Restaurant Review: Le Lan, Chicago

It’s not often that In the middle of a meal I start planning my next visit to the restaurant with anticipation. Sometimes this happens in some of the world’s best restaurants, and my plans involve tallying monthly expense budgets and looking sideways at my cash flow. Perhaps more frequently it happens in restaurants that sit somewhere between the finest haute cuisine and the more casual dining that might characterize a bite out after work during the week. More often than not, these are restaurants that aren’t radically innovative in conception, but their dining experiences offer small details that hint at a strong vision guiding the hands in the kitchen and invariably I find myself saying “damn that’s good” after nearly ever bite.

The first time I sat in the dining Room at Le Lan, I probably paid less attention to the food than I should have. Mostly I sat, warm and comfortable in the low light between the tight halogen lighting that pools on the tabletops, and watched snow fall through the huge round front window looking out on the streets and brick buildings of Chicago’s West Loop. That feeling of comfort and respite mingled with the delicate and sometimes surprising flavors on my plates that evening and during several more return visits.

I’ve now managed to admire the various seasons through the glorious simplicity of that front window, and of course to pay more attention to the excellent French Vietnamese fusion cuisine created by two chefs who first mastered each of their respective variables in that culinary equation before collaborating on its solution.

Le Lan is a partnership between Chefs Roland Liccioni of Les Nomades (one of Chicago’s pricier French tables) and Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun’s (the tasting menu format Thai restaurant out on Kedzie Avenue). Where the Vietnamese expertise comes in is anyone’s guess, but the two seem to have found a culinary space that makes good use of both their skills.

If the cuisine is an equal split between the experience and sensibilities of Liccioni and Sampanthavivat, so too is the dining room an nicely matched combination of the French and Vietnamese aesthetic. Actually, there’s more than one kind of Asian influence in the design, as the distinctly Chinese style mural of a dragon on the back wall (painted by Sampanthavivat’s presumably Thai brother) attests, but the restaurant is evenly split between elements like this mural and the zinc bar that is looks like it was airlifted from an art-deco bistro in the Marais. Above the bar, though, the roving eye finds the dark brown wood latticework from a well appointed Vietnamese home. The combination of these details with modern, rectilinear furniture with black leather, gorgeous wood and marble floors, exposed brick, and simple tabletop arrangements of orchids, stones and grass, makes for a soothing environment. I find it relaxing to watch the black clad wait staff move across the unfrosted circle of glass at the front of the house, like birds across the face of the moon, though at times the “Buddha Lounge” soundtrack they move to can be a bit much.

The menu at Le Lan, which changes less often than I’d like, is nicely straightforward. Diners have the choice between a couple of soups and salads, five or six appetizers, and eight entrees.

On my last visit my meal began with a small amuse bouche of a sweet and spicy cucumber spring roll wrapped in a skin of watermelon radish and accompanied by a crispy shallot relish. It served its purpose as a palate cleanser admirably, and though it had a little bit of the starchy pastiness that puts radishes fairly low on my list of favorite vegetables, the flavors were balanced and distinctive, with a deft touch of heat that had my mouth paying attention for whatever was to come next. I like that Le Lan provides an amuse ” many restaurants in its price range wouldn’t bother, and I believe this little mouthful is always a good sign that the chef takes the dining experience seriously.

Before I move on to first courses, I have to say something about the bread and dipping oil that appears neatly as the menus are whisked away. In particular I want to gleefully relate the ingredients of the oil because I nearly dropped my fork when the waiter told me. Apparently the mixture changes ever week as the available fresh herbs change, but the elusively scented olive oil is infused with something like 23 different herbs and spices. I got the list at one point but I seem to have lost it, but some of my notes show lemongrass, mint, basil, cilantro, thyme, parsley, and more.

Details, as I said, are important.

My spring roll was followed by what my waitress described amusingly (and aptly) as “well, basically a slightly deconstructed bowl of Pho.” Instead of the traditional Vietnamese bowl steaming with noodles and a dark broth nudging a plate of heaping bean sprouts, Thai basil, peanuts, and other condiments to be thrown into the soup, I received instead a small bowl of deep, thick beef consommé so intensely flavored I couldn’t believe the flavors came from a mostly clear broth. In addition to this slim white bowl with its thrice reduced broth, I received an array of small square dishes nestled together in a line of geometric precision, each containing the essence of one of the main flavors or condiments that comprise the traditional dish. In one I found a pinch of curry powder which added a new dimension to several bites of the broth; in another some tiny lime wedges; and still others held the chilies, bean sprouts, a chili and vinegar sauce, and more. Everything, that is, except the noodles. If this all sounds a bit contrived and less satisfying than a big bowl of Pho, it certainly was, but it was an appetizer after all, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling through the little bits that I was given, trying out different combinations with the broth as I worked my way through it.

Other starters I have enjoyed include a kabosha squash soup poured tableside with a crabmeat “rangoon” dumpling; chili poached dumplings topped with lime zest with jalapeno-carrot foam accompanied by sunchoke fritters; and some very interesting spring rolls, some fried, some raw and stuffed with noodles, curry, shrimp and pork, or veal and chicken, served with excellent dipping sauces.

After my bit of Pho, though, I was ready for the curried skate wing I had ordered. It arrived in a beautifully arranged plating. You can tell when skate has been cooked perfectly because it breaks apart easily into thin, firm strips without being mushy or without being too rubbery. The fish sat in the shadow of translucent leaves of potato skin wafers in a pool of mild beige curry sauce flavored with a hint of coconut. Underneath the nearly transparent and perfectly cooked fish hid spears of white and green asparagus which themselves nestled into a dark soft mass of morel mushroom puree. Accompanied by yellow turmeric scented cauliflower sprinkled with chives this dish contained quite a few flavors, and even more textures, but each nested beautifully in the other, making for one of the more satisfying servings of fish that I have had in some time. It was so good in fact, that I briefly flirted with going back again the next night, knowing that when I returned to Chicago several months later, I would not likely have the chance. Other main dishes on offer typically include lamb, which I’ve had with a mint and tamarind sauce over mint flan and a garlic puree with ratatouille on the side, and a smoked squab with spice bread puree, wild mushrooms, and an anchovy accented port wine sauce.

Le Lan carefully constructs all the flavors on offer, and this is also true on the wine list, which begins with a strong suggestion that the flavors of the food are best accentuated with Alsatian, Austrian and German wines that the staff would be happy to describe should they be unfamiliar to diners. The list then goes on to offer nicely priced selections from several categories. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Gruner Veltliner are accompanied by several white Burgundies and some more ordinary American whites. Several roses are offered, as well as a few cold sake selections. The reds lean towards French, with Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhone all represented along with some Australian and a more substantial group of American producers. The least expensive bottles are around the $36 price point, while the most expensive Burgundies, recent vintages of a grand cru Chambolle-Musigny and Montrachet Chevalier push above the $250 mark. Eight white, nine red, and four sparkling wines are offered by the glass ranging from $8 to $15 with some additional dessert wines.

Speaking of dessert, the selection is usually limited to three or four choices, one of which remains on the menu presumably through a combination of popular demand and desire from the kitchen. On previous visits I had tasted this house specialty, a “chocolate molleux” accompanied by Vietnamese cinnamon-thyme ice cream that requires an additional 15 or 20 minutes to make by the kitchen, so this time it wasn’t hard to follow my heart and order flan.

I’ve had a lot of flan. And a lot of panna cotta. They are two of my favorite desserts, and I’m quite discerning when it comes to their texture, consistency, flavor, sauces, appearance, you name it, but I’ve never quite had anything like this sheep’s milk flan with crystallized cilantro and exotic candied fruits. The flan was of perfect consistency (though slightly paler than its classic incarnation) and had an incredible soft, sour tang to it that gorgeously wrapped its way around a nibble of the stiff, sparkly cilantro for a truly original package of flavors. Subsequent bites incorporating the small jewels (pineapple, passion fruit, guava, jackfruit, and mango, I think) that swam in the light syrup were equally gorgeous. OK, I’m gushing at this point, but honestly, it was fantastic, and all the more impressive because of being a variation on something that has become quite common. At past meals I’ve also had A blackberry soufflé with chocolate mousse and a passion fruit and raspberry tart.

The service at Le Lan is well trained. Tableware is carefully replaced between courses, water glasses are kept topped up, and the wine service is competent. The only complaint I’ve ever had in my several meals there was that on two occasions I’ve felt fussed over, with both my server and the maitre-d stopping by a little too often to ask if I needed anything. Perhaps the small black notebook made them nervous, but I’d rather have slightly aloof than obsequious.

French-Vietnamese, even when done well, is no culinary revolution at this point. It’s a fairly established culinary endeavor in the US as well as closer to its roots. It can, however, easily become boring and predictable, unless treated with care. It can also be treated too casually, almost as street food, and it can be elevated to a point where it is trying to compete with the highest end restaurants. In all my dining experiences at Le Lan I have experienced a level of attention to the food that I believe has prevented it from falling into that typical trap, and the restaurant has situated itself in the right zone between casual and find dining with a menu that makes me return every time I have a few days to spend in Chicago.

How much:?: Roughly $55 to $75 per person with a glass or two of wine. Appetizers are $8-12 and entrees run $18-30.

Le Lan Restaurant
749 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610

Reservations are recommended, though walk-ins during the week are likely to find a table. Parking is plentiful in the neigborhood.