Restaurants: The End of Two Eras | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: The End of Two Eras 

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The Bakery closed its doors this past summer, and Le Francais changed hands. Both were special to Chicago, albeit in different ways. Their passing signals the end of two eras.

Au Revoir Mr. Banchet

Jean Banchet's Le Francais represented the ultimate, pull-out-all-stops sybaritic celebratory indulgence. What made it that was more than just the quantity of food, which was large, or the quality of ingredients, which was always top-notch. Other restaurants gave us both, but at Le Francais dining became art--complex, demanding, an orchestration of tastes and textures as profound as it was fleeting. Of course one had to choose properly, and midwesterners are not accustomed to taking food so seriously. Patrons who ordered inappropriately found themselves complaining of an embarrassment of riches--too "heavy," too many sauces, and finally "too much." In one sense, it could be overwhelming: this was cuisine that commanded our complete attention; as we ate, we found ourselves talking about the food more than anything else, comparing notes on nuances of flavor and texture. But in another sense, because it was so good, it was never quite enough. Banchet expanded our culinary horizons by tantalizing us with instances of perfection. For a few brief moments during our meal, heaven would be in our grasp even as it was slipping away. We begrudged neither the long trek to Wheeling nor the considerable dent it made in our bank balance. We'll miss you, Jean.

The Wilting of Our Salad Days

In the mid-60s, Louis Szathmary launched the Bakery, and for a long time after it was the only gourmet game in town. It was also a bargain, even then: five dollars for pate, soup, salad, entree, dessert, and coffee; and, a boon for budgeters, BYO booze. A phone call to Louis beforehand explaining that a birthday or anniversary was about to be feasted would, more often than not, bring an additional dish to the table, "made just for you with compliments of the chef." Reservations were difficult to come by, so we didn't mind the unyielding bentwood chairs (our bottoms were more resilient then), the jammed-together tables (we considered ourselves lucky to get one), or the hurry-up approach to dining (as we could see, people were waiting to get in). We were honored when Louis made the rounds, giving a little bow as he thanked us for our presence. In those, our culinary salad days, beef Wellington and roast duck with cherry sauce were the heights of gastronomic glory.

The Bakery expanded, and new restaurants opened. Chicago now had something to compare it with. Critics noted that the quality of food had declined, but still the crowds kept coming. Almost imperceptibly, at first, we found ourselves more inclined to go elsewhere to celebrate. When we did return, at infrequent intervals, we felt uncomfortable about banging elbows with total strangers at the next table. Service, once merely fast, had become frenetic: pates were plopped onto plates, and soup bowls whisked away in mid-mouthful. Louis still went from table to table, but the greeting had become perfunctory.

Some five or six years ago, prompted by a bout of nostalgia, we returned to the Bakery. It was crowded and uncomfortable. As we were starting on our pate, Louis began his customary walk among the tables. Nodding amiably in our general direction, he started to squeeze past our table with his back toward us when he spied a friend at the table next to ours, directly in front of him. Suddenly he leaned forward to make a point, a point that took about a minute and a half. For 90 seconds the master's behind, sheathed in black and white checks, bobbed up and down precariously over my pate.

I don't remember the rest of the meal. That was the last straw, or, to shift the metaphor, too much to swallow. We never went back to the Bakery, but sometimes I wonder if we'd ever have got to Le Francais without it.

Eating Meeting

The prestigious California-based American Institute of Wine and Food held its annual conference, a four-day feeding frenzy, in our city this past November. Such luminaries as Jeff Smith, Julia Child, and Robert Mondavi flickered fitfully under the Four Seasons' ballroom lights. Smith began one meeting by nattering amiable inanities, Julia reminisced at another, and Robert Mondavi inveighed against the forces of "new prohibition"--those who would put warning labels on wine and increase the penalties for drunk driving. The highly touted Friday-night banquet, at $85 per head, dragged on for hour after hour as guests ran out of small talk, stomachs grumbled, and everyone wondered what was happening in the kitchen. One afternoon reporter Thomas Moore served up a rehash of his Atlantic Monthly article on cholesterol, and on the last day columnist Abby Mandel served up a lunch of only 900 calories, not including wine of course. Everyone agreed that the lunch, coming as it did at the end of the four-day pigout, was a wonderful idea; then we all trooped off virtuously to a wine and cheese tasting later that afternoon. Wine flowed freely throughout, and a good time was had by all, particularly the numerous freeloaders who managed to avoid the whopping $495 registration fee.

Where's the New Grub Street?

Rents in trendy River North having reached the empyrean, restaurateurs have been looking around for less pricey real estate in which to ply their wares. The Clybourn corridor seemed, for a while, to be the most likely candidate, but the word is that it has yet to catch on. Despite the presence of Thunderbird, Cocorico, Corridor Cafe, Rim Klong, and Metropolis 1800, among others, the area is deserted at night, and street parking, that most reliable of barometers, is readily available. Perhaps Lettuce Entertain You's Bub City, just off Clybourn on Weed Street, can breathe some life into this moribund stretch. Perhaps not. In the meantime, enjoy the free parking.

Keeping Up With the Prose

Chicago, as we've been hearing ad nauseam these days, is a great restaurant town. If you don't believe me, just read a book. Three new guides to Windy City dining crossed my desk this year--Gault Millau's long-awaited The Best of Chicago (of which I am a contributing editor), Dining Lite in Chicago, and Eat Your Art Out Chicago. The Best of Chicago was clearly a labor of love--surely none of us was in it for the money--and despite the delay in publication, we think it does a pretty good job.

Dining Lite caters to the calorie-conscious, offering calorie counts of selected dishes at 101 eating establishments. As anyone who has ever tried it knows, the trick to dieting in restaurants is to order fish or chicken, broiled or poached, sans sauces, and lots of vegetables with little or no dressing. Nearly all of the fewer-than-500-calories dishes in Dining Lite follow this general rule, so you won't find many surprises there. If you can stomach the gushy, uninformative prose (e.g., "The overtones of 'casual riche' are understated to the point of being fashionable . . ."), you might come across an occasional useful tidbit, more likely about what not to order than the reverse. Jameson's cold salmon salad, for example, seemingly a safe bet for dieters, weighs in at 700 calories, which makes broiled salmon or tuna a much better choice at 350. Similarly, the dill dip that comes with veggies at Cafe on Grand will add 515 calories to waist and hips (but you knew that was a no-no, didn't you?), while Zum Deutschen Eck's broiled whitefish with potato and broccoli, the least fattening entree listed at that establishment, will set you back 742. In fact, it might be best to avoid Zum Deutschen Eck altogether, unless you can limit yourself to a single serving of apple strudel at 520.

Eat Your Art Out, a guide to art in restaurants, is boring reading but might be of interest to an artist looking for someplace to exhibit, or a diner with a phobia about bare walls. It says nothing about the food beyond such generalities as "fresh fish, meat, and pasta" (this for Jerome's, other restaurants don't get even that much). Prices given for dinners for two seem inordinately low.

Even illiterates have to eat, it seems, and now there is a videotape that lets people see what they will get before their arrival. Called On Screen Cuisine, it pictures the menu offerings of 40 restaurants, color-coded by location; so long as diners have the requisite rods and cones, they don't even have to know the alphabet. For the lunkhead on your list.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

It's that time again when one looks back and names the best and the worst new restaurants of the preceding 12 months. I've decided to skip the worst this year--they probably won't last much longer anyway. The best to toddle down the pike in a long time, as far as I'm concerned, is Rust Belt Cafe with its refreshingly innovative approach to continental cuisine. Happily, the creations turned out by the pastry chef easily meet the challenge of what comes before (e.g., napa-wrapped salmon or exquisitely tender and aromatic duck confit). Not far behind in execution, but worlds away in style, is David Friedman's Elbo Room. With an admirably single-minded focus, Friedman serves roasted and grilled meat and fish that demonstrate why the French place the rotisseur above the saucier in the pantheon of the kitchen gods. Elysee, on North State, and C'est Si Bon, a grocery-restaurant on Walton, have both given an understated shot in the arm to cuisine bourgeoise, the home cooking that the French elevate to an art (and the latter features exquisite pralines, truffles, and nougats air-freighted from La Maison du Chocolat in Paris). Va Pensiero and Bice, both good, make a study in contrasts, the former on a quiet, tree-lined street in Evanston, the latter in the fibrillating heart of Streeterville. Va Pensiero offers an elegant and fairly reasonable version of today's cucina Italiana. Bice dishes up trendy Italian viands in a trendy ambience for a trendy clientele willing to shell out $150 or more per couple for the privilege. The Hotel 21's Cafe 21, though not brand-new, seems to have come into its own in 1989, as chef Martin Gagne continues to refine his considerable talents with southwestern-styled nouvelle cuisine. And the Four Seasons' Seasons hit the ground running and hasn't faltered. Chef Reto Demarmels creates instant classics by such exquisite pairings as ocean scallop with salmon tartare and Texas Axis deer with huckleberries and chestnuts. Bub City does not so much swing as wrench the pendulum in the opposite direction, as far as ambience and style are concerned, but within its raunchy, artificially picturesque interior it serves up some of the best barbecued ribs, chicken, and brisket of beef this side of the Panhandle.

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