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Take Two Star Chefs, Mix Well

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On an inauspicious stretch of North Clark, tucked between G's Dawg 'n Burger and Celtic Crossings, chefs Arun Sampanthavivat (Arun's) and Roland Liccioni (Les Nomades) are embarking on Chicago's most anticipated culinary collaboration. The project, called Le Lan, is at once a marriage of equals--two four-star chefs who both happen to be from Southeast Asia--and a balancing act.

Sampanthavivat was raised on a rubber plantation in southern Thailand and moved to Chicago in the late 70s to get a master's degree in political science from the U. of C. Although he has no formal culinary training, since 1985 his restaurant has been the destination for high-end Thai dining in the U.S. The $85 fixed-price menu is based on dishes he grew up on, like handmade dumplings and delicate herb-laced curries. There's also an impressive list of Alsatian and Austrian grape varietals, and exquisite creature comforts such as fine crystal, pressed white tablecloths, imported celadon china, and intricate vegetable carvings.

Liccioni was born in Ho Chi Min City to a French father and a Vietnamese mother in 1954; his family moved to southwestern France when he was two. Working in their Vietnamese restaurant exposed him to the business early. He went on to work in kitchens in Paris and London, where he heard about the Chicago area's burgeoning French restaurant scene (Le Perroquet, Maxim's, Alouette), and moved here in 1980, opening Carlos' in Highland Park. In 1989 he assumed control of Le Francais, the temple of haute French cuisine in Wheeling created by Jean Banchet. For the next ten years Liccioni and his wife, Mary Beth, garnered accolades from around the world, never losing their four-star status. During that run they bought Streeterville's Les Nomades; after their lease in Wheeling expired, they moved to Les Nomades full-time in 1999.

"[Liccioni and Sampanthavivat] have completely different palates," says Howard Davis, a partner in the new restaurant who also co-owns Marche, Red Light, Gioco, Opera, and Saiko. "Roland is into the subtle European flavors, and Arun is into the bolder flavors from Thailand."

Davis and Sampanthavivat started talking about doing a restaurant together last year, after they spent some time in Thailand and China researching food for Opera. Sampanthavivat had been consulting on Red Light as well, and the two men began tossing around the idea of opening a Vietnamese restaurant with French influences. On the long flight back to the U.S., Liccioni's name inevitably came up. "Roland is my best friend," says Sampanthavivat. "I trust and respect his work. Because of his techniques and my vision, we thought we could put something together."

When the three men got together for a practice tasting at Arun's in April 2003, Davis brought along some jazz. "We played Bird and Dizz," says Davis. "They're two artists getting together. They play separately, but together." That tasting, and subsequent others, yielded some surprises: Sampanthavivat was more interested in the design, decor, and feng shui of the space than he was in creating the menu--he left most of that to Liccioni, who had little input on the interior design (save for a few small details, like the bamboo-shaped flatware).

Liccioni says the menu will give him a chance to honor both sides of his heritage. "I'm going to be 50 this year, and I still enjoy what I'm doing," he says. "I remember the tastes when I was a child, and you have to keep the best quality, that's very important." Without tipping his hand--or committing to anything before the first menu is printed--Liccioni says there are a few "guarantees," including a duo of hot and cold Vietnamese spring rolls and aged rib eyes glazed in five-spice powder. Foie gras flan with a sweet tamarind sauce is likely to show up on the same page as bass Vietnamese--black sea bass in a heady broth of shrimp and fish sauce, plus fresh lemongrass, ginger, and aromatic shards of Kaffir lime leaves. Dessert options could range from a coconut panna cotta to a simple cheese course. Sampanthavivat may offer one or two dishes of his own, but Le Lan (which means "the orchid") will be strictly a Vietnamese-French hybrid, employing five basic categories: salads, soups, grilled items, stir-fry, and noodles.

While Liccioni and his chef de cuisine, Andy Motto, run the back of the house, Sampanthavivat and Davis will be visible up front. On a recent weekday, Sampanthavivat's brother Anawat (who did all of the classical Thai paintings at Arun's) was putting the finishing touches on a giant mural of a flying jade dragon chasing a fireball. Onyx tiles were being laid in front of the deep, richly colored walnut bar. Sampanthavivat made giant motions with his arms, depicting the enormous front glass window in the shape of the moon that would eventually replace the old French doors from previous inhabitant Cafe Dolce. The narrow rectangular space will seat about 90 and will serve dinner every night but Tuesday to start. The unfinished upstairs will eventually house private parties and overflow.

The restaurant is the first venture for Davis's new company, Chefcorp, which will help fund star chefs who want to open their own places. Le Lan is slated to open the second week of June (but call first to confirm). It's at 749 N. Clark, 312-280-9100.

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