Rating: Four Stars
I must first, in the spirit of full disclosure, out myself as a close personal friend of Chalkboard's owner/chef Gil Langlois and his wife, co-owner Elizabeth Laidlaw. However, I also have to say that it would not exactly behoove me to tick off a bunch of potential readers, so the review is as honest and objective as I can be…grain of salt me all you like.
Gil and Elizabeth have created a gorgeous room, romantic enough to be a great date spot, but not so overt as to be alienating for those of us who are dining with friends or family. The menu is full of carefully crafted dishes, with inspired touches…your childhood favorites made sophisticated with a rich tomato soup paired with a blue cheese grilled cheese sandwich on the side, Kobe beef mini burger appetizer with Nueske bacon, truly spectacular fried chicken.
But there is an easy elegance at play here as well. Starters always include diver sea scallops, caramelized on the outside and succulent within, served with a vanilla aioli, spiced walnuts and sugared kalamata olives. Salads are simple and fresh, and the seared tuna cobb, a simple deconstructed plate with sushi grade tuna surrounded by small accompaniments, crisp bacon, blue cheese, caviar with truffle oil, soft poached egg, cucumber brunoise, diced avocado and roasted grape tomatoes, is a revelation.
For entrees, a gorgeous duck cassoulet, topped with meltingly tender slices of duck breast, and just enough back of the throat heat to prevent it from being too rich. Grilled pork tenderloin is perfectly cooked, sitting on a base of sweet corn relish and topped with a light potato salad with apples and celery, which not only complements the pork, but also somehow cleanses the palate between bites. The bouillabaisse is steeped in tradition, served in a small cast iron pot, and full of whatever the day’s freshest seafood and shellfish are on order, in a well seasoned broth that cries out to be sopped up with the warm-from-the-oven rolls. Gil’s recipes are French-influenced American, with more than a hint of high-end comfort food. No meal here is complete without a side dish of the Macaroni and Cheese, rich with smoked gouda. I’ve had dining companions express a wish to eat their way out of a bathtub full of the stuff.
The daily specials on the chalkboard always include the freshest fish dishes, and the chef’s current interests, as well as celebrations of the best local produce. On a recent trip, Gil’s take on surf and turf, a beef osso bucco paired with Alaskan Halibut, served with a celery root puree and crispy fried artichokes. Meltingly tender hanger steak, with a fresh chimichurri sauce was also a standout.
Desserts can be hit or miss, sometimes a delight, sometimes better in theory than in practice, but you will never go wrong if you stick with the whimsical chocolate chip cookie dough egg roll, or the fresh berries with yogurt and honey, both consistently wonderful.
The wine list isn’t massive, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in carefully selected bottles in a range of affordable prices. I recommend you start with a glass of Taltarni, a pink sparker from Australia that is my new favorite quaff, and then let Gil or your server make a recommendation.
They don’t take parties of more than six, affirming my belief that unless a small restaurant has a private room to accommodate them, any party larger than that becomes a liability for the other patrons. It isn’t a place for very young children, unless they have sophisticated palates, but it is a spot I have taken both my grandmother and a romantic hopeful with equal success. Well, dining success at any rate. Gil can guarantee a great meal, but not necessarily a new boyfriend!
As a bonus, Saturday and Sunday afternoon high tea is fun. Be sure to get there early as seating is limited, and the made-to-order scones are worth the trip.
Chalkboard is located at 4343 N. Lincoln Ave.
NOSH of the week:
My go-to canapé these days celebrates fresh flavors and will wow your company with a minimum of effort.
1 small baguette French bread, sliced into rounds about ½ inch thick
1 log softened goat cheese (chevre)
3 T honey
3 large peaches
1 package fresh sage, leaves plucked, and halved lengthwise if large
Blend softened goat cheese with honey until smooth. If you like it sweeter, feel free to add more honey. Spread cheese mixture on bread rounds. Slice peaches and put 2-3 slices on each round. Tuck a leaf of sage between the peach slices and serve.
Experiment with other herbs and fruit….plums and lemon thyme, pears and mint, apricots and basil…hit your local farmer’s market and enjoy!
NOSH food read of the week:
My Life In France, by Julia Child