A fine-dining salon with a French twist was not originally in the plans when restaurateur Billy Lawless took over a small space adjacent to his boisterous Michigan Avenue gastropub, The Gage.
But c’est la vie. That’s what the new venture became by the time Henri opened its doors just over a year ago.
From the start, Lawless and Dirk Flanigan — who is executive chef at both eateries — wanted the restaurant to have a sharper focus than The Gage, with its “all-encompassing” menu.
“We had to do something next door that was going to be completely different,” Flanigan says.
Originally, the team thought of Italian, but economics also came into play, and “the size of the room dictated the cuisine,” Flanigan says. After all, they would have had to serve an awful lot of pasta at Henri (or Enrico, perhaps) to make the 80-seat room profitable.
Flanigan ultimately was moved to showcase high-end French cuisine. First, there was that amazing and inspirational trip he took Paris. But Flanigan also had treasured childhood memories of traveling stateside and dining out with his father.
“He’d always search out the little French restaurants,” says Flanigan, who remembers eating French delicacies such as escargots with his dad.
The seasoned chef was also influenced by the early “very classic, very regimented” training he received at the Ritz-Carlton in his hometown of Naples, Fla. And he recognized a resurgent interest in classic French cuisine.
“Everybody has had their day, and French is coming back around,” Flanigan says.
Still the chef “didn’t want to do a restaurant that’s been done before.” So he added what he calls contemporary “American touches” to his menu. Classic steak tartare, for example, gets a going-over with a cold smoker gun. Flanigan’s “futuristic” Dover sole meunière is filetted, deconstructed and reconstructed — with Activa, a culinary “glue” — and cooked in the kitchen rather than being sautéed and deboned in a classic tableside presentation. Pissaladière — a French “pizza” traditionally topped with olives, anchovies and garlic — features more Anglo-friendly offerings such as house-cured bacon and caramelized onions. (He tried serving the authentic version, but deemed it “too stinky.” And “nobody ordered it,” he says.)
Good thing Flanigan changed his pissaladière, or our group might have passed on it too, which would have been tragique. The Husband, our dining companions Tina and David, and I started off by sharing this luscious quiche-like pizza. Tina wisely ordered ours topped with chewy woodland mushrooms, creamy white anchovy paste and Raclette cheese ($14), and then added thick-cut Virginia ham ($3).
Our other starters from Henri’s winter menu included a salt-and-peppery Lyonnaise salad ($15) with pheasant egg, frisée, house-cured lardons and walnuts dressed with Banyuls wine vinegar. Flanigan rightfully notes that his pheasant eggs are double-yolked, giving diners “two pops” of yolky goodness. Kate’s mixed lettuces ($12) in Champagne vinaigrette featured a balanced and complementary mix of cheese (Roquefort), fruit (grapes) and nuts (pistachios). Warm and silky winter vegetable potage was a showcase for its main ingredient — tangy celery root.
Moving into entrées, I opted for Flanigan’s signature sole with winter vegetables ($42). Nicely crisped and classically sauced with brown butter, lemon and capers, the dish was perfectly pleasant. But I found myself eyeing David’s plat du jour, which on Tuesdays is whitefish and lobster with sauce Nantua ($26). Flanigan describes the dish as an upscale take on traditional stuffed whitefish quenelles. Here, he fills the whitefish with a decadent lobster and crayfish mousse and serves it in a zesty seafood bisque-like sauce. Fresh spinach and crunchy duck fat-fried potatoes rounded out the plate. I had to contain myself from asking David for more.
The Husband ordered Henri’s Game of the Day. The evening’s preparation featured a mildly gamey pheasant thigh roulade stuffed with liver and black mushroom mousse and served with a full-fruited mission fig sauce. Tina went with oven-roasted Sullivan chicken ($24), which — with the addition of salsify, red wine, and truffle — we agreed was far more intriguingly flavored than your average roasted poulet.
Pastry chef Ji Yoon, a new addition to the Henri team, follows Flanigan’s lead by offering her personal takes on French desserts. Dessert menu highlights during our visit included pear and pomegranate savarin ($10) — a moist, spiced poached pear cake served with a tart pomegranate “soup” and crème fraîche ice cream. Also notable was the evening’s special, a coconut-lemon curd Pavlova meringue ($10), which Yoon served with fragrant basil ice cream, an unexpected but successful match.
Both the executive and pastry chefs enjoy taking classic dishes “and really mixing it up,” Flanigan says. “But her riffs are bigger than mine.”
18 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60603