Halfway through dinner at Bistrot Margot, my companion leaned forward and chuckled, "This place is such an authentic Paris bistro I was just about to complain about the noisy Americans behind me."
The comment tickled chef-owner Joe Doppes, who says that's exactly the response he was hoping for. "I've really been working at this for a long time, trying to get it right--making a great little neighborhood French restaurant that looks good and serves all the classic bistro dishes at reasonable prices," he says. "The first thing people usually think about when they hear French is heavy, pricey food. Now with the bistro thing taking off in town they know it doesn't have to be that way."
Judging by the full house on a wintry Monday evening, "they" caught on quick. Only six months old, Margot is Doppes's second stab at a neighborhood French eatery. The first was the Taylor Street Bistro, in the heart of Little Italy, which after five years he converted into Francesca's on Taylor, a partnership between Doppes, his wife, Ann, and chef Scott Harris of the Mia Francesca group.
"The Taylor Street Bistro was kind of out of place--or maybe a little ahead of its time," says Doppes. "But it's partly my fault. I didn't give the people what they wanted. I had this 'We only do it my way' French-chef attitude, so I wouldn't make linguine if someone asked and I wouldn't warm the bread if someone asked. You've got to accommodate."
Doppes began cooking at a Red Cross kitchen in Cincinnati when he was 16, but his romance with France took hold at the Culinary Institute of America, the renowned cooking school in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating in 1983, he worked at the upstate New York restaurant of one of the CIA instructors, Clark Guermont. "I lived over the restaurant, making about $150 a week, and really fell in love with everything French--the culture, the cuisine, the history--listening to Clark talk about it all."
His yearlong stint with Guermont was followed by three years as a line cook at top spots in New York and Los Angeles. Then, in 1987, he moved to Chicago and joined up with master chef Jean Banchet at the hallowed Le Francais in Wheeling. "I learned about passion, about detail, about striving for perfection," says Doppes. "He's a master of technique."
Banchet, who praises Doppes for his palate, took him under his wing. After working with Banchet for more than a year Doppes moved on to become chef de cuisine at Michael Foley's short-lived restaurant in Streeterville, and then held the same position at the original Toulouse. He opened the Taylor Street spot in 1990, and Banchet was his chief cheerleader, urging customers and friends in the press to check out his star pupil's joint. He continues to do so for the new place.
Bistrot Margot, named for Doppes's four-year-old, seats 120 in its two rooms. Large mirrors on facing walls give the impression of a lot more space. There's a total Parisian sensibility here, from the white, ceramic-tile floors to the red satin walls behind the banquettes. The light fixtures and painted ceiling lend an art nouveau touch, and a series of photographs of little Margot in various costumes adds a playful note.
The menu is archetypal. "I'm not the most inventive chef," Doppes reflects, "but I enjoy executing a dish properly--perfecting the classics."
A case in point is his ethereal chicken liver mousse--an elegant, velveteen pate that comes paired with a lusty, country-style terrine. The crab cake, named for mentor Banchet, is light and airy--not crisped as you'd expect--and almost falls apart, but the sweet succulence of the crabmeat sings right through. Grilled portobello gets hits of rosemary, garlic, and blue cheese that add interest without overwhelming the essential mushroom flavor.
The grilled salmon is nicely crisscrossed with char marks, done to the point, slathered with a lush, tarragon-scented bearnaise sauce, and served with a great puree of duchess potatoes that's piped out then baked to give it a little crust. Steak au poivre is another genuine article--a fine boneless sirloin, pink inside, drenched in a creamy, slightly pungent, black peppercorn sauce that accents the beefy flavor. There's an excellent wild mushroom sauce on the veal medallions as well, but the highest marks go to the rack of lamb, crusted in a mustard-garlic-parsley mix and given the traditional accompaniment of spinach and ratatouille. More finely executed classics follow for dessert: lemon tart, flourless chocolate cake, and chocolate mousse.
This is what bistro dining is all about--noisy Americans and all.
Bistrot Margot is at 1437 N. Wells, 312-587-3660.
Restaurant Development Group's forthcoming Loop steak house is slated for a March 20 opening, but has had to change its name from Napa Chophouse to the Grill Room.
Rambutan, the tiny Filipino restaurant on W. Belmont, will move to 2049 W. Division in April; the move will almost triple the seating capacity.
Chefs from now-closed Gordon continue to pop up in new ventures across the city--former sous chef Griff Finch opened D'Vine, a French restaurant next to Cafe Absinthe, at 1950 W. North in February.
River North's Brio abruptly closed March 6.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.