George Trois review: Winnetka restaurant-within-a-restaurant is superb
By: Phil Vettel
Old school,” an overused term that’s been appended to everything from tattoos to dance moves, reflects, at its core, respect for tradition.
In the culinary world, it suggests embracing techniques that require more work and attention, harking to the days when cooks had little choice. Culturing your own butter is old school; blending your own ketchup is crazy old school. (These days, thanks to sous-vide technology, cooking an egg in boiling water is old school.)
Michael Lachowicz’s George Trois, a five-table dining room nestled within his 12-year-old Restaurant Michael in Winnetka, is old school in the historic sense. It’s not that George Trois rejects the new (it does not), but it honors the past to a greater degree than any restaurant I can recall.
Lachowicz studied under some of the greatest masters of French cuisine, including Paul Bocuse, Pierre Orsi and, most tellingly, the late Jean Banchet, whom Lachowicz eventually succeeded as chef of the legendary Le Francais. (Lachowicz was the last of a noble line, one of only four chefs to command Le Francais’ kitchen.) The echoes of these chefs exist in many of Lachowicz’s dishes. (And he’s the first to point out these influences.)
The late-winter menu, for instance, included a truffle and foie-gras ravioli that was a nod to Orsi and, by extension, Bocuse. A fanciful “pithivier” of brioche-encased scallop layered with truffle was a throwback to Banchet’s pithivier of duck, with a dash of Daniel Boulud’s black-tie scallops as well.
“The dishes are more of an homage,” he said. “I’ve learned not to channel those guys, but to respect them.”
The restaurant name is a tip of the toque to another part of Lachowicz’s past — his grandfather and uncle, both Georges.
“They were both cooks; neither one would have called himself a chef,” Lachowicz. “I have their pictures in the kitchen, (a reminder) to take my ego out of this room.”
“This room” is the third George (thus George Trois), a stunning, white-on-white space. There are but five tables, double-draped with thick tablecloths and topped with votive candles beneath opaque stenciled domes. White leather chairs are soft enough for a quick nap. A white framed fireplace holds a few more lit candles; ceiling-hung curtains brush the carpeted floor, which, along with acoustic ceiling tiles, keep ambient noise at don’t-wake-the-baby levels.
There would be up to 20 diners if every chair were filled, but that doesn’t interest Lachowicz particularly. Restaurant Michael — pretty darn good in its own right — enjoys enough support that George Trois can exist as a separate (though the restaurants share a single kitchen), exclusive entity.
“Friday night, I had six tables in five hours,” he said. “Saturday I had one table early, three late. That’s enough for me. I want to engage on a level people are comfortable with; I’m still (pleasantly) shocked that people still let me cook for them.”
Locals have been sampling Lachowicz’s food for years, actually, from his early days as sous-chef at Cafe La Cave in Des Plaines and chef de cuisine at Alouette in Highwood to Les Deux Gros, the restaurant he opened with his brother, Tom, in Glen Ellyn. The name back then was a self-deprecating reference to the brothers’ combined girth, which was impressive. These days, it’s a trim, vigorous chef (“I was a mess before I got clean,” said Lachowicz, who quit drinking years ago) who attends to his guests.
And attend he does, marching out many of George Trois’ six or nine courses (depending on the tasting menu one selects) and applying the finishing touch at the table. Some of this is for show, a gesture of intimate hospitality as he dribbles creme fraiche over buttermilk blinis topped with a potato-nest of osetra caviar (a signature amuse, and if there’s a better accompaniment for a glass of Champagne, I’ve yet to find it). Other times it’s more purposeful, as he applies a precise amount of truffled honey to warm, phyllo-wrapped Muenster cheese.
“I do it myself because too much honey ruins it,” he said. “It’s a cheese course, not a honey course.”
Aiding Lachowicz in the room is the dapper captain and maitre d’ Daniel Guitierrez, who held similar positions at Le Francais; his service consists of serene confidence and gentle humor, in equal portions. General manager Sergio Angel, who also serves as de facto sommelier and who discusses wine with the enthusiasm of the newly converted, is the third presence. There may be a moment or two when one of these three gentlemen is not in the room, but those moments are rare.
Choose the six-course menu for $150 or the nine-course for $180. Truth be told, six-course guests often receive a bonus bite, but I’d still go full monty. The shorter program might cause you to miss Lachowicz’s pre-dessert, an adorable, miniature kumquat-Cointreau souffle, and/or that cheese course (abetted with toasted Marcona almonds) I referenced earlier, and I’d only wish that circumstance on people I didn’t like.
Among the standouts on the spring menu, which will run through June 14, is an asparagus custard topped with asparagus coulis; the near-liquid custard is held in place by a fence of asparagus tips, and at the top is a deviled egg, a lacy potato tuile and a solitary sorrel leaf. This is followed by a seafood composition with a Latino undercurrent; lobster, loup de mer and soft-shell crab dance above a chimichurri-accented cream sauce. Draped on top is a “chicharron” of dehydrated, fried and chlorophyll-tinged tapioca pearls, which looks like a protective coral reef. Following is loin of rabbit, two stacked, bacon-bound medallions alongside dots of sweet carrot puree, finished with dabs of mustard sauce (Lachowicz again, working his spoon like an artist’s brush).
After an intermezzo (talk about old school) of tea-lemon sorbet, freeze-dried honey and Champagne (Perrier for the non-indulgers), there’s a veal ragout with morels and a bit of foie gras, along with two potato gnocchi stuffed with foie-gras ganache. This course arrives in a custom-made, conical plate that looks like an inverted tagine and keeps its concepts toasty warm to the last spoonful.
The final course is dubbed “a few strawberry desserts” and features strawberry gelato in a tiny tart shell with a meringue cap; almond-strawberry financier cake; strawberry and white-chocolate ganache; and a hollowed strawberry filled with spheres of strawberry juice. (Lachowicz credits that bit of molecular gastronomy to chef de cuisine Miguel Escobar, who has worked with Lachowicz for more than 10 years and, in a small-world side note, is cousin to Mexique chef/owner Carlos Gaytan.)
There is a full wine list unique to George Trois, but Angel’s excellent and sometimes novel pairings (he served a Barolo with that veal ragout, for instance) are so much fun I recommend leaving the beverages in his hands. That said, George Trois has a first-bottle-free-corkage policy (check restrictions) that will warm any wine-collector’s heart.
George Trois takes reservations through Tocktix.com; you’ll pay a token deposit when reserving ($30 for the six-course, $40 for the nine), which will be applied to your bill. Considering that a four-top no-show would cost the restaurant up to a quarter of its revenue for the evening, I find this policy exceedingly fair.
I could tie this review up neatly by awarding George Trois three stars. With apologies for the lack of symmetry, I’m going to go one better than that.
64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Thursday to Sunday
Prices: Six-course tasting $150; nine-course $180
Reservations: Available through www.tocktix.com
Other: Wheelchair accessible; complimentary parking lot
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.