Tonight three of us had dinner at Aigre Doux. I wanted to go there after reading rave reviews in the Tribune and Reader (see links below). Could it possibly live up to the hype? As it turns out, it exceeded my highest expectations!
I was a bit hesitant about going there because I had not seen their entire menu. Most upscale restaurants make their menu (or a representative sample thereof) available on their websites, but Aigre Doux has not done so yet. (Remember, they have only been open for four weeks.) So the only hint of what was on their menu was the dishes mentioned in the reviews. Not to worry!
I made my reservations yesterday for an early (5:30) seating tonight. Gotta love opentable.com when it comes to checking availability for the restaurants listed there! At 4:00 pm today, they called to confirm. So far, so good.
We arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes early. Fortunately, meter parking on the street was easy to find at that hour, so we didn't bother with the valet parking. No sign was visible on the outside of the restaurant (at least, none that I noticed), but look for the wood paneling on the facade.
The restaurant was mostly empty at that hour, but by the time we left at 7:30, the place was packed, including people waiting up front. Most diners were attired "business casual"; I estimate that 50-60 percent of the men had neither jacket nor tie, 30-40 percent had a jacket but no tie, and 5-10 percent had both jacket and tie. I only saw one person, a young woman, wearing blue jeans.
The decor was very nice, with high ceilings and modern fixtures. The lighting was better on one side of the room with smaller tables and a plethora of pendant fixtures above them, than on the other side of the room with booths, where we sat, with illumination provided by indirect lighting behind hanging mirrors. They turned the indirect lighting up a bit and it helped, but it was still somewhat dark.
Our server, Rich, came by and brought menus, took our drink orders, and told us he would be back shortly to tell us the nightly specials. Very smooth and professional.
We ordered, and were served our drinks. The busboy brought the bread and butter to the table. The bread (focaccia) was excellent, with an airy texture and slightly crispy cheese on top. The butter had a touch we had not seen before: it was lightly covered with crystals of cracked salt on top. It worked beautifully, adding a nice taste and texture to the bread.
We had three appetizers. One was Prince Edward mussels ($12), served with diced butternut squash and a broth lightly flavored with coconut, curry, and spicy pepper (flavorings often found in Thai food). It was WONDERFUL. It was actually on the menu as an entree, but when I asked our server about the portion size and its suitability as an entree (I've always seen mussels as an appetizer, not an entree), he immediately suggested that we might be better off having it as an appetizer (half portion, half price), because its rather strong flavor combined with the larger portion size could be a bit overwhelming. It turned out that he was absolutely right on this, and also on all the other advice he provided during the meal. Rich was an excellent server. In fact, the entire staff was absolutely professional but also friendly; you would never guess that this place had only been open for four weeks.
Another appetizer was the artichoke soup with sauteed bay scallops pictured in the Reader review ($11). It was excellent. The third appetizer was a seared ahi tuna served with citrus fruit ($12); although this is something I don't eat, my companion said it was excellent also.
We had three entrees, and two of them were daily specials not on the printed menu. The regular menu item was the rack of lamb with truffled grits and fennel ($34). This was the best rack of lamb I have ever eaten. The consistency was as tender as the most tender filet mignon - melt in your mouth! But wait, there's more.
One daily special was a sauteed skate wing, served with fingerling potatos, a bit of minced Meyer lemon rind served next to the skate, and spinach ($26). It was very fresh with a very tender, moist texture. A tiny bit of the lemon rind made an excellent topping for each bite of skate. It, too, was WONDERFUL. (Do you see a pattern here? ;) )
The other daily special was a grilled prime rib of beef, served with mustard spaetzle that was cooked so that it had a slightly crunchy texture to it ($34). I hate to repeat myself, but this dish was WONDERFUL, too.
Desserts... ah! Could they possibly stand up to a meal which was so outstanding up to this point? Indeed they could!
One dessert was called the "chocolate malted" ($10). No, it was not a drink; the name of the dish refers to the flavorings of the custard dessert, which was the consistency of creme brulee and served in a similar dish, although without the flamed sugar coating. It had a spoonful of chantilly creme (possibly flavored with creme fraiche?) on top, as well as a crispy strip of chocolate. WONDERFUL. Dessert winner number one.
Another dessert was creme fraiche panna cotta ($10), served with a pineapple sauce. Light, airy, delicate, and totally delicious. Dessert winner number two.
The third dessert was the "sticky toffee pudding" ($10) mentioned in both reviews. It was not at all what I expected. For some reason, based on the name, I was picturing a pudding the consistency of your standard chocolate pudding, with crunchy pieces of toffee in it, but this was not at all what this dessert was like. This was more of a horizontal slab of cake soaked with a sweet syrup (think of the texture of baba au rhum and you're on the right track). Served with a small scoop of ice cream with a slight tang to it (possibly the Devonshire cream ice cream mentioned in the review, or else creme fraiche ice cream, I forget) and some wedges of citrus fruit, with the same sweet toffee-flavored sauce over it. As good as all the dishes were, this is the one I can't get out of my mind now, a few hours later. If any one dish we had was worth saying "DON'T MISS THIS", this is it. Dessert winner number three.
With a bottle of Schuetz zinfandel ($42), two glasses of Kracher beerenauslese ($12 each), a coffee and an iced tea, the total was $97/person including tip.
I've said this before, and I'll say it again. I've dined at many of the most highly regarded restaurants in the Chicago area and elsewhere. They are almost always GOOD, with tasty food and attentive service. For me, the difference between GOOD and GREAT is, at a great restaurant, every single dish, every single bite, is an absolute delight, so delicious that it makes you roll your eyes and swoon. There are very, very few places that I would consider GREAT. I am happy to add Aigre Doux to the very short list of such Chicago-area places I've been (along with Michael, One Sixty Blue, Everest, and Oceanique - although there are many highly-regarded restaurants where I have not been, and I am not claiming that these are the only such places in the area). If I am lucky, I rate maybe one dinner a year this good. Maybe in 2007 I'll return to Aigre Doux so I can double my average for the year. ;)
230 West Kinzie Street (across the street from the Merchandise Mart)
Chicago Tribune/Metromix review:
Chicago Reader review:
I have to second nsxtasy's review. My wife and I went last Friday after some of our friends had nothing but good things to say. We both agree it was one of our favorite experiences in Chicago dining and we have tried almost all of the top rated places. Expect to see it in Zagat's top ratings next year.
Four of us ate there last Saturday night. We were very impressed with both the food, for the most part, and especially the service. Our waiter was fantastic and paced our meal so we were never rushed. I didn't take notes and, unfortunately their menu isn't online so as best I can remember this is what we ate. We shared four appetizers. The Greek pizza, oxtail ravioli, white asparagus and truffle-poached egg. and hamachi and avacado with a Meyer lemon sauce. I wasn't crazy about the asparagus but the others were delicious. The bread was amazing. Sort of a cheese foccacia which they kept replacing throughout the meal until we told them to stop. I had the duck--four slices of duck breast, two duck sausages and wild rice and rhubarb compote in a delicious sauce. It was very good, My husband had the turbot which he said was outstanding. The other couple had the skate wing and salmon. The skate wing was very good. The salmon was different as it wasn't a filet but was a round piece like it was rolled. Not sure if she liked it or not. We shared the sticky toffee pudding dessert which is the signature dessert. Oh, my. Was that good. It isn't a pudding but more like a warm bread pudding cake in an outstanding caramel toffee sauce with a little scoop of ice cream--maybe goat cheese. Whatever it offset the sweetness of the sauce. There were other things on the menu that sounded really good. We will definitely go back.
When we were ready to leave, we stopped at the hostess desk to get out coats which we had checked. We had not been given claim checks but were told the coats were put under out reservation name. Then we glanced outside while waiting for the coats and our car was outside waiting for us. The hostess told us they keep an eye on your table and when it looks like you are getting ready to leave they get your car. Very impressive! I can't recommend this restaurant more highly. Our entire experience there was fantastic.