Le Ono is a culinary gem in O'Fallon, Illinois (2024)

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Le Ono is a culinary gem in O'Fallon, Illinois (1)

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Le Ono Bone marrow with toasted baguette and chili balsamic

Bone marrow with toasted baguette and chili balsamic

Le Ono. It’s kind of like saying, “El Yummy.” The combination of the French definite article and the Hawaiian word for “delicious” is a fairly jarring juxtaposition. That such a restaurant is doing business in western Illinois only piques more interest.

Yet long before co-owners Talani Mo’e and Lisa Udasco-Mo’e opened their restaurant, at101 S. Cherryin O’Fallon, Illinois, they seemed to be preparing for debuting this strikingly different addition to the local dining scene. Talani worked in L.A., where he met Lisa, whose restaurant experience in Chicago included serving as maître-d in award-winning establishments. Moving to O’Fallon to be with family and after running some local pop-ups and Lebanon’s Gin and Tonic, they saw opportunity in O’Fallon.

A strong sense of community resonates in small towns such as O’Fallon, as well as in Hawaii, where a sense of belonging and neighborhood connections are vital. That’s the atmosphere here: upscale dining but with a convivial, little-burg diner feel.

The atmosphere is attractive and sleek, with clean lines, booths and tables, and the sort of subdued lighting and pleasant color scheme that says, “We’re contemporary cool but not obnoxious about it.” (Notice the magnificent Nakashima-style table fronting the couch.)

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Le Ono is a culinary gem in O'Fallon, Illinois (2)

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Le Ono Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

Notice how more restaurants are trimming their menus, concentrating on fewer offerings? Notice how you like it because it affords the place some distinction where every selection seems like a house specialty? Along with a nightly seafood special, there are just four main courses, with attention to detail and compositions that succeed beautifully. It creates a dining experience that gives the eatery a recognizable character.

As for the “ono” part, it’s subtle. There’s no squid luau, lomi-lomi, or aku-palu. The Hawaiian cuisine is represented with just a touch here and there, artfully injected, like the fiery smack of gochujang paste flavoring the filling of the pork bao appetizer. House-made buns are stuffed with tender pulled pork, a squirt of ginger and scallion oil, and pickled onions that taste as if they came from a Beretania Street joint in Honolulu. Japanese “Kewpie” mayo, crushed salty nori flakes, and tobiko fish eggs decorate a sort of poke tuna starter that also tastes delectably of the Sandwich Islands.

While Le Ono’s take on “crab Rangoon” is a luxurious one that replaces crab with lobster, the knuckle and claw meat loses its distinctive texture when churned into the cream cheese filling. The result’s nearly indistinguishable from crab. If you’re a Rangoon fan, then you won’t be disappointed. If you like lobster’s real essence, however, then don’t get your hopes up. Another appetizer, bone marrow and bread, was a starter so exquisite, no one at the table should even speak as they consume it. Slathered on the crusty bread points, the fatty, glorious glossy delight from a shinbone was meager yet transportive.

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Le Ono is a culinary gem in O'Fallon, Illinois (3)

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Le Ono pan-seared chicken with glazed carrots and garlic mashed potatoes

Pan-seared chicken with glazed carrots and garlic mashed potatoes

As for the aforementioned main courses, any Parisian bistro would be proud to serve the roasted chicken here, with its crusty golden skin and fragrant interior, perfectly tender. Likewise a petite filet, a knob of beef is cooked precisely as it should be: pink inside, holding every drop of its juices, with a restrained spoonful of green peppercorn sauce. Roasted potato fingerlings and broccolini sprigs decorate the filet’s plate. Duck confit is even more iconic, and Ono’s version is completely satisfactory. The bird’s flesh is reduced to pure succulence, accompanied with brown lentils, sautéed spinach, and almond pistou. The panko crust of the grouper is inspired—this fish is expensive and deserves this kind of treatment, with all of the meaty goodness preserved under that delectable crust. A sauce of coconut with pineapple nibbles is tasty, but the grouper is so well prepared that nothing more is really necessary. Underneath is a bed of fermented black rice, nutty and aromatic.

A fruit-heavy series of tropical-style co*cktails are made with all sorts of elixirs: mango foam, coconut milk, activated charcoal. Kona Big Wave is among the drink options, along with a very decent selection of French wines—all of which are affordably priced.

Note that reservations are for a limited span—there’s an appointed time to stop eating. Is this a thing now? Do they send a bouncer to your table if you linger too long? Are you tossed out onto the street, still clutching your spoon and that final bite of a chocolate mousse? If so, hang on. The mousse is worth a struggle, topped with crushed peppermint and Oreos and layered with buttermilk cream.

Le Ono is a culinary gem in O'Fallon, Illinois (2024)
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