Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

French Fare

Ten neighborhood bistros

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Bistro Bordeaux

618 Church, Evanston | 847-424-1483

$$$

DINNER: seven days | SUNDAY BRUNCH

Pascal Berthoumieux's picture-perfect French bistro has light mustard walls covered with small framed posters, butcher-paper-topped tables, dark wood bar towards the back, and servers in black vests and long white aprons. The French classics are covered as well. Escargots de bourgogne en croute, plump snails in individual snail-dish compartments crowned by tiny pastry puffs, came in fragrant parsley butter. Robust onion soup with lots of sweet onions bubbled beneath a blanket of tasty melted Emmental. A beautifully poached farm egg with a runny yolk nestled in the salade Lyonnaise. Our only disappointing opener was the terrine de foie gras de canard: the texture of a silken mousse, it wasn't as full-flavored as it could have been. On the other hand, the blanquette de veau with firm baby root vegetables in creamy veloute was so tender and delicious I only felt a twinge of guilt about ordering veal. Coq au vin, a whole roast chicken for two, and flatiron steak frites also are among the main courses. Sides include classic pommes frites, but we went for brussels sprouts in mild mustard sauce and loved every bite. The cheese cart—with five selections, among them Saint Andre and raw-milk Camembert—wasn't brought automatically as it would be in France, so ask. You might also want to request the cellar list of great Bordeaux, but in truth the regular list, which showcases small producers and has 16 wines by the glass ($8-$11), is more than adequate. Dark chocolate mousse outclassed soggy tarte tatin for dessert, but next time—and there will be a next time—we'll try the profiteroles and floating island. —Anne Spiselman

Bistro Campagne

4518 N. Lincoln | 773-271-6100

$$$

DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH

There's nothing groundbreaking here, but Bistro Campagne remains a reliable choice for classic French fare. The kitchen places a premium on organic ingredients; even the wine list has several bottles from sustainably farmed vineyards. The menu offers bistro standards such as French onion soup and mussels; entrees include steak frites and rotating preparations of lamb and duck. Escargots, delivered spitting hot, are prepared with a garlic-Pernod butter and a liberal dusting of bread crumbs for a sort of "snails casino" effect. Roast chicken, crispy on the outside and juicy within, was served over a bed of rich mushroom ragout and topped with a crazy blossom of fried onion. For dessert there's a creamy creme brulee, pot au chocolat, house-made ice cream and sorbet, or perhaps a seasonal tart. The cozy, Prairie-inflected dining rooms are comfortable, but outdoor seating is also popular when the weather's warmer. —Martha Bayne

Bistrot Margot

1437 N. Wells | 312-587-3660

$$$

LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

This Old Town restaurant's four dining rooms and two bars evoke turn-of-the-century Paris, with rich cranberry walls, Tiffany-like sconces, and black-and-white tiled floors. Photos of owner Joe Doppes's daughter, for whom the place was named, adorn the walls. While the rooms are cozy, they border on claustrophobic; tables are close and servers just squeeze by. But this doesn't detract from the reasonably priced classic fare. Doppes shows his mastery of French cuisine with classics such as moules marinieres, steak frites, and some savory patés. Even the salade du bistrot is worth a try: Boston lettuce combined with fresh spinach, bacon, and egg, all dressed in a walnut vinaigrette and tossed to perfection. Service is knowledgeable and attentive but too quick; our courses kept overlapping, making for a speedy visit. The brunch menu includes pain perdu, Belgian waffles, and eggs Benedict as well as lunch entrees. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Le Bouchon

1958 N. Damen | 773-862-6600

$$

LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY  | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

A true taste of Paris in Bucktown: chef Jean-Claude Poilevey turns out French specialties from escargots and frog legs to a heavenly duck for two in a sauce de bigarade (orange and Grand Marnier). The onion soup covered with a generous layer of bubbly melted cheese is always a treat, as is the house paté, and on a cold winter night the cassoulet Toulousain is warm and filling. The wine selection is impressive too. While the small room is always packed and lacks ample waiting space, it continues to draw an eclectic crowd, even on Mondays, when bottles of wine are half off. Parking can be tough; for similar fare in a less crowded space, try Poilevey's La Sardine in the Randolph Street market district. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Cafe Matou

1846 N. Milwaukee | 773-384-8911

$$$

DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | closed monday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Sadly, this Bucktown neighborhood favorite is closing its doors on November 14. I'll miss its woody decor, pressed-tile ceilings, and chairs right out of your grandfather's office. Not to mention Charlie Socher's "cuisine bourgeoisie"—which is to say French, but for the most part without the usual accompanying presumption. The house salad is served simply with a light oil, the liver paté is buttery smooth, and a seafood bourride sings with tarragon. Still, bourgeois or no, it's all about the sauces, and on this evening (the menu changes daily) rich duck came with a classic pinot noir-green peppercorn number handily sopped up with a Jerusalem artichoke puree. —Ted Cox

Chez Joel

1119 W. Taylor | 312-226-6479

$$$

LUNCH: Tuesday-saturDAY; DINNER: tuesday-sunday | saturday BRUNCH | closed monday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Like a foreign legion outpost, Chez Joel waves the French tricolor over Little Italy's Taylor Street with pride. In a lovely but cramped space evocative of a cozy country cafe, chef-owner Joel Kazouini delivers a classic bistro menu with flair. Starters include French onion soup oozing with cheese, moules marinieres, duck and chicken paté with toast points, escargots swimming in garlic butter, and a coriander-perfumed shrimp stew from Provence. Most French regions are represented on the very reasonable wine list, with many selections available by the glass. Of the salads, the pick when in season is a special of green and white asparagus on a bed of greens sprinkled with a house vinaigrette. Be sure to order pommes frites with any entree; they are among the best in Chicago and go well with the perfectly prepared lamb shank au jus with wild mushrooms or the ten-ounce sirloin, served au poivre or with homemade garlic butter. Perhaps as a paean to the neighborhood, the Moroccan-born Kazouini offers spaghetti aux fruits de mer, a filling dish of mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops in a tomato broth over pasta. Fresh fish and other specials change several times a week. Desserts include a calvados apple tart with marzipan, a custardy lemon tart, sorbet, and a chocolate sponge cake in rum with vanilla mousse. Go early, before the noise, and don't forget the frites. —Paul Schoenwetter

Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar

546 N. Wells | 312-467-0546

$$$

Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

At this cheerful River North location, chef-owner Didier Durand (Le Perroquet, Le Français, Gordon) brings his classic French cuisine down a notch—to casual dishes like duck a l'orange, steak au poivre, and coq au vin. The number of French-speaking patrons vouches for its authenticity and adds to the atmosphere. The francophone staff is courteous and attentive. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Koda Bistro

10352 S. Western | 773-445-5632

$$$

lunch: tuesday-friday; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY  | CLOSED MONDAY

Sitting down at Koda, Beverly's only French bistro, we were immediately engaged by diners saying how happy they were that folks from "far away" had made the trip. It's one worth taking—the chef is Aaron Browning, late of Everest and Brasserie Jo. French onion soup was dark and rich, luscious escargots in green garlic butter plump and flavorful. Seductive seasonal salads included one of shaved fennel and cucumber and a delicious melange of red and golden beets with blue cheese. Not every bistro item is traditionally prepared: the onion tart was more like a crisp pizza, but with succulent pancetta and sweated sweet onions, scrumptious. A reasonably priced "progressive" wine list, sequenced from mild- to full-bodied, changes frequently, along with the menu. Steak frites featured fresh-cut fries and a good piece of beef, and the lamb chops were magnificent. For dessert we went with a shortbread cookie stuffed with berries (fabulous) and a chocolate tart with hazelnut truffle and coconut sorbet (also fabulous). —David Hammond

LM Restaurant

4539 N. Lincoln | 773-942-7585

$$$

DINNER: monday-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

Blackbird-Tru-NoMi vet Bradford Phillips is heading up the kitchen at this classically oriented French contemporary spot for Drake Hotel alums Stephan and Nicole Outrequin Quaisser. The formerly cramped and awkward Tallulah space has been brightened considerably, bathing in a warm amber glow filigreed classics like a creamy sea-salt-dusted foie gras torchon or sweetbreads. The menu changes frequently, but typically there's a pair of soups (including perhaps a thick, rich lobster bisque jazzed up with crispy beignets) and a couple salads. Then you're free to negotiate a list of familiar entrees: whitefish, veal cheeks, seared scallops, grilled sturgeon, etc. These range from outstanding (a juicy pan-roasted poussin with chanterelles and bright green parsley-chive gnocchi) to bland (a tender grilled sirloin with a shallot sauce that didn't redeem its lack of flavor). At dessert, a classic tarte tatin for two was unforgivably soggy, but a magnificent peanut butter cream and chocolate tart with honey mousse was luscious and the most surprising bite I tried. In October LM Cafe opened in the Chicago French Market (131 N. Clinton), serving street food like croque monsieurs, plus salads, paté, rillettes, and desserts such as mousse and Normandy rice pudding. —Mike Sula

La Sardine

111 N. Carpenter | 312-421-2800

$$$

LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY  | CLOSED SUNDAY

Owner Jean-Claude Poilevey (Le Bouchon) brings his nearly flawless native cooking to the Randolph Street market district. The menu is similar to Le Bouchon's, with several meat options including steak, lamb, duck, veal sweetbreads, and rabbit. The extraordinary wine list has some of the best hard-to-find French Bordeaux and burgundies, and all bottles are half price on Mondays. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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