November 13, 2014

Le Petit Saint Benoit



Very old traditional bistros serving simple good food and providing pleasant and relaxed service still exist in Paris, even in trendy Saint-Germain-Des-Prés.

One of these few remaining treasures, Le Petit Saint Benoit, a surviving bastion of simple good old cuisine bourgeoise, has been doing business at the same location since 1901. It is even better today than 50 years ago when I discovered it. Because the majority of the dishes it serves, contrary to the semi-industrial food found in 70% of French restaurants, are cooked in house. And they still buy most of their products at the market.




Saint-Germain-Des-Prés unfortunately is not as exciting as it was in the 50s and 60s .

In the early 60s, when I moved to Paris from Aix-en-Provence,  the Saint-Germain- des-Prés district, in the 6th arrondissement, was one of the most lively, diverse,  and interesting neighborhoods of Paris. Its heart was the famous Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, nowadays renamed ‘’Place Sartre et Beauvoir’’ in honor of some of its most famous inhabitants, located at the intersection of the Boulevard Saint Germain, the Rue Bonaparte, and the Rue de Rennes. In addition to the splendid Romanesque church, built in the 12th century on the site of the oldest abbey in Paris, this area was celebrated for a few cafés.

 They are often a ritual meeting place for well-known, or aspiring to be, intellectuals, politicians, musicians, artists, actors, students, ‘’bohemians’’ of all kinds, and generally speaking ‘’noctambules’’, meaning people who loved going out at night. The most popular was and still is, Les Deux Magots, with its great terrace facing the church where people, including tourists from the world over would fight at lunch time and after 5:00 PM to get a table and chairs where they could drink a whisky, a café, or a ‘’coupe de Champagne’’, eat a light but elegant meal, and look at people walking around.



And in these days the people walking in, out, or around les Deux Magots, actually named for two old Chinese statuettes perched high against the walls, inside the main room, on both sides of the entrance, offered a full time show. It was a non-stop flow of celebrities, starlets in search of a producer or a sugar daddy,  young wealthy students with fast sport cars, international businessmen, elegant ladies showing off with super ‘’à la mode’’ outfits, and sometimes pretty young American tourists or students. But I loved watching, and listening, the musicians and artists, the beggars chased constantly by the waiters, and some lunatics yelling at the crowd.
And then there was Mouna, a bearded character riding an old bike, his crumpled jacket or sweater always covered with badges claiming his political convictions, which were pacifist and vaguely anarchist. He would try to sell you his self-published weekly newspaper, ‘’Mouna Frères’’. Everybody knew Aguigui Mouna, whose real name was André Dupont, who talked to the crowd for hours in a hilarious and totally provocative style about peace, injustice, social problems, and stupidities of both the modern life and French politicians. In fact Mouna himself ran an un-official campaign as a candidate for president a few times in the seventies.

 
Next door, to the left, on the boulevard at the corner of the small Rue Saint Benoit, was Le Café de Flore, which attracted famous writers, artists, composers, film makers,and stage actors. In the very early part of the 20th century many intellectuals from the right such as disciples of Charles Maurras who had his office there, members of the Action Française movement etc. would congregate in this café. But from 1917 to the end of the 1930s the Café reached a tremendous notoriety among the literary and artistic community. Well-known writers and artists such as Apollinaire, Hemingway, Aragon, Sartre, Camus, Simone De Beauvoir, Picasso, Zadkine, Giacometti, would meet their friends there and have long and passionate discussions.  This is here that the first member of the  Surrealist movement met around their leader André Breton.
Across the boulevard was the Brasserie Lipp, where politicians and executives would come at night to eat its famous ‘’Choucroute garnie Alsacienne’’, oysters, and marinated harengs (herrings) with potato salad, and to drink beer and good white Alsatian wines.
A block to the West, in front of the Mabillon subway station, was a bi-level bar-night-club and restaurant, La Pergola, where the very lively and noisy upper floor became a very popular disco-dancing place where you would find a strange mix of street-wise guys,  and some gays. This establishment does not exist anymore.
Across the street, just behind the Saint Germain des Prés church, was, and still is, one of my favorite cafés, La Rhumerie Martiniquaise, known from its great choice of rums and rum-based cocktails from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. La Rhumerie was much less pretentious and cooler than the other above-mentioned cafés. They also serve simple small dishes.
 
But in these days I was still a poor student at the nearby La Sorbonne, and could not afford to have a drink or even a “croque-monsieur” at les Deux Magots.
So at night I would walk down on the very short (only 28 numbers) Rue Saint Benoit, which in these days was packed at night with lots of ‘’noctambules’’ who patronized the many very popular bars, jazz and night-clubs, and dancing places, such as Le Montana my favorite bar on the street for its stiff drinks and great collection of good jazz records, Le Bistingo, Le Billboquet, and Le Club Saint Germain.  All these great places have been closed for many years. So the joyful ebullience of that street is not the same anymore.  
In 1963 I would walk all the way to No. 1, just at the corner of Rue Jacob, and sit at a small table on the sidewalk in front of L’Épicerie. There the jovial and generous ‘’patronne’’(owner) would serve me une  saucisse-frites, a warm sausage with french fries, a piece of bread and a glass of red wine for 2.50 French francs, the equivalent of 50 American cents in those days, and that would be my cheap but tasty dinner. I would listen to the animated conversations of other clients, some of them well-to-do Parisians living in the neighborhood, and often to foreign students playing some instruments or singing a few feet from where I ate. The name L’Epicerie (The Gocery Store) was justified by the fact that besides serving some hot sandwiches and drinks, it was actually still selling a few basic food and beverage items, including canned goods for those who came home late to an empty pantry. L’Epicerie stayed open until 2:00 in the morning.

 The discovery of the Petit Saint Benoit bistro


But most of the time my attention was focused on the happy people dining at small tables, very close to each other, on the sidewalk across the street, at the Petit Saint Benoit, a very old-fashioned bistro that had been owned and operated at the same place by the same family, or their descendants,  since 1901. The décor was authentically turn of the century (19th to 20th), with its  revolving entrance door, the partially wood-covered walls, leather banquettes, bistro tables covered with red and white checkered cloth, copper hat and umbrella  racks, old mirrors, and  a real wooden zinc covered counter in the service, bar, and busing area.



My favorite little spot though was located at the end of the main dining room, near the kitchen. It was, and still is, a marvelous wooden chest of 99 tiny drawers, each with its own number on white enamel tags, where regulars who came for lunch almost every weekday would store their own napkin.



How many times did I walked by the diners sitting at the terrace to read the description of the dishes and wines hand-written on big blackboards.



 It  was essentially what we used to call “cuisine bourgeoise” or “cuisine de ménage’’, with traditional dishes such as poireaux (boiled leeks) vinaigrette, pâté de campagne, oeufs durs (hard-boiled eggs) mayonnaise, assiette de crudités (julienned raw vegetables), harengs (herrings) with pommes de terre tièdes,  Boeuf Bourguignon, épaule d’agneau rotie (roasted lamb shoulder), côte de porc (pork chop) , andouillette grillée (grilled chitterlings), hachis parmentier (oven-baked gound meat mixed with mashed potatoes)  and rice pudding in a milk sauce, crème au caramel, or tarte aux pommes. Nothing fancy, but everything looked tasty when I spied on what the guests had in their plates.
It took me 3 more years before I could finally eat lunch at this marvelous terrace, when my wife and I moved to Rue de Seine a few blocks away. And even when I came back on business to Paris during the early seventies and eighties, and stayed in a hotel nearby, I would sometimes have lunch at the Petit Saint Benoit.
 But, in the 1990s, I had disappointing dinners there twice, and for no real reason I stopped coming to this dear old place for years. To tell the truth my tastes and financial means had evolved and I had found other traditional French bistros in other neighborhoods whose menus were perhaps a little more sophisticated and offered exciting new  dishes.

A few weeks ago I was in Paris and I took my traditional walk in my old neighborhood of Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, and I realized that the whole area had changed a lot, and not for the better. Now most of the small charming hotels are very modernistic expensive 4 stars, such as the luxurious Bel Ami Rue Saint Benoit precisely, or the Hotel Villa Rue Jacob where I used to stay when it was the more modest Hotel d’Isly.
All over the place antique shops or book stores, such as La Hune, my favorite one at the corner of Rue Saint Benoit, have been taken over by brand name clothing and fashion boutiques. All this of course has completely transformed the originality and character of the area and had a visible impact on the true nature of the local population.
The whole neighborhood is now full of flashy people, flashy cars, flashy outfits, and thousands of cell phones and tablets. In cafés, the intellectuals, the artists, the writers, and the charming bohemians of the 60s have gone somewhere else. And the oldest inhabitants are either dead, too old to go out, or were no longer able to pay the  rent or to afford the very high buying price of their old apartments, and moved to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.
Now the atmosphere, the objects, and even many people seem tacky to me and do not look at all as real ‘’germanopratins’’, the name that we used to give to the people who live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

But suddenly while I was walking down Rue saint Benoit, I found a reason to smile again. Le Petit Saint Benoit was still there, at number 4, its sidewalk tables full of seemingly happy customers who took their time eating their lunch and enjoying the beautiful and warm sunny October weather.
I looked at the menu on the Blackboard outside, and all the good old dishes that I used to love were there too, and the prices were still very modest. The menu changes practically every day even though certain dishes, such as the hachis Parmentier or the steak tartare, are almost always on the blackboard.
I could not resist, pushed the old revolving door, was tempted to ask for a table near the chest of napkin drawers that was also still there, but the very pleasant owner offered me a table outside and I took it.
I sat at a very tiny table and looked at the No. 5 building across the street, where the famous French author and playwright Marguerite Duras lived on the 3rd floor from her arrival in Paris in 1941 from Cochinchine (Indochina) to her death in 1996. I know that she frequently crossed the street to eat here, very often at a table on the sidewalk, and I could not keep thinking that I was perhaps seating at the exact same table where she ate.
 


Soon, as I could expect, a young lady came and asked me if I minded her seating at the table next to mine, and soon afterwards she was joined by an older woman who proved to be her mother, with whom she engaged in a very intense conversation. Obviously she did not see her mother very often and had numerous subjects of disagreement with her. They were discussed during the whole meal without even lowering their voice to prevent me to listen to some very intimate details of their tumultuous past relationship. At one point the mother who was sitting next to me and was smoking an electronic cigarette between each dish, noticed my coughing, and offered to switch chairs with her daughter so that the smoke would not affect me. I accepted her kind offer of course.

I had ordered a very tasty, and well spiced, Terrine de pâté de campagne du chef, which  was accompanied by a good Dijon mustard, traditional cornichons and pearl onions, and a basket of very fresh baguette. (4,50 euros). I enjoyed a glass from the ``pot’’ of a decent house Bordeaux that was served in a plain thin half-liter bottle (10 euros).
Next I had a perfectly cooked Cuisse de Canard Confit (duck leg) served with slices of roasted small red potatoes  and cloves of garlic in the duck jus (13,50 euros).
I finished my meal with a very sizable slice of perfectly ripe Brie de Meaux, that had been suggested by the owner (4,50 euros). The check was only 32.50 euros (41 dollars). The tip is always included in France. And that is not expensive for a 3 course lunch with wine in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés in 2014.And let's not forget that since sales taxes and tip are included in Paris it make  the check 33% less that what you would pay in Chicago.
The ladies had ordered a Hachis Parmentier, (12,50 euros) which has been a house specialty since the 1930s, and a house-prepared Steak Tartare au coûteau, made from beef from the Charolais region (10 euros) and it looked perfect, since the meat is knife ground. The hachis, probably made after a family recipe looked and smelled pretty authentic to me.
I took the time to study the menu, and found out that some of the dishes that I used to enjoy in the 60,s and 70s, were still on the menu, plus a few more recent new items: Poireaux vinaigrette (3, 5 euros), oeuf dur mayonnaise (hard boiled egg with home-made mayo)(2,50), filets de Harengs with Pommes de Terre tièdes (marinated herrings fillets with lukewarm potato salad) (6,50), Terrine du jour (pâté) (4,0), Faux-Filet de Boeuf sauce Poivre  (strip steak with a peppercorn sauce, and French fries 18,50), Boeuf Bourguignon (13,50),  Cassolette de Poissons au Petits Légumes (small casserole of fish with baby vegetables, 13,50). And the cheeses, Brie de Meaux, Cabécou, Camembert, or Roquefort with butter, are still modestly priced at 4,50 a piece.
The old desserts such as the Pot de crème, the Crème  Mont Blanc with whipped cream, the Milk and rice pudding, the Charlottes, or the more recent Fondant au Chocolat Noir, as well as the old fashioned ice creams such as the Nougat glaçé, the Parfait au café, or the Citron Givré, cost 5,00 euros.
And, as I said earlier,  the  wine list includes a good selection of decent Bordeaux, and other smaller regional appellations offered both in carafes, and in bottles, including half a dozen of them in 75 cl bottles for less than 20 euros.  But anyways most wines are among the cheapest I ever found on a Paris wine list.

The service is pleasant and fast and the waitress still calculates your check by hand on a corner of the table paper cover. By the way the restaurant does not accept credit cards.


The owner, Monsieur Daffis, who seemed to be a very professional and attentive manager, when he is not walking around to make sure every table  is having what it needs, and stopping to talk with regular clients, is in the busing-bar area preparing drinks or drying glasses with a cloth.
He is the son in law of the last owner, who I believe took over the place in 1960, who was still related to the original family.
He says that even though the number of meals served daily has diminished since 1998, his total annual sales have progressed every year since that time. Many satisfied customers become regulars and send their friends here. The ‘’quality’’ policy that he has implemented is very successful and contributes to a solid business.
He told me that he is very demanding about the quality of his products, especially the vegetables, meats, seafood and cheeses, that he purchases at the Marché de Rungis, a few miles South of Paris, a gigantic wholesale market of fresh foods.The largest such market in the world, it replaced the famous ‘’Halles de Paris’’, located in the famous Baltard Pavillions  in the first arrondissement, which were demolished in 1969.
He is also very attentive to the evolution of its client base, but intends to preserve the unique traditions of this ‘’historic`` restaurant.

Needless to say it was very comforting to renew with this part of my past and to find out that some Parisian restaurateurs are still proud to enjoy the pleasure of providing good food  based on fresh products in a simple convivial and authentically French environment.
I will come back to the Petit Saint Benoit, for sure.

4 Rue Saint Benoit
75006 Paris
Tel : 01-42-60-27-92     www.petit-st-benoit.fr 
Closed Sundays- No credit cards 


Photos: Alain Maes

September 26, 2014

French Restaurants in Chicago: a 75 year retrospective,1924-1999



French Restaurants in Chicago: A 75 year Retrospective

Part 4.  1980-1989. A period of transition: Younger chefs in search of a new contemporary French-American style.   

The bistro and ethnic trends expand. A new generation of “French trained” American chefs create an interesting French-American style in sophisticated dining.


I thought that after the incredibly creative and productive decade of the 70’s, the rhythm of creation of new French restaurants would slow down in the 80’s, especially between 1980 and 1982 when American consumers got scared by a new double-dip recession that encouraged them to tighten their eating out budget.
Besides I also thought that the “ethnic food” fad would diminish the interest of Chicago diners for French cuisine.
Fortunately I was wrong. The now deceased Sun-Times  restaurant reviewer Pat Bruno, in his introduction to the new Gault Millau’s Best of Chicago guide published in 1989 by French critic André Gayot, wrote that “the 1980 s will go down in Chicago’s culinary history as the decade of dining delirium”.  He said that gourmet home cooks got tired of cooking by the end of 1981 and started to rediscover the pleasure of going out to eat good food prepared by professionals.
From a purely quantitative viewpoint the number of new French restaurants launched in the eighties (around 35) was about the same as in the 70s. Of course these numbers are the result of my own estimates and there may be several “French eateries” that escaped my sometimes fuzzy memory lane.
As far as I am concerned, I went to restaurants for lunch practically 5 days a week, and at least 4 times a month for dinner, most often with business contacts.
My only negative remembrance of that period was related to often poorly interpreted and executed versions of the French Nouvelle Cuisine repertoire.
But that annoying phenomenon, which often materialized in improperly cooked and over-decorated mini-portions of chichi dishes in big plates, saw a blessed ending around 1986.
At that time  several good American sous-chefs and Chefs de Partie, who had been trained in French kitchens or in Chicago by French chefs, started to work towards the creation of a new French-American style of cooking that would become a new trend in Chicago. This local style would continue until the new millennium.
But some local chefs, such as Michael Foley, of Printer’s Row fame, a restaurant that he launched in 1984, who also got some serious training in some good French restaurants, were in fact adapting their techniques to the principles of the American Cooking Movement, sometimes also called “Progressive American Cuisine”. That movement that started in the mid 70’s was often mixing contemporary American cooking techniques, using regionally grown produces, meat, poultry, eggs and fruits, with classic French cuisine traditions. Gordon Sinclair (Gordon’s) in 1976, and before him Jovan Trboyevic (Jovan’s) in the late 60’s, was among the first to introduce these new approaches in Chicago.
Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, would also be a perfect example of this approach.
It was also very comforting to notice that Chicago diners became much more sophisticated in their knowledge of French food and wines. This welcome phenomenon was partially encouraged by the development of a very important expansion of trade and cultural relations between Chicago and France. Also, in the late eighties many books and magazines as well as TV programs about French cuisine and wines became more accessible.
And for Chicago diners it was no longer necessary to feel intimidated or to worry about the cost involved in going to a French restaurant since the spectrum of available French eateries in town got wider and more diverse. You did not need to spend as much as you would in New York in 1st class French restaurants at places such as Carlos, Ambria, or Everest to get a good illustration of what great French cuisine should be.  Good but more affordable places like Froggy’s, Un Grand Café, or Le Chardonnay would provide an equally pleasant experience.
But in the same way that the 70’s were marked by a few great restaurateurs and chefs such as Jovan Trboyevic, Jean Banchet, George Badonski, Leslee Reis, Christian Zeiger, Bernard Cretier, Pierre Pollin or Jean-Claude Poilevey, the eighties will always remained associated with the names of some restaurateurs and chefs such as Carlos Nieto (Carlos) , Roland Liccioni, Gabino Sotelino (Ambria)  Fernand Gutierrez (at the Ritz), Jean Joho (Everest), Louis Outhier (very briefly at Le Prince), or Jackie Shen (Jackie’s).
I could also mention the French chef Yves Roubaud who, after stints at L’Hôtel de France in Minneapolis, Ambria and Un Grand Café, introduced at SHAW’S a very French contemporary way to work with seafood in Chicago. But SHAWS will not be part of my list because it was essentially a seafood restaurant, not a French one.
Chicago diners also mourned the loss, in 1985, of Lucien Vergé, a veteran French chef who with the opening of L’Escargot in 1968 became one of the best promoters in town of ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’.

In 1986, some French chefs and other professionals involved in French cuisine, under the leadership of Fernand Gutierrez who became its first president, launched the Vatel Club du Midwest to promote the originality and strength of French cuisine in our region that has been for too many years forgotten in the shade of New-York and California.

The end of the decade, unfortunately, was marked by a trend that I did not appreciate at all called
‘’ grazing”.
 Essentially followed by yuppies and North Shore and Gold Coast matrons who did not want to gain too much weight when eating out, it consisted in eating very small quantities of everything, or ordering only small side dishes. The quality of the cuisine was not affected and for a while many chefs adapted their culinary talents to this new kind of demand.
In fact, it was perhaps a trend that was born 30 years too early, since around 2008, it sort of morphed in a new French trend “les petits plats”, or “bar dishes”, which are still very popular in 2014. But it was not a new invention, just a variation of the “tapas”

In opposition to stricter requirements to include a restaurant in this list of French dining places, such as French ownership, cooking, managing and waiting staff, etc., that I  used in the previous decades, for the 80s I will  list any restaurant serving good French cuisine in the Chicago area, whether or not it is owned by French people.

 1980

LA MIRABELLE

1710 Orrington Avenue, Evanston

It was opened in March in the Orrington Hotel by Dominique Beauchard, who had managed both The 95th and the Ritz Carlton in the 70s.
This 85 seats restaurant was initially supposed to be a major component of an ambitious renovation program of this old-fashioned hotel that had lost most of its charm over the years. But for some economic reasons the hotel’s management expansive plans were somewhat reduced and Beauchard decided to lease the place and to operate it by himself along with chef Christian Vullien, a native of the French Alps region.
In spite of a limited budget the dining room was elegant and the service polished. Being in a hotel and serving breakfast the restaurant baked its own bread and pastries. The lunch menu was limited to American classics as well as a quiche du jour. But for dinner you could enjoy well prepared dishes such as rillettes of salmon, chicken liver mousse with a sauce Périgueux, sweetbreads, roast duckling with turnips, quails, and grilled sole or monkfish with a mushroom and champagne sauce. Desserts included a good chocolate cake and a decent apple tart. The wine list was quite respectable for a former all-dry city like Evanston. I went there only once and I have a pleasant if not spectacular remembrance of that dinner. The cuisine was perfectly fine but too conservative and seemed unaware that even in Evanston there were some educated diners who were interested by a more contemporary cuisine, without necessarily looking for “Nouvelle Cuisine”. I think that La Mirabelle did OK for a while but could not compete with Café Provençal and closed in the fall of 1982 when the hotel was also closed for a more serious renovation.


AMBRIA

2300 N. West Lincoln Park, Chicago

On July 1 the opening of that glorious restaurant in the lobby of the Belden- Stratford Hotel was perhaps the most audacious move that Richard Melman, at the time CEO of LEY, took during his long series of entrepreneurial coups. As a matter of fact nobody since Jovan Trboyevic at Le Perroquet in the early 70s had been so instrumental in launching such a high class dining establishment based essentially upon the most successful and well executed principles of the French Nouvelle Cuisine. The genius of Melman was to recruit Gabino Sotelino, a great expatriate Spanish cuisinier who had learned the secrets of the trade in some of the best kitchens of the world including the Plazza Athénée in Paris, France, to be executive chef and partner in the ownership at Ambria.
Sotelino, who had started his cooking apprenticeship at the early age of 14, arrived in Chicago in 1974 and served as head chef at Le Perroquet for almost 3 years, had impressed Melman who hired him in 1977 as executive chef at the Pump Room. The tremendous improvements that Sotelino brought to the kitchen of this historic restaurant that LEY had just purchased contributed to bringing that old lady back to fame.
Sotelino was the king of creative marriages between savory and fruit-sweet complex flavors and herbs or spices in a single dish. It started with appetizers such as scallops sautéed with exotic fruits and berries, or Carpaccio of beef sirloin in a green vegetable sauce with parmesan, very flavorful and delicate pâtés and terrines (venison in season was fabulous), Foie gras aux pommes, and the famous vegetable mousses, that were an obligatory trademark of the Nouvelle Cuisine.
The main courses, often very delicate fish preparations such as Loup de Mer or Dover Sole offered as specials, were equally innovative. Most regulars raved about the Rack of Veal with truffles and the Capon stuffed with a mousse de morilles (morels), as well as the rare magret de canard aux pêches.
Salads where Belgian endive, mâche, radicchio, bib, baby string beans, apples, were often combined and dressed with very refreshing herbed vinaigrettes, were very popular.
The most popular dessert were probably the fruit soufflés, flourless chocolate cake, and the white chocolate mousse in a rich dark chocolate sauce.
The very extensive, and expensive, wine list included some of the best Bourgognes that could be found in Chicago at the time.
The strict dress code, the discrete but luxurious décor where dark wood and fresh flowers were predominant, the excellence of the service, made you feel rich, even though nothing was ever pretentious in that sophisticated place that everybody regretted when it closed in 2007.
Very few other restaurants collected as many stars and awards as Ambria.
I am very sad not to have ever dined in this so creative establishment. 

In the meantime, Gabino Sotelino, always in cooperation with LEY, had launched other very popular eateries: Un Grand Café across the hall from Ambria that morphed years later into Mon ami Gabi, and Ba- Ba- Reeba, a Spanish tapas place, both still in operation in Chicago, and their sister restaurants in Las Vegas. Ba Ba Reeba Vegas closed in 2010.  


L’ESCARGOT

701 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

Lucien and Lucette Vergé, along with co-owner Alan Tutzer, went through a long period of soul searching after their very popular restaurant, the original Escargot which had been very popular since its opening in 1968 on North Halsted (see its description in a precedent chapter on the 60’s), burned in the fall of 1979. Since it proved too much of a hassle to wait for insurance, permits, inspections, redesign, before being able to actually start its reconstruction, they preferred to come downtown in the spring of 1980 and join the bustling new dining scene that had been flourishing around Michigan avenue since the mid-seventies. So they set up shop in the ALLERTON HOTEL in a space that was occupied for a few months by a not too attractive dining-room called Theo’s. A very competent designer, Jerome Eastman, who had been a regular customer at l’Escargot on Halsted, offered to completely redo the space. And his efforts, using to their best the high ceilings, large curtained bay windows, big  mirrors, wood dividers, and nice banquettes, Paris street signs, and French posters, recreated a very lively but comfortable French provincial mix of a brasserie and fancy country auberge. Close to the entrance a beautiful old style long French ‘’comptoir’ ’covered with marble instead of zinc, with its bottles and glassware, could have been coming from an impressionist painting.
In fact the entrance was on Huron, and the windows were facing that street too.
As it was the case on Halsted Lucien was in charge of the kitchen, but made the rounds often in the dining room to greet old regulars and a new generation of business and media people, as well as well-dressed shopping ladies, who enjoyed the very pleasant atmosphere and menu at lunch time.
Lucette was the always attentive front guardian, and Alan Tutzer was the competent and indispensable manager.
Lunch time could be very busy and it was sometimes difficult to get a table without reservation.
I usually came later around 1:30 when service was a bit more relaxed to enjoy the nice appetizers, such as terrific country pâtés and terrines, céleri-rémoulade, the leek tart, and traditional ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’ entrées such as coq au vin, leg of lamb with flageolets beans, cassoulet, magret de canard, or calf`s brains with black butter and capers. Fresh fruit tarts were delicious.
The wine list always offered good Crus du Beaujolais, and reasonably priced small Bordeaux.
In the early 80’s you could have a complete lunch with some inexpensive wine for around 12 dollars. Dinner was more expensive.
Unfortunately, Lucien passed away in 1985. Alan Tutzer and Lucette kept the restaurant afloat until the late 80’s, but the spirit was gone.


FROGGY’s

306 N. Green Bay Road, Highwood, IL

During the summer of that year Christian Zeiger, the successful French owner of Alouette on Green Bay Road in Highwood since 1978, asked his 28 year old chef Thierry Lefeuvre, a native of Brittany, who had started cooking at Alouette in January 1979, to move a few blocks South to the same road to help managing the kitchen of his new French restaurant, along with manager and partner Gregg Mason.
33 years later Thierry Lefeuvre is still in charge of the kitchen at Froggy’s where he is a partner of the owners Bill and Sheri Cartwright.
The restaurant, which was called Froggy’s French Café in the 80s’,became rapidly popular on the North Shore, and in spite of the fact that, in its early years,  it did not take reservations, was packed most of the time at night, with many regulars attracted back by very attractive reasonably priced menus. In fact Froggy’s for years kept a loyal clientele that was not coming for the very minimalist décor which nowadays is much more elaborate and comfortable than it was in the early 80’s, but for the high quality of the cuisine, that was a perfect mix of classic French dishes and contemporary creativity with obvious touches of “nouvelle cuisine” especially noticeable in the light but flavorful mousses, sauces, and a very precise treatment of fresh vegetables. Lefeuvre, a native of Brittany, was a master seafood chef, who excelled in exquisite scallop, mussels, salmon, pike (pike and shrimp quenelles were very delicate), crab preparations, as well as elaborate dishes such as stuffed sole with crawfish mousse, snapper Provençale, or basil marinated smoked salmon. I remember an appetizer of fresh crab in artichoke bottom that was delicious.  But he also excelled in traditional main course such as magret (breast) of duck served rare with its confit leg in a wine sauce, a very satisfying cassoulet, a juicy herbed rack of lamb with a ragout of Mediterranean vegetables. The house salads were always full of fresh vegetables in season. And the home-made desserts such as chocolate or berries mousses, fruit tarts (apple or Mirabelle plums) were ladies favorites.
Froggy’s service was very professional, and the astute wine selection included good French regional bargains.
In the mid-eighties you could enjoy a complete six course menu for less than 20 dollars.  
The restaurant is still open in 2014

 
CHEZ CHOSE

3048 W. Diversey Parkway, Chicago

In October, Francis Leroux, already a veteran of the French bistro scene in Chicago, whose Gare Saint Lazare  on Armitage was a favorite of many French expats in the early 70s, opened this strange bistro in an old 2-story modest but charming wooden house, in a not too trendy neighborhood close to the Kennedy. The space was previously occupied by a New-Orleans style restaurant called the Cajun House and the Creole House many years before. You had to ring the bell to enter. Then you had to go to the 2nd floor “bar”, in fact a room decorated and furnished with eclectic furniture. Then back downstairs to the small dining room where the dishes served reflected Francis elaborate cooking skills.  At the time you could get a prix-fixe four course dinner, that included a good salad, dessert and half a bottle of some cheap French wine for around 20 dollars. Or you could have well prepared ‘’à la carte’’ special entrées of the day for around 10 dollars. The prix-fixe dinners could include Vol au Vent, scallops, a steak Bordelaise, bass in an herbed sauce, or moules marinière. Leroux did a good job with his soups and vegetable side dishes which were always fresh and out of the ordinary. Desserts were classically prepared but not too sophisticated. But regulars came on Tuesdays for the special of the day, a very tasty North-African lamb and chicken Couscous, made from steamed wheat semolina served with vegetables, chickpeas, and the traditional bowl of sauce along with the spicy Harissa, a paste-like condiment made from hot pepper.
The place was of course very popular with amateurs of value-oriented French bistro food, but closed in the mid-eighties. Eventually Leroux launched another bistro in 1989, Café du Midi on N. Damen that lasted until 1997. Then Leroux became an instructor at Kendall College.

LA TOUR

800 N. Michigan, Chicago

This posh French restaurant located in the very fancy Park Hyatt hotel (formerly Water Tower Hyatt) was named after the historic Water Tower in the square that it faced. This elegant place that could seat 110 customers had cost a little fortune to redesign and redecorate with exotic African wildlife paintings, plants, trees, sculptures and other motifs reminding you of the Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau. And having lunch, siting in comfortable armchairs, facing the tall windows on a sunny winter day, was quite a visually striking experience. In fact both the excellent food and service contributed to give you the impression of living and dining on a luxurious cruise ship. Everything was contributing to an atmosphere of sophistication: The flowers, the furniture, the silver and porcelain china, the beautiful crystal glassware, and of course the magnificent wine rooms and its 3,000 bottles.
Jean-Pierre Moraldo, the French manager was a perfect host and, in its early days at least, I had several occasions, during business lunches with French visitors, to enjoy French chef Paul Laubignat’s, an alumni from Sofitel, very precisely prepared and elegantly plated dishes. They were a balanced  mix of Classic French and Nouvelle Cuisine, with delicious seafood appetizers such as mousses, aspics, cheese soufflés, exciting salads with lobster and fresh small vegetables, game birds en croute, and main dishes such as ‘’magrets de canneton au poivre’’, sweetbreads in a Calvados sauce, or perfectly grilled lamb chops.
I do not remember any specific desserts.
20 years later in 2000 the main dining room was transferred to the 7th floor and became Nomi, an equally if not even better restaurant.


LE CIEL BLEU

181 East Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Located in the Hotel Mayfair Regent at this wonderful address, this was also a typical example of that trend consisting for international large hotel chains to create fancy French restaurants on their site. In this case the Mayfair was part of a hotel group based in Hong Kong. But in Chicago its manager, a French speaking Swiss gentleman named  Jacques Hamburger, with the help of a famous NYC designer, put a real French classic touch to the décor of the 88 seats sunny (lots of windows and mirrors) and  classy dining room on the 19th floor with a grandiose view of the lake and the Gold Coast. Management also insured a French classic tradition to its cuisine by hiring from France Michel Saragueta, a classically trained French Basque executive chef. Michel already had a long hotel cooking experience, including prestigious ones such as The Savoy in London, the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Okura in Japan, and later at the Beverly Hills in L.A.
He offered the full spectrum of Haute and Bourgeoise French dishes, all meticulously prepared, since Saragueta has always been a perfectionist professional: Vegetable terrine, Coquilles St, Jacques à la Provençale, Frog legs in sauce Nantua, Dover sole, Escalopes de veau à l’estragon (Veal scaloppini with a tarragon sauce), Salad of Sweetbreads with artichoke bottoms and truffles, Calf liver, and great French desserts such as the traditional Ile Flottante and Charlotte aux fraises.
Prices were quite reasonable, especially at lunch, for such a luxurious place.
It stayed open until the mid-eighties.


1981

LE RELAIS

50 East Oak, Chicago
In the late 70’s this same address did not provided much luck to Roger Greenfield and his associates, his glamorous bistro that should have been a success lasted only a few months.
A Swiss Wall Street broker named André Constantin came all the way from New York to re-open the place as a French brasserie at street level, and a disco-night club on the 2nd floor. The décor was very attractive and contemporary, with banquettes, big mirrors, retro lamps with adjustable lights, and typical small bistro tables.
I do not remember who was the chef but Le Relais had found a good idea in offering prix-fixe typical French bistro ‘’formulas’’ that included an appetizer, salad, main entrée, a dessert and some beverage. You could enjoy dishes such as Cassoulet Toulousain, lamb chops, and moules marinière, as well as chocolate mousse and éclairs. Prices were reasonable: $ 16.00 to $18.00
The wine list was not very long but offered decently priced regional French wines.
Unfortunately, the place did not last much longer than its predecessors and closed after a few months of operation .


CARLOS

429 Temple Avenue, Highland Park.

On a very balmy April night, on my wife’s birthday, when we entered this small (about 55 “couverts”) but sophisticated restaurant that had opened in December, on the Eastern side of the railroad tracks, we had no idea that it was rapidly becoming one of the best in the Midwest. We were immediately seduced by the subdued, intimate elegance and subtle refinement of the place that was isolated from the entrance by an art deco styled etched glass partition. Obviously you had not chosen a typical suburban storefront eatery. The décor was dominated by beige, pink, and caramel colors, nice contemporary prints on the walls along with indirect lighting, wood panels, and pretty bouquets of fresh flowers. We were seated in a comfortable booth at a very elegantly appointed table covered with white linen, where both the glassware, the silver, and the porcelain (from Villeroy and Bosch if I remember correctly) added a touch of traditional style that you would find in a good restaurant in the ‘’bourgeois’’ neighborhood of a large provincial French town. Our gracious host, Carlos Nieto, the co-owner with his wife Debbie, who started his career as a busboy at L’Escargot, was for almost 10 years a captain at Le Français under Jean Banchet. And it showed in all the details of a practically perfect service. At the time, we did not know who the chef was, but after the superb dinner we enjoyed a lot, we rapidly inquired about him, a certain Roland Liccioni. He was (and still is in 2014) a very talented French chef, of Corsican and Vietnamese origins, whom years later we met several times in other occasions and in other venues and learned to appreciate even more from a personal standpoint.
 The menu in the early months of Carlos  was limited, but that night we feasted on perfectly prepared terrines, asparagus sauce mousseline, salmon en croute, paillard de veau, (or perhaps that night I had ordered a magret of duck with its leg), baby lettuce salad, and a sumptuous 3 chocolate dessert. The small vegetables accompaniments, especially mushrooms, were particularly spectacular. Roland Liccioni’s wife at the time, Mary-Beth, was about to become one of the best pastry chefs in the country, and well recognized for her chocolate creations.
The wine list was not very extensive but extremely well selected with great reasonably priced Bordeaux.
I think that I paid around 80 dollars for that meal including wine, espresso, taxes and tip.
Roland Liccioni stayed there until 1989, when he took over Le Français. He was replaced by Gabriel Viti, another talented chef who had apprenticed in a few great 3 star restaurants of France and Switzerland, and eventually created other very popular restaurants in Highwood and Highland Park, Viti, Gabriel and Miramar.
In 2012 Carlos Nieto decided to completely re-conceptualize and redecorate the place that morphed into Nieto’s, a more casual-American bistro. As a result of that decision another icon of one of the most glorious and creative era in French dining in Chicago disappeared.


UN GRAND CAFÉ

2300 N. Lincoln Park West, Chicago

Richard Melman got himself another winner when this “très sympathique’’ hybrid of a traditional brasserie that you would find in the 6th, 16th or 17th arrondissement in Paris, and a more provincial restaurant of ‘’cuisine bourgeoise’’. Opened in December on the left side of the lobby in the Belden-Stratford hotel it was facing Ambria on the right side, and was supervised by Gabino Sotelino, a partner of Melman in both restaurants. The restaurant rapidly attracted a crowd of well-dressed Gold Coast young men accompanied by lovely, equally well-dressed, young ladies, as well as more traditional executives from the advertising, media, sport, and international business. And, during international trade shows, it was common to hear people conversing from table to table in French or Italian. This place was a favorite of my French visitors, and of my older son who insisted to choose Un Grand Café for his birthday dinner for several years. He still has a collection of all its menus.
The décor was really pleasant and comforting: a mix of dark wood wall panels, mirrors, banquettes with racks for hats and tables covered with white table cloth, and a vase containing fresh flowers. The pleasant and knowledgeable waiters wore, in a very old Parisian brasserie style, the traditional apron vest, black trousers and white shirt.
The atmosphere was very European and convivial and customers left the place in a good mood.
What I liked about the food there is that it was unpretentious, unfussy, bistro food that did not try to pretend that it was prepared by a 3 star chef, or follow ‘’nouvelle cuisine’’ trends, but was most of the time well-prepared with fresh products and reliable.
I particularly loved the terrines of duck or rabbit, the vegetable mousses, the Mediterranean vegetable tart, the duck confit or sautéed duck breast with sliced garlic sautéed potatoes, and the sautéed chicken with very good‘’pommes alumettes’’(matchstick fries). My wife always enjoyed the perfectly cooked grilled salmon or the traditional steak frites and was very fond of the chocolate desserts. In the mid-eighties the chef was René Bajeux and his authentic French cuisine was really a plus to this charming bistro.
The wine list offered a few good and decently priced small Bordeaux, Beaujolais, and a few Côtes du Rhône. And they had some very good Armagnacs and Calvados.
I would pay around 32 dollars for a full meal with wine and espresso around 1985.
The restaurant morphed into Mon Ami Gabi in the early 2000’s and became more of a Franco-American steak house. It is still good and popular in 2014. Other Mon Ami Gabi were launched in Las Vegas in 1999, as well as in Bethesda, MD, and Reston Virginia. Another one was also opened in Oak Brook, IL.

1982

JACKIE’S

2478 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago

In my 42 years of restaurant dining in Chicago, few places have instantly seduced me as much as Jackie’s when Jackie Shen, who at the time was only 28 and known by her married name of Etcheber, opened her first restaurant. She had emigrated from her native Hong-Kong in 1971 and after graduating from the University of Houston had worked as room manager in a couple of hotels in Chicago. But her passion was cooking and she learned the trade under Jean Banchet from Le Francais and La Mer, and also at nearby Ciel Bleu in the Mayfair Regent. At La Mer she worked along another young promising chef, Jeff Jackson, who helped her when she bought her own place on Lincoln.
Jackie’s was not a big and flashy dining room but rather a very refined and intimate one. All the carefully chosen components, discrete but classy, such as the harmonious colors of the walls, attractive paintings, impeccable tables settings with colorful French china, a few antiques, and polished waiting staff, contributed to help the diners to fully appreciate the serenity of the atmosphere and the refinement of the dishes. In its first two years the cuisine was definitely contemporary French, and the influence of her mentor, Jean Banchet was fully evident. Obviously she had learned that great sense of precision and quasi obsessive search of perfection from him. Her cuisine had assimilated all the classic and very precise French techniques, a great respect for first rate and expensive ingredients, and the art of plating and presentation. She magnified the “art on the plate” visual style like few young French-trained American chefs of her generation could do. She was the first one in Chicago to perfect the inventive approach of cooking with beautiful edible flowers. Many of her sophisticated appetizers included Beluga caviar or smoked mussels. But she had also acquired a great way of making all kinds of terrines and pâtés.  Every seafood dish that she created was so close to perfection, in spite of the risks that she was taking in her cooking and assembling methods, that you would look at your plate for a while before daring to take your fork to disassemble this sumptuous blend of flavors, colors, and textures. Her Dover sole with a mousse of scallops on a perfect feuilleté nest remained one of her most popular signature dishes for years.  Her duos or trios of game meat, such as wild duck, pheasant, and quail, as well as her famous duck in 2 services (magret +leg confit), were always perfectly cooked, with great sauces, such as exotic pepper. And I had never seen before such a maestria with the garnishes of ‘’petits légumes’’ (baby vegetables), even when it was difficult to find them in winter in the Midwest.
Progressively, while keeping her French menu, she introduced some creative Asian touches to her cooking. This fusion, an homage to her origins, remained more and more evident during the following years.
And I will never forget my wife’s awe and state of bliss when we tried her famous chocolate bag, a square container made of dark chocolate filled with a scrumptious mousse of white chocolate and red berries, surrounded by a coulis of the same berries.
The wine list, composed with the help of her then husband Pierre Etcheber, a former wine steward from Le Français who would himself open in 1985 his own restaurant, Café D’Artagnan, a couple of blocks away on Lincoln, had numerous great small affordable Bordeaux.
In the early 80’s a 3 course dinner would cost you, without wine and tip, around 26 dollars.
The restaurant closed in 1995 following a series of technical and personal problems.
Jackie Shen from that time worked for other Chicago restaurants, Lawry`s Prime Rib, Red Light, Chicago Cut, Argent, and City Tavern, but never owned her own place again. Our loss…


YOSHI’S CAFÉ

3257 N. Halsted, Chicago

Wen Yoshi Katsumura and his wife Nobuko opened this charming, intimate, and very good restaurant in what was not in those days called “Boystown”, many people thought he was taking a big risk. The neighborhood, just North of Belmont was far from being gentrified, and  at night was sometimes more often populated by homeless, drunks, and “bohemians” than yuppies and fashionably dresses potential diners. But 32 years later, even though it serves a completely different type of cuisine for completely different types of customers, Yoshi is still cooking at the this same address. But the menu in 2014 is much more prosaic and answers the expectations of a wider, younger, much less sophisticated  and less ready to spend 2 hours and spend a good deal of money for exquisite French food.
Even though he was Japanese, Yoshi in 1982 had already built a solid reputation as a “French chef” with an approach that I would say was half-way between classic French and “Nouvelle” contemporary French, without gimmicks. He had learned French cooking techniques in some of the best hotels in Japan, and he refined them when he moved to Chicago and worked in places such as Le Bastille and Le Français. He then went to the very popular Jimmy`s Place on Elston where he was a chef-partner for Jimmy Rohr for 4 years.
I had dinner at Yoshi’s twice in 1986 and 1987. And I was totally in awe with the quality of his
cuisine, the quality of his ingredients, the precision of his cooking timing, and of course the elegance of his food presentation.
The dining room itself was very small, less than 50 seats, very comfortable, unpretentious but nicely decorated like a French provincial inn, with white table cloth, French china and silverware, and nice bouquets of fresh flowers. The menu was limited but very well balanced, with about 7 or 8 appetizers, and the same amount of entrées including the daily specials. Seafood was always Yoshi’s best achievement, from his famous lobster bisque, to Dover sole Dugléré, and in some of his own original creations such as seafood sausage, mousse, or ravioli in a shrimp or lobster sauce. He was also excellent in his treatment of mussels and scallops. And many customers would rave about his simple grilled swordfish with a subtle light butter sauce. But personally I will keep a vibrant memory of his rich and very well-seasoned pâtés, his perfectly cooked rabbit or duck specials, and of his veal dishes, especially those with wild mushrooms such as chanterelles which I love.
And his selection and presentation of very prime quality vegetables, even in winter, was always remarkable.
The only dessert that I remember well was a light but very rich flourless chocolate cake with a raspberry coulis.
His wine list was limited but very impressive with good affordable Bourgognes,
Service was competent and unobtrusive.
Prices were reasonable for such a quality: About 50 dollars for a 3 course dinner including wine and tip.
The restaurant is still open in 2014


1983

Note: The two following restaurants were called French in several guides and reviews, but I honestly do not think they could be classified as such, even if you could here and there notice a French influence in some of their dishes.

LA MAISONETTE

37 W. Main St., Cary, IL

I never ate in that small storefront restaurant that Rolf Beisner, a former waiter at Alouette, one of the many French eateries created by Christian Zeiger in Highwood, and his wife launched in March in this far away tiny Northwest suburb. But the reviews I read at the time, especially one by Paul Camp in the Tribune, did not incite me to make the trip there. It seemed to imply that this place’s supposedly French cooking style was closer to the Americanized version that you could find in some Chicago restaurants in the early sixties. Not bad but not really creative either with the quality of the ingredients just so-so and the cooking times totally inconsistent. Breast of chicken with lime, or veal kidneys in mustard seed sauce, were not very exciting according to Camp but the Duck breast in peppercorn sauce was fine. Food and wine prices though were very reasonable though and attracted a good number of regulars.
I do not know when the restaurant closed its doors.


LA MÊME CHOSE

5819 W. Dempster St. , Morton Grove, IL

When Kim Chong who was at the same time its owner, chef de cuisine, and manager of a rather fancy dining-room, opened this place, I was skeptical in its early days of the chances of a hybrid French-Contemporary American restaurant to be successful in the gastronomic desert of Morton Grove.  But I was wrong. The combination of an elegant décor with comfortable booths, white cloth covered tables, good quality china, silver, and glassware, and very reasonably priced prix-fixe dinner (about 17 dollars in 1985) rapidly attracted and kept for several years a relatively sophisticated client base of North Shore patrons. Personally I thought that the décor was a bit too flashy. But my only visit there in 2005 convinced me that Chong, who had worked at the famous George Badonsky’s Tango for close to 10 years, had found a winning formula. As it was the case at Tango, he was really in control with a good selection of fresh and nicely presented seafood dishes as well as home-made pasta. And his use of elegantly presented fresh vegetables in all styles and combinations, including delicious purées, was very appealing to his clientele of well-to do couples and older traditional executives. He really had a great sense of colorful assemblages. And his sauces had definitely a “nouvelle cuisine” touch. Most of his seafood presentations of classics such as Sea bass, Salmon, Mousse of scallops, or Shrimps, were always pleasantly prepared. His pâtés and meat dishes though were less successful. Desserts such as the always popular flourless chocolate cake were fine.  The wine list was also pleasant and affordable.
But as was the case of many new so-called French restaurants in those days, which were not in the hands of French trained chefs, I personally would not call Mr. Chong cuisine as typically French. In fact, as it was the case for La Maisonette, I was very reluctant to include it in this list.
I believe that this place closed in 1993.



MONIQUE’S CAFÉ
213 West Institute Place

When Monique Hooker (née Jamet) opened this very pleasant café in the fall of 83, its location, one block North of Chicago avenue and just off Franklin St. was not yet in a fancy district full of well-dressed and sophisticated Chicagoans foodies  in search of new exciting dining  places. Monique was a (too early) precursor of sort who realized that this neighborhood of warehouses, and practically empty industrial buildings at the northern edge of the not yet fully developed River North district offered a potential. If Kiki’s Bistro that opened in 1990 a few blocks North on Franklin, and is still in operation 24 years later, was able to attract relatively rapidly an expanding client base, it was because he has been in business in Chicago since 1968 and drained to his new place a large part of his faithful customers from Le Bordeaux.
Monique had never owned her own restaurant before but she already had a long and solid background in the food and restaurant business and when she arrived in New York from her native farmland of Brittany in 1965 she met and worked with some well-established French chefs such as Jacques Pépin and Pierre Franey.
Monique did not benefit from local foot traffic, since there was none at the time excepted for the students of the nearby Moody Bible Institute who were not restaurant goers.
But she managed to have a nice following of young and relaxed people, and former students of her well-known cooking classes or customers of her catering business. Her lofty space was very welcoming with a simple but warm rustic décor of brick walls, old varnished wooden floors, a long counter, open kitchen, and brightly painted large AC pipes on the ceiling. The room was luminous and the white table cloth and pots of fresh flowers contributed to a sunny ambiance. And she was a cheerful host. The restaurant was open for lunch only, and the average cost was
$ 15.00 for a main dish, a dessert and a glass of simple wine. She had some regulars who came to have a simple sandwich made from her excellent home-baked bread and some French cheese or pâté.
The food was also simple French bistro fare: good pâtés and terrines, salade niçoise, coq au vin, beef and veal stews, duck, venison, salmon, pastries and cakes.
Generally the food was well prepared, but sometimes the cooking times were not always precise. The café’s food style was not particularly in tune with the trends and techniques of the Nouvelle Cuisine. But there was always a very pleasant selection of fresh seasonal vegetables.
 I went there for lunch a few times but it was too far away from my office to walk there, and in these days I was looking for more contemporary French and New American types of food.
I think that the place closed around early 1996. But Monique continued her active life as a teacher, caterer, and in 1997 published a successful book ‘’Cooking with the Seasons’’. She also hosted a TV show on cable in the Chicago area.
She moved to the little town of De Soto in Wisconsin where she produces her own organic frozen pastry crust.


1984

LE BISTROQUET

253 East Rand Road, Mount Prospect, IL

This rather big room with a 180 “couverts” capacity, which represents quite a challenge for a French bistro in the Northwest suburbs, was opened in July by Georges Cuisance, the genial owner of the popular Le Bordeaux in the Loop.
The concept was to offer classic French cuisine with a modern “Nouvelle Cuisine” lighter touch, with a limited menu but rich in fresh seafood, vegetables, in an elegant but unpretentious décor. So the restaurant fared well from the start with appetizers such as escargots in the traditional butter-garlic sauce, sautéed diver scallops in a mustardy cream sauce, duck terrine, onion soup, ratatouille niçoise. Main dishes again were quite influenced by the sea such as a ‘’Vol au Vent’’ of tender bay scallops with mushrooms in a saffron sauce. But classics such  as ‘’sauté de veau aux champignons’’ (veal sautéed with mushrooms) were also very popular, more than the steak-frites, that according to a 1984 Tribune review was not that exciting which is surprising for a French bistro. But according to the same reviewer, the mocha cake made by a French patissier who had worked at Le Français was very good.
Kiki himself was very active at the Mount Prospect restaurant every night, while keeping a watchful eye on the operations at Le Bordeaux in the Loop from 11:00 AM to 3:00PM.
But in spite of all his efforts and commitment, Le Bistroquet never became as profitable as expected. It was packed on week-ends but empty during the week.
When the restaurant closed it had not reached its second birthday.

 LA CIBOULETTE

1200 N, Dearborn, Chicago

In early 1984 when Michael Beck, one of the most gifted young American chefs of his generation at the time in Chicago, opened his own ‘’French’’ restaurant on the site of what was known before as Trumpets, and long before that Le Café de Paris, he already had a solid experience in French cuisine. After graduating from the Washburn culinary school on the South side of Chicago, he did several ‘’stages’’(training periods) in France and at the Whitehall and eventually ended up as chef de cuisine at Le Perroquet under the celebrated owner Jovan Trboyevic, who taught him a lot.
This influence was noticeable during the first 9 months of operation, not only in the settings and décor, sort of late 1930’s style, of this comfortable and artsy place, but also with details of dishes such as aspics, unusual marinated fish, exciting charcuterie such as duck rillettes, beurre blanc, fresh original vegetable purées, mousses, use of fresh herbs, including ciboulette (for chives in French) and rarely served meats such as rabbit. And the desserts often included dark chocolate, delicate feuilletés, and fresh berries.
Unfortunately, the restaurant suffered from 2 main problems: inconsistencies in both food preparation and service, and overpricing for such an unpredictable quality.
Too many disappointed customers fell out of love for this place which should have been a success and La Ciboulette had to close in 1986.

1985

CAFÉ D’ARTAGNAN

2242 N. Lincoln Avenue Chicago

Opened in August in the location formerly occupied by Café Figaro, this charming place could have become one of the most authentic French bistros in Chicago if it had been managed a little more tightly and lasted a little longer. It might have been more successful if it had been only a wine bar with a few small plates. But this formula was not popular in these days.
It was the creation of Pierre Etcheber, a native of the Pyrénnées Mountains area in Southwest France, who had spent some time as a wine steward at Le Français, which can explains the very wide and good selection of French wines that he offered at D’Artagnan. He also at the time was still married to Jackie Shen, the brilliant chef-owner of Jackie’s a few blocks North on Lincoln who was a co-owner and helped him a lot in the kitchen in the early days.
It was a very casual, small, unpretentious but cozy place where patrons took a leisurely time, as it would have been the case in a provincial bistro in France, to enjoy a well prepared dinner and taste good wines, many served by the glass, and fine Armagnac. Service was good but slow, and in the summertime you could eat outside on the small patio, a rare pleasure in these days.
The chef, Stephen Langlois, had worked briefly for Jean Joho when he re-opened Maxim`s, and was very creative, had  a solid technique and inventive ways to cooking beef, veal, duck, or pork at a perfect level of doneness, with exciting but subtle  sauces, sometimes reduced with brandy and ‘’fond de veau’’. He was also very successful with such typically French specialties as veal sweetbreads, calf liver, or snails. The pâtés and terrines were very delicate but flavorful and the fish dishes were very precisely cooked in the ‘’nouvelle cuisine’’style with beurre blanc or beurre rouge. The quality and presentation of mini-vegetables was also very Nouvelle Cuisine but properly cooked. Salads were often made of interesting mixes of greens dressed with light mustardy vinaigrettes.
Prices were very reasonable when considering the quality of the food and service.
But the restaurant for reasons I have never been able to understand, closed after 2 years.


LES PLUMES

2044 N. Halsted St., Chicago

Opened in June by two alumni of Le Français, Greg Mulcahy who was a sous-chef for 6 years, and Tom Culleeney who ended up his stint there for the same amount of time as pastry chef, the restaurant was quick to attract both Le Français former customers, and younger food aficionados. Both were still in their late twenties at the time. The small dining room, that you reached after a short walk in a garden-like bar, had green banquettes, pink walls, skylight in the  ceiling, and peacock feathers in big vases, used to be occupied by Cynthia’s.
My wife and I were immediately seduced not only by the décor and the ambiance, young and contemporary as well as lively and intimate at the same time, but also by the elegance and creativity of the dishes. But since we visited the restaurant a few months after its opening, we were not that impressed by the service that, even though the waiting staff was pleasant, was not as polished as the cooking. The classic French training he got from Jean Banchet was obvious in Mulcahy`s cooking which reflected a perfect technical control, and many customers, especially women, would fall in love with Culleeney`s incredible pastries and mousses. He had studied at the famous Lenôtre pastry school in Paris. Quail ‘’en croûte’’ with truffled goose liver, Dover sole stuffed in lobster mousse  in a delicate sauce Nantua  baked in puff pastry (again), house-made fresh pasta specials, complex salads such as a seared  magret de canard (duck breast) over Belgian endive, and mushrooms dressed with a hazelnut vinaigrette, and those unctuous pâtés (splendid duck with pistachios if I remember correctly: Practically everything was close to perfection. I loved the fact that Les Plumes offered a refreshing sorbet between the salad and the main courses.
And of course these spectacular desserts: White and dark chocolate mousse, Dacquoise, chocolate trios, terrine of fresh fruits, hot apple tart in caramel sauce, and so on.
The wine list was very intelligently composed.
But all this was not cheap: I think that with a modestly priced wine and 3 courses each, I paid 75 dollars for the two of us.
The restaurant which received consistently good reviews until 1990 had nevertheless always suffered from a ‘’location’’ and overpricing problem and was never able to secure a solid client base. Pat Bruno, a couple of months before its closing wrote a very positive new review of the restaurant, even saying that it was a better deal than Charlie Trotter’s but was overpriced and not exactly answering the tastes and expectations of main stream but trendy moneyed customers. He suggested that the owners morphed it in a lower priced bistro.
They did not and unfortunately Les Plumes closed in early 1991.


L’AMANGUIER

1011 N. Rush St., Chicago

The name of this short-lived (5 months) restaurant is a contraction of two French words: Amandier (almond tree) and Mangue (mango). When it opened its door in September at his slightly lower than street level unusual location, there were already 4 very successful L’Amanguier restaurants in the Paris area. I used to go to the one in the delightful Rue Saint Louis en l’Isle and I thought the food was good, even though the menu was a bit limited, especially considering the very moderate prices. The décor in Chicago was similar: simple and very “green”, including the carpet, banquettes, wall covering, placemats, plants and flowers on trellises, even the outfits of the waiting staff. It made the whole environment very luminous and cheerful.  It was supposed to look like a winter garden, which was a pleasant idea to attract Chicago’s diners…in winter when the weather is dreadful. And there was an attractive bar counter. The manager was French.
Why its owner in Paris Patrick Derderian, in partnership here with the powerful food and restaurant group Sodexo had decided to open his first U.S restaurant, based on it Paris’s models,  in Chicago will always remain a mystery.
The menu followed the same “formule” found in many French brasseries, consisting of an appetizer, and sometimes a salad, and a main course for one price, usually between 14 and 17 dollars. But there were “specials” changing every week. Appetizers could be pâtés or duck mousse, quiche, warm goat cheese in puff pastry, or crab and avocado salad.
And of course you could finish with some French cheese or a dessert such as home-made pastries, or ice cream and sorbets. They offered a few simple but good French wines by the glass. As it was the case in Paris, main courses consisted of Blanquette de Veau (veal stew), grilled lamb chops with provençal herbs, sea scallops sautéed in butter with saffron, salmon in a  beurre blanc ‘’ à l’estragon’’ (tarragon sauce), beef tenderloin, and magret de canard (duck breast) in a reduced vinegar and green pepper sauce.
I visited the place twice during its first month of operation and found the food fine, but the ambiance was quite depressing due to the lack of customers, and the absence of people passing by, which on Rush Street is a handicap.
The restaurant was such a flop that it closed its doors before the arrival of the spring in early 1986.
Too bad. It should have been a success, but it did not fit the expectations of the average Rush street diner, and was not sophisticated enough, too cheap, and the menu was too limited to be accepted as a bona fide French restaurant.


AMERIQUE

900 N. Franklin St., Chicago

I hesitated to include in my list this very original restaurant opened in September 85 in a very austere, modernistic and cold concrete décor with black chairs and fluorescent lights on the walls. The owner at the time was Jennifer Newbury, a young chef who had spent some time in L.A and New York, and she who was quite courageous to launch a restaurant in such an unattractive building of lofts and offices in an even less attractive neighborhood 2 blocks East from Cabrini Green, totally devoted of foot traffic. The first few months it struggled to avoid being empty during the week in spite of positive reactions from the few customers who liked her traditional approach to French cuisine bourgeoise with dishes such as cassoulet, sweetbreads, garlic chicken, and purée de pommes de terre (mashed potatoes).
I had lunch once there on during the winter of 1986 and I was the only customer in a very cold and quite depressing dining room. I do not remember what I ate that day but it was good.
But then Jennifer (Jenny) developed a durable personal relationship with Dennis Terczak who had established a solid reputation as executive chef at AVANZARE. He loved her so much that he quit this very lucrative job with the Melman Group to come to Amérique as chef de cuisine. He then completely morphed the menu into his own creative contemporary-American-Italian style. Only a few touches of French cuisine were left, which progressively disappeared long before it closed in June of 1988. The place was completely redone and re-opened December 1st as a bona-fide French bistro called CHEZ JENNY. (See description later)

CHARDONNAY

2635 N. Halsted St. Chicago

This very popular and good restaurant opened first in March 1985 as a very small wine bar by owner Mitch Dulin. Then it started to offer a few small dishes and eventually expanded nest door to become a full-fledged 70 seats restaurant in October. In the early days there was also a small wine shop upfront where
At that time the neighborhood had attracted several other bars and restaurants and had become a popular destination for diners.
The definitively French-styled cooking of chef Charlie Socher, who had learned traditional as well as more “ nouvelle cuisine” French techniques in several restaurants in Paris and later at the celebrated Ambria in Chicago was at the same time unpretentious and creative, and in any case very good.
So in a matter of just a few months Chardonnay became a much appreciated French  bistro that a growing numbers of regulars loved  for its value-priced French cuisine and its great selection of good wines, many of them French and served by the glass for less than $5.00.
The décor was nothing to write home about but had charming small bistro  marble-covered  tables, amusing mural paintings, and of course wine racks.
Later on, during the summer months, a few diners could eat outside on small patio in the back of the restaurant.
The waiting staff was well trained and offered lots of pertinent info and good pairing advice to the customers. They eventually served diners
I personally dined there only once, but I will always keep a happy memory of the great “terrine de lapin” (rabbit pâté) that was a rare find in Chicago in these days. As a matter of fact you could order a selection of 3 very good pâtés with excellent condiments and garnishes for $ 4.50.
 But Socher’s most popular appetizers were several hot ones in puff pastry, ‘’moules marinière’’ (steamed in white wine, onion, herbs, and spices), and vegetable mousses.
The relatively short menu changed every week, but always included some very fresh  and  precisely cooked fish, grilled or in a delicate wine or calvados sauce, chicken in very original sauces, some pasta such as ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms, and red meat such as grilled lamb steak, or veal liver.
All the vegetable accompaniments were always perfectly cooked, very flavorful, and their visual presentation attractively plated.
I do not remember much about the desserts but a few reviewers raved about a glazed  strawberry tart covered with white chocolate.
In 1986 you could have a 3 course dinner for less than $18.00
From 1997 to 2010  Charlie Socher operated another  very popular French bistro on Milwaukee Avenue called Café Matou.
Chardonnay closed in 1989.


LE COCHONNET

3443 N. Sheffield, Chicago

Open in late winter 2005 this is another 60 seat bistro that immediately gained a solid customer base. It remained popular for 6 years in this bustling Lakeview district, just 2 blocks South of Wrigley Field, an area recently gentrified but that however at the time had not attracted any French restaurant. The 3 owners were Robert Parraga, whose family had a restaurant in Cuba specializing in roasted pig, Dave Korslund, a banker, and his brother Doug. The 2 brothers had spent their youth on a pig farm so they decided to name the place Cochonnet, which means “piglet” in French. The 3 partners had a good intuition in hiring Margaret Wangelin as their first chef. She was only 28 but had already a good background in French cooking with stints at Monique Café and Le Bastille after working at Gordon. And it did not take long for her to create all kinds of pork based recipes with a French touch such as Provençal marinade, garlic, rosemary, tomatoes, walnuts, or prunes. So you would always find pork dishes on the menu such as pork roast, grilled pork sirloin, pork chops, pork sausages, and of course delicious pâtés and rillettes.
Since pork dishes were not very frequent on Chicago restaurant menus in 1986, Maggie  Wangelin was 25 years ahead of what became a trend here in 2011.
Other popular dishes in the early years of  Le Cochonnet were ratatouille niçoise, salmon and grouper in beurre blanc, a rich cassoulet in its earthenware crock, and lamb chops.
Years later, you could also eat Bouillabaisse, shrimp and mushroom raviolis, stewed rabbit , and  Mediterranean pasta dishes.
Most wines were French and quite affordable, especially by the glass. In 1986 you could have a complete dinner with some wine for less than $25.00
The décor was simple but pleasant.
In late 1990 the owners bought an adjacent place called ‘’Vaudeville’’ and morphed it in a small annex to le Cochonnet called simply A Côté (Next Door in French).
Le Cochonnet closed in 1991.


1986

THE EVEREST ROOM

440 South Lasalle St.  40th Floor, Chicago

Jean Joho has been one of the most celebrated French chefs in the U.S. over the last 30years.But his first 2 years in Chicago when he arrived from France during the summer of 1984 to be the executive chef at the famous Maxim’s, on Astor St. which after closing for a while was being re-launched by George Badonski were rather frustrating. He was practically given carte blanche to do what he wanted at Maxim’s, and sure enough the restaurant critics and wealthy ‘’gastronomes’’ were fast to recognize the extraordinary talent and prodigious technical skills he had acquired as a sous-chef of the great Paul Haeberlin at his world-famous Auberge de L’Ill in Illhaeusern, at the heart of his native Alsace. As a matter of fact Joho spoke little English at the time and his Alsatian accent was, and still is today, very pronounced and quite charming when he spoke in French.
Problem was that his type of cuisine, and his requirements were not cheap, at a time where many people in Chicago were not often ready, in a period of tough economic realities, to spend top dollars for a spectacular French meal. And even if Badonski was a great Chicago restaurateur, with a vision that allowed him to put many successes behind his belt (Brewery, Tango, Bastille, George’s,) he was not always the shrewdest money manager. He had spent a fortune to restore Maxim’s, hire the best staff, buy the best food products wine and liquor, and suddenly he was not only facing serious cash problems but also an unexpected  lawsuit from Pierre Cardin, who had bought the original Maxim`s in Paris, and its trademark. So Maxim’s Chicago had to close less than 2 years after its re-opening, and Jean Joho found himself to be an expatriate without a job.
Fortunately his reputation attracted the interest of Richard Melman who hired him first as a consultant and then in the summer of 1986 offered him the challenging job of creating 2 restaurants, one grill on the 3rd floor and a top-notch French restaurant in the ultra- private and select LaSalle Professional Club, that offered full business and spa-exercising services on the 40th floor of the One Financial Place building. Both were under the management of LEY (Lettuce Entertain You), Melman’s ever growing mini empire.
The first few months were a bit rough, since the access to the EVEREST ROOM was reserved to the members of the very chic but very pricey club.  And it was not sufficient to create a solid customer base. So progressively friends and connections of the members were welcomed as paying guests, and a bit later the restaurant opened to the general public. It was quite a trip to access the restaurant on the 40th floor, involving using 3 different elevators from the parking in the basement. And when you entered the bar, the main dining room, you could not help but to be visually shocked by the design of the carpet that imitated the pattern of the skin of a panther or leopard. Besides the walls were partially covered with murals depicting exotic animal usually hunted  in Africa.
But once you were seated you were amazed by the high quality of the furniture, the large tables, their white cloth, the china, the sterling, the glasses, the flowers. Everything was pure European luxury.
The first time I went there, in the early days of the club in the summer of 1986, for lunch with my a friend who like Joho was an Alsatian, I was totally captivated by the Chicago landscape that you could admire from the very high and wide windows. We got a complete tour of the facilities from Jean Joho who then served us a most delicious meal where foie gras, veal, salmon en croute, mushrooms, and vegetable mousse as well as cheeses, were very impressive. And of course I never had such a delicious Alsatian Riesling from one of Joho’s winemaker friends.
Over the year the menu expanded a lot, but one of its stars was the famous Supreme de  Saumon  Soufflé Paul Haeberlin, an homage to his mentor, which consisted of scaloppini  of salmon covered with a delicate pike mousse poached in wine and served with a reduction of pan juices with cream, butter, and lemon.
But several very delicate fish were found at the Everest such as the roasted filets of Saint-Pierre
(John Dory) wrapped in a julienne of potatoes. And many critics raved about his Pot au feu of Lobster and micro vegetables.
Speaking of vegetables the variety and quality of the ones he served as garnish or as per-se dishes was incredible.
Joho also was a master of the risotto, one served with deboned quail and mushrooms.
In season venison was always on the menu in some kind or another.
And I think that his pears, poached or in a soufflé with an Alsatian Poire William brandy, or in a sorbet form, were among the best I ever had.
It would take pages and pages to describe all the remarkable dishes that came out of this amazing kitchen over the last 30 years. And it is not over yet.
And as I mentioned before Everest’s selection of Alsatian Rieslings, Gewurztraminer, and ‘’alcools blancs’’ (clear fruit brandies) was as good as what you could find in some of the best restaurants in Strasbourg or Colmar.
As expected prices were not cheap, but as we say in France “La qualité n’a pas de prix’’.
It is still open in 2014.

LA FORET

Westminster and Forest avenues Lake Forest, IL

I will always regret to never had an opportunity to dine at this restaurant which, in late fall, took over the space left empty when Gordon Sinclair (Gordon’s) decided in mid-1986 to call it quits with his SINCLAIR, which was  quite popular at one time with the locals. Carlos Nieto, the owner of CARLOS in Highland Park made a deal with Marshall Field IV to manage a new restaurant which after some redecorating was going to be a French bistro.
He hired Didier Durand, a very good ‘’cuisinier’’ born and trained in Southwest France, who had done  a very good job at Carlos, and eventually at La Bohème, and another French pro who had been working with Nieto at Le Français , Jean-Pierre Leroux to manage the dining room.
The menu was not at all designed in the same style as Carlos. It was rather a perfect picture of what sophisticated dinners on the North Shore would like to find in Lake Forest when they came back from their annual French vacation: Amuse-bouche of salmon or pâté on mini French baguette toasts.
Assortment of house made ‘’ravioles’’ filled with mushrooms, lobster, or vegetable mousses. Shellfish with basil sauce, Salade of Magret de Canard. Veal medallions with a sauce of reduced cooking juices and port wine and vinegar. Rack of lamb with mini vegetable purées.
2 of the most desserts were the Marquise au chocolat and the Nougat glaçé.
Service was very attentive and prices quite attractive. You could have a 3 course dinner for 2  not including wine but with coffee  for about $ 60.00
I believe that the restaurant closed in the summer of 1988. At that time the chef was another Frenchman, René Bajeux.


 1987

St. TROPEZ

3170 N. Sheridan, Chicago

Opened in early 87 in the space occupied by George Badonsky’s beloved  Tango, at the street level of the Belmont Hotel, this restaurant offered many assets. The place had been totally renovated, rebuilt and redecorated and was now comprised of two dining rooms separated by a glass wall and a big bar where you could see paintings while waiting for your table. The whole space was airy and luminous, and altogether nicely appointed and comfortable. It was rumored that the whole operation had a hefty cost for the partners. I personally did not like the two murals which were a bit tacky and their colors too aggressive. I went there only once for a business dinner which was enjoyable.
The French chef, Guy Petit, had some classic training at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, and was previously in charge of the kitchen at Cricket’s after a stint at Maxim’s in Chicago.
The wait staff, under the direction of Maitre D’ Jean-Pierre Lutz , was competent and cheerful, and the prices modest. And last but not least, after a short period of adaptation in the early months, according to some reviewers, the food was rather pleasant.
It was not trendy, nor Nouvelle Cuisine, but at the same time rather classic and contemporary French with some Asian and Mediterranean touches: Snails and mussels with pesto or ginger sauce. Grilled shrimps in a Dijon mustard light sauce. I loved the very tasty and very French Rabbit braised with bacon, mushroom, and onions, in a fragrant sauce over noodles. The breast of chicken Basquaise, meaning with peppers, tomatoes, and onions was quite good too.
All main courses include a pleasantly dressed salad, and good seasonal steamed vegetables.
Desserts were typical of this period: Flourless chocolate cake with a raspberry coulis, thin warm apple tart with a caramel sauce, and crème brûlée.
The wine list was well made with several reasonably simple French Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône.
With a couple of glasses of wine, a 3 course dinner, would cost about 25 to 30 dollars per person.
I believe however that the restaurant’s relatively low turnover did not allow the investors to recoup their initial investment fast enough, and it closed its doors after a year.


CAFÉ DE PARIS

5550 N. River Road, Rosemont, IL

It was launched in the spring at the SOFITEL hotel, the first of this famous French chain that the very large ACCOR Group opened in the Chicago area in the vicinity of O’Hare airport.
Its relatively large and elegant (in the old traditional large European hotel style) dining room was sort of partitioned in 3 different areas allowing semi-private business dining parties.
White cloth covered tables, comfortable upholstered chairs, indirect lighting, artwork,  fine porcelain, good crystal stemware, and French silver contributed to the opulent feeling.
Service was professional and discrete.
The executive chef, Christian Gaborit had come to Chicago to work as sous-chef-saucier at MAXIM’s in 1963, where he stayed for 5 years. But he had already a solid background since he had worked in various famous restaurants in Paris at the hotels Crillon and Lutetia.
The menus he created at Café de Paris where he was in charge of the kitchens for 23 years, were made of typical dishes that you would find in this kind of international hotels, but with that additional ‘’French touch’’ revealing his traditional training.
But occasionally, according to various reviewers, some dishes would miss the mark in terms of cooking time precision, or adequate seasoning.
Nevertheless I had a couple of nice business dinners with French business visitors, who were impressed by Gaborit’s fancy treatment of shellfish and seafood dishes in general, and crayfish and salmon mousses in particular.
I remember that I ate some very nicely cooked lamb chops.
The wine list was adequate but not spectacular.
A 3 course meal with wine tax and tip would send the bill to $ 65.00 per person. It seemed a little high to me considering the good but not above average quality of the meal.
This hotel and its restaurant have been sold to another chain.


BISTRO 110

110 East Pearson St. Chicago

The opening in August of this large and very attractive restaurant in the space where the old BLACKHAWK had become a cherished Chicago institution for decades was an instant success that remained constant for 24 years until its closing in 2011.
The owner of the Blackhawk, Don Roth, had given his flagship restaurant to his son Doug, who was dreaming of finding local partners with a bona fide success story in the restaurant business to completely transform and expand the place in an attractive and trendy contemporary bistro that would attract both wealthy and well-known Chicagoans, but also out of town visitors.
Larry and Mark Levy, whose family owned and managed more than 25 restaurants and catering organizations in Chicagoland, were more than happy to become Doug’s partners to help develop a new concept in this prime location. Larry Levy, who was not a fan of French cuisine, on a trip to Paris, changed his mind after a few visits to L’AMI LOUIS, who partially served as a model for the future new bistro. He also consulted with Tony Mantuano, who was very successful with SPIAGIA, the flagship restaurant of the LEVY’s GROUP.
Mantuano helped in designing and testing a menu that would be simple, rustic, very flavorful, with Italian and French touches, and whose most components would be cooked in 3 wood-burning ovens. During the first months he also supervised the kitchen which at the time was directed by Chef Peter Schomman.
Everybody loved the roasted whole head of garlic that was served as a complimentary appetizer with slices of French baguette.
And at night the baked foie gras, marinated in Cognac was a very rich and aromatic first course.
Dishes such as a roasted half chicken with garlic and herbs became a signature dish in a few weeks. Lamb (sometimes served with couscous), chicken, rabbit, salmon, and fresh vegetables as well as mushrooms, all cooked in oak-burning ovens, were very successful. But another signature dish, to keep the old Blackhawk tradition, was a large rib steak for 2 which was served with grilled vegetables and marvelous thin cut French fries, which I personally loved.
The too liberal use of herbs and garlic was objected by some reviewers and out- of- visitors.
The apple tart and a trio of chocolate mousses were sure dessert winners.
The menu took a definitely more French style with the arrival of French chef Dominique Tougne, in August of 1996, who remained at the piano until 2011. It added a definite plus to the already well-established reputation of the bistro.
The prices were very reasonable. In 1987 a complete dinner for 2 without wine would cost
$ 55.00.
The wine list was also very affordable. I never understood however why they served wine in very ordinary thick small glasses that in France would be used in cafeterias…


D&J BISTRO

466  South Rand Road, Lake Zurich, IL

In October 1987, along with his wife Jacqueline who was a most gracious hostess and efficient front manager (the D and J letters are the initials of their first names) Dominique Legeai  opened this most charming and very lively bistro in a non-descript strip mall that was not exactly a destination place. He asked Tokyo-born Masato Suzuki, who was the sous-chef to Pierre Pollin at le Titi de Paris , and who had a very good training in some good restaurants in France, to join them as chef and partner. They stayed on Rand Road but a few miles North from Le Titi.
I had met Dominique Legeai when he took care of my table at Le Titi, in 1976 (or 77) and was a most helpful and pleasant Maitre D’ and wine steward there. I remember that he sported a Scottish tartan patterned vest, or perhaps it was a jacket, which looked strange to me in a French restaurant.
The Legeai’s and Suzuki were a dynamic trio which contributed to the very long lasting success of what probably at the time was one of the few authentic and inexpensive French bistros in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. It is still in operation in 2014 and keeps attracting a faithful group of locals with interesting events, such as the celebration of D day that year.  In the late 80’s the bistro was looking a little bit like a rustic French provincial inn with its varnished wood floors, brick walls, murals and posters, and small portioned booths. But it was pretty large compared to regular bistros since it could seat 130 customers.
Unfortunately it was a little far away from the Loop for me to go there often, but I remember that I had a memorable lunch once when I had to visit a company in Barrington.
The wait staff was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And the whole operation was well organized as to please a Francophile suburban crowd, which anyway always felt welcome and appreciated the congeniality of Dominique Legeai. D&J was not trying to attract to Lake Zurich downtown sophisticated groups of demanding gastronomes.
Suzuki’s cooking was sufficiently creative but alternated with nicely prepared French classic dishes: Appetizers such as steak Tartare, escargots, duck liver mousse with all kind of condiments and accoutrements, salade Lyonnaise, shrimp cake, fresh oysters in their shells.
And the main dishes were as diverse as Bouillabaisse, a garlicky leg of lamb, pork chops in a honey and mustard sauce, sausages with lentils served in small cast iron skillets, and steak au poivre with good fries.
Some “specials” could include a small fillet of ostrich with cactus or walleye pike with tomato and basil and risotto. Later you could also find “brandade”. And for a while they served traditional North-African Couscous on Sundays. But that was part of a special $ 29.50 menu including appetizer and wine.
In 1997 you could have a 3 course prix-fixe menu fort $ 23.00.   
Desserts were classic French: Profiteroles, chocolate and raspberry mousse cake, crème brûlée, and rum-raisin pudding,
More than 20 wines were offered by the glass for about $ 5.00, and many good French wines were value-oriented 
Dominique, his 2CV Citroen and his historical costumes and Masato are still around in 2014 but I believe that Dominique’s children are now managing the restaurant.


ENTRE NOUS   

200 N. Columbus Drive, Chicago

This very fancy restaurant opened in December of 1987 in the new Fairmont Hotel.
I read that it was probably the most expensive investment per customer in furniture, table cloth, silver, tableware, glassware, flowers, etc. ever made in a Chicago restaurant, since the early sixties. In its 2 first years the menu was obviously very French inspired, and the wine  list included some very impressive and expensive French châteaux from  Bordeaux and grands crus from Bourgogne. The service was performed by tuxedo-clad waiters, and a pianist played from a grand at night. I believe that the rare reviews mentioned that the place was perfect for romantic dates, high level business deals, but not for the average conventioneer or lunching lady. 
Since it was located 2 blocks away from my office I went a couple of times to take a look at the place and thought that the ambiance was very depressing.
The menu was very ‘’international luxury hotel’’ type, with lots of truffles, oysters, lobster, tenderloin, pheasant, reduced sauces, ‘’en croûte’’kind of stuff  if I remember correctly.
I have a vague memory of a good business lunch there once when it was still open for lunch in 1988, but I do not remember what I ate, perhaps a lamb dish.
At the time the head chef could have been John Coletta who had some great training in a few famous kitchens, such as Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, and Robuchon in Paris.
In 93 they brought in a German chef, Norbert Bomm, who created a much more ‘’continental’’ and less expensive menu. But around 1999 the Chicago dining scene had changed. People wanted more ‘’fun’’ relaxed and inexpensive restaurants.
 Besides, the taste for fancy hotel dining was declining rapidly, The Fairmont management decided to close ENTRE NOUS in August of 2002 and replaced it one year later with ARIA a more contemporary concept.


1988

JEAN CLAUDE

2242 N. Clark St. Chicago

Jean-Claude Poilevey was one of the 6 cooks and restaurant professionals who were brought from France in 1968 by Arnie Morton to come to The U.S to open the restaurant at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, WI. The 5 other chefs were Jean Banchet, Michel Maloiseau, Michel Cipolla, Claude Petit, and Gérard Parrat.
In 1973, Poilevey and two partners (Eric Krohmer and Daniel Gautier) and opened La Fontaine, at the same address on Clark, a delightful restaurant that offered a perfect mix of classic and contemporary French cuisine and service. It used to be one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago and its success lasted for more than 15 years.  In 1986 the restaurant added the small CAFÉ DU PARC to the old red brick building, a French bistro with a charming outdoor café with French fare at moderate prices. However it did not prove to be a perfect formula.
In 1987 Poilevey bought the shares of his two partners, and became both the single owner and chef of JEAN CLAUDE which opened in February of 1988.
I never had the opportunity to eat there but I regret it since Jean Claude is a very good chef, with a solid background in traditional cuisine Lyonnaise (his area of origin), but also with a well- balanced contemporary approach. Poilevey got some first class training at the famous Greuze restaurant in Tournus.
Jean-Claude benefited from generally positive reviews from both the Sun Times and the Tribune. They liked the décor of the 4 intimate dining rooms, which could remind you of an elegant  French country inn, the terrace, the  good quality of the  silver and glassware, the flowers, the elegance of the plating which I personally enjoyed so many times at La Fontaine.
Many of the dishes they liked were familiar to me: The sautéed chicken with garlic and thyme. The creamy potato Gratin Dauphinois. The cold salmon terrine, and of course the delicious pâtés, especially the duck and rabbit terrines.Jean-Claude in those days was one of few restaurants in town to offer a rabbit stew. I understand that that the fries accompanying the traditional Steak-frites were very good. So were the Cassoulet, the Duck Bigarade, and the great lamb chops that he already served at La Fontaine.
And he had kept the rich flourless chocolate cake and the apple tart.
You could have a complete 3 course dinner, without wine, but with tax and tip for about $55.00.
Poilevey sold the restaurant in 1993. The new owner called it Margaux, but it did not last very long.
Poilevey was going to renew with success a little later with his 2 new bistros, LE BOUCHON, and LA SARDINE which are still in business in 2014.

 
AMOURETTE

2275 Rand Road, Palatine IL

Veteran and always successful French restaurateur Christian Zeiger (Le Titi de Paris, Alouette, Froggy’s, and Le Domarais in Paris) decided to locate this new bistro in February in the building where he had launched the very popular Titi in 1972. He had sold it to his chef Pierre Pollin who moved the restaurant in larger quarters in Arlington Heights in early 1998.
The space was modernized with the adjunction of wicker chairs and the  walls were painted in bright colors.
Being a good marketer Zeiger sent newsletters to his customers, many of them returning old regulars of Le Titi, informing them of the often new or special dishes on the menus and of special events and annual parties. He recreated the very successful prix-fixe $ 14.50 four course dinner formula during the week that he had launched at Alouette. The menu changed every week but some “standard dishes” were always available such as pâtés, cheeses, escargots, duck confit, steaks, grilled chicken, salmon, rack of lamb, always served in good portions with attractively selected seasonal vegetables. Special salads of mixed greens, potatoes, haricots verts, tomatoes and avocado were also very well prepared with a typically French emulsified vinaigrette dressing. Good quality oysters were often available in season.
The first year Zeiger had hired the sous-chef from Alouette to be the chef, and he was able to not only prepare good savory dishes but also fine desserts such as fruit mousse cakes and almond tarts. Many decent French regional wines were served by the glass at bargain prices.
In 1988 you could have a very pleasant 4 course (including salad) dinner with tax and tip, with a glass of wine for less than 30 dollars. Amourette closed in 1992.


LE PRINCE

323 East Wacker Dr. Chicago

When this superb restaurant opened in October at the lower level of the SWISS GRAND HOTEL (later renamed Swissotel) on this dead end portion of East Wacker Drive, I was very excited with great gustatory expectation. The owners of the hotel, Swissair and Nestlé, had asked  Louis Outhier, a man for whom I had a lot of admiration, to consult in creating the restaurant, and design its menus.
From 1954 to 1988, Outhier had been one of the most creative and respected chefs and restaurateur of France with his extraordinary L’OASIS, in La Napoule on the Riviera who was awarded 3 Michelin stars in 1970. Outhier decided to go in a semi-retirement and to close the restaurant 1988, while looking for a new chef-owner he had selected to take over which took 3 years to materialize. In the meantime Outhier consulted on the launching of several big hotel restaurants in Japan and in the U.S (New York and Boston).
I was lucky to be invited for dinner at Le Prince in November 1988 and I was quite impressed by the whole thing: Décor, food, and service. In fact it was perhaps one of the best meals I ever had in a restaurant in Chicago. The dining room, with different eating areas separated by big pillars on 2 levels, projected an image of subdued but classy elegance. It was not very spacious and could seat only 80 guests.  There was enough space between tables to allow private discussions, and the plush but not flashy comfort, especially when seating in one of the few booths for two, and the soft but creative lighting, created a luxurious dining environment. Of course the silver, crystal glassware, white china, table serving plates and utensils were of prime and tasty quality. And the staff was extremely attentive, sometimes a bit too much perhaps, and eager to make sure that everything was meeting your highest expectation.
The very gifted chef de cuisine was Hervé Guillaume, a protégé of Louis Outhier, who had spent 12 years in some of the best hotel kitchens of Tokyo including Hotel Okura. He eventually became the general manager of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, when it opened in 2005 in the MGM hotel in Vegas. Guillaume assisted Outhier in the creation of  the original menus in the beginning and then supervised all the actual kitchen`s operations.
The menus were supposed to change according to what was available in each season. There were two prix-fixe options, one at $ 55.00 for 3 courses, and a ‘’degustation”7 course menu at  70.00 dollars. The choice of appetizers, main dishes, and very attractive desserts was quite large.  You could even choose some good French cheeses, a rare option in Chicago in those days. 
I remember the ‘’Salade Composée d’Automne’’ a sumptuous affair that included, besides fresh greens and wild mushrooms, slices of fresh pan seared foie gras, and truffles dressed in a very lively vinaigrette.
But you could also start with oysters poached in Champagne, incredibly fragrant soups, and duck or scallop mousses in brioche.
Some of the most spectacular entrées were the Lobster in a gingery cream sauce, Sea bass sautéed with a coulis of beets, Magret de canard in an Armagnac reduced sauce, Roasted lamb with Provençal herbs. The accompanying vegetables, or crispy potatoes sautéed in butter, were very artistically plated.
The stars of the dessert list were usually based on fresh fruit, such as the Charlotte.
The wine list was not as varied and original as you would expect in such a classy restaurant and most French wine were pricey.
The major handicaps of this fine place were its poor not easily accessible location, the fact that it was not on the main floor of the hotel, and that its existence was neither posted clearly outside or inside the hotel, nor advertised. Besides it was really too expensive for the average Chicago gourmet diner.
The restaurant closed 9 months after its opening in July 1999.


COCORICO

1960 North Clybourn, Chicago

This spacious and very congenial ‘’brasserie’’, meaning a place larger than a bistro but less formal than a restaurant, was launched  in October by Louis Retailleau who for years was the owner of  Louis Bon Appétit ,a very popular restaurant in Crown Point, Indiana, and Karl-Heinz Granitza, a well-known German-born soccer and former Chicago Stings star player. Their respective wives, Christel Retailleau who managed the daily operations front, and Roswitha Granitza, were also partners in the business.
Located in an old renovated manufacturing plant from the 1920’s on Clybourn, which at the time was not yet the very busy and trendy ‘’commercial corridor’’ it has become, the place was  a spacious, airy space on 2 or 3 levels, whose wooden floors, and beams,  large windows, and  halogen lights, were contributing to the warm, luminous and very casual atmosphere.
 The open kitchen also helped to make the guests feel comfortably relaxed and at home.  The warm personal greetings given by Granitza to every arriving customer, as Retailleau, or John Vlandis, when he was in Crown Point, stayed in the kitchen supervising the cooking, was also helping to create a cheerful ambiance. On good nights the restaurant could seat 160 people.
 Cocorico is the French equivalent of ``cock-a-doodle-doo’’ meaning the crowing sound of a rooster. And the rooster, often called ‘’ Le Coq Gaulois’’ is the national emblem of France. So the first thing the new customers was the presence of more than a hundred of roosters in all sorts of shapes and materials, all over the place, including on the uniforms of the wait staff. 
The food was typically French, well prepared, and very reasonably priced: Escargots, Moules marinières, pâtés, onion soup grâtinée, salmon mousse, Roasted chicken or Basquaise, Cassoulet Toulousain, Bouillabaisse, Steak frites¸ angel hair pasta with goat cheese, marinated and roasted monk fish, steamed salmon in a basil sauce, Duck au Grand Marnier,  the whole brasserie repertory was there.  The vegetables were fresh and some pasta or couscous accompaniments were often available.  The desserts were also quite tasty: Profiterolles, Baked Alaska, strawberries in puff pastry.
The wine list offered French, German, and Californian wines at very affordable prices.
You could have a complete meal with wine for two for $50.00.
The restaurant closed in late spring of 1991 after the mysterious disappearance of Granitza to Europe that generated many dramas, business and family ones, and ruined Retailleau both financially and personally. At one point Granitza returned to Chicago and try to restart the restaurant that he renamed Café Granitza. But it did not last very long.


CHEZZ CHAZZ

3651 N. Southport , Chicago

Opened in October by Charlie Socher (ex-chef at Chardonnay), as chef and partner, I understand that it was  a pretty decent and fun French bistro, with some interesting specials by the always creative Socher.
At one point in 1989 they started to serve dinner on a sidewalk terrace to the people who attended screenings at the Chicago Film Festival taking place at the Music Box Theater, half a block away.  It increased the popularity of the restaurant for a while. But then this short period of success faded away. The rock music background annoyed many customers.
I never ate there. It closed in March 1991.


CHEZ JENNY

900 N. Franklin St. Chicago

On December 1 Jennifer Newbury and her partner (both in life and business) Dennis Terczak (formerly executive chef at Avanzare) opened their new restaurant on the site of their  old one Amérique, opened since 1985 that  they had closed in the spring. During 2 pre-opening dinners the week before 270 guests, including many well-known names in the Chicago restaurant trade, showed up, an indication that the location, near Cabrini Green, was perhaps no longer a serious handicap. Some of the customers the first night were also regulars at Sole Mio, the very successful Italian restaurant the couple had opened on Armitage in April  and that I liked very much. But for a long time Jennifer was dreaming of having an authentic French bistro with a touch of rusticity.
So first they traveled to Paris where Dennis worked in the kitchen of the iconic Benoit, one of the most celebrated and beautiful bistros in the world that is still at the same address as when it opened in 1912, 20 Rue Saint Martin in the 4th arrondissement, but it is now owned by Alain Ducasse since 2005. And Jennifer familiarized herself with French bakeries, pastry shops, French wines, and visited many stores selling decorative items, tableware, and restaurant supplies.
Jenny and Dennis asked the same interior designer, Bruce Gregga, who had built the space at Sole Mio to transform the austere and cold concrete environment of Amérique into a warm rustic space divided in three different areas. The exposed wood beams to cover the concrete ceiling and AC pipes, wood pillars, beautiful varnished pine floor, wooden banquettes, a beautiful copper covered counter in the large bar area  near the entrance, a hand-painted Monet-like  mural, blinds and curtains, and many nicely selected decorative items  such as French plates, and lights gave the  whole place the comfortable feeling of a provincial French inn. The waiters were all dressed in the traditional French combination of black pants, black vests, white shirts and black ties. In the early months of the restaurants there were no busboys.
The menu was very traditional bistro fare, with good pâtés, escargots, onion soup, cabbage soup, sweetbreads, leg of lamb with beans, rib-eye steaks (entrecôte), duck confit with lentils, rabbit stew, ratatouille, warm apple tart, chocolate soufflé, crème brulée, and sorbets.
The wine list was essentially French and allowed you to buy reasonably-priced regional wines or expensive Bourgognes and Bordeaux. A 3 course dinner for 2 with salad and  coffee would average 6o dollars in 1989.
There were some cooking mistakes the first few months  due to the fact that Terczak was often too busy at Sole Mio. But things got better when René Bajeux became chef.
The restaurants had many ups and downs but had to close after a too short existence on August 12 1989. The couple separated later and Terczak started a new life in northern Indiana where he died of illness in April of 1999. He was only 49.
Georges ‘’Kiki’’ Cuisance, who had lost the lease of his beloved Le Bordeaux on Madison, took over the space in November 1990,  and opened KIKI’s BISTRO there where it is still successful in 2014.


1989

CAFÉ DU MIDI

2118 N. Damen, Chicago

Once again Francis Leroux, whose beloved Gare Saint Lazare on Armitage had been destroyed in flames in November 1987, and in the meantime had owned Chez Chose on W. Diversey, between 1980 and 1984, decided to launch in January of 1989 a new unpretentious and reasonably-priced French bistro for a similar type of client base in a recently gentrified neighborhood.
But this time he got the help of a partner, Bernard LeCoq, who was also a veteran of the French bistro scene in Chicago where he had the popular Café Bernard on Halsted since 1973.
Café du Midi, I suppose was originally inspired by Southern French cuisine, since ‘’ le Midi’’ in French defines a zone South of an imaginary line going from Valence in the East to Bordeaux in the West. In this Southern region, that includes Languedoc and part of Provence, Occitan based languages used to be spoken.
In fact when the restaurant was opened there were many dishes that reminded us of the sunny Midi and included typical ingredients, cuts of meat, and produce such as tomatoes, eggplant, lamb chops, merguez sausages, couscous, bell peppers, ratatouille, thyme, olive oil, onions, basil, garlic, capers, anchovies, and of course fish soup.
But pretty soon he added more classical components of the bistro repertory. Chicken liver pâté,  Chicken sausage with chanterelle mushrooms, Crepes with ratatouille and goat cheese, Steak au poivre in a cream and cognac sauce, Duck breasts with cherries, One different fresh fish every night, Sautéed sea scallops, Baked brie en croûte with almonds and fruits,  and the popular cheesecake and flourless chocolate mousse cake were sure winners.
And many regulars came on Thursday for the Couscous, complete with its vegetables, chicken, lamb, merguez, aromatic cooking broth, and spicy  harissa condiment .
The wine list was short but was mainly composed of affordable French wines.
In 1989 you could have a 3 course meal for $22.00.
Most reviewers liked the place but a few complained about an occasional lack of consistency in the cooking of certain dishes such as the scallops and the chicken.
The décor was simple but comfortable with attractive black and white ceramic tiles on the floor,
Creamy white walls, nice bistro tables with white cloth covered with butcher paper, and fresh flowers everywhere, the dining room, with its large windows, was very pleasant.
The restaurant was closed in 1997 and was sold to new owners who eventually would open MERITAGE in that space.




ELYSEE

711 N. State, Chicago

I walked by this place many times and I entered  in it once to check it out , but I have to admit that do not have a clear memory of this charming and adventurous restaurant opened by David Dorabi in February. But I met the very interesting owner briefly a couple of times when I visited his incredibly rich antique shop, one block South, which was  full of original French objects and vintage clothes that he discovered and used to import himself. He was born in Iran from an Iranian father and a French mother and spoke French fluently. He also had a collection of more than 2,000 corkscrews. The restaurant itself was elegant and decorated with many of his French antiques, including plates and mirrors, prints, and of course corkscrews. He loved French wine. I think that many of the interesting dishes on the menu were his own creation, and most of the time prepared and cooked by him. He used to get up early to be able to buy the best fruits and vegetables he could find at the market, and back to his restaurant would create his own menus every day.
I would say that its menus were half-way between Traditional and Nouvelle French cuisines.  In the very positive reviews he got in local newspapers in 1989 I found very original dishes: Fresh Oysters with a cream of leak, asparagus in pastry shells, Mussel soup with saffron, Bay Scallops in vinaigrette served with artichoke hearts, asparagus, spinach, and fresh herbs. He loved fresh fish and cooked Whitefish in a Beurre Blanc with parsley, and Salmon with capers. But he also did very well with his Duck with a Grand Marnier sauce and a spicy Chicken in lime sauce.
He also would bake his own pastries, or simple pears poached in red wine.
I do not know when the restaurant closed. Probably within the next year.



LE LOUP

2011 W, North Avenue Chicago

This place, located under the L tracks at the Northern edge of Wicker Park, was opened in July 89 by Wulf Ward and Claude and Gisèle Laura. It might have been named originally after Wulf, since Loup means Wolf in English, or later after the Laura’s dog which was half wolf . Claude Laura, the chef de cuisine, had been previously cooking in the kitchens of Tango and Zaven’s and also worked on cruise ships. But his taste for Middle-Eastern and North African dishes was acquired during his military service in French Algeria. At Le Loup you could enjoy traditional appetizers such as Tahini, Hummus, Taboule, served with pita bread and lemon wedges, and continue your meal with a very satisfying Moroccan Couscous with  lamb and chicken, a meal in itself with a ridiculous price of $9.50.
Or you could have a straight French diner with pâté, artichoke fritters, Oysters Rockefeller, and various salads, then Bouillabaisse ($ 11.00),  served only on Friday , Cassoulet ($ 9.50)  Rack of lamb ($ 13.00) or  a filet of Mahi-mahi with a green peppercorn cream sauce. Fresh fruit tarts
($ 3.50) were considered their best desserts. The service was so-so, according to most reviewers and friends who dined there.
All together it was not a fancy French restaurant, but pleasant value-oriented bistro.
Eventually they moved the restaurant to 3348 Sheffield. I believe that it closed in the late 1990’s.



C’EST SI BON

60 East  Walton, Chicago

Another example of a very pleasant French bakery- pastry shop-fancy food grocery-delicatessen-restaurant, that in spite of all his qualities and a great location, never really took-off and closed after only a little more than 2 years of mediocre business. Its parent company, a very large French food Group with an American subsidiary in New-York, had invested a big bundle of dollars in this place and brought in high quality French products, and a very competent executive chef, as well as French trained employees. But it did not have a precise idea of what they should do to succeed in the Chicago market place and what Chicago customers, even well-to-do ones, expect from a fancy place like this. Opened officially on July 14 (Bastille Day), it was on paper at least the perfect equation to attract sophisticated Francophile gourmet customers from the Gold Coast, and a perfect lunching stop for ladies shopping on nearby Oak Street. There were 2 levels: At street level, the shop sold fancy food items such as French cheeses, including ‘’fromage blanc’’, hams, home-made sausage, caviar from Petrossian, tea, candy, French condiments, chocolate truffles from La Maison du Chocolat in Paris, Calissons from Aix en Provence, and the very crusty  home baked bread, croissants and pastries. At one point they also sold the famous bread from Lionel Poilane in Paris.
Around Christmas time it was one of the rare places in  town where you could buy high quality ‘’marrons glaçés’’ (glazed chestnuts)  and the pastry chef baked very nice traditional ‘’bûches de Noel’’ (yule logs). They also offered a few already cooked and packed dishes, salads and sandwiches. There were a few tables where you could have a snack and a glass of French wine. In fact they sold some good regional French wines at decent prices, and you could find bottles of nice wines from the Loire Valley,  the Côtes du Rhône, Languedoc and the southwest made by independent small winemakers. Or a bottle of Bulle De Pêche, a delicious peachy sparkling wine. Later on in 1991 they had a few tables outside and when it was sunny it was a pleasure to share a simple French lunch with pâté, rillettes, Bayonne ham, saucisson and cheese with a baguette, and of course a bottle of wine and a good espresso with some French colleagues. And it was always nice to have a chat with Didier Maillet, the executive chef and also the store manager, an affable Frenchman who later went back to Paris to be the chef and partner at La Sologne  a very good restaurant in the 12th arrondissement that was well-known for its venison-based dishes.
In fact this shop and restaurant was a point of friendly gourmet rendez-vous for many members of the French community, and was more popular with them than with Americans.
On the upper level was the restaurant per-se, very comfortable and simply but nicely decorated with nice French photographs. Tables were nicely spaced, china and glassware were French, and unfortunately so were several of the young waiters who obviously were insufficiently trained and did not speak fluent English. In fact the too often poor quality of the service in the restaurant caused a lot of problems to its reputation. It was too bad since the food was generally good, but overpriced, especially at lunch time. Classics such as Leek and potato soup, Assiette de charcuterie, Magret de canard, Skate wing, Fish soup, Sweetbreads, Ratatouille, Veal Blanquette, Grilled Free-range chicken, and light desserts, such as fruit or chocolate mousses, were well executed.
The restaurant suffered financially and the last year the number of clients had significantly decreased. C’est Si Bon closed in early 1992


MONTPARNASSE

200 E. 5th Street, Naperville, IL

Jean-Paul Eskenazi, a Frenchman who was a captain at Le Français in Wheeling for several years during the reign of Jean Banchet opened this great restaurant in October in a former factory, or more exactly in its vast boiler room. His great idea was to have recruited as chef the very talented Suzy Crofton who was a sous-chef at Le Français while he was there. When I ate there for the first time in early 1990, I was really impressed by her cooking style, as well as by the quality of the service, very formal but professional and friendly. Of course the décor, the airy and comfortable  multi-level space, with its brick walls decorated with interesting pictures, the nicely spaced white-clothed tables,  great stylish high-back chairs, pretty French china, and stylish waiters in tuxedos  was inviting to relax and enjoy the meal and the good wine. And the presence  of the huge old boiler which had been repainted in white was another impressive element contributing to an exciting atmosphere.
The menu was traditional French with well executed classics: A very flavorful and rich onion soup. Some incredibly smooth and aromatic pâtés, especially the duck liver one. A delicious galette de crabe, in an exciting chive or mustard sauce. A very refreshing Frisée salad with goat cheese and bacon . ‘’Médaillons de Veau’’ (veal filets) in a cream sauce with a garnish of perfectly cooked and seasoned wild mushrooms. Rack of lamb, marinated in olive oil and garlic then roasted with fresh herbs, and coated with a light breading spiced up with Dijon mustard and parsley, and served with French haricots verts, sautéed mushrooms, and a small ‘’galette de pommes de terre’’. And her Filet de Saint Pierre (John Dory) a rarely served fish in Chicago, was sautéed in ginger and lemon flavored butter.
I personally will always remember one of the best Coq au Vin I ever had in Chicago during my second visit.
Desserts were also drawn from the classical repertoire: Profiterolles, Crème Brulée in the manner of Jean Banchet, and of course, another Le Français heritage,  Soufflé au Grand Marnier.
The wine list was pretty eclectic, with a nice mix of French and Californians.
A 4 or 5 course dinner for two, without the wine, could easily cost you over 100 dollars. But it was worth every penny.
Suzy Crofton eventually moved to her own restaurant in Chicago ‘’ Crofton on Wells’’.
Montparnasse closed in September of 2000, and the space was  sold a month later  to Leon Demerdjian, and his son Raffi who morphed it into a Mediterranean restaurant, Raffi`s on Fifth. It closed in the fall of 2012

 
LA FLEURETTE

5 East Roosevelt Road, Villa park, IL

I have never been there, and to be frank I do not quite understand why the Zervakis brothers decided to close their popular Sweet Pepper all-American restaurant and completely transformed the space, after a substantial redecorating job, into a French restaurant that opened in late November 89 .
Even if the reviews had been excellent, and they were not, except for a relatively positive small piece by Phil Vettel in the Tribune, I would never have taken a drive to Villa Park to try a French restaurant. But they tried hard and hired Dominique Fortin, a good French Chef with solid Chicago credentials including Le Français, and Nick Katinas a pro whom I knew when he was a captain at Le Perroquet to manage the dining room.
From some reviews from early 1990 some meals could be quite decent, and some disastrous according to Pat Bruno who obviously had a bad experience there in March.
According to Vettel , Fortin’s dishes were classic French: medallions of veal with a mustard sauce, sweetbreads in a port wine sauce, pork loin in a white wine sauce. Or grilled salmon again in  a mustard sauce served with ratatouille…Roasted breast of duck  in a green peppercorn  sauce. Obviously the rich sauces were Fortin’s forte. He had also recreated the famous Duck consommé from Le Français.
And the desserts were also classics such as soufflés and crème brûlée.
The tab was not cheap. A 4 course dinner for two, without wine, but including soup and salad went as high as $ 78.00.
The restaurant did not last very long and closed in the fall of 1990.


BISTRO BANLIEUE

44 Yorktown Conference Center, Lombard, IL

This restaurant, whose name means ‘’suburb’’ in French, was opened in November 89 by Steve Byrne who had worked at Ambria for a quite a while since its opening in 1980, and Emilio Gervilla. Gervilla, had also worked as a chef at Ambria at the same time and also across the hall at Un Grand Café, and later at Café Ba- Ba- Reeba. Then he  launched and developed under the initial tutelage of his former boss Gabino Sotelino his own very successful restaurants such as Emilio Tapas Bar in Hillside, Meson Sabika in Naperville, and later others Tapas restaurants in Chicago. He therefore had a great practical experience of the Western suburbs dining habits. They opened this storefront bistro in a difficult to locate place in a rather non-descript small strip mall in Lombard. But once inside diners would discover a charming dining room with wooden floors, murals painted on one of the walls with faux marbre, curtains serving as a separation with another eating area. Antique lamps, and recorded accordion music contributed to create a sort of neo-Parisian atmosphere. But the rapid success of the place was essentially due to the talent of John Hogan a very good chef who had a solid training in some very good French restaurants, and more recently was a sous-chef for almost 2 years to Jean Joho`s Everest room. John had a real talent to not only cook all the French classics, but also to elaborate on some of them with his own creativity. Some successful appetizers include an  unctuous soupe de poireau pomme de terre (potato leek soup), flavorful  Duck  terrine with pistacchios, Sautéed Shrimp Provençale, or Scallops in a delicate basil cream sauce , steamed mussels with cream and Calvados. Among the main dishes a perfect Steak Frites, a fantastic roasted chicken, and a duo of braised leg and breast of Duck, were the favorites.Desserts included the classic crème brulée, flourless chocolate cake, tarte Tatin, and dark chocolate mousse with a white chocolate sauce.Wine list was relatively short but very affordable with many by the glass options.A 4 course dinner for two with tax and tip but no wine would cost an average of $ 58.00The restaurant closed in July of 1996.





Note: I am totally aware that several restaurants, known for their French cuisine are probably missing. In some cases it is because they opened earlier in the seventies, or because I did  consider that their cuisine was more ‘’hybrid’’ than French. I welcome any  appropriate comment.
As I mentioned before, I have a great deal of love and respect for the restaurateur profession, and visited or patronized a very large number of their establishments since 1970.
 Once again I am thankful to the many reviews or articles by local writers that I found in the archives of the Tribune and Sun Times, and in magazines. I also read several books. It implied a lot of researching time but I had fun.
And last but not least thank you to all my French  friends and contacts in the local restaurant business who shared many stories that helped me to refresh my fuzzy memories of some restaurants.

The next and last part of this saga will  be the 1990’s. I have completed my research on that period and started the actual writing.

Thank you for your kind interest.

Alain Maes