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Review: Henri

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 21, 2010 4:00PM

Whenever the proprietors of a beloved restaurant open up a new venture, comparisons are inevitable. Will the new place be as good? As popular? Will the new chef measure up? Or will the new restaurant pull business away from the old? Henri, the new venture from the folks behind the Gage, manages all of these concerns as deftly as any restaurant I've ever seen. Henri and the Gage are roommates, sharing a building, a kitchen and an executive chef in the talented Dirk Flanigan, yet have personalities so completely different that they could never be confused. All that is wonderful about the Gage - the accessible menu, the commitment to locally sourced foods and the focus on hearty fare - has been transferred to Henri, but a delicacy has been added that will appeal to an entirely new group of patrons.

The first difference is obvious the moment you enter. Henri is quiet. The bustling Gage next door gives no hint of the peace and calm that rule inside this beautiful French jewelbox of a restaurant. It's also tiny - 20 tables at most - and decorated with a quiet elegance that few modern restaurants can approach with their bold colors and flashy fixtures. Henri exudes a calm confidence, as if it had existed in that spot for 40 years and had been well-loved by its owners. The service is formal without being obnoxious or snobby, and the cutlery, glassware and linens are first class.

The menu will be a joy for foodies, filled with wonderful treats but lacking in fussy modern cliches. The appetizer list alone includes foie gras, oysters, smoked steak tartare, escargot, heirloom tomatoes and a consomme of rabbit that is the pure essence of game. The cocktail list is everything you'd expect from a team focused on excellent libations, and the Venetian mai tai had my dining companion (a confirmed tiki snob) nodding his head in appreciation. The Burhnam Manhattan was served straight up in a lowball glass, my favorite presentation, and was a delightfully smoky-sweet start to the meal.

I was particularly interested in the burger, as the Gage has one of the best in town. The least expensive item on the entree list at $15, the burger is made with short ribs and a tomato jam, and is destined to end up on best-of lists all over the city. Served with a generous portion of excellent fries, it allows even the pickiest eater to have a memorable meal. The menu also includes a slow-roasted lamb for two, a huge veal chop and a Dover sole meuniere, to continue the theme of classic dishes. The special when I visited was venison and, combined with the rabbit starter, it gave the impression that I was under the care of a chef who understood how to use game meats to great effect. Check the menu before you visit, as there is a changing series of daily offerings. I'll be back on a Monday for the cassoulet, which includes duck, pork belly and homemade sausage.

The biggest surprise about Henri was its lack of teething troubles. You would never have guessed the restaurant had been open for only three weeks. Not everything was absolutely perfect - most notably, the cocktails, though well crafted, are a bit weak and the dessert we chose, a chocolate tart, was decadent but forgettable. Overall, Henri is a grand new addition to the Chicago dining scene and a worthy partner for its older brother.