Chowhound Presents: Table Talk with Nadine Levy Redzepi of Downtime: Deliciousness at Home | Ask Your Questions Now ›

Restaurants & Bars

Chicago Area

Le Vichyssois: All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here

Share:

Restaurants & Bars 23

Le Vichyssois: All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here

Harry V. | Jan 3, 2003 04:32 PM

PREAMBLE

Yesterday, a few threads below, in response to a question on board etiquette from Aaron D., John M. invited the posting of negative reviews, even those based on a single visit. “... If it’s not good,” John says, “feel free to post it. I, at least, will thank you.”

Well John, this one’s for you. Ordinarily I feel little urge to write a negative review. But in the instance of Le Vichyssois, I am heartily willing to oblige John M. More than willing. Indeed, I regard this restaurant as constituting a rip-off so profound, so astonishing, so grotesque as to obligate public comment.

What follows is the most negative review I can write. I apologize for its insufficiency. Dante, perhaps, could make vivid the full horrors of this awful place; I cannot. Even those who normally are deaf, dumb and blind to everything a restaurant does beyond putting food onto a plate might find their nonchalance challenged by the tawdry ambience, grimly incompetent service, and total absence of a sense of hospitality offered warmly or even at all. And conversely, even those whose focus on food in a restaurant is secondary to their enjoyment of hospitality, ambience and “the overall experience” might find themselves gagging at the culinary malfeasance and deceptions perpetrated here.

N.B. The following level of scrutiny would be excessive and heartless if visited upon a humble establishment of modest ambition; but not, I don’t believe, upon a restaurant of two-star prices and two-star pretensions. It should be borne in mind that Le Vichyssois’s bill for a not-unusually-immoderate evening of eating and drinking was considerably in excess of 100 dollars per person. The prices charged by an establishment are, among other things, a boast about the quality of food, service and ambience that the customer might expect to enjoy when dining there. This being the case, I do not believe the following examination is unfair, unjust or in any way disproportionate to the pretensions of the establishment.

This dinner took place on December 31, 2002, the eve of a new year, when one might have dared to expect even a bit more festive warmth from the staff than whatever constitutes their norm. Moreover, we dined fairly early in the evening (7:00 p.m. reservation), so it’s not as if we were encountering the services of the kitchen and wait staff toward the end of a grueling evening. Indeed, since a fixed menu was the only food option on this occasion, there was much less than usual at that stage of that evening to tax or challenge the staff - no variety of dishes to prepare, no complex orders to record or accommodate, etc. Just sit the customers down and bring on the chow.

Or so one would have thought.

REPUTATION

Le Vichyssois, in the far northwestern suburb of Lakemoor, is mentioned openly and without noticeable dread in several quarters. Metromix asserts: “Le Vichyssois justifies a trip from Chicago for attentively prepared country French. The lovely silver and white dining room showcases top-quality, modestly priced fare.”

The Sun-Times online blurb holds: “Comfortable and pleasant multiroom French inn in the country. Very good French cuisine that covers the classics but delves into what might be considered regional French cooking. Chef/owner Bernard Cretier does seasonal menus that are never boring. Good service and wine list.”

Lastly, the voters in Zagat’s Chicago survey consistently place Le Vichyssois among the twenty most favored restaurants of any kind in the entire Chicago area.

For these and other reasons, my mother chose this as the place for our family to celebrate her birthday.

AMBIENCE

Where to begin? Chronology, I suppose, is easiest.

First of all, the parking lot not large enough to accommodate a full house of customers - quite an odd error for a suburban restaurant. Nor is there valet service. The customer is required to pass between parked cars to arrive at the restaurant entrance, which is not in front of the building but in the side, facing the parking lot.

Inside: cheapness everywhere. Shabby chic without the chic.

To begin with, everything looked dreadful in the dim light, not softly dim, but of a harsh fluorescent quality. The cheap, plastic, dingy gray carpet was not particularly clean. The rather flimsy tables were one step up in quality from the fold-up card table down in the semi-finished rec room. The chairs were worst of all, dusty, uncomfortable and ugly, encased in yellowing clear vinyl ... the kind of chairs that the Elks Lodge keeps in the basement of its banquet hall, to be pulled out (but not cleaned) for special occasions.

Cheap tableware and glasses, which did not even match - one of the unmatched set of champagne glasses brought to us even had an advertising logo etched into it. And that was the glass of the highest quality in the group. Large, industrial-looking fake wood paneled refrigerators behind the bar abundantly visible from the dining area. Atrocious music playing in the background, Muzak-like pabulum suitable only for the corridors of a mental ward or a Motel 6. (I assume.)

Worst of all were the walls - positively loaded with paintings for sale! It is possible to overlook the sleazy commercial tactic of “decorating” an establishment with “art” for sale in funky “hipster” cafes and the like; but not where part of the expense one pays is for an atmosphere of transporting hospitality, and most certainly not to be a target for further commercial attentions. Absolutely disgusting - although at least the paintings did cover up some of the chintzy wallpaper.

And even at the last, waiting for our coats to be retrieved by the attendant before leaving the premises, idly scanning the lobby in the eye’s hope of alighting upon something not utterly charmless, we noticed that some of the trinkets on display in a case were also for sale. Good god. Imagine a decent restaurant, not located anywhere near a Disney theme park, trying to hustle you merchandise on your way out the door.

SERVICE

The ambience of Le Vichyssois was as paradise compared to the service.

It began as the hostess watched us with visible impatience as we finished handing our coats to the woman at the coat-check stand - as if it were our fault that the owner had decided to employ his great-great-grandmother, recovering from her recent hip replacement, to man the coat-check stand singlehandedly on the busiest restaurant night in the middle of the winter.

After which our party of five was presented with the table we had reserved more than a month in advance. It was hardly big enough for four people - hardly big enough for the five place settings that were amusingly squeezed into that scant space. Furthermore, there were only four chairs at the table - logically enough, as there was not adequate room even for a fifth chair, much less a fifth person.

When I mentioned this lack of a chair to the hostess (hoping she might be clever enough to recognize the synecdoche and grasp that not just a chair, but an adequate table, was lacking) - and nearly having to run to catch up to her as she scuttled impatiently back to the entrance - she replied tartly that she had already stated that a chair was being brought ... “but perhaps those in the back of the party did not hear.” Whereupon I was taught that the fault was mine for failing to walk ahead of the ladies in the party in order to attend to the whispered dispensations of our hostess.

While I stood in the middle of the room, already approaching shock at the disregard shown by the leader of the room staff to our concerns and even our basic comfort, two of the ladies in our party in the meantime sat down at the table in the seats nearest the wall, only to discover (by banging their knees into it, causing both genuine pain) that the table possessed a hanging extension, at that moment folded down.

Again, I turned to find some member of the staff to request that the table be extended so that our party might be able to sit in decent comfort. After a half minute roaming the premises I finally discovered a busboy, who, although most reluctant to be detained from his appointed tasks, did finally consent to join me in pulling the table away from the wall.

Whereupon he turned around and sped away to his previous missions, leaving the table unadjusted. This induced me to set off once again in search of help (rather stubbornly at this point, I admit). When I returned I found the ladies (in full formal attire) bending under the table, fumbling under the tablecloth to release and extend the hanging leaf of the table, fully on their own initiative and quite without assistance.

Sometimes you’ve just got to take things into your own hands.

I cannot narrate the rest of the evening’s service in such detail; but I believe the point is made. If not, here are a few highlights from the rest of the meal.

- After pouring out the first glasses from the bottle of champagne we began with, the waitress did not return to refill glasses, leaving the task to me. Just as well, I thought, except that a napkin was not left for the bottle (which was resting in a ice bucket), so I had to use my own to keep the water on the bottle from flowing into our glasses. When at the waitress’s next visit I requested another napkin for this purpose, she instead, without word or expression of any kind, proceeded to empty the bottle; she then asked me in an impertinent tone if I desired anything else at that time. I restrained myself from voicing a request for minimally competent table service, or, barring that, minimally non-unpleasant service.

- Empty plates were left in front of us long after we finished with them (ten minutes or longer in several instances). Two emptied cocktail glasses were left on the table until after the second course had been served. And even then they were only removed at my explicit request; and even THEN the wet napkins and cocktail straws were left behind, remaining on our table until it was cleared for dessert.

- Used tableware was not cleared and replaced by the staff unless placed on the emptied plate. If one happened to leave one’s dirty knife or fork lying anywhere but the plate, you were stuck with that through the next course. Perhaps this is not an outright fault of service, but most establishments affecting professional table service are able to remove all used silverware circumspectly.

- A gentleman in our party with hair perhaps an inch or two longer than the norm for young men of his generation was addressed as “Madam” - with no subsequent apology for the mistake.

- My mother, a very light drinker, became ill from the alcohol consumed with unsuspecting immoderation due to the extraordinarily long wait after being seated before food of any kind was served. We had been seated 35 minutes before the merest crumb of bread had been placed before us. The oldest, cheapest trick in the book is to ply customers with alcohol in hopes they will order further rounds of drinks with increasing abandon; to encounter it at a place like Le Vichyssois was simply disgusting.

(My mother was able to eat bread and little else for the rest of the meal. Nevertheless she carried on bravely, insisting that we remain to finish the meal despite our entreaties to quit the restaurant and allow us to take her home. Very earnest entreaties, I assure you.... Before the main course arrived, however, we did ask that her dishes be packaged to take home rather than served at the table.)

- Each one of the steaks was served to the wrong person. Our steak order consisted of one rare, one medium-rare, and one medium. Every person eating steak got the wrong order - in startling defiance of the law of averages.

- The fish main course was served about five full minutes after the steaks were brought out.

- After dessert, two of us stayed behind to pay the bill while the other two accompanied my mother to the car. We waited what seemed like ages for our waitress to take the check, until at last another waitress, grasping the situation, offered to take our payment. Which in turn was returned by what I took to be one of the proprietors. This lady actually managed to smile - the only one we saw from the staff that evening.

Throughout the entire evening, the hostess and waitress were totally unsmiling, totally unsympathetic to us. For every single incident I’ve mentioned, not one word or gesture of apology or regret was ever vouchsafed us.

FOOD

The food was not as uniformly awful as the other elements of the dinner. It ranged over a wide spectrum of quality that, in its finest instances, included “very good.” But even the food was disappointing overall, and in three instances was plainly deceitful, along with one act of gross cooking malfeasance, that together constituted four unforgivable insults to the diner.

Also strange was the fact that no menu of wines matching the selection of food was available - the customer was required to choose wines to match a menu chosen by someone else. I always want the option of selecting wine myself; but half the fun is matching it to a menu also of one’s own choosing.

Here’s a rundown of the courses we had:

BREAD AND BUTTER. Though technically improper in haute cuisine, this is usually one of the unspoken highlights of a French meal. But the rolls were of grocery-store quality and the ice-cold butter had little flavor or richness.

WATER. Believe it or not, the water was foul enough to warrant mention. The drinking water at Le Vichyssois is simply not potable. Powerfully, foully metallic, obviously taken from a well with rusty plumbing. A sip of this water destroys any other flavor in one’s mouth and ruins the next few bites or sips one takes. At this restaurant it is essential to order bottled water ($3 for a small bottle).

“SMOKED SALMON ‘LE VICHYSSOIS’” (a slice from a terrine-like layering of many thin strips of salmon together with equal layers of chevre). Attractive on the plate, but the salmon was very bland (obviously farm-raised), and served tepid rather than cool, with the meek-flavored chevre loose and gluey rather than densely creamy. Served with plain, cold toast.

“LOBSTER SOUFFLÉ [sic], ASPARAGUS TIPS, LOBSTER SAUCE.” The first deception, this “soufflé” was actually a timbale. I cannot believe that “soufflé” was promised whimsically; but if so, the joke was a bad one. Even so, this was a decent dish, despite the overcooked nugget of lobster atop the borderline-curdled timbale. But the flavor was good and the sauce just fine, generously buttery, unstinting with the coral. At least these lobsters were alive the same day we ate them. The gray asparagus tasted as you would expect asparagus to taste in midwinter.

“CHAMPAGNE AND GRAPEFRUIT SORBET.” I cannot eat grapefruit, but I was told that this sorbet was excellent - tasting only of grapefruit, however, with no champagne in evidence. The portions were closer to dessert-size than is usually seen in a palate cleanser. This strikes one as generous until one considers the market price of grapefruit juice and tap water.

“TOURNEDOS, TRUFFLE SAUCE.” The steak was napped in a red-wine reduction with a few dusty shards of black truffle; also served was a square of potato gratin and, what do you know, a yellow timbale which I assume was intended to bear the flavor of mushrooms. My steak, ordered rare, was excellent, a lovely piece of meat beautifully cooked, and the sauce was unexceptionable. The potato gratin featured a bubbly ricotta-like cheese and was too sweet. The mushroom timbale (in exactly the same size and shape as the earlier lobster timbale) had an odd taste, and no one could finish their modest serving.

However, as mentioned earlier, the steaks were served incorrectly, and thus my first bite was from the steak that proved to be the one ordered to medium doneness. This unexpected opportunity to taste a medium steak revealed that in the present case, the steak had unquestionably been deep-fried as the final cooking stage. The fondue-like flavor of naked beef submerged directly into hot oil was unmistakable and nearly sickening. In France, I believe, chefs can be arrested for such crimes.

“DOVER SOLE [sic].” When making the reservation we had requested that a fish be substituted for the steak, on behalf of the member of our party who does not eat red meat. When we were seated we asked the waitress to confirm that the substitution was available, she assented and mentioned Dover sole as the substitute. When I heard “Dover sole” my ears perked up and I asked, “Oh, is Dover sole available as a substitution for steak?” The waitress answered, flatly, “No. Only one.” Imagine a restaurant of this pretension, not being able to make a last-minute substitution of this kind! My goodness, could any kitchen possibly be so deficient in resource and initiative as this?

Anyway, I had no regrets when the main course was served. The “Dover sole” might have been a “sole,” but not from anywhere near the English Channel. It was a Mrs. Paul-caliber filet of some anonymous whitefish, blanketed with an excess of cookie-like, burned bread crumbs. Scraping away the bread-crumb armor revealed an overcooked, tough-as-rubber, flavorless fish. It was served with the same accompaniments as the steaks (potato gratin; mushroom timbale), demonstrating further the kitchen’s lack of resource.

“WARM CABBAGE SALAD WITH FOIE GRAS [sic].” The “foie gras” was actually an indifferent paté into which I suppose a modicum of genuine goose liver might have been misplaced. Hot sauerkraut, vinegary and sweet, overdressed, with a few bits of bacon in addition to the diced paté. Everyone disliked it intensely.

“CHOCOLATE CAKE, VANILLA ICE CREAM, ORANGES IN COINTREAU.” Standard, unremarkable stuff. The cake was dry (camouflaged to some extent by the inevitable melted chocolate inside). The ice cream was not homemade, or if it was, it had not been made freshly. The oranges were OK, tasting like nothing so much as that Brach’s candy of orange jelly hardened into the shape of orange slices, familiar from childhood.

Much worse than the mostly-mediocre quality of the food in itself, was the scandalous deception represented by the advertised menu. To promise a soufflé when you deliver a timbale; to promise Dover sole and deliver some lousy variety of filleted flounder; to promise foie gras and deliver some dots of liverwurst; to deep-fry a steak ordered medium - all are expressions of a contempt for the customer so basic and so insulting that words now fail me. The accolades this chef seems to have won make the crime worse; the proprietors of Le Vichyssois are not some rubes who don’t know any better; they are swindlers who think their customers are rubes, and won’t be able to tell the difference between word and deed.

CONCLUSION

Perhaps you can guess my conclusion.

Anyone seeking fine French dining in the northwest suburbs is advised to prefer the superb Le Titi de Paris in the northern reaches of Arlington Heights, which will probably cost a little more than Le Vichyssois, but provides honest food well prepared, served professionally in a tasteful room. There are, in addition, many other, far more viable dining options in the vicinity of Le Vichyssois. On the drive out there I saw at least two McDonald’s, a Subway and a Taco Bell. I fully expect that you could equip yourself with a small firearm, break into any house in Lakemoor, forcibly compel the inhabitants to cook you dinner, and have a better overall time than going to Le Vichyssois (even factoring in the jail time). You’d certainly receive warmer hospitality.

Want to stay up to date with this post?

Recommended From Chowhound