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Sweet Smell of Success 

ANTOINETTE has all the heady aromas of a great French restaurant, but sometimes the dishes don't live up to the promise.

A swirl of delicious smells greeted me at Antoinette -- rosemary, sizzling meat, a smoky wood grill. The cozy brick room is as narrow as a shotgun, and most of the tables sit along a second-story balcony. That perch is ideally situated to catch the scents from the kitchen as they drift towards the ceiling. Before I even sat down, my mouth was watering.

Jeffrey Steingarten, a food writer for Vogue, once noted that coffee almost never tastes as good as it smells. A well-made espresso, on the other hand, tastes like the smell of good coffee. I wish that every meal at Antoinette were like a shot of espresso. When this French restaurant succeeds, the results can be very satisfying. Too often, however, the smells in the air were better than the tastes on the plate.

Shaun Holtgreve, Antoinette's chef and co-owner, cooks muscular renditions of French classics. The fine steamed mussels appetizer had a traditional broth of cream, white wine and roasted tomatoes. A housemade pork and crawfish sausage used a local ingredient, but the cornichons and dollop of Dijon mustard showed Antoinette's allegiance to non-Creole cuisine. The menu's main nod toward New Orleans, the crawfish beignets, was more mischievous than reverent. Deep-fried fritters were filled with a crawfish mixture with a texture between crab cakes and hushpuppies. The beignets were dusted with fleur de sel instead of Cafe du Monde's snowdrift of powdered sugar.

The best dishes at Antoinette placed a well-prepared ingredient front and center, letting the sauces and sides step back to give it room. A speckled trout was pan seared and absolutely pristine; beurre blanc pooled underneath and moist red potatoes rested on the side. Fish this fresh needs only the simplest preparation. The smoky smells from the kitchen clung to an extra thick pork chop. Shrimp stuffing, as tasty as any served on Thanksgiving Day, provided a pedestal for the moist chop.

Antoinette succeeded less often when it tried harder. A trio of filet medallions rested on three stalks of asparagus, looking like miniature steaks placed on a campfire to cook. The steaks were topped in three different ways, and it felt less like a smorgasbord than indecision from the kitchen. Either the Roquefort or spicy au poivre topping would have been excellent on its own. The sweet blue crab worked less well. In each case, the medallion was covered from edge to edge, and the topping competed with the steak instead of complementing it.

Several dishes drown under their sauce. And too many sauces tasted mainly of salt. The tender braised pork belly appetizer was coated in a veal reduction so salty that I lunged for my water glass after each bite. I would find it nearly impossible to distinguish that veal reduction from the demi glace on the quail entree.

Other dishes suffered from a dreary sameness. One night our table ordered both veal sweetbreads and scallops. Both delicacies had a crusty seared surface and too much salt. An identical pinwheel swirl of salty mashed potatoes sat in the center of each plate. Both the luxurious sweetbreads and scallops had been overwhelmed by a single seasoning.

Desserts at Antoinette ranged from underwhelming to spectacular. A cheese plate was an uninspired collection of brie, blue and soft goat cheese. A chocolate dessert was touted as "heavenly." At $9, that would have been a cheap ticket to salvation; it was expensive, though, for a mixture midway between fudge and uncooked cake batter. The creme brulee, however, was outstanding. The custard was luscious and smooth, and at the bottom of the ramekin I found flecks of vanilla bean.

I visited Antoinette three times for dinner, and the service was like Goldilocks' encounter with the bears. My first waiter was eager to please, but knew almost nothing about the menu. He met even our order for kirs and Sazeracs with a blank stare. The second time, our waiter knew too much. He insisted on describing every dish with a string of laudatory adjectives tacked onto each noun. Our third waitress, luckily, was just right: friendly, professional and knowledgeable.

Avant-garde chefs in Chicago are pouring boiling water over herbs to create a sensation for the diner's nose. They know that the tongue can only detect five tastes. The smell of food produces the infinite variety of flavors that drives chefs to spend days perfecting their dishes. Antoinette doesn't need such tricks to fill the room with delicious scents. The reliance on sodium, however, is too often like a curtain thrown across the food. Certain excellent dishes, such as the mussels and the speckled trout, show what Antoinette's kitchen can accomplish. It would only take a little effort to pull back the curtain and reveal the full flavors of Antoinette's other creations.

click to enlarge Antoinette's best dishes include a moist pork chop with - shrimp stuffing (pictured) and a pristine speckled trout. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Antoinette's best dishes include a moist pork chop with shrimp stuffing (pictured) and a pristine speckled trout.
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