Let’s compare the Lyonnaise salad served at two restaurants owned by the Oliver brothers and Nicolas Boelevi.
In Le Bouchon, the undeniably charming Bucktown bistro that has been open since 1993, the salad is by the book. The bowl contains bitter leaves of frizzi and escarole topped with crunchy croutons, lardon fat cubes and a plump boiled egg. But the execution is quick, too, with overly watery greens toning down the flavor, while greasy pork and egg yolks hop over a poor vinaigrette.
At Obelix, which recently opened in River North, salade Lyonnaise “canard” respects the basic formula of the recipe while skipping the details. The duck appears in several guises – a duck egg replaces the usual chicken egg, toast is slathered in duck fat, steaks are replaced with a crispy duck egg beyond the point I thought physically possible. A ringy vinaigrette coats every leaf of frisbee and escarole so that the sheen counteracts the admittedly greasy meats.
It’s not a competition any better version.
I dreaded reviewing Obelix, because I would have to deal with one of my lesser-known views of Chicago restaurants: I find Le Bouchon boring. I am baffled when local food writers grumble. This creamy, buttery French food lands near the bottom of the things I crave.
Which makes Obelix more unexpected. It shows that the Poilevey brothers want a French restaurant free from the traditions and expectations that come with it. The more risks they take, the better the outcome.
I have never set my eyes on a very attractive steak tartare. Instead of a brown pile, diced filet mignon sits on a green bed of green garlic aioli, while an assortment of pristine herbs sit on top. Chef Oliver Poulevy said he looks to Vietnam for inspiration. “I wanted a rice that is light but full of umami flavors,” he said. Thanks to the reduced fish sauce, each bite is shockingly meaty, yet the aioli is floral, aromatic, and slightly spicy. “It turned out to be better than I thought,” he said. This is skimping.
Soft-shelled crab rarely disappoints in season, but this version, developed by Assistant Chef Nathan Kim, still finds a way to bring out the lustrous sweetness of fried crustaceans by coating them with a sweet chile coating and serving it with tapined aioli.
But the most exciting moments come when Mexican and French influences bump into their heads. That’s not entirely surprising since Oliver Boelevi teamed up with Marcos Asensio two years ago to open Taqueria Chingon, a taco shop that loves blood sausage and duck. (I’ve already included the duck taco on my list of Chicago’s best tacos, though I still wish the corn tortillas were a few millimeters thinner.)
At Taqueria Chingon, Oliver Poulevy created foie gras, a playfully indulgent but irresistible foie gras taco. “We ate a handful of foie gras in about a day, so I sliced the meat and then cooked the masa in the fat until it was crunchy,” he said. It’s blended with sweet and fruity cherry jam, along with scene-stealing macha sauce, which adds smoky, nutty, and spicy notes. Although it’s probably the most expensive taco in town at $23, you should order it if you want to splurge.
But the dish that really impressed me was a modest seasonal side dish. Order the asparagus and it comes with hollandaise, a red-orange sauce that’s rich in ham and cream, but also spicy and citrusy. You can pour it over anything and I’ll dig in with the abandon, but it enhances the sweetness of fresh asparagus.
“We have a whole bunch of Pastor’s fat cooked daily at Taqueria Chingon, and I wanted to do something with it,” said Oliver Poulevy. “It really is liquid gold.” Rather than feeling compelled, as many fusion dishes do, it’s an example of how thrift helped create a moment of culinary discovery.
Fans of traditional French dishes will find some favourites, including French onion soup and respectable steak serving. But, most importantly, a visit to Obelix sans duck is a missed visit. “Duck is my favorite protein to cook with,” said Oliver Poulevy. The 10-day-old duck breast sounds candid, but the amazing dish features two remarkably tender cuts of meat set next to caramelized cabbage and glazed kale, with pickled gooseberries and sweet gastric beans spiced with vadovan (essentially a French version of an Indian spice blend).
Given the use of heat and acid on the menu, I was initially surprised that Nicolas Boelvi went with an emphatic French wine list, but he doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t really like those monstrous wines that don’t go with food,” said Nicholas Boelevi. “French wine likes to compliment the food, so the menu was easy to handle.” I especially loved the vibrant but delicate glass of Emile Beyer “Eguisheim” pinot gris 2019.
The other main player in Obelix is pastry chef Antonio Encadilla, who has spent time in the now closed Spiaggia. His handiwork is throughout the dessert menu, from cracked mille-feuille to baked Alaskan seared tableside. (“I love setting things on fire,” said Oliver Poulevy.) But the Incadella is no less delicious than its delicious dishes, including an unexpectedly delicious strawberry tart, which balances the sweetness of in-season fruit with a salty shake.
Obelix takes the place of Entente, which closed in the River North neighborhood during the pandemic. The high ceilings and neutral color scheme of the room clearly lack the relaxed, laid-back charm of Le Bouchon – but that means the focus is where it needs to be, on the wild and juicy foods that appear on the plate so often.
700 N Street. Sedgwick
Eat. Watch. Do.
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Tribune rating: 2½ stars, between very good and excellent
to open: 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Monday; 5 to 11 pm from Friday to Saturday; From 5 to 9 pm on Sundays. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
the prices: starters, $14 to $21; Main courses from $29 to $65
Noise: friendly conversation
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, with bathrooms on the first floor
Ratings key: Four stars, fantastic; Three stars are excellent. Two stars very good. Good one star No stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by Tribune.