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The Purloined Menu

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Bistrot Zinc offers a confusion of options - the late-night crepeteria, the crowded (and, indeed, zinc) bar, a clubby lounge, and a wide dining room--all cluttered with the cliches of French dining: rattan chairs askew on the sidewalk, Edith Piaf on auto-reverse, and a taxidermied chicken on duty by the register. Dining here takes gumption too. You've got to be clearheaded about your strategy, insistent about landing a table, and willing to down some heavy-duty cuisine, no matter how likely it is to be August in Chicago outside. --Leah Eskin

Flamiche "Chtimi" Served ominously accompanied by a dehydrated, decapitated scallion, leaving one to wonder about the leek quotient of said leek tart. Flaky crust sequesters lifeless green rounds cowering mid-brie.

Magret de Canard et Cuisse Confit: The duck lingered a little too long in the oven, but the roasted lentils were lovely.

Salade Nicoise: Straight-talking Julia Child once explained that tinned tuna is the real attraction of the nicoise. But few restaurants can work up the nerve to serve the indy tuna plate, even under the French flag, for $10.95. So they grill. Zinc compromises, using fresh-put poached and flaked-fish. The result has all the consistency and none of the flavor of Chicken of the Sea. Still, the splashy lemon vinaigrette and briny olives go a long way.

Mercredi: Wednesday, for those fluent in English, is lamb - undercooked, chewy lamb at that - served with pliant roasted veggies and a dried-tomato-dyed aioli.

Moules Mariniere: Sweet, plump mussels backstroke through a creamy dream.

Gibelotte de Lapin et ses Spaetzle: If you've got the dexterity and grace to separate rabbit from bone, the rewards are a flavorful sliver. Spaetzle, appropriately greasy, is delicious alongside.

Poulet Grand Mere: Chicken, slow roasted with bacon and mushrooms, old-country style. A few knifefuls and I was fully prepared to ski, trek, or snowshoe the backcountry.

Mousse au chocolat "a la touche": A copious scoop, but not fully satisfying in the chocolate department.

Poire Belle Helene: We tried a single stab at the Poire Belle Helene, one tough prepuscent pear neither sweetened nor consoled by its syrup dip.

Tarte Tatin: Nicely carmelized apples huddle in a chili. Who ever heard of cold tarte tatin?

Cuisine Soigne: Zinc, at 3443 N. Southport, is the latest restaurant to wedge into the Music Box neighborhood, which is getting cuter and busier all the time. The cafe opens at 4, the restaurant at 5; both close at 10 Monday through Thursday, 11 Friday and Saturday, and 9 on Sunday. The schedule is still changing, so call 281-3443 for an update. There's an inviting, neighborhood feel to the place, which is worth a stroll, even if so far the fare is somewhat heavy and the flavor somewhat light.

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