October 24, 2017
French Restaurants in Chicago: A 75 year Retrospective
Part 5. 1990-1999. The end of the “haute cuisine” period, and the confirmation of the bistro supremacy
During that period fewer customers still wanted to spend a lot of money in fancy establishments specializing in French “Haute Cuisine”, or even full meals of less elaborate “Cuisine Bourgeoise”. Bistros and brasseries were the places where Chicago French food lovers found what they wanted: good casual dining offering traditional but creative dishes and value.
However, during the 1990s new French restaurants continued to open, both in the city and in the suburbs. In fact a Zagat survey published in early 2000, listed 69 “French” restaurants in 1999 in the Chicago area, an increase of 50% over a 10 years period. But it is obvious that some of these so-called French eateries mentioned in that survey were not authentic examples of what I call French cuisine.
Even though some of the most popular French restaurants were still owned or managed by French expatriates, quite often in the 1990s these restaurateurs let talented young American chefs, sous-chefs, and cooks, run their kitchens. The waiting staff and front managers were also most of the time locals and younger than their predecessors 20 years earlier.
This new generation of American chefs had learned their skills while working under older French chefs de cuisine or in American culinary schools such as CIA (Culinary institute of America in New York and California), the ICC (International Culinary Center, in NYC and California), Kendall College in Chicago. Locally the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now Le Cordon Bleu) also trained very good chefs, cooks, pastry chefs, and restaurant managers. But that school, like most other Cordon Bleu schools in the US was not profitable enough and closed in January 2017. Many of these schools regularly employed former French chefs, patissiers, cuisiniers, and other professionals, as instructors.
And Chicago can be proud to have one of the best baking and pastry schools in the U.S with The French Pastry School founded in 1995 by two great pastry chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Calonne.
In the mid-1990s a new generation of urban diners, principally young professionals in their 30s along with their wives or dates, who were spending more money on sophisticated drinks and wine, started to go out more often to lunch or dine in restaurants that served better and more trendy foods. They also spent more time reading about them. In that group of people an interest for more diverse and exotic ethnic food and drinks started to develop.
The French cuisine was preferred by older people, more conventional in their eating and drinking habits, who traveled to France for leisure or on business, and were nostalgic of their dining experiences there.
But it became obvious that the decade was dominated by Italian cuisine, from Neapolitan-style pizza baked in wood-burning ovens to sophisticated Northern Italian dishes. The creative home-made pasta had replaced the heavy red sauced Italian-American spaghetti with meatballs of the past, and well-grilled fresh fish with regionally-grown beautiful vegetables, had become more popular than the traditional breaded veal scaloppini.
Now pasta-based dishes, and small creative non-traditional pizzas were often found on the menus of French bistros.
The trend of serving small dishes with a glass of good but inexpensive wine was also becoming more commonly found and appreciated in bistros with a French influence in the Loop and on the north side, notably by people on their way to see a show.
This decade was marked by 2 important factors: Customers wanted to feel more relaxed when eating in French restaurants and be able to “have fun” while eating. And the type of French restaurants that they preferred could be classified as “upscale casual”.
Therefore, the success of “bistros”, that we more often call “bistrots” in France, such as Kiki’s Bistro or La Sardine
River Tree Court Shopping Center Vernon Hills, IL
(In 2005 the restaurant moved to 1762 Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, Il)
It is one of these French places that I always regretted not to have visited when it was opened in September by Jean-Marc Loustaunau and his American wife Mari in a small strip mall near the popular Hawthorn Shopping Center. This 90 seats restaurant was launched at the right place at the right time since many hungry shoppers were eager to find a comfortable place to eat lunch or early dinner. Loustaunau had a solid French cooking background acquired both in France and for 12 years as a chef at the Titi de Paris when it moved from Palatine to Arlington Heights. And during its first years of existence the restaurant was often packed No wonder since the price-quality ratio of what was offered there was very attractive. In 1991 a prix-fixe 4 course meal would cost you $18.50. And you could choose between 3 good items for each course. An “à la carte dinner” (without wine or tip) would set you back at around 23 dollars per person. And the choice of dishes, most of them in the typical bistro tradition would include escargots en brioche, seafood raviolis stuffed with lobster mousse, good terrines, duck breast confit, sautéed pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce, grilled salmon with scallop mousse. The sides were often delicate vegetable mousses. And the desserts did not disappoint: home-made patisseries, crème brulée, chocolate mousse cake, and a ‘’Délice des Pyrénées’’ (cake recipe originated in the chef`s native area) made of chocolate meringue and chocolate mousse. The wine list was more than adequate with decently-priced Bordeaux and other wines from the Southwest.
The environment and décor were charming and comfortable, with French posters on the softly colored walls.
Unfortunately, in the late 90s and early 2000s, the economy got its moments of ups and downs, and the average age of their client base got older, as the taste for classic French food declined. The move to Libertyville, difficulties to attract a younger client base, and big road work projects near the restaurant did not help. But Mari is still full of energy and always searching for new marketing ideas to attract younger customers, such as music and wine tastings.
TAYLOR STREET BISTRO
W. Taylor St. Chicago
Opened in November, I think I was one of this new bistro’s first customers when I had a birthday lunch there with a colleague. I had heard from a friend who was a regular at Le François that the chef-owner Joseph (Joe) Doppes had worked in Jean Banchet’s kitchen and, before that in good French restaurants in New-York, L.A, and Chicago with Michael Foley at Printer’s Row. So, of course I was curious to check out his French cooking skills. I was wondering why someone would open a French restaurant in an enclave of traditional Italian cuisine. But when we entered the relatively small but very luminous dining room we were pleasantly surprised by the decidedly French bistro décor and ambiance: lace half-curtains on the large bay windows, nice little bistro chairs and tables covered with butcher paper, French posters on the walls. And there was a bar behind which Annie, Joe’s wife, served us an aperitif. She was a cheerful woman who did not hesitate to drop a few jokes in the conversation, including one about our French accent. But she was glad to have French customers. The food was classic French bistro fare, with good duck pâté with cornichons for me and moules marinière for my friend, a good steak-frites for me and salmon in a mustard sauce for my colleague. The frites were more ‘’pommes allumette’’ (shoestring) than traditional French pommes frites but nevertheless excellent. So were the peppercorn sauce and the fresh vegetables garnish for the salmon. I had decent small profiteroles and my friend a flourless chocolate cake. We drank a good bottle of Côtes du Rhône and ended up our very satisfying meal with a Calvados at the bar. Another day I discovered that they had a very good pizza whose crust had the texture and almost sweet taste of brioche, and a very authentic and tasty salade niçoise. But unfortunately, as it was common in those days, the tuna was fresh poached instead of canned in olive oil as it should be. The wine list was short but offered a decent selection of French wines. The whole tab before tax and tip with wine and coffee was around $ 35.00 for two if I remember correctly.
Years later, Joe Doppes sold the place and in 1999 Bistro Margot on N. Wells well that remained very popular until it closed in 2016.
900 N. Franklin St. Chicago
Opened in December in the practically untouched rustic and intimate décor of what used to be Chez Jenny (closed in August 89), this great authentic French bistro immediately became one of my favorite French eating, drinking, and meeting place in Chicago. As a matter of fact, a quarter of a century later it is still the place where I go almost every week to eat some of my favorite French comfort food and drink some extremely well-chosen French wines. But above all I go there to spend some time and share memories during long and nostalgic conversations about France with the owner, my friend Georges Cuisance, aka Kiki.
I have known this wonderful human being since the early seventies when he had the very successful Le Bordeaux on Madison St. which, as it is still the case nowadays at Kiki’s, was already a joyous get together place for many local French expatriates as well as American Francophiles working in and around the Loop.
Kiki is quite a case in the small world of French restaurants in Chicago. Always in motion all around the 3 spaces of the restaurant, that includes a great bar near the entrance, he has an incredible ability to survey all the activities of the service while never stopping to greet, say goodbye, or chat with his customers, many of them having been regulars for years. In fact, this bistro’s continuous success besides the consistency of the cooking and of the service (many servers and kitchen help have worked here since the restaurant’s early days) is essentially the result of Kiki’s charm, professionalism, and constant attention to the needs of his guests. And he certainly is a pro who studied all the aspects of the trade at one of the best French cooking and hospitality schools in the 50s, and then worked in all kinds of different restaurants in various European countries.
He came to Chicago in1963 with other French professionals, for the opening of Maxim’s on Astor St.
When he opened this restaurant, he benefited greatly from the presence as the head chef of John Hogan, an excellent practitioner of French cooking techniques that he had learned from some famous chefs in France, and had perfected as a sous-chef with Jean Joho at the Everest, and as a very successful chef at Bistro Banlieue. So, his forte was to apply a perfect mix of traditional and “nouvelle cuisine” methods to his own cooking but with the added value of his personal creativity.
The first year we were always excited when he brought to our table the result of one of his newest inspirations such as a grilled rabbit sausage with potato salad in a lemony mayonnaise dressing, or a preparation of foie-gras with lentils, or a very delicious individual thin crust pizza with smoked mozzarella, prosciutto, or wild mushrooms.
Speaking of mushrooms, his fricassée of wild mushrooms in a fragrant shallots and madeira wine sauce, has long been one of my favorite appetizers, as well as the Terrine de Canard aux pistaches (duck pâté with pistachios) served with cornichons and tiny pickled onions.
And some regulars said that both the “soupe à l’oignon gratinée’’ et the ``escargots’’ in their pastis flavored garlic butter was better than the ones they had in Paris.
But what I liked best at Kiki’s, and still enjoy a lot nowadays, besides the owner himself and the friendly atmosphere he creates, was the always reliable comfort food, especially during the winter months.
Some of my favorite dishes in this category are the cassoulet, with always nicely cooked beans, the braised duck, the very rich coq au vin, and a boeuf bourguignon that Julia Child would have liked. I regret that the choucroute garnie alsacienne, which was one of the best I ever had in Chicago, with its high-quality charcuterie components from Paulina Market, is no longer on the menu. The always tender and tasty navarin d’agneau is still very popular.
But so is the very French steak au poivre, a very nice piece of sirloin steak, with its marvelous cognac and cream-based black pepper sauce. And Kiki’s fries, which are in fact “pommes allumettes” rather than traditional pommes frites, are very addictive.
My favorite dessert was and still is the poached pear in puff pastry with slivered toasted almonds in a caramel sauce with a touch of whipped cream. But my wife is still a fan of the mousse au chocolat,
The ‘’carte des vins” (wine list) always offered reasonably priced traditional Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Rhône, and Alsace wines from serious producers, but also lesser known regional little treasures from the Loire Valley.
Needless to say, the big bar attracted a bunch of regulars enjoying glasses of some of these wines, as well as French beers and spirits, while waiting for their table.
In 2017 Kiki`s Bistro, which is no longer open for lunch, remained one of the most durable and authentic French eating institutions in Chicago.
2625 N. Halsted, Chicago
Strangely enough I had never heard of this bistro which opened in January, even though I walked by its location many times. And curiously, in spite of intensive research, I found only one review of this restaurant by Don Rose published in the Sun Times in April 1991.
The article does not mention any name for the owner but my guess is that it might have been Jean-Marie Viriot, who previously was chef in some restaurants in Dallas, TX, and between 1996 and 1999, had a ‘’European’’ bistro called Salt and Pepper in Highland Park with a partner. I believe that Jean-Marie, whose chef in 1991 was Keith Brunell, did not last more than a year since in May 1992 it had morphed into a Greek place called Mia Zoe.
Anyway, based on Rose’s review it was a typical French bistro offering all the classics at affordable prices: Onion soup, Terrines, Moules marinière, Soupe de Poissons with garlic aioli, confit de canard, gratin of endives with ham, and steak au poivre.
That’s all I can say unfortunately since in spite of many searches I never found a single person who had eaten there.
SAINT GERMAIN BAKERY-CAFÉ
1210 N. State St., Chicago
It was started in August by a Frenchman, Jean-Luc Heiz and his wife, in a location where several restaurants, the last one being Turbot, had various life cycles and disappeared.
But this very lovely bakery-pastry shop, that rapidly expanded its operations to become a full fledge café and restaurant, with a liquor license, opened at the right place at the right time. It attracted well-to-do matrons of the Gold Coast at tea time or for brunch, as well as young and ambitious professionals on the run, and young couples on dates. Or, more simply, people who followed the trend of the time and loved crusty French baguettes, rich flaky croissants, brioches, hard rolls, petits pains au chocolat, and scrumptious patisseries. Heiz, an enthusiastic and dynamic manager who had a great sense of communication and marketing, had recruited good bakers and pastry chefs from France in the early months to launch the production and train the staff. He also imported a French oven from Alsace that customers who opted to seat in the booths of the inner room could see in operation in an open kitchen. This great-looking place was attractively furnished and decorated with its tricolor stripped awnings outside and many potted flowers. It was divided in three rooms, and was even expanding during sunny days to the sidewalk through opened French windows into a lively café. The most popular time was lunch where you could order freshly made sandwiches, I personally loved the French ham sandwich with cornichons on a buttered piece of baguette, which reminded me of the traditional quick lunch that many Paris employees ate for lunch while standing at the counter of a café near their working place. Saint-Germain also served charcuterie, cheese, croque-monsieur, omelets, salmon, salads, crepes, and soups. The very well-prepared sandwiches were served with pommes gaufrettes (thin waffled fried potatoes). There were also specials, such as grilled chicken breast with fresh vegetables. Eventually they also had a buffet. Prices were very reasonable for this neighborhood. A nice ham sandwich would set you down at less than $ 7.00. Needless to say, the place that attracted many young people from this fancy neighborhood was packed from 7:00 Am until midnight. It remained very popular until 1998 when it closed.
1515 N. Sheridan Road, Wilmette IL
Nancy Barocci opened this charming little bistro in Plaza Del Lago in March, which took over the space formerly occupied by Mélange a popular place that burned. But she was already a well-established fancy Italian food and wine purveyor and restaurateur with her famous Convito Italiano practically next door in the same Spanish-styled mall. I suppose that the decision to create an unpretentious but elegant French bistro geared towards the sophisticated client base of the North Shore was partially inspired by her regretted friend Leslee Reis, the very successful owner of Café Provençal in Evanston from 1977 until her death in 1990. Leslee and Nancy traveled together several times to Provence and the Italian Riviera.
And the menu was obviously a mix of French and Italian memories, but adapted to the tastes of the North Shore palates. In fact, during its first year the chef of this relatively popular restaurant was Kent Buell, the former sous-chef of Café Provençal. I have been there only 2 or 3 times, for lunch and once for dinner, but I remember that I liked the country pâté, and as a main course a very moist rotisserie chicken served with
‘’ frites’’ as good as those served in a Parisian brasserie. Another day I also enjoyed a decent Veal Marengo. But the customers at the table next to ours seemed very pleased with their Bouillabaisse that looked pretty close to the real thing. I was not impressed though by the frisée au lardons, a typical salad from Lyon, which was not all Lyonnaise-tasting.
Desserts were good, especially a kind of crème brulée au chocolat.
Service was very pleasant and unobtrusive. And the décor, elegant but simple with comfortable chairs and white-cloth and paper covered tables, and soft lights, was very relaxing.
The wine list was limited but offered a few decent and reasonably-priced French wines by the glass. A whole 3 course meal with a couple of glasses of wines would cost around 28 or 30 dollars.
1746 W. Golf, Mount Prospect, IL
This lively contemporary Franco-American bistro, located in a not too sexy strip mall on Golf was opened in May by Dominique Legeai, and his Japanese-born partner Masato Zusuki. Zusuki already had a long experience of French cooking in Tokyo, in France, at the Titi de Paris, and at Legeai’s first bistro, the very popular D&J Bistro in Lake Zurich, that Legeai and his wife Jacqueline had launched in 1987.
He created a sort of “fusion menu” that happily blended French classic bistro cuisine with Asian touches. I remember that during my first visit there in 1994 where I was a guest of research executives from Motorola, I was so impressed by the “pommes frites” which were the garniture for my good steak, that I asked for a side order as a dessert. They will remain in my memory as some of the best I ever had in Chicago. I also had a decent rustic pork pâté. And the wine list was small but included a few good regional French wines such as Sancerre, Beaujolais, and Côtes du Rhône. Nothing was spectacular, but everything was well-prepared in the traditional French-American bistro style and inexpensive. The walls were covered with large black and white photos of Hollywood actors from the 60s, but it was the only thing’’retro’’ in this unpretentious but pleasant restaurant which is still popular in 2017.
LE PERROQUET (Re-opening under new management and chef)
70 East Walton St. Chicago
The original restaurant created at the same address by Jovan Trboyevic in 1972 was perhaps, along with Le Français in Wheeling, the most celebrated French restaurant in Chicago in the 70s and early 80s. In 1985 Jovan sold it to the Nespoux brothers, Jean-Pierre and Gérard Nespoux who had been Maitre’D and Sommelier respectively there. For 6 years they did everything they could to keep the quality and tradition alive. However, without Jovan the spirit was not there anymore, the taste of Chicago gourmets for fancy and expensive French food was on the decline, and the recession did not help. Le Perroquet closed its doors at the end of 1990.
But in March 1992 the restaurant was re-opened by Michael Foley, a very competent chef and restaurateur with a solid experience in French dining, who for a while was trained as a chef de cuisine in the kitchen of the Perroquet in its early years. Michael Foley who had apprenticed in Lyon, France, was also a strong believer in sustainable and organic farming. Between 1981 and 2004 he used both his knowledge of French cooking techniques and his passion for high quality products in creating a sort of Nouvelle Midwestern Regional Cuisine in his very successful Printer’s Row restaurant on South Dearborn. I had several great meals there in the 80s and early 90s.
He made all the right decisions in preparing for this renovation. He kept most of the décor intact, bur refreshed the furniture and made the dining room more luminous by removing the drapes from the windows. He re-hired, as a Maitre D’, Gérard Nespoux , who constituted a familiar and reassuring factor for the older customers. Gérard had been working with Jovan T. since the opening of the restaurant in 1972. And with the new French chef, Didier Durand, a gifted cuisinier who had acquired an excellent reputation in Winnetka at La Bohème, they kept or adapted some old recipes and classy dishes such as the Duo of Duck with a peppercorn light sauce, roasted sweetbreads with potato galettes, vegetable mousses, and the signature soufflés. At lunch I loved a roasted juicy capon leg stuffed and sauced with shallots and parsley. In fact Durand`s cuisine was a perfect blend of classic and contemporary French cuisine that was very flavorful but light. Fresh herbs always played a major role in the composition of most dishes.
They kept an attractive profile to the menus, but avoided fancy and expensive components to keep the prices down without diminishing the quality of the products.
The first year you could have a delicious 4 course prix-fixe dinner for “$38.50. And the wine list, that included many good affordable but judiciously selected French wines from good but not overpriced famous estates, was very attractive.
Even though the restaurant was well received by both gastronomes and critics, its re-opening took place at a time where the tastes and eating trends of Chicago diners were in the middle of a period of transition. Fancy French dining was not as popular anymore. Le Perroquet was forced to close its doors for good in the spring of 1994.
2442 N. Clark St, Chicago
On April 2 François, de Melogue and Brian Sylva opened this classy sophisticated French restaurant in the space occupied for many years by Jean-Claude Poilevey with his successful La Fontaine and Jean-Claude. But in 1993 the restaurant business was suffering from the recession and diners in Chicago were not looking for fancy expensive French cuisine. So, it took a lot of gut and determination to these two men, both experienced chef and pâtissier, to go against the trend towards more casual dining.
My wife and I dined there only once during its first 2 months of existence and I remember that in spite of the elegant but comfortable settings, the obvious good will of the waiting staff, and the culinary ambitions and savoir-faire of the chef, we were under the impression that this whole operation was a work in progress. The ingredients, scampi, scallops, foie gras, sweetbreads, wild mushrooms, turbot, squab, rabbit, duck, grouse, wild boar, caribou, and even the baby vegetables were first rate, perfectly prepared, and artistically plated. De Melogue’s forte was his talent with elaborate sauces, where truffles and Cognac were often a generous component. But you had to wait a long time between courses. And I heard from people I knew, who were very knowledgeable, that sometimes some meat dishes, many of them from venison that became rapidly the house specialty, suffered from an imprecise cooking time.
Desserts were very well prepared, especially the tarte Tatin. The wine list, essentially French was limited but dominated by some excellent Bordeaux.
There was also a limited but well-chosen selection of French wines by the glass.
Nevertheless, I still think that the concept and the menus of this restaurant were too sophisticated and not appropriate for that time. The prices of most dishes, dictated by an elevated food cost, were too high. After a year of very limited commercial success De Melogue tried to reduce the scope of his ambitions and his prices. But it was too late and unfortunately Le Margaux had to close in October 1994.
RUDI’S WINE BAR& CAFÉ
2424 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago
Way out of the traditional restaurant districts, this very lively and pleasant place looked more like a typical Chicago neighborhood tavern than a French bistro. But it was actually a good wine bar that served a few inexpensive typical French bistro dishes such as soupe à l’oignon Lyonnaise, pâté de campagne, mussels in a Provençal-style garlic and shallots tomato broth, cassoulet, steak-frites (the frites were great), roasted chicken, rack of lamb with herbes de Provence, and a very decent chocolate mousse. The space was small (15 tables) and the décor was rather rustic: small tables, metallic bistro chairs, checkered tablecloth covered with butcher paper, and above all a pretty long bar where you could order a dozen of pretty good regional, but very inexpensive (less than $5.00 ), French wines by the glass. The menu was hand-written and simple. The food was generally well-prepared, and also inexpensive.
When I discovered Rudi’s, in 1994, you could have a 3-course meal, without wine and tip, for $18.00 to $20.00.
The waitresses were good-humored and relaxed, maybe more with the numerous regular patrons than with strangers or new customers though.
The speakers played the type of French songs that the average American knew at the time, Piaf’s and Brel’s.
The owner was a man called Whitey But for the many faithful patrons, the main attraction was Rudi. Always sitting at the bar, he was, a very cheerful guy, who even though he was not the owner, always talked with them about many subjects, the most important one being wine. Lots of customers thought that he was the manager. But he was not.
His real name was Peter Rudiger and he was a former wine importer who had a business called Orange Imports in Northfield in the late 80s. He also gave courses and seminars about wine
He really loved and knew his wines, particularly the French. I had a brief conversation with him once at that bar and he was happy to know that I lived in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence since he had a special fondness for Rhône and Provence wines.
But over the years some serious disagreements developed between ‘’Rudi’’ and the owner, Whitey, who had financed the restaurant whose success was in fact almost entirely the work of Rudiger. So when it appeared that Whitey was not going to allow Rudiger to become a full partner as it had promised, Rudi left and went to Bistro Ultra on Clybourn where Juan Hurtado, Rudi’s Wine Bar former chef was now the owner. Rudi’s stayed open, but often mostly empty, for a few months then closed for good in the spring of 2002. Peter Rudiger died in November 2002 at age 55
310 Green Bay Road, Highwood
Opened in May by Highwood’s native Gabriel Viti, who had just left his job a block away as executive chef at Carlos in Highland Park, this small (in its early days) but very elegant and European in style Italian-French restaurant, was a perfectly tuned-up classy place.
Normally such a restaurant should not figure in my list, because the menu was predominantly Italian. But it also offered a few classic French dishes such as a duo of duck magret and leg confit, served as it is common in France with flageolets and purée de pommes de terre (a signature dish of Robuchon). Or a rack of lamb in a thyme sauce with ratatouille.
But the main reason I wanted to mention Viti is because this very professional owner-chef was one of the very few American restaurateurs ever to operate a restaurant, and to direct a kitchen in such a typically French controlled and precise way. It was especially noticeable a few years later when the dining room, which had expanded from 75 to 125 seats, was very often packed with regulars and even out of town visitors. Through the window of the open kitchen you could see that Viti, who always wore a traditional white toque, was literally directing his, also white-toqued, cooking staff, and similarly the whole “brigade” as would a music director. But the whole affair was neither pretentious or contrived. The atmosphere and the service were very stylish but convivial, and Viti took the time to greet and converse in the dining room with his regular customers who loved him.
The reason for his mastering of French cooking and restaurant managing techniques was that Vitti, a very gifted CIA graduate (1986), had spent 6 years in some of the best kitchens of France, and Switzerland. His already very formal training was greatly enhanced by his working under such luminaries as Joël Robuchon in Paris, who had a major influence on his techniques, and Freddy Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland. But he also spent some time with Michel Guérard in Eugénie Les Bains. And his stays in the kitchens of Taillevent in Paris, and La Pyramide in Vienne, where the legendary Fernand Point is one of the creators of modern French cuisine, were also very influential.
He ended his European series of training in Italy, the country of his ancestors at the famous San Domenico in Imola, Italy. But he also had spent some time at La Lampina in Milan.
Viti closed GABRIEL in 2012, after opening MIRAMAR a French-Cuban bistro, also in Highwood. Since that time he has devoted his energy to the climbing some of the highest mountains in Asia (Everest, K2), Europe (Eiger, Mont Blanc), and South America.
1958 N. Damen Avenue, Chicago
In June, just a few months after the sale of his very successful restaurant Jean-Claude on Clark St. (where his own La Fontaine used to be), Jean-Claude Poilevey could feel that downsizing was not only a trend but also a must for a French restaurant wanting to succeed in these difficult economic times. He opened this bistro in the small space (40 seats) formerly occupied by Gavroche, a restaurant specializing in “couscous”. It is still packed every day in 2016. And the décor is the same as it was in 93: charming, intimate, provincial, and very comfortable in spite of the high level of noise, due to the animated conversations. You really feel at home there. Many of my French business contacts coming to Chicago for a trade show would call me in advance so that I would reserve a table and make sure that there would be lapin, and mousse au chocolat, as well as bottles of Morgon from Marcel Lapierre, an excellent vigneron friend of Jean-Claude who unfortunately died in 2016.
I love Lyon, the 3rd largest city in France located 100 miles South-East from Geneva, which is well-known as the French capital of gastronomy. And when I used to travel there often on business, my local colleagues who knew about my love for “la cuisine de bistro” would often take me for lunch to a “bouchon” (wine cork), the name given by the Lyonnais to the hundreds of informal small restaurants. In a bouchon you can eat good regional charcuterie, and Lyonnaise specialties often based on meat and offals. A few of typical foods found in bouchons are andouille grillée (grilled chitterlings sausage), tripe (pig or cow’s stomach), boudin noir (blood sausage), quenelles (veal or pike dumplings in a cream sauce), Cervelle de Canut, (cream cheese with garlic and chives), salade Lyonnaise (lettuce with bacon, croutons, mustard vinaigrette, and a poached egg), gateau de foie (liver cake) or onion tart, breaded pig trotters, and coq au vin or rabbit stew in a mustard sauce.
A typical dessert, after some Saint Marcellin cheese, would be a poached pear in red wine.
And, of course, your table would drink several “pots” de Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône produced North and South of Lyon. The owners and the waiting staff would have lively conversations with their regulars, and the general ambiance would be joyous and comfortable.
Several of these dishes could often be found at Le Bouchon.
But some of the favorites were his onion tart, the saucisson, the salade Lyonnaise, the ``lapin chasseur’’ (rabbit stew in a wine sauce with mushrooms and lardons) or ‘’à la moutarde’’, and the crème brulée.
A 3-course dinner in 1993 would cost under 20 dollars per person (without wine, tax and tip)
Jean-Claude was a perfect Lyonnais host, who knew how to put his own numerous regulars, both French and Americans, at ease. His sense of humor was more accessible to French customers. But his smile was contagious. The food and the atmosphere were, and still are, authentic. Olivier, Jean-Claude’s son, is now the chef.
Very sadly Jean-Claude passed away in a car accident in April 2016.
We will miss him forever.
TOULOUSE ON THE PARK
2140 N. Lincoln Park West, Chicago
Between 1979 and 1993, Bob Djahanguiri an Iranian immigrant who, in spite of degree in engineering, worked is way up from busboy to manager in various restaurants of the Ray Castro and Morton groups, had a very popular restaurant-cabaret called Toulouse. The name was a reference to Toulouse-Lautrec, the French painter, who was famous not only for his very bold and colorful posters, but also for his love of people of the night, including singers and prostitutes, as well as of the good life. The atmosphere was very relaxed and happy, with singers and musicians playing for diners who enjoyed a mainly French-Continental menu. Then Djahanguiri opened Yvette, a very popular bistro-piano bar, at 1206 N. State St.
In October 1993, he transferred Toulouse in a vintage building on Lincoln Park with a completely new formula: a totally baroque 75 seats dining room with mirrors all over the walls, chandeliers, red drapes, columns, and red walls decorated with slightly half romantic half naughty paintings in the style of Fragonard. When I visited the place, Bob told me that he wanted the whole affair to be reminiscent of Versailles. Across the hall he created a clubby Cognac Bar, with live musicians and singers, that pretty soon became more popular than the restaurant as a destination. In the beginning the menu created by French chef Jean-Louis Montecot, an alum of La Côte Basque in NYC, was classic French upper-bistro.
But it was too complex for the client-base, and Djahanguiri after a few months brought one of his cooks named Burkett from Turbot, a seafood bistro next to Yvette, who downsized the menu in a more ‘’continental’’ style.
I do not remember exactly when this overambitious restaurant-nightclub closed its doors. I would guess 1995.
833 W. Randolph, Chicago
This vibrant place was opened on December 29, by a trio of entrepreneurs-restaurateurs who were about to launch a trend of flashy restaurants on what was going to be called in a matter of 3 years the Randolph “restaurant row. Marché was a fusion of brasserie, bistro, and trendy night bar and eatery, where “people” went to see and be seen. It was an immediate success that lasted for many years, before being progressively strangled by the growing competition in that district and serious lawsuits against it creator.
The trio of flamboyant Jerry Kleiner, astute lawyer Howard Davis, and former broker Dan Krasny, after their early success in the South Loop with Vivo, rapidly created other “different” eating and drinking establishments where beautiful, young, and fun loving people loved to spend their evenings in original and very nicely designed places. Most of them were located in the rapidly gentrifying and developing West Loop, around Randolph and Fulton Market, and in the South Loop. In the West Loop several restaurants of the group, called KDK restaurants, were very successful since their launching in the 90s until 2010 when most of them were forced to close for financial reasons.
The headquarters of KDK was in Marché’s building. (Marché means Market in French). The décor of the bi-level restaurant itself was quite visually impressive with its painted columns, drapes, high ceilings, iron chairs, and a large counter forming a half circle in front of the open kitchen, where several cooks were super-busy preparing the non- stop flow of orders. KDK had recruited a very talented young but already very experienced chef, Michael Kornick, who was chef at Gordon’s and The Pump Room, before working for two years in the kitchen of the Four Seasons in Boston. He stayed at Marché until 1998 after a disagreement with Kleiner. Later on, he was replaced by Paul Wildermuth.
The first few years the cuisine was definitely influenced by a French brasserie style and was pretty good: Brandade de morue, onion soup, escargots, steamed mussels, rabbit terrine, great chicken roasted on cherry wood, whole lamb shank, a great dish of whipped potatoes with garlic, specials such as duck confit or cassoulet. But the best were the steaks and for lunch a terrific hamburger served with some of the best pommes frites I ever had in Chicago. And the basket full of 3 or 4 different breads was brought to your table with an excellent butter. For dessert, made by a very good pastry chef whose name I forgot, we loved the fruit tarts and a spectacular boozy chocolate mousse. The wine list was decent, with good small Bordeaux, but a bit pricey. A 4-course dinner for 2 without wine would cost over $70.00.
The big problem with that restaurant was the excessive noise, and in the early 90’s, the smoke.
But for long time it was one of the most exciting restaurants in town.
After he left Marché, Michael Kornick opened his own successful restaurants such as MK.
160 E. Huron St. Chicago
In May, I was very happy when this charming restaurant, with its sidewalk “terrasse” café was opened by Roger Greenfield and Ted Kasemir in the Radisson hotel. It had an obvious Mediterranean touch in both the colorful dining room, with its red tiled floor, and the attractive menu, created by Michael Altenberg, a very good chef whose very tasty Italian cuisine I had very much enjoyed in the late 80s first at Tucci Milan, then at nearby very successful Avanzare, both part of the LEY group. Cassis is the name of a delightful small fishing port, 22 miles east of Marseille, where you can eat very good fresh seafood and drink a delicious locally-produced white wine. During my first visit, there I thought I was back to my native South of France while eating fresh artichokes with aioli, brandade de morue, a creamy cod fish puree whipped in olive oil, that you spread on pieces of garlic rubbed toast, grilled lamb chops with pan-fried potato, onion and leek pancake, washed down with a very good Côtes de Provence. He also served a great French endive salad with Roquefort, and walnuts, and it was good to finish with a Hazelnut cake, or a Sorbet au cassis. Another day I had a good ‘’tapénade’’ and a very decent steak-frites. But the majority of customers came for the Bouillabaisse and other seafood such as scallops and mussels.
But unfortunately, Altenberg did not stay long, and my next, and last visit was very disappointing. A few months later he was replaced by another excellent chef, Suzy Crofton, but I never had an opportunity to taste her version of Provençal cooking. Anyway, as it is often the case with restaurants opened by Roger Greenfield, Cassis was soon sold, and in early 1997 it had morphed into a Mexican Grill.
Michael Altenberg, who later on had been very successful at Bistro Campagne a very good French bistro, died in 2012.
BARRINGTON COUNTRY BISTRO
700 W. Northwest Highway (in the Foundry Shopping Center), Barrington, IL
What a relaxing and charming restaurant it was, especially in the summer. We had lunch there only twice, a couple of years after its opening in May 95, but it will remain a very pleasant meal in our memories.
The owner, Jean-Pierre Leroux was a most gracious host and served us an apéritif (a pastis) outside, but we ate in one of the very spacious and luminous dining room that was simply decorated but very comfortable. I knew his wife Denise who worked at the French Consulate, and I had met Jean-Pierre when he was the manager of the very good Ciel Bleu restaurant in the Mayfair Regent hotel on east Lake Shore Drive. He was a real pro, with a long experience in the food and wine and hotel management business, who decided to come to Barrington and open his own place when the Mayfair was converted into a condo building. He brought with him the Ciel Bleu’s chef, Brian Newkirk, who stayed a couple of years. But then Leroux hired a very gifted ‘’cuisinière’’, Nadia Tilkian, who gave a very pleasant modern Mediterranean color, as well as a more traditional French bistro mark to the dishes she created, especially the daily specials such as duck, cassoulet, and calf liver, as well as scallops with porcini mushrooms, or pork tenderloin in thyme sauce. But for lunch you could appreciate simple bistro fare such as a very well-made croque-monsieur, a salade frisée and a cassis sorbet.
There was an excellent wine list, and the prices on the menu were very reasonable.
The restaurant closed on December 20, 2014.
59 W. Hubbard St. Chicago
JO was Jean Joho, the well-respected French chef who was hired in 1985 from France where he had acquired great cooking skills at the famous Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace, by George Badonsky to be the executive chef at Maxim’s on Astor. Unfortunately the restaurant which had been restored to his original splendor at a very high cost was closed after only one year in January 86. So, Joho got into a partnership with Richard Melman, the genius restaurateur and creator of the LEY group to launch the EVEREST, a luxurious and very creative restaurant on the 40th floor of a commercial high-rise in the South Loop. He still manages it in 2017.
But in 95 he partnered once again with LEY to re-create a typical French brasserie where the menu could include a few traditional Alsatian hearty dishes such as the “choucroute garnie”, and “tarte flambée” accompanied by French beer and Alsatian white wines such as Riesling. The very large two-tiered dining-room, could seat more than 200 guests in a relaxed, relatively elegant, but very lively environment, where you could eat and drink while listening to sold standard French songs. It also had a long bar where you could order simple small dishes such as sausage and potato salad, or drink an espresso with a delicious Alsatian fruit brandy such as Mirabelle or kirsch. It was a favorite meeting place at lunch time and very late at night before or after a show. The décor with its tiled floor, wooden bistro chairs, white table cloth, potted green plants, and its large train station clock behind the bar was really helping creating the atmosphere of a Parisian brasserie.
The menu also was composed of standard brasserie dishes: Smoked salmon, pâtés, soupe à l’oignon, brandade, cassoulet, filet of skate in a browned butter sauce with capers, coq au Riesling, duck confit, steak-frites, salade frisée Lyonnaise aux lardons, and very good profiterolles and sorbets for dessert. They had a different Plat du jour every day of the week. Sometimes in the early days the menu would occasionally feature a very pleasant dish of braised rabbit, which I liked a lot.
The crowd was quite diverse with well-dressed young couples, tourists out of a tour bus, old couples, or students. Everybody was always merry and satisfied when they left the place.
The prices were quite affordable. During the first 3 years you could have a 3-course meal for about 25 dollars (plus wine, taxes, and tip).
But in around 2007 both trends and the expectations and tastes of more sophisticated customers at night in that district started to change and the restaurant was closed in August 2010. The 2 sons of Rich Melman replaced it with a younger, more clubby and “branché” (trendy) French-American contemporary bistro called Paris Club. Brasserie Jo continued to exist in Boson.
455 Central Avenue, Highland Park, IL
In November Carlos and Debbie Nieto owners of the very successful CARLOS, a fancy French restaurant also in Highland Park since 1981, decided to open a more casual French bistro next door to the old movie theater on Central St. They knew that people wanted to eat well but in a more relaxed atmosphere, specially before or after a movie and this 70-seat comfortable but intimate French bistro, that they called a “French diner” in its early days, proved them right for several years.
They asked their chef at Carlos, French-born Jacky Pluton, to create a typical bistro menu, with moderate prices and it was successful. It included all the classics: soupe à l’oignon, country pâté, pissaladière (a recipe from Nice of a warm flaky onion and anchovies tart), mussels marinière, marinated herrings, roasted chicken flavored with herbes de Provence served with purée de pommes de terre (mashed potatoes), steak frites, salmon grilled with baked small green lentils, and for dessert, besides good profiteroles, a traditional tarte Tatin, and fresh tropical fruit sorbets.
The décor was definitively French provincial bistro with its small windows, Big wall mirrors, original French posters, white table cloth. The plats and wines u jour were written on a black board. Pluton’s French sous-chef, Frédéric Boyer became the chef de cuisine.
A 3-course dinner would set you back at only $24.00. But the nice little lunch menu cheaper
This restaurant is still open in 2017.
CYRANO’S BISTRO & WINE BAR
546 N. Wells St. Chicago
When Didier Durand and his wife Jamie Pellar opened their first own restaurant, they named it after the hero of Edmond Rostand’s famous play Cyrano de Bergerac. Didier is himself a native of this charming city in Southwest France, an area well-known for its duck foie gras and terrines, goose-based dishes, wild mushrooms, marvelous black truffles, and of course the excellent wines. So, this chef was raised in a region famous for its gastronomy, and he still loves and defends all these traditional specialties. He also benefited from a very solid culinary training at famous 3 stars restaurants such as Michel Guérard in Eugénie Les Bains. The resulting savoir-faire has been evident in the various Chicago area restaurants where he showed his talent for cooking traditional French cuisine for 10 years before opening Cyrano’s. La Bohème in Winnetka, Carlos in Highland Park, La Forêt in Lake Forest, Gordon’s in Chicago and Le Perroquet where he was the head chef when Michael Foley reopened it for a year in 1992.
With its banquettes as well as more traditional bistro tables and chairs Cyrano’s was a very comfortable restaurant where the walls are painted in a warm and luminous ochre color, and the high ceilings in royal blue. Fancy mirrors and French posters completed the décor.
The bar was welcoming customers who prefer to sip on very unusual wines from Southwestern France selected by Jamie, who often also manages the front of the house, as well as nibbling on some appetizers.
During its early years Didier’s menu offered bistro dishes such as a great steak with spectacular frites that were slightly spiced up with a touch of red pepper, Coq au vin, Bouillabaisse, sweetbreads, as well as a delicious cold Vichyssoise, and various pâtés, including a very mild but tasty one made from ostrich meat. But you could also taste more original and regional dishes such as rotisserie chicken, duck, and sometimes rabbit that I loved, as well as a very flavorful braised pork.
My favorite dessert was a delicious apple Tatin with rosemary flavored ice-cream.
For several years the restaurant was open for lunch and it was very nice in the summer to have a lengthy lunch outside on the sidewalk terrace.
In 1996 a 3-course meal would cost about 25 dollars.
After having renamed the restaurant Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen in 2012, and spent more time on his very popular Cyrano’s Café on the River Walk during the summer on the lower East Wacker Drive, Cyrano’s closed its doors at the end of August in 2015.
3443 N. Southport Chicago
Carl Segal, and his partner Casey Eslick, opened this 225 seats café-restaurant in June on a street that was becoming rapidly popular with young couples first because of its famous movie theater The MusicBox, at the corner of Grace st., and later on because of all kinds of interesting shops and restaurants that populated the western sidewalks all the way South to Belmont.
The zinc in France is a popular name for a long bar that you find in almost every café in France. It is also called “le comptoir” and the expression “boire une bière au comptoir”, or, “manger un sandwich au comptoir” means that that you have little time to sit down at a table and will eat or drink something at the bar. When I was a kid, after the war most bars were made of wood but the top of the bar, was covered with zinc. Nowadays the zinc has been replaced by copper. When you used to say to a colleague or a neighbor “Viens boire un apéro sur le zinc?” it meant that you wanted to share a quick before -dinner drink with him at the neighborhood café.
Bistrot Zinc had a front room, Café Zinc, with large French windows that from May to October were open on a very busy “terrasse” on the sidewalk. It was a very pleasant café where you could eat small dishes such as omelets, quiche, charcuterie, sandwiches, crepes, soups, salads, and ice-creams or home-made pastries, while sipping good French wines and beers. Most of the good bread used there was also home-made.
It was in this room that you could admire the famous zinc, a beautiful French antique, that used to be at the entrance of the main dining room of Les Nomades on Ontario in the 1970s. I remember drinking my aperitif next to it before going to my table to eat. But Jovan Trboyevic, the owner of this splendid private dining club, had told me that he would have to get rid of it because it was too big for that little space. I was quite surprised when I saw that beautiful piece 20 years later on Southport.
The back of the restaurant consisted of 3 dining rooms decorated with simple elegance as would be a French provincial bistro.
The first chef, René Bajeux was a real French pro with a long experience in France, Maui, California, and Chicago where he often delighted me with traditional bistro dishes at Chicago restaurants such as La Bohème, Le Bastille, Un Grand Café, or Bistro 110.
I very often took French visitors there for business dinners and everybody loved the place and the food. Dishes were all classics. Belgian Endives and ham au gratin. Lapin Chasseur or Poulet “Grand Mère” (my favorite), Great steak-frites (one of the best in Chicago in those days). Roasted Chicken in a Thyme sauce. Leg of Lamb (Gigot) with a wonderful aioli. Confit de Canard aux lentilles. Roasted Pork loin in a great Calvados (Apple brandy from Normandy) sauce. Poire belle Hélène, and of course the very popular Crèpes au Grand Marnier.
Nothing revolutionary or avant-garde, just plain satisfying bistro food.
A 3 course meal would cost no more than 22 or 23 dollars, without wine, taxes, and tip of course.
The restaurant closed in January 2002. But a new Bistro Zinc opened In 1998 at 1131 N. State St. Still open in 2017 it is charming but its French look and cuisine are not as convincing as the original on Southport.
64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka
Jacky Pluton, a native of Aubenas in Southern France, was chef at Carlos from January 1995 until he left in October 1996, and at Café Central (see above). But he had a previous solid experience in various good French restaurants in Florida and in Philadelphia. And he was trained in France in well-known Michelin-starred establishments. So was Frédéric Boyer, his sous-chef then chef at Café Central and now his partner when they open in November this luminous (where yellow and blue were the dominant, very Mediterranean, colors) and nicely appointed 82 seats restaurant in the space previously occupied by the Winnetka Grill. I went there a couple of times on an early afternoon and had an interesting conversation with Pluton. On that occasion I just tasted a bit of a very good brandade a specialty of pressed codfish and olive oil from Nimes, the city where I was born. But I did not have a chance to come back and have a full meal and I regret it because so many dishes on the menu were obviously very authentically Provençaux, especially his treatment of fresh vegetables, lamb and seafood. I also would have come back to try his Pan Bagnat, often spelled Bagna, a traditional Provençal sandwich originally from the Nice area, which consist of 2 round buns doused with olive oil and stuffed with canned tuna, anchovies, lettuce, tomato, sliced hard- boiled egg, small black olives, and a little it of vinaigrette. When I was a student in Aix-en-Provence I used to buy one for my lunch from a vendor selling them fresh-made out of his food truck.
A friend of mine who ate there a few times raved about his braised lamb shank with ratatouille, And I understand that his lavender-flavored crème brulée was a treat.
A 3-course dinner ran around $25.00 in 1996.
The restaurant suffered a fire in early 1999 and was reopened later as JACKY’S BISTRO.
33 W. Monroe, Chicago
This neo-brasserie opened in January in the space previously occupied for a long time by the very popular City Tavern. It became also rapidly a busy lunch meeting place for people working in offices located at the heart of the loop and for those needing a quick dinner before going to see a show at the Schubert theater located on the side of the street. I believe that it had the same owners as Bistro110, Anyways Voila’s chef worked in the kitchen of Bistro 110 for several years.
I have been there only once for lunch and was not overly impressed. The food which was a mix of French classics such as Croque-Monsieur, Quiches, mini home-made Pizzas, Herbed Roasted Chicken, Hachis Parmentier, Onion Soup, and slightly more exotic Mediterranean grilled dishes based on chicken and fresh vegetables, was O.K but not very exciting. Desserts were not very original: Crème brulée, ice cream in puff pastry with a hot coffee sauce.
The biggest asset of this restaurant was the location, the large menu, and the very low prices. You could eat a decent lunch for 15 dollars and drink a glass of French wine for $4.50.
But in the summer customers loved to have a lunch or a dessert with an expresso on the sidewalk terrace
The restaurant closed in April 99.
1846 N. Milwaukee Ave. Chicago
Charlie Socher, the chef and owner of this simple but charming 2 rooms place that opened in September, had already an extensive training in well-known French restaurants on his resume before returning to Chicago to work in 1st class restaurants such as Ambria. And his love for traditional French “cuisine bourgeoise” was evident when I checked the menu during my first and unfortunately only visit in this not too attractive section of Bucktown. His charcuterie, especially the pâtés which were quite authentically French both in taste and in presentation, as well as the Jarret d’Agneau aux légumes (braised lamb shank with vegetables), and even the Tarte aux fruits rouges, in fact raspberries, would not seem out of place in a French country inn.
His carte des vins offered of course a good selection of small Bordeaux as well as lesser known French regional wines and several of them were proposed by the glass for less than 6 dollars.
The restaurant that had a faithful following of regulars, including families with kids, remained popular until it closed in 2010.
In 1997 a 3-course meal without wine before tax and tip would cost you $25.00
1962 N. Halsted, Chicago
Eric Aubriot was barely 26 when he left his job as chef at Carlos and came downtown in the spring to open this very pretty, small storefront (56 seats) but sort of a formal gem of pure gastronomical pleasure. He was efficiently helped by his charming wife Stephanie who was a perfect host and front manager. But Eric surely had already a very impressive culinary resume both in France where he acquired great skills in the kitchen of luminaries such as Alain Ducasse and Michel Guérard, and in Evanston where he worked at TRIO.
Aubriot had a typical French chef passion for first rate products. He did not hesitate to incorporate the best he could find in the marketplace or from local and regional producers, to use in its very sophisticated menus.
Fresh Foie Gras, great fresh ocean fish such as bass and monkfish, mussels and crustaceans, Wisconsin veal, lamb, duck and rabbit, and always beautiful fresh seasonal vegetables and mushrooms. He had a special knack with vegetables, either grilled, sautéed, or in subtle cream sauce. And of course, the crown of each dinner was an elaborate dessert or pastry such as incredible soufflés and semi liquid chocolate cakes, created by Cindy Schuman, who at the time was one of the most gifted pastry chef in Chicago.
Eric Aubriot’s cooking was a very balanced mix of traditional French classicism and modern, post-nouvelle cuisine that was sometimes very bold in its elaborate association of ingredients, not hesitating to integrate caramelized and savory elements in the same dish. Everything was very flavorful but light, perhaps an inheritance from Guérard. And his sauces, often delicately flavored with light cream, home-made broth, and fresh herbs or exotic spices, were very elegant.
Unfortunately, such quality had a relatively high cost, and after a period of success, many customers became more reluctant to pay the price, and Aubriot eventually was transformed in a more casual French restaurant called ESCARGOT in 2003. It had to close the same year.
Since that time Eric worked in more than a dozen restaurants of various types (French, Middle-Eastern, Vietnamese, Italian, Japanese, etc.…) and in all kinds of capacities: chef, line cook, food consultant, as well as partner or manager. Those stints lasted from one month to several years. As far as I know he is still cooking in a Chicago restaurant in 2017, possibly Osteria Langhe.
MON AMI GABI
2300 N. Lincoln Parkway West, Chicago
Gabi is the diminutive for Gabino, the first name of iconic chef and restaurateur Gabino Sotelino, who for many years was the co-owner with LEYE’s creator Rich Melman, and executive chef of AMBRIA, a fancy and much celebrated and loved restaurant located just across the front lobby of the Belden-Stratford apartment hotel.
In fact, Melman and Sotelino had launched this French brasserie-bistro under the name of UN GRAND CAFÉ in 1981. (see my description in the 1980s chapter). But it was slightly redecorated and its menu simplified under its new name in June of 1998.
But it was still very comfortable with its leather banquettes, bistro tables, and the steaks, with great frites, the plateaux de fruits de mer (shellfish platters), and the pates, and the profiterolles, tarte tatin, and mousse au chocolat as good as ever.
The staff, dressed in the traditional outfits that you will find in a Parisian brasserie, was very well trained and efficient.
The selection of Bordeaux, Burgundies, and Côtes du Rhône, was quite affordable.
This restaurant is still popular in 2017.
1791 St. Johns Avenue, Highland Park, IL
When they opened this simply decorated but lovely, elegant, and sophisticated restaurant in June and named it after the first name of their newly arrived from L.A French chef, owners Dean and Barbara Becker probably did not guess that this charming, very gifted and already famous man Gilles Epié would stay only 4 months. I never had a chance to try it but I heard that it was pretty good.
When he arrived from Paris in 1995, without speaking English, but with very strong cooking and entrepreneurial credentials, he rapidly became a darling of the well-heeled “people” in Los Angeles, the stars of Hollywood and the big names in American and French politics. His incredibly creative and light cuisine, especially in seafood drove L’Orangerie, that had almost perished before he took it over first as executive chef and then as owner, to a new celebrity status. He was even named Best New Chef in America by Food and Wine in 1996. He also got married with a beautiful American model Elisabeth, who became his professional associate since that time.
But I had personally enjoyed his cuisine in Paris at Le Miraville, on the quai de l’Hôtel de Ville where he became in1980 at the age of 22, the youngest chef to get a Michelin star. And I also had good meals at La Petite Cour, rue Mabillon, in my old neighborhood and at one point also enjoyed his Mediterranean cuisine at Campagne et Provence in 1994.
After 10 years in the U.S He flew back to Paris for good to open Citrus Etoile near the Champs-Elysées in 2005 with Elisabeth. He just sold this very fancy restaurant in July 2017.
Gilles was renamed Cuisine Française in October 2008. Gilles went back to LA.
5111 N. Carpenter, Chicago
Jean-Claude Poilevey, and his wife Suzanne, whose Le Bouchon (see above) had rapidly become very successful in a few weeks, opened this larger bistro on September 14. In those days, the West Loop and more particularly the most Western part of Randolph had not yet established itself as a foodies and restaurateurs paradise and in some way a laboratory of new culinary trends.
To oversee the kitchen Jean-Claude had recruited David Burns, a young talented chef who had honed his French techniques under Jean Banchet in his Atlanta restaurant and had worked for a while at the Ritz-Carlton when Sarah Steigner was still in charge there. He had been the first chef at Le Bouchon, where Poilevey trained him in traditional cuisine bourgeoise and lyonnaise. It was a real pleasure for me to find during the first years at La Sardine some of my favorite French bistro dishes: Brandade de morue de Nimes, Tarte aux poireaux, rillettes, Salade Lyonnaise, bouillabaisse, steak-frites (Burns’s frites were among the best in Chicago) and my all-time favorite comfort food very meaty, tender, and well-seasoned Lapin Chasseur, or Lapin à la Moutarde (rabbit in mushroom and wine, or mustard sauce) that was served with delicious fetuccine pasta.
La Sardine also served a very seductive Gâteau au chocolat Praliné, and a great crème brulée.
The dining room was very spacious and luminous with its very large bay-windows.
But my favorite place was the long bar where you could drink very well selected regional French wines and great Calvados and Armagnac brandies. It was a very pleasant place to congregate with French friends after hours, or have a lively discussion about Beaujolais at lunch time when Jean-Claude was still there.
701 N. Wells St. Chicago
I had multiple occasions to enjoy John Hogan’s solid French technique and creative talent at the piano when he was the executive chef at Georges Cuisance’s Kiki’s Bistro, from its opening in 1990.
So, I was quite excited when he told about his plan to open his own French restaurant, with a couple of partners. But it took 6 months more than expected and a few legal, technical, and financial obstacles to beat before that date in October where the quite elegant SAVARIN, could finally open on the spot previously occupied by Lola’s. Hogan aptly gave it the name of the famous 19th century French culinary and food writer (“The Physiology of Taste” is his major book), epicurean, and gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin whose name was given to a famous triple-crème Brie cheese.
The main floor that looked a bit like a French provincial brasserie, complete with booths or tables, tiles on the floor, chandeliers, wood paneling and trims, white tablecloth and napkins, good quality flatware and glasses, flowers all over, was quite comfortable. So was the upper floor lounge with a bar, small tables, sofas and deep seating armchairs.
But the main attraction was a series of hand-painted portraits by Tim Anderson of well-known local chefs who were either friends, former employers, or mentors of John Hogan, such as Jean Joho, Jean Banchet, Paul Bocuse, Tony Mantuano, Gabino Sotelino, or Roland Liccioni.
But the best feature of this restaurant was it was covering a very eclectic panel of what French cuisine is made of: classicism and modernism, bistro and comfort traditional cuisine bourgeoise, as well as sophisticated touches of intelligent “nouvelle”.
So you could order a traditional meal of escargots, or soupe à l’oignon, a salade Lyonnaise, coq au vin, or steak-frites maître d’hôtel, if you wanted to stay in a “bistro” mood. And in winter a choucroute garnie. And a tarte Tatin for dessert.
Or if you wanted to impress a date or a future business partner, more sophisticated offerings would do the job: seared foie gras, sea urchins in lobster sauce, crab mousse, duck prosciutto, white asparagus in a delicate cheese and white truffle sauce, Dover sole, or a carré de veau roti aux champignons. And a very dense and satisfying chocolate mousse.
But when I was there the first time I was very happy to find on the menu that day a timbale of lentils with foie gras that John had asked me to taste 8 years earlier, just after he had produced his first sample in the kitchen at Kiki’s, to have my comments. I had loved it.
Savarin had a very well selected wine list full of reasonably priced Bordeaux and Burgundies.
In 1998 a 3-course dinner would cost you no more than 35 dollars (excluding tax and tip)
The restaurant, in spite of very good reviews, was probably too ambitious for that time period, and did not attract a sufficiently large client base. It was forced to close in July 2000. What a shame.
235 N. Wabash avenue, Chicago
I was very hopeful, since this address was exactly located at 2 blocks away from my office on Michigan avenue, that I was going to find a nice lunch replacement place for my dear, but now defunct, Café Angelo, a cozy and peaceful Italian institution owned and managed by the charming Angelo Nicelli, that I had known for years. In fact, he had acquired the place in 1970 the same year I started to work in that district. From the outside the bi-level big dining room looked elegant, comfortable, and promising. It was still located in a hotel, the totally renovated Hotel Monaco (formerly Oxford House). But it took several months for the work to be completed and the restaurant finally opened in November.
Mossant was a celebrated French hat maker in the 1800s and this building was actually itself the site of a hat factory. So, the whole décor was themed around the hats which were in evidence all over the place. I went there a couple of times for lunch and the so- called French dishes were as so uninteresting and mediocre in their presentation that I had the impression to be back to a “continental” restaurant of the early seventies. I did not return until 2000 when they recruited the talented Steve Chiapetti as the executive chef who revamped the menu reflecting a more modern French cuisine including escargots en croute, fresh seared foie gras, lobster and salmon mousse, tapenade, aioli, and brandade, as well as Tournedos Rossini, roasted sea bass, vegetable Tagine, and Baked Alaska for dessert. By now it has attracted a more sophisticated clientele, especially pre-theater at dinner time.
But that successful period did not last more than a year and ended with Chiapetti’s leaving for more interesting venues.
The restaurant morphed into South Water Kitchen in 2002. Then I lost track and interest.
DAVID’S FRENCH COUNTRY BISTRO
10 W. Jackson Naperville, IL
This comfortable 3 dining rooms restaurant was more contemporary American than traditional French. But the cuisine had an obvious French influence, inherited by the owner-chef David Oland who for quite a while was the chef at the authentic French restaurant Montparnasse nearby. I have not been there but from what I read and heard Oland obviously had a decent knowledge of French cooking techniques. It was reflected in a nice selection of seafood dishes, based on scallops, salmon, and monkfish, as well as braised rabbit in a mustard sauce, duck confit, and even a cassoulet.
For dessert, his risotto of oven-dried pears, with mint ice cream and crème anglaise seemed to have some fans.
But, in spite of reasonable prices (about 30 dollars for a 3-course dinner) I do not think that this place lasted more than a year.
LES DEUX GROS
462 Park Blvd. Glen Ellyn, IL
The 2 “fat Guys”, that the name of this very ambitious and very inventive and high-quality restaurant refers to, are 2 brothers with, at the time, were endowed with a pretty noticeable girth.
Michael and Thomas Lachowicz were two professionals with a lot of experience, Michael the chef has been refining his tremendous knowledge of both classic French cuisine under Jean Banchet in the kitchen of Le Français in Wheeling, where he stayed 2 years. But here in his own kitchen in Glen Ellyn, he added a whole new dimension, his own, where French modernism was obviously an important source of inspiration in the bold dish and sauces that he created in his famous “tasting menus”.
Tom, the maître d’hôtel and sommelier, was his indispensable complement. But their personalized contact with the many foodies who packed the place, as well as with their local “regulars” was also part of the success of the restaurant until October 2003 when they closed the place to become partners with Mike Moran at a re-opened Le Francais. Michael regularly came out of his kitchen to talk with customers in the dining-room
They opened the restaurant in January (or February), and it rapidly got raves not only in the local press but also national recognition.
Located in a strip mall, this relatively small (65 seats in 1999) two rooms place was nevertheless at the same time comfortable, intimate, and extremely well decorated and appointed, with wood panels on the walls, white table cloth, fancy French china. The service was faultless. And the whole atmosphere was definitely French with its menus written in French
(with English translation). The $70.00 prix-fixe dinner was a big winner in 2002.
And the dishes were made of the best ingredients that money could buy: Lobster, veal, salmon, scallops, monkfish, oysters, duck, quail, foie gras, wild mushrooms, venison, risotto, quenelles, organ meats, and of course lots of truffles, and small fresh vegetables and fruits, were declined in all kind of shapes, types of “cuissons”, soups, mousses, “entremets”, sauces, and often “en croûte”. For example, the famous Pithivier de Canard created by Jean Banchet was a favorite. And Lachowicz did not hesitate to combine savory and fruits flavors.
Everything was at the same time rich and delicate, never overdone, or pretentious. Needless to say, the wine list was one of the best in Chicago.
1119 W, Taylor, Chicago
Joel Kazouini, a very nice and professional French-speaking Moroccan man, had already a Chicago experience as a restaurateur before he opened this 67 seats charmer in an old Italian neighborhood in May. He and his brother had for several years a popular bistro, Clark Street Bistro.
I always enjoyed the French atmosphere and décor there (nice old posters on the walls), where you immediately feel welcome, the pleasant service in spite of a very often packed dining room, especially on week-ends. I have to also admit that the noise level makes sometimes private conversations difficult to follow, the fact that tables are so close to each other does not help. But after all it is also the case in many bistros in France. Anyways, I go there for the food, and it is really good and well presented, in this unpretentious but very classic French bistro, with good quality ingredients. The bread is delicious, and the wine list includes a very attractive selection of French wines at reasonable prices.
My favorite dishes are or were, since some of them might have change from the early years: brandade de morue, pâtés, especially country and duck liver and their typically French accoutrements, tarte aux poireaux (warm leek tart), steak frites (good fries), lamb shank with mushrooms, and a very decent roasted chicken. And I love their pasta dishes. The fine apple tart with Calvados was always my dessert of choice.
A 3-course dinner would cost 35 dollars,
Chez Joel is still very popular place in 2017.
LA PETITE FOLIE
1504 E. 55th street, Chicago
It took me a while to find out where this discretely elegant French restaurant was hiding on a small courtyard surrounded by a mini mall in Hyde Park. Living in Evanston at the time just to eat.it was quite a long drive to get there just to eat. And the only time when we decided to stop by for an early dinner after an afternoon at the Oriental Museum, it was closed. So even though we went there a few times to check the very appealing menu and the comfortable clean dining room with its white cloth covered nice table, we never ate there and still regret it. Because everything we read and heard about this attractive restaurant had a great appeal to me. Perhaps we will eventually go one day since its opening in June 1999 it has been enjoying a good success and is still in operation in 2017 under the same two owners Mary and Michael Mastricola.
Both were alumni of the University of Chicago, went to the famous Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris and then trained in several good restaurants In France, her as a cook and him as a Maitre D’ and sommelier.
So, it was no surprise that her menu and the good wine list reflected the serious French techniques that they acquired there.
From seared Foie Gras, Tarte aux Poireaux or onions and gruyere, to Rabbit Pâté aux pruneaux and cognac, éventail de Magret de Canard and its delicate wild mushrooms stew, or Loin of lamb with pesto in feuilleté, to Roasted Cod with ratatouille, or the Médaillons of Veal with a goat cheese polenta, everything made me drool with envy.
heir tortes and sorbets looked also very tempting desserts.
And the wine list, a well-balanced selection of French wines was modestly priced.
In French, “faire une petite folie” can mean to treat yourself to an extra-special meal in a fancy, and usually more expensive restaurant that you could normally afford.
But at la Petite Folie, you obviously could, and still can, enjoy a very good 3 course French meal for $ 35.00 between 1999 and 2002. Which was not a “folie”.
1437 N. Wells Street, Chicago
Joe Doppes for many years was the first restaurateur to have dared to introduce French cuisine in the heart of an Italian neighborhood on Taylor Street with his successful Taylor Street Bistro. He took more or less a similar gamble when he opened in October this relatively large 2 room French bistro, in a section of Wells St. in Old Town that was not yet at the time as attractive to young professionals in search of condos near Lincoln Park, as it would become eventually. One portion of the population of that neighborhood was also aging and not necessarily in search of French bistros. But a couple of years later the wind turned in his favor with the opening of a sidewalk “terrasse” that became progressively popular and attracted many younger customers and tourists who wanted a dink and a quick lunch.
Margot was Joe’s daughter name.
A very astute restaurateur, Doppes created a menu that was not too intimidating or to eclectic. He selected a limited number of classic bistro dishes that did not required long preparation and were easily recognizable, with standard but tasty sauces. And he kept the prices affordable. Pâtés, Escargots, Seafood terrrine, Steak frites, Sole meunière, Lamb chops with ratatouille, Duck magret and confit, Roasted chicken with herbs and lemon and frites, or Coq au Vin with noodles were good sellers. But I would say that his desserts were neither original or special.
The wine list was O.K but not very imaginative either.
The place could be very noisy when packed with people who had sometimes heated discussions after a few drinks.
But the restaurant was popular and remained successfully opened until it closed in December of 2015.
That’s all folks!
This fifth and final part of what I called a retrospective of 75 years of French restaurants in Chicago marks the end of the 1900 millennium. It was somewhat a deliberate choice on my part since 2000 really marked the beginning of a new way for Chicagoans to go out for lunch or dinner.
Even though Chicago remained the “meat and potatoes” town it had always been for more than a century with the constant opening of new steakhouses, people here in the 1990s were more adventurous in their choices of food. Diners were attracted to a large and diverse choice of restaurants devoted to so-called “ethnic” cuisines, new wines from Europe and South America, exotic cocktails, creative desserts, and even new styles, decors, and ambiances of eating venues. A key word that characterized that period was FUN. Chicagoans, especially the younger generation, wanted to go out to eat with friends and family to have a good time, in a relaxed atmosphere. They wanted to be waited on by unpretentious and friendly service staff who knew what their customers wanted and were competent enough about the food coming from the kitchen and the beverages from the bar to provide good advice.
In fact, more often than in the past the customer knew the name of the chef who sometimes paid a visit to the table of regular customers.
The formality that had often characterized too many French restaurants meaning intimidating menus, arrogant staff, too sophisticated dishes, unorthodox and sometimes strange assemblies of components on the plate, and above all too expensive meals, progressively faded away with the massive invasion of the “bistro”.
At the same time the generalization of the use of fresh products in cooking, especially from farmers markets, the multiplication of stores selling cooking ware and equipment, as well as cooking classes, encouraged home cooking.
Also, many customers read food and wine articles in their local newspapers and even had subscriptions to specialized F&W magazines. And they occasionally got together to cook and taste food from recipes they had read.
The number of new TV shows devoted to food preparation grew exponentially in the 1990s and early 2000s. But at a time when traditional French cooking was in regression in restaurants and ethnic cuisines from Italy, Mexico, and Asia were progressing in restaurants, the same trend was noticeable on TV. Very few of these shows were hosted by French chefs well established in the U.S. The only brilliant exceptions were Jacques Pépin and Hubert Keller.
One of the most obvious trend of the 90s in French restaurants was that the kitchen in a majority of them was now under the authority of an American chef, most of the time still in his or her late thirties or forties, who had trained under a French chef, here or in France, or a French teacher in a cooking school.
Another trend in French bistro was to offer small dishes that you would eat, possibly at the bar, with a glass of a French lesser known and cheaper house wine which could be from Languedoc or the Loire Valley. Going to a French restaurant for lunch was no longer a long and costly affair. Many bistros would serve a croque-monsieur with a salad, a salade niçoise, or a small steak frites, with a glass of wine, and a cup of expresso, or a “lunch special” for a tab rarely going over 20 dollars.
You went to a fancier French restaurant at night for a special occasion, such as a birthday dinner, or a serious business occasion.
Well, it is time for me to say a big ‘’Merci” to all the professionals, owners, cooks, waiters, wine captains, who shared their memories with me over the last 7 years. Their patience and knowledge of the French dining scene in Chicago and its suburbs was invaluable.
Obviously I did not visit in person all the restaurants which are mentioned in this quite large piece of work. I could not have done the lengthy and necessary research without the help of the many books and magazines I read. And I have to thank all the food and restaurant critics whose reviews and features I read in various local and regional newspapers. The rich archives of The Chicago Tribune and Sun Times were particularly helpful.
I also would like to apologize for all the errors, confusions, mispellings, and above all the nice or less nice French restaurants that I neglected or forgot. I will read and if possible comment on any valid complaint on this blog.