There’s a French renaissance in Chicago, and it’s an edible one.
NBC 5's Food Guy Steve Dolinsky says three new French restaurants are all vying for your attention - some with splashy interiors while others are more down-to-earth.
Chicago has seen French waves before. Brasserie Jo and Brasserie T in the nineties. Paris Club and Maude’s Liquor Bar a decade or so later. Of course, Le Bouchon in Bucktown has been going strong for 30 years. Maybe the founder’s sons learned something from that; having recently opened their own place on the Near North Side.
Obélix is the culmination of an upbringing in the French restaurant business in Chicago. It nods to the past – note the hearty French onion soup with its Swiss cheese cap hiding croutons submerged in beef broth – yet it also looks to the future: those pink peppercorn macarons contain a date citrus jam surrounded by foie gras mousse. Instead of settling for a classic Lyonnaise salad with curly escarole, they bury it in duck confit that’s been preserved and cooked in its own fat, crowning it with a soft egg. Duck lovers should be advised there’s a 10-day dry-aged breast, lacquered, sliced and served next to a grilled Thai duck sausage set over a green papaya salad. Definitely not grand-père’s bistro.
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In River North, Le Select is literally the newest restaurant in town, but also the only one where everyone looks good bathed in its sumptuous lighting. Wilmette native Daniel Rose oversees the menu – he also oversees restaurants in Paris. L.A. and New York City. Sautéing green peppercorns, shallots and vinegar, along with cognac… plus heavy cream, he creates an indulgent sauce for a classic steak au poivre. Poached salmon is a show-stopper, with a choice of two sauces (shown here with the beurre blanc); it’s served with a few boiled potatoes and at 39 bucks, is the least expensive main dish.
More budget-friendly options in Evanston at the new Le Tour, the product of a collaboration between two old friends who felt there was a need in the area.
“Mirador – my first restaurant – was opened in ’89 and that was French,” said owner Amy Morton. “We call ourselves ‘unconventionally French’ – Debbie’s take on modern French food with strong Moroccan influences.”
Debbie Gold runs the kitchen. She can go classic, like a roasted onion tarte featuring a flaky pastry base beneath onions that have been cooked down until sweet, plus white anchovy and briny black olives. There’s a crazy-good Moroccan eggplant and chickpea salad with tomatoes, preserved lemon and a slightly spicy harissa vinaigrette.
Harissa shows up again in a massive skillet of roasted mussels, also featuring white wine butter and paprika. Be sure to have enough crusty bread on hand for sopping. And perhaps the most French-Moroccan dish on the menu – a rustic chicken tagine with couscous, olives and preserved lemon. Morton says it’s quickly become the restaurant’s most popular dish.
“You know I never thought about the mix, but I figured it would be one of the top,” Morton said.
Le Tour also has a happy hour during the week. And back at Le Select, be sure to return for their upstairs bar, one of the most visually appealing bars in town.
Here's where you can go:
400 W. Huron
504 N. Wells St.
625 Davis St., Evanston
1958 N. Damen Ave.