted a game: Guess What Went Wrong. We overheard our waiter tell another diner the chef wasn't in that evening, but I don't know if that works five months into a chef's tenure.

Noguier is a noted devotee of the Green City Market, but aside from the apple foam and chestnut puree that came with the bass, nothing we tried happened to advertise any of the familiar farm brands that show up on menus all over the city. Maybe we should have stuck with the many dishes that were so branded, but then again, the loca-sustainable stamp didn't show up on the simple, solid mushroom veloute, creamy and earthy; or the port-marinated foie gras torchon—with pineapple chutney, no less; or the texturally multidimenional hamachi carpaccio with artichoke puree. Each of those little plates was perfectly satisfying, though none was anything more.

The bright and shining stars were desserts by pastry chef Suzanne Imaz, whom Noguier brought along from One SixtyBlue—a pear-ginger creme brulee with almond phyllo and a chocolate dome with a pistachio cream center—and cocktails in the adjoining bar, mixed by an enthusiastic bartender who showed independence despite having to work with a silly cocktail menu that divides drinks into the categories "his" and "hers."

So has Noguier managed to create a destination for his neighbors? At the beginning of the meal, our server, flying on autopilot, began to define what an amuse bouche is. We asked him if he always did that, and he said he did it preemptively, to reassure the many customers who are baffled and defensive about it. That might be necessary for some travelers, but not for anyone from around the way—not to mention anyone following Noguier from One SixtyBlue. —Mike Sula

A changing of the guard always invites speculation, so when Michael McDonald took over from Martial Noguier as executive chef at one sixtyblue last October, everyone wondered if the veteran of Charlie Trotter's C in Los Cabos and Restaurant Charlie in Las Vegas would move the stylish Randolph Street Market District mainstay in a totally new direction. The answer is "not really." While the menu's emphasis is now decidedly American, the contemporary style, showcasing innovative combinations with international influences, isn't radically different from Noguier's French-influenced contemporary cuisine. And even as the waitress extolled the "local" ingredients, I perused a lineup including Scottish salmon, Sonoma duck, Colorado rack of lamb, and Maine diver scallops.

The last turned out to be the better of our openers: a flavorful pair of sea scallops, browned on top but still translucent inside, came draped with cauliflower foam and sat on individual puddles of soft cauliflower puree, accented by tart pickled cauliflower, the latter designed to cut the richness. Also a duo, slow-cooked pork belly slices propped up on jicama slaw with Asian pear and a tangerine reduction were meaty but disappointingly chewy and tough. Wagyu short ribs, "braised for hours" we were told, remained firm and dense; not tender enough to fall off bones if they had them, they were an argument against using such pricey beef for this preparation. I liked the creamy grits beneath each hunk of meat, but the mild fresh horseradish threads on top added nothing, and the single crouton had barely a whisper of the promised marrow. Hawaiian yellowfin, cooked a little past rare and sliced, was cannily—if predictably—mated with a mix of palm hearts and Maui onions in a pineapple glaze with a dash of fresh wasabi I couldn't really taste. Of the eight side dishes, we tried homey One SixtyBlue hash browns, a potato cake enriched with caramelized shallots and duck fat powder. The dessert highlight was the gingersnap ice cream sandwich with rather dry brown butter carrot cake. Seasonal and specialty cocktails, a classy wine list, well-chosen wines by the glass, and craft beers are among the beverages. Service wasn't as attentive as it should be for the money. In fact, given the average tab, the restaurant's boast on its Web site that the "chef's inspired menu encourages convivial dining at the American table everyday" comes across as wishful thinking. —Anne Spiselman

Care to comment? Find these reviews at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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