If you don't count Michael Foley's takeover and resuscitation of the shuttered Le Perroquet, it's been more than five years since a fancy (i.e., expensive) French restaurant opened in these parts. Bistros, oui. But aspirants to either classic or nouvelle French, non. Until, that is, this spring.
Chef Francois de Melogue, born in Chicago of French parents, has the dubious credential of having once been executive chef of the Bakery on Lincoln. He went on to better things in New England, where he met Brian Sylvia, a pastry chef who became his partner when they bought the Jean Claude restaurant, on Clark just north of Fullerton, and renamed it Le Margaux.
It's kind of a hallowed site among French foodies in town, having had several superb incarnations (La Fontaine, Cafe du Parc, Jean Claude) under the proprietorship of Jean Claude Poilevey, a guiding spirit of the Vatel Club, the association of French chefs in America. (He just opened a 40-seat, modestly priced bistro in Bucktown called Le Bouchon, opting for a smaller place where he could cook and stay on top of things.)
De Melogue drafted his father, a former University of Chicago professor and official of the Alliance Francaise, to run the front of the house. Though he has no previous restaurant-management experience, he makes an elegant maitre d'.
There are two parts to Le Margaux: a pleasant terrace with trees and potted plants featuring a menu of more than a dozen salads and hors d'oeuvres, and the multichambered, handsomely paneled restaurant itself--spruced up a bit, but essentially as it was under Poilevey. The full menu, which includes about 16 entrees, presents a mix of classic and contemporary offerings and even a bit of Franco-Asian crossover.
Count among the strong positives a couple of the salads my companion and I had on the terrace: one, an Asian melange of pasta and vegetables in a spicy dressing topped with four excellent slices of succulent roast duck ($6.95); the second, an even richer amalgamation of grilled quail with a thin slice of grilled foie gras atop a stack of just-right green beans blessed with a creamy sherry vinaigrette ($10.95).
Also on the winning side was a sweet, firm, lightly crusted patty of shrimp and lobster with corn kernels ($8.95), the sophisticated answer to your basic Maryland crab cake. Homemade venison sausage with white beans and garlic was another hearty plus. But while the three-layer vegetable terrine was firm, it was relatively bland and really needed its roasted-red-pepper sauce to perk it up ($4.95).
The unusual sweet, crunchy melon, charlynne, served with blueberries and oranges, should not be missed, but have it for dessert not among your starters ($4.95).
Our visit to the interior was where we encountered a problem or two. Call me picky, but when I see the name of a classic preparation on a French menu I expect to get that dish, not some substitution or flight of fancy. When I read bordelaise sauce, I expect diced marrow in it. When I saw pistou soup on the menu I looked forward to the robust, earthy Provencale soup of vegetables, pasta, and beans (a kind of French minestrone) with a heady garlic-basil sauce (French pesto) stirred in. (Lots of Provencale dishes resemble their Italian neighbors, right down to the tarts that could be called pizzas.) What we got was an exceedingly thin broth with little flavor, a few vegetables minced confetti-fine, and some skimpy bits of basil ($3.95). Not a good soup, even renamed. The seafood bisque was done along classic lines, but it was so heavy on the cream you didn't get the essential fish flavor ($3.95).
The crayfish gratin had a profusion of the beasties--sweeter and richer than shrimp, though quite small--in a buttery, walnut-color sauce ($6.95). A tasty dish thanks to the crayfish, though I would have been happier with fewer and bigger ones.
More nomenclature problems with the quenelles, or dumplings, of walleye, drenched in what was said to be Nantua sauce but turned out to be basically the same sauce used on the gratin ($5.95). Using walleye in place of the usual pike was legitimate, but the dumplings were mushy and barely held their shape. And the sauce was nothing like the classic Nantua, which is a bright pink seafood bechamel enriched with crayfish butter and a dab of tomato puree.
Things got better again with the entrees, one of which was first-rate: a daily special of caribou tenderloin, well peppered, served with marvelous roasted garlic cloves and a sultry port-wine sauce ($24.95). This was full-flavored, tender, and nongamy, with fine body and taste. It was escorted by a batch of baby vegetables, including tiny yellow and red tomatoes the size of your thumbnail. There's always a mixed-game plate on the menu ($29.95), which should be worthwhile, considering the handling of the caribou.
The sauteed sole was not quite as good but still above average, despite a bit of softness ($16.95). The two good-sized fillets were helped along by a light fennel sauce, whose slight licorice overtones tend to work very well with white-fleshed fish. There were more baby veggies, including a two-inch-long stuffed zucchini half.
Sylvia's skills as a dessert chef really showed up in the ever-changing assortment of chocolate desserts, typically three on your plate for $6. He also makes one of the better flourless chocolate cakes in town.
This is not the Everest Room or Le Francais, but it doesn't charge their tariffs--and there are several dishes for which I would happily return.
Le Margaux, 2442 N. Clark, is open for lunch 11:30 to 2:30 Tuesday through Sunday and for dinner 5:30 to 9:30 Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 to 10:30 Friday and Saturday. Call 871-3033.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.