Jovan Trboyevic just wanted a little place where he and people he liked could eat, drink and be happy.
So he created a private club called Les Nomandes. Coming up with the membership fee is easy; it's only $1. Coming up with a membership card is something else.
Scarcely anyone uses Jovan's last name, for obvious reasons, but don't confuse familiarity with friendship. He has given out less than 1,000 memberships and even in this city they can't be bought. A taxi driver has one, but many socalites and expense account businessmen don't although they patronize Jovan's Le Perroquet, Chicago's most stylish restaurant. Even those who have cards have been playing a game of comparing numbers to find out whose are the lowest.
Jovan Trboyevic, one of the most fascinating restaurateurs in this country, would be amused at the furor, if it didn't involve him. He is a man with a European devotion to taste and all the yammering about Les Nomandes is hardly in good taste.
"I did not plan this well," he said one evening. "My desire was to create a neighborhood bistro. But this is a city that doesn't have a neighborhood, no Passy, no St. Germaine, so I turned it into a club to create a neighborhood of clients. It's been misunderstood. People say it is plush, exclusive, hard to get into. That's not the idea. In no way is this a snob spot."
In nearly the same breath he acknowledges there is a backlog of applications an says, "Les Nomandes is hard to get into only because we don't want to be frustrated with clients for whom eating is the least important facet of dining out."
The next day, at Le Parroquet, a woman introduces herself, reminds him she and her husband, une grande fromage , were at Les Nomandes with the La De Das and spoke to Jovan about a card. It hasn't arrived. Jovan asks her name, goes to check in a register book and says they will be hearing from him. He doesn't say what they will hear, or when.
At Le Parroquet and now at Les Nomandes, everything is done to suit his taste. Only the decoration and flowers were trusted to another person, artist Maggie Abbot, and she became Jovan's wife. He says he is merely part of a team and no doubt believes it, but then Alan J. Lerner's Henry Higgins talks of himself as "just an ordinary man."
As with Higgins, "nothing about Jovan is ordinary. Now in his late 50s, he is a slightly corpulent, immaculately dressed man who in caricacture could be a cross between the late Robert Benchley and Ed Sullivan. Like Benchley, his humor sneaks up on you. The Sullivan aspect is a stone-face; his severe expression rarely changes. But his mind, and his eyes, are constantly in motion. He believes in order, he believes in good manners and, most of all, he believes in what he is doing.
"Life without food is perfectly unbalanced", he said during an afternoon conversation. "But what you eat and where you eat it is a matter of taste. I can't live in a tasteless environment too long. I don't think I would want to eat at McDonald's, but if I did, the 3 1/2 minutes they prescribe for being served is about as much as I could take."
Some other observations:
"Often our respectfulness is mistaken for arrogance or coldness. We do keep our conversation with customers to a minimum. We are seeking customers who are verbally self sufficient."
"Gimmickry, dining room show biz, is the plague of our industry. It is nothing but torturing the food, escalating the cost, detracting . . . Chamber music in the old days was less distracting than making a Caesar salad or steak Diane at the table."
"Restaurants, having nothing else to do except prepare and cook food, should do nothing else except prepare the best and freshest ingredients. We should not resort to the same short cuts that are used in the home. That should be part of the integrity of our profession."
"They talk about the cost (at Perroquet). How do you establish the value that 99 percent of the time a customer doesn't have to wait? The table is empty, waiting for him."
"You have to be passionate about the business. It is so much easier to keep repeating your menu. It's a terrible temptation and sometimes the staff thinks I'm a complaining old crab. Yet when you change, when you see creativity, you can get punished for it because sometimes you fail. You can't sell it and the customer may take his hat and go somewhere else.
Jovan is that rare restuarateur who truly is not afraid of displeasing his customers.He won't let them smoke cigars. He won't let them stay if they are drunk. He won't let them kidbitz between tables. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, which may account in part for this worldiness and ironic detachment.
As Jovan tells it, his has been a lonely, wandering life. "I don't want to be romantic," he said, then commenced a tale about how World War II marked the end of his Yugoslav boyhood. As an naval cadet in his homeland, he was part of a crew that stole a submarine and took it to join the British fleet. He later parachuted back into the occupied country and escaped the Germans. Political developments kept him from going home after the war. "I was on my own, without family or a country very early," he said.
He began to study political science and economics in Switzerland but "opted for fork and spoon and continuous feeding" when his talent for languages won him a place at the famous hotel school in Lausanne. In post war Europe, restaurant and hotel training was still "strict and rigorous. Labor was cheap and there was a great quantity of apprentices all over the place."
He worked in India, Ceylon, Germany, France, Switzerland and on the high seas. "My knowledge of food and restaurants was my passport," he said. Ocean liners fascinate him and he has paid homage to them in his restaurants. Without using any of the obvious gimmicks, he gave Le Parroquet the feel of a shipboard dining salon. At Les Nomandes there are a number of shipboard touches. "I was a sailor," he said. "I admired the discipline, the controlled elegance, the professionalism. Somethimes I wish I worked on ships again, but there are no more ships."
In 1955 Jovan, who felt "free elections were a gate to heaven," came to Washington to participate in what he terms "cold war activities." He didn't like government. "I'm not a corporate man," he said. He fared no better later in attempts to fit into the bureaucracy at Sardi's and Restaurant Associates in New York.
Taking "a capitalistic tack, economizing and foolishly becoming any own boss as quickly as possible," he opened his first restaurant in 1975 in Larchmont, N.Y. "It was a boring, boozy life," he recalled. In the country with weekend people from the city who drank too much. It was exactly the type of restaurant I hate." After your years he went back to the city and back to sea.
The management of the Gaslight Club brought him to Chicago. They parted company, but he stayed in town and began a restaurant across the street. "It was something the city didn't have," he said. "French, but intimate and innovative with a prix fixe dinner. No standard menu. A good dollar value. Almost right away we went to two seatings. It worked so well that after 10 years I was bored and sold it."
Even before that, in 1972, his attention had switched to Le Parroquet. Some claim his decision to open Les Nomandes was inspired by boredom too, this time with Le Parroquet.
He denies the charge. His fondness for Les Nomandes is evident, however. He is there every evening, checking coats, chatting with customers at the bar, waving them goodbye as they leave. "It's a brand new, wobbly thing," he said. "More personal. We are trying to tell the people to relax, be yourself. It's working, in an imperfect way." Someone told him what he has done is "like playing chess with yourself." He likes the analogy.
Le Parroquet, with its classical service, silver serving carts, prix fixe menu and weighty wine list, is the more complex operation, but, ironically, is easier to understand. Anyone who has seen Charles Boyer or Greer Garson in a 1950s film knows how to behave.
Located on the third floor of a small office building, it is a beautiful room, with rich reds, greens and orange. One keeps finding subtleties and nuances in the decor on return visits. There are 95 seats, a staff of 45 prepares and serves six dinner and five lunch services a week. Checks averages about $45 per person. The maitre d', Jean Pierre Nespoux, is French as are most of the staff. The chef, however, is an American, which causes some anguish in the French community and gives Jovan a perverse sense of delight. According to him, 30-year-old Michael Beck "has no pedigree, but he can cook well."
As Jovan sees it, "my key men are helplessly devoted to their craft. If somebody offers them a place where they can do more, I lose them. It's not just for dollars. Here they are my brothers, my friends, my team." But team spirit does mean total equality. There must be a "commander," Jovan explained, who should be "the person with the best taste and the best palate." There is no question who plays that role at Le Parroquet.
Many of the restaurant's creations are offered as daily specials. At lunch a brandale of salmon or a mousse of spinach and zucchini with lobster sauce might be suggested by the waiter. The menu already contains mussels, a vegetable terrine, duck legs in zinfandel wine, a main-course souffle that changes daily and half-a-dozen or more additional choices for each of the three courses. At dinner the specials become even more important.
Jovan was paying homage to vegetables long before the nouvelle cuisine chefs in France rediscovered them, so the preparations and presentations at Le Parroquet are very a la mode and often beautiful. He insists, however, that portion sizes be sensible and garniture be functional as well as decorative. "We don't put something on somebody's plate unless we want them to eat it," he told the Chicago Tribune.
The food standards are the same at Les Nomandes, but there the comparison stops. A restored townhouse with only a discreet sign reading "private club" to mark its presence, it is in a rapidly rebounding area between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan across East Ontario Street from the Museum of Contemporary Art. Les Nomandes seats only 45, is open from 5 p.m. until midnight (in hopes of attracting a pre-and post-theater crowd) and offers an a la carte menu that changes daily. Wine is sold by the glass as well as by the bottle. Checks here average $25.
There is a wonderful bar, a real zinc as in French bistros. The floors and tables are wood. No carpet. No rugs. Diners sit on wooden benches or chairs covered with needlepoint fabric. There are fireplaces and they work. There are touches of richness, but the overall impression - reinforced by the restrained, aproned waiters and the fact that no tablecloth is laid until food is ordered - is one of starkness. An unstairs room, marked Salon de The, is intended as a post-meal gathering place for those who want to linger. So far, members haven't taken the hint and tend to stay on the first floor.
"It' difficult to go down in size and price," Jovan said, "but I think I succeeded in making Les Nomandes an entirely different restaurant."
The menu is exciting to read. One evening a party of three began their meal with thick fresh pasta and truffles, head cheese with green peppercorns and sauteed duck liver in a champagne vinaigrette. Entrees such as sweetbreads with citrus and mint, a pigeon pie with cucumbers, piglet poached in sorrel and served with polenta were bypassed in favor of duckling filets sauteed with apple brandy and cider, steamed scallops posed like jewels around an island of eggplant topped with a reduction of tomatoes and peppered venison with a puree of celery and pears. The bread has been made there. One dessert, a chestnut roulade, was disappointing.A question of expectation of sweetness unfulfilled perhaps.
The sticking point was the attitude of the waiter, who seemed programmed. He was neither charming nor charmed by our party. He functioned by the book and explained that it wouldn't be possible to order a bottle of the wine being sold by the glass. It takes only a few drops of starch to make a soft collar stiff.
Otherwise it was a meal that deserved to be remembered.
"Chicago is coming along slowly," he said. "The newspaper critics here are no help. They have a negative attitude. Half of them are salad bar aficionados."
So why keep at it"
"I have to make a living," he responded. "I have invested a number of years in Chicago. It would be difficult to start somewhere else."
A favorite rumor here is that Jovan has sold, or is selling, his restaurants and moving to New York, which he says "has the best restaurant public in the world." He shook his head. "The rumors were ture at one time. Now they are untrue again." He pauses. "But sometimes I do have pangs of homesickness for New York City."
Even after a dozen years here, even after creating three restaurants, the nomad really hasn't found a home. Still, whatever the rubs he has caused by temper or by his flexible standards of taste, Chicago is lucky to have him and enough natives realize it to keep him in business. CAPTION: Picture, Jovan Trboyevic, by Robert H. Bradford for The Washington Post