After a decade-long procession of new Italian restaurants, we're seeing one closing after another, while the new tendency is decidedly French. Grappa, Tra Via, and La Risotteria Nord all said ciao for now. Rich Melman, whose trend-spotting talents built a dining empire, shuttered Avanzare and Tucci Milan. He'll make one French, the other French-Thai. When he sold the Pump Room, it immediately went tres francais. Danilo's was replaced by Thyme--also French--and Joe Doppes of Francesca's on Taylor plans an authentic bistro in Old Town. Meanwhile, Elaine & Ina's reinvented itself as Elaine's, a bistro wannabe.
The culinary French kisses bestowed on us this year run from Aubriot to Zinc. Jean-Claude Poilevey, chef and proprietor of Bucktown's Le Bouchon, says it's because today's French restaurateurs have proven their food needn't be ridiculously expensive or pretentiously complex.
Poilevey has run both fancy restaurants and straightforward bistros, but his soul is with the simple. "Look--it's still just a chicken," he says of the magnificent garlic- and thyme-infused bird offered for a mere $13.50 at his new bistro, La Sardine (111 N. Carpenter, 312-421-2800). "It's inexpensive and there's just so much you can do to it!"
He and chef David Burns magically suffuse the chicken and other bistro classics such as steamed mussels, leek tart, steak frites, and grilled sweetbreads with deep flavor and serve them up at modest prices in a loftlike environment of bare brick and rich, dark paneling. Do not, under any circumstances, miss the brandade (creamy, garlicky codfish spread) or the duet of coarse country terrine and buttery pate de foie gras.
Poilevey is one of 17 great Chicago chefs whose oil portraits hang in the lounge of the brilliant new haute bistro Savarin (713 N. Wells, 312-255-9520). Chef John Hogan, late of Kiki's Bistro and the Park Avenue Cafe, arranged this tribute to himself and his peers, but his intriguing mix of classic dishes and innovative specials is an even greater tribute to the palate. Every day there's a different foie gras presentation--ours had persimmon coulis and wild huckleberries. My companions and I relished the sea urchin and peekytoe crab gratin and adored the wild mushroom ragout. Char, a fish almost as rare as sea urchin, was treated to lobster mushrooms, lentils, and Madeira sauce. Then it was back to tradition with rabbit fricassee in mustard sauce and rich, sauteed skate with black butter. The marquise au chocolat dessert is not to die for--it's to live for.
The French draw a distinction between a bistro (or bistrot) and a restaurant, as well as between a restaurant and a grand restaurant. Aubriot (1962 N. Halsted, 773-281-4211) is a true restaurant, a notch higher in price, with well-crafted, inventive dishes served in a long, comfortable room. From his partially exposed kitchen, Eric Aubriot--formerly of Carlos--devises unexpected winners such as sauteed foie gras encircled by a bittersweet chocolate sauce. It works. So does the briny crab salad encased in smoked salmon.
Goat cheese in a potato crust is the basis of an unusual salad, while gently sauteed monkfish is mated with fried leeks and bacon, all swathed in a light veal jus. You don't see much dorade (sea bream) around town, but Aubriot sautes it crisply and dolls it up with trumpet mushrooms, salsify, and a lightly sweet reduction of beets. Disappointments: a gristly $27 veal chop and a $12 cheese plate with four scrawny slivers of good cheese, both unworthy of this otherwise excellent spot.
You can't create a more classic look than that of the new outpost of Bistrot Zinc (1131 N. State, 312-337-1131). From its gorgeous tiled floor to the lustrous patina of its wood and brass trim, you're in a movie-set-perfect Parisian bistro. The menu reads like the script: mussels appear in a creamed broth, salmon tartare on a crisp potato cake, salad nicoise with fresh poached tuna. There's even a croque monsieur, the French incarnation of a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. All are soulfully rendered with no pretensions by chef John Simmons. The Thursday special of rack of lamb with a mustard crust was just right, though the otherwise tasty skate wing had an overly acidic caper emulsion.
The look at Cafe Matou (1848 N. Milwaukee, 773-384-8911) is more classic Bucktown rehab than Parisian brasserie. Two big, comfortable rooms feature lots of brick wall and exposed ductwork. Chef Charlie Socher, who gained a following at Brett's and other neighborhood places before opening Matou in late '97, presents another standard bistro menu that includes some lusty homemade pates.
A salad of warm, crusty chicken livers atop crisp greens worked well; plum tomatoes stuffed with snails did not. Lamb shank--an essential bistro offering--was enhanced by overtones of lemon and a hint of anchovy. But shellfish bouillabaisse had a sweet, not zesty, broth, and its accompanying rouille--a condiment that's supposed to breathe fire--was as bland as mayonnaise.
Finally, Cafe Angelo, my favorite ristorante, closed last year. What should rise on its site in the Hotel Monaco but--you guessed it--a haute bistro, virtually a restaurant, called Mossant (225 N. Wabash, 312-236-9300). It's a warm, inviting, bilevel affair with deep mahogany booths and dividers, traditional oil paintings, and an open kitchen with a counter where you can dine and watch.
Chef Mehdi Spadavecchia creates interesting twists on the classics, such as sauteing brandade into a crisp cake and touching it with tapenade, an olive paste. Prawns are crusted with sesame and sauced with curried coconut cream; sea scallops in a crisp pastry basket get a more traditional calvados cream plus Granny Smith apples. Wine-braised sweetbreads and mushrooms are wrapped in a thin pastry sack, while the savory rabbit sausage is an uncased patty. We had great lamb chops with turnip coulis and shellfish in a full-bodied broth, all capped off by spectacular sweets. If we had to lose Angelo, at least this does justice to its memory. --Don Rose
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jean-Claude Poilevey at La Sardine/ Mossant photos by Eugene Zakusilo.