Fresh approach to French food in Chicago

March 20, 2011 8:42:04 AM PDT
Twenty years ago, the finest restaurants in town were all French. The cuisine has suffered in popularity over the years, due to its high-fat, sauce-laden image. But the French are making a comeback in the city in a big way.

Le Perroquet and Le Francais are long gone. Les Nomades, Le Bouchon and Kiki's Bistro manage to hang on with a loyal clientele. But French food - in Chicago at least - hasn't been so popular the last decade. However, three new restaurants are hoping to lure back Francophiles with a more modern approach.

His French roots clearly intact, Chef Martial Noguier seems to have finally found his groove. At Bistronomic in the Gold Coast, there is a harmony between classic French bistro and a more modern approach to gastronomy. Take for instance his jar of tuna tartar embedded with avocado, basil and a bright, lemon vinaigrette, or a perfectly-cooked Lake Superior whitefish resting above French lentils with curly frisee and a dijon mustard vinaigrette.

"I try to revise or so dishes like duck a l'orange to be, not to be so heavy than before. Means all the dish that you are going to have at Bistronomic has French technique but light; less butter and less cream," said Noguier.

His duck is pan-seared and sliced medium rare, plated over a sunchoke ragu, then topped with an orange-coriander sauce.

On West Randolph, the menu is more compact - and much more French - at the cozy and intimate Maude's Liquor Bar, where the house-made cocktails could easily outshine the wines by the glass. Hearty, earthy cassoulet is loaded with white beans and sausage, served with a side of roasted bone marrow; a Lyonnaise salad has the requisite frisee and escarole greens, some toasted brioche croutons and a soft boiled egg, but instead of tiny pork lardons, there is a massive tile of grilled pork belly. Even chicken liver mousse is soft and silky, the texture of soft butter, with a sweet shallot marmalade balancing the inherent richness.

The big-scale French addition to the landscape comes courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You. R.J. and Jerrod Melman have followed up their Hub 51 by taking over the old Brasserie Jo space, and turning it into Paris Club.

"What we really wanted to do is create a menu that was fun to share, great for groups and even lighten up French and kind of take the stigma that French is heavy and elegant at the same time," said R.J. Melman.

Charcuterie plays a big role here: from tartines and pates to cured meats, with all of the usual acoutrements like pickles and mustards. Steak tartare is a must: featuring worcestershire, Calvados and fresh herbs.. but a thinly-pounded chicken paillard also fits the bill. In some cases, heavy standbys like croque monsieur sandwiches have been transformed into bite-sized "fingers" with an eggy dipping sauce.

"In France - in Paris - the young places are all kind of doing the same thing. We're really inspired by what's going on in Paris that they're using new ingredients and they're lightening up old classics. But at the same time we're still doing classics or updating them," Melman said.

Maude's Liquor Bar
840 W Randolph

Paris Club
59 W Hubbard St

840 N Wabash