2728 W. Armitage
On a recent Saturday night, Bonsoiree Cafe and Delicacies was going full tilt. Every table in the cozy, candlelit room was taken and an industrious hum issued from the little kitchen. As co-owner Kurt Chenier worked the front of the house--telling jokes and expounding on the finer points of consomme--course after precisely plated course emerged apace: an amuse bouche of duck confit and Vidalia onion on a butter cookie; lentil and corn salad; fragrant melon-cucumber soup dotted with micromint and tiny cubes of beets; pan-seared hamachi on a creamy, nutty potato croquette; braised pork shoulder redolent of star anise in a burly bourbon sauce. All this, and the restaurant was technically closed.
When Chenier and Shin Thompson opened Bonsoiree last September, it was an awkward hybrid: part casual BYO eatery, part gourmet take-out shop, part catering kitchen. But an unadvertised fourth offering, Saturday "underground dinners" like this one, quickly became its calling card--though calling them "underground" is a bit of stretch. At $55 they're a steal, and diners have to be on the restaurant's mailing list to get invited, but they're hardly secret, as the menu for each meal is posted weekly on the Web site.
The partners met a few years back in the trenches at Soldier Field. Chenier was executive sous chef and Thompson--a Kendall College grad who's done stints at Trio (under Shawn McClain), at Mundelein's Karma, and as chef de cuisine at the Grand Hyatt in D.C.--was the Cadillac Club chef, serving a hot and cold buffet for 600 VIPs every Sunday. They went into business together in January 2006, catering as a sideline to their Soldier Field gigs and cooking up underground dinners for friends and family in their homes. When they decided to make it full-time, they needed a space of their own. Driving past the old Savoy Truffle on Armitage, a few blocks from Chenier's house, they stopped to peer in the window. It was perfect; they bought the property in July.
In the early days Bonsoiree's bright, utilitarian room, dominated by the deli case, wasn't exactly conducive to leisurely dining. "I don't think it was what the neighborhood was ready for at that point," says Chenier. What it was ready for--to the partners' surprise--was exclusive five-course prix fixe dinners.
Chenier says the weekly Saturday dinners gave them a chance to flex their culinary muscles. A set menu and confirmed guest list eliminated much of the guesswork from stocking and staffing, allowing them to control costs. "We know how much food we need and can concentrate on the quality and presentation," he says. They also provided some wiggle room for the catering business. If a big Saturday catering job came along, no dinner was scheduled for that night.
Chenier, whose experience before the Soldier Field job was mostly front of house, handles the business nuts and bolts. Thompson, who credits extensive travel in Asia as much as formal training for his culinary aesthetic, runs the kitchen and designs most of the menus. They share an interest in clean, streamlined, seasonal flavors--the food on the plate isn't hidden under fussy sauces and elaborate garni. "We play up the basic French cooking styles, but it's by no means traditional French food," says Thompson. He mentions a pan-roasted barramundi with pink peppercorn butter and summer plum chutney as an example. In the last nine months Thompson and Chenier have created menus organized around such themes as seafood and beer. They've done Italian meals and Mexican meals; for Valentine's Day they did aphrodisiacs.
Bonsoiree struggled over the winter, offering an a la carte menu during the week. By March, says Chenier, on a good day they were averaging just 15 diners at dinner, with another dozen at lunch. He and Thompson realized that they needed to make some changes. "We decided maybe if we focused on doing a couple of things really well, instead of trying to do a bunch of different things, we'd do better," he says. "Because as it was it was a lot of work, and we weren't getting a whole lot out of it."
In late March they ditched the deli case and retail section, built a small waiting area, and revamped the regular menu with a three-course prix fixe option; in mid-April they opened a back patio seating 25. Ever since, traffic has grown steadily--since 190 North showcased the spot last month, business has spiked and they can now count on serving 50 a night during the week and 75 on Fridays. The restaurant closed for a week in early July so Chenier and Thompson could rehab the bathroom and make other cosmetic changes; it reopened July 10 with a summer menu.
Meanwhile enthusiasm for the Saturday dinner continues to grow (to get on the mailing list go to bon-soiree.com). At the June 23 meal Bridgeporters Colleen Bush and Troy Borisy shared a table with Borisy's brother and his wife, up from Beverly. A soft-sided wine caddy--sign of a true foodie--sat crumpled under the table. The last new place Borisy and Bush had checked out was Aigre Doux; they were enticed to Bonsoiree by that Saturday's promised pork shoulder. "I like to support a small place that's neighborhood friendly," said Bush, a bartender at the Matchbox. "And this is like a four-star restaurant at two-star prices." --Martha Bayne
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rob Warner.