When a restaurant reaches the 30-year milestone, it’s natural for the chef to take a look back and savor the journey. Unless you’re Jean Joho, a chef whose mantra is, “What’s good enough for me today isn’t good enough for me tomorrow,” and a man who never looks back.
Well, maybe a little.
Like to October 1986, Everest’s first week in business.
“I remember (then-Tribune critic) Mark Knoblauch came into the dining room. I was open for four days, and I thought, ‘My God, what happened?’ And my English was so bad,” said the Alsace-born chef.
Apparently, nothing was lost in translation. After a few more visits, Knoblauch hung four stars on Everest, then 3 months old, predicting that Joho’s collaboration with Lettuce Entertain You founder Rich Melman “may turn out to be one of the most inspired partnerships in Chicago restaurant history.”
That launched an unbroken string of four-star accolades for Joho (spoiler alert: I’m not going to break the string today) and his 40th-floor restaurant, which combines a majestic city view with dishes so beautifully composed that one sometimes forgets to admire the view.
Decision-making at Everest is never terribly taxing. Diners choose among three- and four-course tastings, selecting dishes from some 10 appetizers (not including the caviar-based dishes, which carry a supplemental charge) and eight main courses, or surrender completely and select the day’s degustation of six chef-selected courses.
A six-course degustation seems almost quaint in an era of 12-course (and more) tastings, but Joho always has preferred to keep his stories short.
“When you’re sitting for so long and taste too much, your stomach and whole body tires,” he said. “And too many courses makes it very difficult with the wine (pairings).”
Joho’s shorter menu doesn’t mean less food, however. To the contrary, portions tend to be substantial, and even dishes that look smallish … well, though Joho’s creations are invariably light on the tongue, let’s concede that the man isn’t counting calories.
I do understand the two-bites-and-I-get-it approach — it’s the way most critics, who want to taste absolutely everything, like to eat — but there’s something to be said for dishes on which you’re able to spend a little time. Joho’s venison loin, for instance, which consists of two hefty medallions graced with cocoa nibs and wild-huckleberry jus, flanked by a bit of braised cabbage, splayed slices of spiced pear and, in a side dish, spiced knepfla (Alsatian dumplings). I’ve had duck-breast entrees that consisted of three slices, and enjoyed them; the duck that arrived at my table (bathed in a light cardamom-accented sauce) had seven.
As part of the restaurant’s 30-year celebration last month, Joho created a degustation menu of dishes of 1986 staples, including his sublime “black and white” dish of squid-ink risotto (Joho was probably the first chef in Chicago to use imported carnaroli rice exclusively) topped with pure-white hoops of tender squid; and the banana terrine, at the time Joho’s rebuttal to the ubiquitous creme brulee, a square of chocolate-barded banana terrine topped with maple-cap ice cream (maple cap is a mushroom that smells and even tastes of maple) and a sugar-dusted arlette cookie.
The throwback menu proved so popular that Joho concedes he may have to bring back one or two dishes from time to time, but there is no shortage of excellence among the current offerings, beginning with the stellar Maine lobster salad, a towering composition of lobster meat on an artichoke-heart base, surrounded by mini-pools of lobster emulsion inlaid with blood-orange sauce. Lobster also stars in a presse (terrine) with potato brandade. Another terrine features slowly cooked game bird (duck, pheasant, quail) alongside beet diamonds dotted with apple-carrot aigre doux, and splashes of truffle vinaigrette forming little commas on the plate.
Foie gras, again in impressive portion, gets a sweet-sour treatment from beet verjus and persimmon sauce and is topped with bee pollen and spice-cake croutons. Beef Wellington arrives as a thick slice (exposing the mushroom duxelles layer and perfectly pink beef, graced with Maldon salt flakes) over a light veal jus in which dots of bearnaise sauce have been pulled.
Service, never a problem at Everest, is even more on-point than I’d remembered, particularly concerning wine service. Everest’s wine list includes the sort of vintages that make you wish you’d bought Apple stock in the early ’80s, but there are affordable options, and wine director and sommelier Jen Schmitt makes the search easy. Or you can opt for wine pairings ($98; $145 premium pours) with any menu.
As I’ve said before, one doesn’t merely arrive at Everest; one ascends.
From the subterranean parking garage (free indoor valet, thank you), it’s a quick elevator ride to the lobby security desk, and a more leisurely climb to the 39th floor to access the private elevator to 40, where a narrow corridor opens to the splendor of Everest’s bilevel dining room, the elegant but understated decor (long gone are the original animal-print wall treatments and leopard-spot carpeting, which I miss only a little), the beautiful Ivo Soldini bronze sculptures (no two alike) topping each table. The room instantly justifies the effort expended in reaching it, and that’s before “les preludes” (three to four pre-meal nibbles, presented at once) hit the table.
Thirty years is a milestone achievement for any restaurant. For a restaurant to remain at the top of its game after 30 years? Extraordinary.
440 S. LaSalle St.
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday to Saturday
Prices: Six-course degustation, $165; three- and four-course prix-fixe menus $98 and $130
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; complimentary indoor valet parking
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.