AQUITAINE RESTAURANT REIGNS SUPREME
Though Lincoln Park West’s popular Aquitaine Restaurant is named after one the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages, its current reigning monarch, owner and Executive Chef Holly Willoughby keeps her French bistro a family affair. “Some families are food families, and we are definitely all about the food!”
With an upscale, yet comfortable interior designed by her mother Sherrie Yeo; her brother Ian Carlisle at her side in the kitchen and her sister-in-law Mindy at the front of the house, Aquitaine Restaurant has become both a neighborhood and destination favorite by taking traditional French recipes and fusing them with modern flavors from fresh sourced items. When asked what the key is to running a successful restaurant, Chef Willoughby credits her former mentor and colleague Chef Rick Gresch from David Burke’s Steakhouse, who taught her that first you have to be at the restaurant all the time and second, instill a sense of camaraderie amongst your staff.
That camaraderie is apparent from the moment you walk into Aquitaine when greeted by Mindy who has an affinity for her many regular customers including Stanley and Karen Cielec, who were seated at their usual window table the night we visited. While sipping on their perfectly made gin martinis (straight up and dry), the Cielec’s said that have been coming to Aquitaine from the time it opened and come back on a regular basis. They love the restaurant because it is comfortable, accommodating and that he has his wife “are treated like family”. Tonight the Cielec’s dined on an appetizer of smoked mushroom soup with crouton and a dollop of herbed cream and an entrée of fresh sea scallops.
With a self proclaimed “feminine but firm” management style, Holly, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu, states that Aquitaine discovered very early on what did and did not work in her restaurant which was very important since other larger restaurants have the ability to re-conceptualize when needed. Instead, Aquitaine can rely on its freshly sourced menu items and recipes to keep the menu new and exciting. That passion is also shown in Aquitaine’s personally picked wine menu where there is no bottle over $100 and most under $50.00. A particular favorite for Holly is La Freynelle which is from Château La Freynelle, a 200 acre estate in the Entre-Duex-Mers region of Bordeaux. The estate has been in the Barthe family since 1789 and Véronique Barthe. Holly points out the present owner is the first female winemaker in the history of the family.
For our dinner, Chef Willoughby and staff prepared: Cabernet and mustard deviled egg with a piece of crispy prosciutto;Duck Confit Crepe: mushroom, maple-shallot brown butter (with a vegetarian version for my dining partner); Savory vegetarian Tart with asparagus, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes; Turbinado Glazed Salmon with roasted mushrooms, braised kale, jalapeno and butter nage; Orange pastry cream filled crepe medallion with house made orange sherbet and a chocolate drizzle; Petit banana cream pie.
No matter what the pedigree, to sustain any type of success, especially in a city as rich in culinary culture as Chicago, a restaurant must ultimately rely on the quality of the food and to that end Aquitaine is surely one of Chicago’s finest. Chef Willoughby’s classic training combined with the freshest sourcing of ingredients creates a unique luxury for the taste buds. Add to that a comfortable and inviting space along with a staff treats their customers like royalty and there you have a French restaurant that good old Queen Aquitaine herself would have surely been a regular.
Whether you are seeking a pre or post theatre dinner, simply out for quiet dinner with friends, celebrating a special occasion or even booking a party, Aquitaine is a Showbiz Chicago sure fire hit and receives this month’s CULINARY STANDING OVATION!
Aquitaine Restaurant is located at 2221 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. For more information visit www.aquitainerestaurant.com or call 773.698.8456