There's a wonderful scene in an episode of Mad Men, AMC's drama about early-1960s New York ad execs, in which a character orders some sort of old-school cocktail that involves an egg white—probably a silver gin fizz. Actually, we see him order his second round; the first one is implied, and the scene opens with a close-up on a waiter's hand as he painstakingly separates the egg with his fingers. No one at the table even pays attention; this type of complicated, old-school recipe may be foreign to us, but to a swinging cat of 1960, it was de rigueur.
The folks at Rise No. 1, a soufflé-centric restaurant in Highland Park, practice a similar kind of eggy exoticism. If no one orders silver gin fizzes anymore, certainly few people this side of the pond indulge in that delicate anchor of French cuisine, the soufflé. For one thing, like the Mad Men drink, it's too much trouble. Though great innovation in the arena of culinary tools, accessories and ovens has made the process easier (and quicker), making a soufflé is still a pain in the ass. For instance, according to the Larousse Gastronomique, many original soufflé recipes called for 11 eggs. Eleven! Who calls for 11 eggs these days? (Maybe back then it was assumed the extra one would be used for a gin fizz.) The egg whites have to be whipped just so, forming stiff peaks and folded into a cream sauce base to which other ingredients—either sweet or savory—have been added. The mix is poured into ceramic ramekins and baked. It used to take an hour, but Rise has special imported ovens that cut the time to 17 minutes.
Though the prep time has been sped up to the 21st century, a meal at Rise takes on several elements of old-school—and old-world—dining, and it's in that delicate spot between old and new that the eatery has found a lovely balance. Rise is found in a strip mall, and the interior is chateau-cozy and intimate but not crowded. The lighting is low, the edges blurred, and although upon our visit it was quite crowded, the surrounding buzz was one of relaxed chatter, rather than the shrill drone of people jamming burgers and beer down their throats. The pièce de résistance is a tiny island of greenery that separates the dining area from the bar. Rise's proprietors could have chosen to stuff a couple more two-tops in there but instead chose this subtle oasis that serves both an aesthetic and practical purpose. It's a tiny bit of wisdom and restraint, indicative of the refined and relaxed atmosphere of the entire place.
"Refined and relaxed" could also describe the menu. The selection is small—especially as the lunch and dinner menu are identical—but well considered and not confined to soufflé only. My dining mates and I wanted to branch out from the signature dish, so we tried the artichoke Andrée for a starter. Perfectly steamed, the 'choke was presented simply, its petals flowerlike and forming a bowl for a light, lemony sauce. It was an excellent start, but we simply couldn't resist a second appetizer, the escargot soufflé.
What a gorgeous way to begin a meal. The soufflé arrived at our table hot and puffy with individual little sections of the soufflé housing separate escargot. There wasn't much to it really—just snails housed in the fancy, bready egg concoction—but oh, the earthiness of the escargot blended with its medium. Think of the hearty flavor of a good sausage minus its heft, and you've got it.
Speaking of sausage, we moved on from there to our entrées, one of which was a special of the night, an Italian sausage soufflé. The other two were the lobster soufflé and the ham and cheese. Each was amazing in its own right. The sausage was expertly spiced and blended in with a cream sauce. In less skilled hands, the dish would have been merely an upscale biscuits and gravy. In the sense that soufflés represent a different kind of comfort food, it's not too crazy of a comparison. But the soufflés here are so delicate and light, piping hot and built for holding flavor, there's something, er, elevated going on.
The ham and cheese was also savory and tasty, but the poor thing was all but shoved to the other side of the table, overshadowed by the stunningly presented lobster soufflé. The price for this one is a bit elevated as well, at 33 bucks, but worth it for the visuals alone. Somehow, the chefs at Rise manage to scoop the extremely fragile, fresh-from-the-oven dish out of its ramekin and back into the still intact shell. It's a beautiful piece of trickery, making it seem as if the dish were baked in the shell itself. Giant hunks of lobster hide inside the fluffy concoction, which holds in the dish's heat and steam—and thus the flavor.
All this, mind you, is coupled with surprisingly affordable flights of wine, the sampling of which is both fun and an education for your palate. The menu offers a healthy variety of flights, and our server was extremely helpful in making a selection or two. OK, we had three—but there are so many choices of whites, reds, even sparkling wines, we barely made a dent in the selection.
Just as fine a coupling was a lemon-laced espresso and a dessert soufflé. Traditionally, these are called sweet soufflés, but here the sugar is dispensed with a restrained hand, and to a good end. The chocolate soufflé arrived at our table seconds from the oven, unbelievably airy and hot, with a little side pot of chocolate to pour on top—or better yet, to pour inside, after popping through the top layer of soufflé with a spoon. The dessert was understated but silky, dreamy.
By the end of the meal, we realized our service too had been seamless, of exquisite but down-to-earth quality. Our server was helpful, friendly and clearly knowledgeable.
Our one complaint was that early on in the meal, our server noted that everything in the place was for sale, "even the wicker chairs you are sitting on." It's true Rise also serves as boutique for French cookery and housewares, which is a fine concept, but it felt a little cumbersome to be reminded of such when the rest of our experience was so gracious. It was a reminder that we were indeed in the middle of a strip mall in the middle of the United States, where everything's for sale, and even the men who sell it to us don't indulge in silver gin fizzes, or fancy French cuisine, all that much anymore. Which is a shame.
5360 W. Lovers Lane, Suite 220, 214-366-9900. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, $$-$$$