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Since Yelp did not yet exist, and since I spoke only enough French to assure French people that I was a harmless and well-meaning, though linguistically stupid, American (not the kind that walks into a store and bellows "ANYBODY HERE SPEAK ENGLISH?", please no; it was a glorious day when I was mistaken for a Canadian), I was largely dependent on my friend Angela, who was letting me crash in her apartment. During the day, while she was at work, I wandered around the city and subsisted on cheese and baguettes and pain au chocolat, but in the evenings I would allow her to guide me wherever.
And thus I discovered the bistro.
I can't remember what it was called or even where it was, though I suspect it was near her apartment because it was soon after I arrived and I was still a little jet-lagged. We'd become friends when she was still mourning the end of her junior year abroad; one of our first friendly excursions was to Old Orchard mall, where she railed against parking lots and chain restaurants, and although I'd spent my entire life till then in the suburbs, I totally agreed and was happy to listen to tales of a magical land called France where these things did not exist and instead there were poetically winding streets with boulangeries with superb croissants on every corner. When she got a job there after graduation, it was understood I would visit as soon as I possibly could.
My guidebook, which I'd gotten for free at a student travel agency because it was a couple of years out of date, lauded the bistro as a casual, unpretentious place that served simple meals, sort of the French equivalent of Olive Garden, except not a chain and without deep-fried lasagna and obscenely large portions. (The French people I met felt very superior about their national command of portion control. I would agree with them when they said Americans were obese and undisciplined, because I was a guest in their country and also because they were right, but secretly I wondered how they would handle the temptation of unlimited free bread sticks.)
This bistro was dimly lit and had lots of dark wood, nicely set off by a goblet of red wine. The menu was small. I ordered a pork cutlet glazed with honey. This seemed very fancy to me at the time. It was small and perfect, crisp on the edges, juicy in the middle. There were potatoes, I think, and carrots. I remember thinking I had never eaten anything so good that made me feel like an adult. As did the bill, which was modest enough that I could pay it like a grown-up, without flinching or guilt.
Did we have places like that in America? I tried to remember. None that I could afford. I didn't think. Maybe one of my friends who had gone into consulting or investment banking would know?
Then I forgot about it, mostly, or, rather it got buried under a whole bunch of memories of other, more exotic meals (shellfish, with heads still attached) and strange adventures. Last week I found a stash of old photos of us from that trip. Then I went to review Hutch, an "American bistro" (formerly the European-inspired Socca) in Lakeview, and I remembered that other bistro. Like the other place, Hutch was full of dark wood and it was dimly lit, though by Edison bulbs instead of candles. The menu was full of simple food. No fusion. No tweezers. No foam. Meat and fish came to the table on beds of mashed potatoes.
I had the "steak 'n fries," the Americanized version of what in France would be called steak frites. It was everything you would ever want in a steak. The outside was lightly charred. The inside was juicy. It tasted meaty and sweet. All I know about its origins was that it was a New York strip. No one told me where the cow came from or what it ate when it was still alive. I probably should've cared. I probably should've asked our server. But I didn't. I was in a happy food daze. I just ate.
One Saturday night visit is not enough to make a definitive statement about what kind of people go to Hutch. But based on what I saw, it appears that it's a good place to go when your parents are in town and have offered to pay but don't feel like exploring beyond the neighborhood. Twenty-three-year-old me would have looked at the posted menu, gawped at the prices, briefly considered getting a flatbread or a burger, and then walked over to a falafel place on Belmont. Present-day me, not on a reviewing assignment, would probably just go home. Which, I guess, makes it not quite the same as the Parisian bistro. That and the portion size. (Maybe if portions were smaller, restaurants would be less expensive? Could we, as a nation, stand for that?)
It made me sad. Even though the memory of the bistro had been buried for years and years, the dream revived. But then I glanced at the little tent of specials on our table. On Tuesdays, apparently, you can get steak 'n fries for $12 instead of the usual $21. And now I am hoping that if the mood ever comes for steak frites, either for celebration or for comfort, the basic need for a bistro, it will come on a Tuesday.
Hutch, 3301 N. Clark, 773-248-1155, hutchchicago.com