If you're fed up with restaurants so expensive that it takes as long to pay off the credit card bill as it did to get the reservation, with waiters so solemn you worry you're being served a ritual sacrifice, and with places so full of suburbanites celebrating special occasions you feel like you've crashed a party in Schaumburg, you may have recently dined at a place like Gordon. I did--with a group who'd been going there since it first opened, a group celebrating a very special occasion, a group with a 7:30 PM reservation. We were seated at 8:10, received our minuscule appetizers at 9:15, our Lilliputian entrees at 10:20, and our dessert and coffee at 10:50. Except for the signature artichoke fritters with bearnaise sauce and the warm chocolate souffle cake, the food was uniformly mediocre. Admittedly, the waitress was anything but solemn. In fact, her mounting hysteria was the only source of satisfaction in an otherwise ruined evening.
It's experiences like this that turn people on to the lower prices, casual family atmosphere, and cheerfully prompt but relaxed service of a bistro. No one's sure just what the origin of the term "bistro" is. It could be from the Russian word for "quick" used by the Cossacks to get fast service at bars during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1815 (one would have thought their guns would do the trick). Or from the French word bistreau, which means cowherd and, by insulting extension, innkeeper. Or from bistrouille, a mixture of coffee and brandy. In Lyon, the town Gourmet magazine refers to as "the French capital of gourmandise," a bistro is called a bouchon, or cork.
Owner/chef Jean Claude Poilevey's Le Bouchon, with its lace cafe curtains, tiny bar, and walls whose color we couldn't decide on (they were either mustard, butter, or butterscotch, but definitely colored by our appetites) has the charming ambience of an authentic Lyon bistro. Poilevey sold La Fontaine (now Le Margaux) a few months ago in order to open a smaller, easier to manage, and less expensive restaurant on the site formerly occupied by Gavroche on Damen. His new venue opened June 11, and on both of the two visits I've made I recognized a number of high-powered near-north-siders, no doubt some of the estimated 20 to 25 percent of customers who are camp followers from the old place on Clark.
Le Bouchon's menu still features some of their old favorites--garlic chicken and grilled steak with pommes frites--along with new offerings, all of them the simpler, heartier dishes that, along with price, distinguish a bistro from a more serious temple of French haute cuisine. None of the entrees are a la carte, and the delicious Corner Bakery bread is hard not to fill up on.
Among the excellent appetizer choices are a golden, lightly spiced cold curried cream of cucumber soup ($3), as good as any I've had in France; a delectable caramelized onion-and-leek tart ($4) with a marvelous crust; and a silken chicken liver mousse ($5) studded with truffles. The chilled shrimp with citrus and olive oil ($5) was a bit too bland.
One of the nightly entree specials was savory roast pigeon, aka squab ($15.50), seasoned with fresh thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Even better than the pigeon itself was the side of potato galette (a flat round cake made of potato dough) redolent of the same delicious onions as the tart (Lyonnaise cuisine is long on onions), and the lettuce dressed with a perfect vinaigrette. (The only problem was a universal one--pigeons are tiny and hard to eat.) Roasted saddle of rabbit au jus ($12.50) seasoned with fresh thyme and garlic didn't taste a bit like chicken but more like lean pork. It was also accompanied by the potato galette and salad. Rare breast of duck ($12.50) with wild rice and Chinese cabbage arrived in a wonderful pool of Grand Marnier sauce; perfectly cooked roasted filet of salmon ($13.50), served in a red wine sauce with spring onions and boiled potatoes, was like my ideal man, rich but not heavy.
Poilevey promises souffles when the proper equipment arrives. In the meantime you'll have to settle for simple desserts, like warm apple tart with caramel sauce (without any mushy overcooked apples) or delectable creme brulee that we only wished had more brulee. And then there's the chocolate. As a service to my readers I turned down an offer of poached pears in favor of a luscious terrine of chocolate and raspberries in a berry sauce and a chocolate marquise, a rich, dense mousse served with espresso creme Anglaise. All desserts are $3.50.
If this is simple food, give me the simple life. Le Bouchon, 1958 N. Damen, is open from 5:30 to 11 PM Monday through Saturday and closed Sunday. Reservations are accepted. For more information call 862-6600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.