Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nathan Huntington: Argent's New Chef Delivers An Inspired Menu With A French Twist

Can you keep a secret? When Luxe File Chicago first received the invitation to experience Argent’s revamped menu, we thought it would be a gluttonous affair. Instead, we were treated to a well-edited series of courses that revealed executive chef Nathan Huntington’s playful but studied approach to fine cuisine. 

Huntington, who took over Argent’s culinary reigns last summer, has taken his time rebooting the restaurant’s American-themed menu, giving it a distinctly unfussy, French feel. 

Start your engines. Gourmands will enjoy a range of gorgeously prepared dishes, some featuring welcome touches like foams and edible florals. Dishes of note include Hamachi Foie with Miso, Raspberry, and Sorrel; Beet Salad with Borscht, Black Quinoa, and Olive Oil; Escolar with Togarashi, Caviar, and Olive Oil; Foie Terrine with Cognac, Quatre D’Epices, Peanut Butter, Jam and Brioche.

Can't beat the meat. For the protein-hungry, there are a plethora of craveable options. Hanger Steak with Hedgehog Mushrooms, Gribiche, and Beef Jus; Heritage Pork Chop with Pomme Puree (Five Hour Whipped Potatoes), Baby Vegetable Salad, and Toasted Garlic Jus; and, for something seriously American, try the Fried Chicken & Waffle with Maple Syrup and Bacon-Maple Dip. Comfort foodies can tuck into the Burger D’Argent topped with American Cheese, Pickled Jalapenos, French Dressing, and Bread/Butter Pickles and served with Housemade Fries.

Here fishy-fishy! But it’s the pescatarian options that really shine. Scottish Salmon with Smoked Salmon Relish, Fingerlings, and Braised Greens; and Bouillabaisse with Whole Poached Lobster, Mussels, Grilled Prawns, Espelette, and Tomato Bubbles score high marks along with Striped Bass with Romanesco, Black Walnuts, and Champagne Bouillon. Not surprising considering Huntington’s history with L20, one of the county’s most outstanding seafood destinations.

Save room for a #totessweet ending. Dessert is more perfunctory. Huntington has opted to keep the dessert menu, at least for the present time, simple. The Chocolate Orb, an edible work of art, afforded one the meal’s standout moments when we first forked into it. Two words: Mexican piñata. There are some interesting interpretations using fruit, such pears topped with melted chocolate, and colorful macaroons round out the list of sweet offerings.

Yet for all the marathon-eating, we felt satiated. Not stuffed. “I like to cook food that makes you feel good after eating, not heavy,” Huntington confided. If that isn’t perfectly French, we don’t know what is.

The perfect 10. Here, we catch up with the handsome, talented toque, Nathan Huntington (pictured below) – he muses on mentor Laurent Gras, what sets him apart from Chicago’s all-star culinary community, and the food trend he wishes would just go away.

1. You’ve worked with some of the nation’s leading chefs and now your bold talent can be sampled in the flavorful dishes at Argent. What can your fans expect?
Every good chef has to be able to adapt to their environment. Right now, I’m at Argent where the concept is American fare. And because my training is grounded in classical (French) technique, I definitely bring that to Argent.

I love sauces and the discipline that goes into making them and that’s mostly because of my training. I’ve incorporated different sauces into many of my dishes at Argent. I’m always playing with them, changing them, trying to make them better.

2. Where do you go to find culinary inspiration?
From the local Vietnamese sandwich shop in California to a great Omakase in New York and Los Angeles, I find inspiration from many parts of the world in the type of food I enjoy eating day to day. I incorporate many ingredients from Japan, South American, Asia and Southeast Asia. There are no borders around what inspires my cooking.

Bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich 

3. Chicago is filled with exemplary culinary talent. What sets you apart from this close, but competitive, chef pack?
I know many of the chefs in Chicago and I respect each and every one of them. We are all very different in our cooking styles. Aesthetically and substantively, I like my food with fewer ingredients, especially on the plate—clean and uncluttered. But, I like these few ingredients to have assertive flavors—bold, bright, and sometimes a little spicy.

4. Which Chicago chefs/restaurants are on your culinary radar.
Thai Dang. His passion and excitement for Vietnamese cuisine is extremely high. And, he has an amazing discipline in the kitchen. He is one of the few chefs whom I’ve worked with who is taking a cuisine that is close to his heart and pushing it to higher levels that isn’t cliché. 

Embeya's Thai Dang

He’s applying his culinary techniques to his cooking in a way that preserves the cultural integrity of Vietnamese cuisine. And, it’s delicious.

5. Who has had the most profound effect on your work.
Laurent Gras, hands down.  I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him for so long.

Laurent Gras

6. Best perk of being an executive chef.
Teaching. I have the ability to have an influence on many people, not only in the restaurant, but in their life outside of work as well.

7. Top travel destination for gastronomic stimulation.
South America. I love the cultural mix of food that is prevalent in the Latino culture.

8. Food trends you hope will die/take off.
Gluttonous, overly rich food that should only belong on Man v. Food.

Man v. Food's Adam Richman

9. Words of wisdom you live by.
Do what makes you feel good. At the end of the day, you need to follow your own path and make yourself happy and not be too concerned about what is happening around you.

10. When you’re not in the kitchen, where would we find you?
Outside, on my Felt.

Felt Scythe 2008

Argent Restaurant and Raw Bar, 660 North State Street, at Erie Street (312-202-6050 or 

- Kerry Shorr, Contributing Writer for "24/7 City Secrets" on NBC5 Chicago

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