Our visit to Aigre Doux violated a number of the rules of intelligent restaurant eating -- we went during Chicago's Restaurant Week, late at night on a Wednesday, and to a place that bills its cuisine as "New American."
In this case, it shouldn't have mattered. Aigre Doux was named to Citysearch's Top 10 New Restaurants list, and its chefs are alums of Jean-Georges and Chateau Marmont. Throw in the fact that entrees clock in around $34, and we had good reason to expect a top-quality restaurant experience. Our visit, in a word? Meh.
Again, we have to mention that our party ordered off of the special prix fixe menu. Since they had run out of several items, however, our appetizers ended up coming off of the regular menu.
Apple and arugula salad with serrano ham and manchego cheese.
By consensus, this was the highlight of the meal, but should it have been? An apple-heavy salad is an odd choice for late winter, and the ingredients were B-grade at best. A classic pairing, expertly seasoned and perfectly boring.
Butternut squash soup.
At high-end restaurants, you usually get one of two things: 1) incredible ingredients that blow your doors off, or 2) innovative, interesting food with a twist. Here, we got butternut squash soup. Quite nice, and again expertly seasoned, but the ingredients were average and the dish seemed unfinished. No schnazzy crouton, no drizzle of exquisite olive oil to round things out. Butternut. Squash. Soup.
Baked salmon in a garlic sauce, served with polenta and an artichoke heart.
After dinner, several members of our party commented that it seemed like the food had been prepped and sitting in the back for hours, just waiting to be warmed through. This dish was the principal culprit, and really nailed the theme of the evening: fine, but not at this type of restaurant. Think about it -- baked salmon, $35. Oy.
Sweet and sour short ribs with squash puree and kale.
An unmitigated disaster. The meat was nicely cooked and very tender, but neither sweet nor sour (neither was the tasteless, thin, orange-colored sauce drizzled over it). The kale was fine, but totally out of place on the plate. It is unclear whether the puree was intended to be cold or hot; it was neither. Short ribs are basically a blank slate, with any number of options available for an inspired chef. Why the hell would you do this with them?
Sticky toffee pudding with Devonshire cream.
Chef Ameen's dessert was undoubtedly the "star" of the meal -- texturally interesting, packed with flavor, and topped with delicious cream. A little too sweet? Perhaps, but still a big win.
The single best thing to hit the table was the bread. Ameen is supposed to be a whiz with pastries (and, we presume, also handles the baking), and this was a moist, cheese-crusted killer. Likewise, the after-dinner coffee was exceptional.
As for the other stuff ... well, we're generally food snobs, not restaurant snobs. We don't need (or really want) our napkins folded when we hit the bathroom, and we rarely notice service (unless highly informative) or decor (unless dazzling). When the food's not great, however, we tend to be a bit more critical on those fronts. Smudged windows and somewhat condescending, uneven service are generally things we overlook. In this case, they were mildly annoying.
Frankly, we just don't understand what we paid for. If innovation isn't Aigre Doux's thing, ingredients and preparation need to be ... and they aren't. Our experience featured the rare flash of quality -- amazing bread, delicious cream -- and a whole lot of blah. At a restaurant featuring $20 entrees, that sort of thing might be tolerable. When the tab for two approaches $200, not so much.
Ratings follow the Zagats model. Food Price is for an average-priced entree, appetizer, and dessert. Wine Price is, in the grand tradition of Homer Simpson, for the "freshest" bottle on the menu.
Food Price: $57
Wine Price: $42
Chefs Mohammed Islam & Malika Ameen
230 W Kinzie St
Chicago, IL 60610
Phone: (312) 329-9400