"I never wanted an empire," says chef Carrie Nahabedian, in a massive understatement. For the past 12 years, she and her cousin, Michael Nahabedian, have been perfectly happy with Naha, one of the best contemporary-American restaurants in Chicago, as their one and only operation. But they say the dream of opening a French restaurant was never far from their minds, and when the stars aligned and a space became available just two blocks north of Naha (Chicago foodies of a certain age might remember it as the original site of Harry's Velvet Room), the Nahabedians jumped, and Brindille — the name refers to a tree branch that supports new growth — was born.
Naha isn't a large restaurant by any means (it barely seats 100), but Brindille sets new standards for intimacy. There are just 46 seats, no private dining room, and the restaurant doesn't seat large parties. The look, as subdued as the noise level, is a sexy combination of dark neutral tones, beautiful art, decorative touches that echo the tree-branch theme, and luxurious table appointments.
Dishes have elegant touches of their own, so understated they're easy to overlook. The implement that accompanies the king crab merus (the center cut of the crab leg), placed over savory tapioca custard and a Sauternes-laced broth, is a long-handled English pickle fork, part of Carrie Nahabedian's private collection. (No two are alike, some are 200 years old and happily she hasn't lost a single one, which the chef attributes to the high caliber of her clientele.) The branchlike apparatus that's the centerpiece of Brindille's oyster dish (the oysters served in-shell with soft-scrambled eggs and dollops of caviar) is custom-made by a silversmith. Special napkins accompany the wild frog legs, luxuriating in a cauliflower blancmange, to encourage eating by hand (the only sensible way to devour frog legs). Even the relatively prosaic sliced rib-eye with a cheese-topped fingerling tarte tatin (the double-baked potato, reconsidered) arrives with a London-made steak blade.
The luxury extends to a certain generosity of portion. Those are good-size piles of caviar on the oysters, and the foie gras, served with house-made brioche and a complex rhubarb jam, is knife-and-fork, share-with-friends hefty.
"Your eye should be satisfied right off," Nahabedian says. "Nobody wants a sliver of foie. It's like caviar; you either do it, or you don't. Just because I'm on a health kick doesn't mean I impose it on my guests." (She's lost 160 pounds in the last 18 months.)
The restaurant is perfect for the multicourse chef's-choice tasting menu, yet that is something Nahabedian deliberately doesn't offer.
"Not to say anything against them," she says, "but I didn't want to provide a four-hour dining experience. If you want a tasting menu, we'll gladly create one, but I want (Brindille) to be comfortable to the person who just wants steak tartare and a glass of wine."
If you can limit yourself to that, you're a stronger person than me. I'd have a hard time resisting the aforementioned starters, as well as my favorite, a brilliant composition of sweetbreads accented with cocoa nibs, rabbit saddle and a tiny rack of rabbit. Main course highlights include guinea hen with morels and sunchokes (and in a cute touch, a piece of cockscomb); sockeye salmon with lentils, braised oxtail and horseradish-topped kohlrabi; and a majestic lobster Brindille, the meat from a 11/2-pound lobster arrayed like a turban in the middle of a bed of fragrant greens, flower blossoms and herbs, in turn surrounded by marble-size potatoes and a vanilla-scented, roe-fortified sauce.
Pastry chef Craig Harzewski, who also handles breads and desserts at Naha, fashions predictably brilliant and beautiful sweets for Brindille, including a space-age "fantasie au chocolat" that encases dense chocolate cake, soft whipped cream and more in a shimmering sheer sleeve of pulled sugar, like edible gift wrap. There's also a gorgeous presentation of roasted pineapple with toasted cashews and creme fraiche ice cream, and a soft, warm cherry-almond clafoutis (a puffy cakelike custard when done right, as it is here) with a dollop of Chantilly cream. It's like being in the world's fanciest soda fountain.
Service is charming, if occasionally indulgent in overblown language, but otherwise silky smooth and encyclopedic in food and beverage knowledge (especially handy when it comes to Brindille's excellent signature cocktails). The only caveat to my rave is that the stairs leading to the restroom are uncommonly steep. If you are at all unsure of your footing, opt for the wheelchair-accessible restroom on the dining room level. It's better decorated anyway.
534 N. Clark St.; 312-595-1616; brindille-chicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $38-$48
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.