In late 2011 Chris Nugent, former executive chef at Les Nomades, opened his own place on a stretch of Lawrence in West Lincoln Square. The food would be contemporary, yet rooted in classic French tradition; artistic and visionary, yet BYOB and without pretention. Within a year, little Goosefoot brought home its first Michelin star.
It's been compared, somewhat inevitably, to places like Alinea and Schwa, but Goosefoot bends the high-end bar around its own idiosyncrasies. First, the neighborhood itself is supremely and refreshingly un-fancy. I've lived just a few blocks away since it opened, and it is amazingly easy to pick out the established epicureans making the Goosefoot trek among the rest of us. (Stilettos and bottles of Bourdeaux just tend to stand out when the rest of the evening scene features kids playing hoops in Gross Park and me walking to the grocery store in sweatpants.)
There's also the undeniably friendly family-owned vibe, with Chris manning the kitchen and his wife, Nina, hosting the 15-table dining room. She calls the regulars by name and spends a few minutes chatting, while the servers are as apt to crack a joke as recite a litany of ingredients. (As she set down the final course, a gooseberry perched on a pale stump, mine broke the fourth wall and said with a grin, "That bottom part's really birch wood...I wouldn't try to eat it.")
You'd be hard pressed, however, to find anything about the food to joke about. Each dish is as serious and ambitious as the next, and most are stunners. On a recent evening, the nine-course tasting menu included a few additional bites to make for, in total, a twelve-course, three-hour à la Russe affair ($135). The menu alters according to the seasons, with some preparations staying in the mix—the compressed apple and ginger-spiced lentils that accompanied my Angus dish are practically mainstays, as is the white truffle essence topping the soup course.
This meal had me imagining Nugent venturing into the French countryside, discovering hundreds of years of honed culinary tradition amid a field of wildflowers there, and staking a spot for the great American Midwest. Rich custards, savory ragouts, and zingy gastriques reign, yet the ingredients are locally sourced and wholly Midwestern. The presentation is pared to sharp, contemporary points, but there is rusticity, familiarity, and even nostalgia in many of the flavor compositions. The theme of a cultivated wilderness—even the menu itself, if planted, will sprout flowers—appears in delicate elements of the dishes, as in a few tiny sprays of flowering herbs held aloft by gelée and wandering off the plate.
Tasting notes are kept at a minimum; the dish described as "shrimp/preserved garlic/rosemary" would be wrought more accurately as "shrimp/tomato/rosemary/ragout/preserved garlic/Parmesan/custard/parsnip crisps/egg shell cup."
Discovering just how the components will be woven together is part of the fun. Click on the slideshow for the whole experience.