Over the last twenty years, Bucktown has evolved from a cool artist colony to a trendy neo-Lincoln Park. While art galleries have given way to wine bars, the forever hip nature of Bucktown has remained. Perhaps no better example of this can be found than in the classic neighborhood French bistro Le Bouchon. First opened in 1993, Le Bouchon (1958 N. Damen) excels at making classic French cuisine approachable to the urban masses. Under the direction of owner Chef Jean-Claude Poilevey, Le Bouchon has cultivated both a loyal customer base and a stellar reputation. So much, in fact, it would make a logical place to treat both your cousin from the country as well as your most serious foodie friend. This was especially true the previous week when all of their entrées were priced at $19.93 (in honor of the restaurant’s birth year).
It was in celebration of this anniversary that Le Bouchon extended an invitation to several media outlets to review their restaurant. A serious eater and a hopeful critic, I jumped at the opportunity. While by no means a Francophile, I have always been intrigued by the idea of French cooking. Maybe it is because it is so much the opposite of my own minimalist instincts. Where I see green beans, the French see a lot of garlic and butter to sauté it in. Me, I usually steam them. It takes just a few minutes. But to cook like a French man you need years of training.
Walking into Le Bouchon is an experience upon itself. More intimate than many coffee shops, the diner does feel like something just off a Parisian side street (a fact picked up on by almost every other reviewer). Our waiter, Gerard, gave enough space to allow my wife, Corey, and I room to gossip about life, but was always available to answer our questions. And we did have more than a few questions. Mostly I asked them to Corey and she later asked them to Gerard while I tried my best to look amused at her lack of knowledge. This strategy mostly worked except for when Gerard, unsure of an answer, demured to my very limited expertise.
A little nervous at the start, I did what many a man has done in uncertain circumstances. I ordered cocktails. My Le Zephyr was a refreshing blend of gin, grapefruit juice, and a few other liquors that mixed just right is sure to give anyone a boost of confidence. Corey went with the more novel Le Monstre (a combination of many things including Old Overholt Rye and ginger beer). I think this would have to be the go to drink for a college aged Harry Potter. Out of journalistic pride I tasted both and would recommend either.
I allowed Gerard to pair the starter plates (as well as everything else) and he did an exceptional job of doing so. The Tarte a l’ Oignon (a delectable tart consisting primarily of caramelized onions, gruyere cheese, and bacon) and several featured cheeses was especially pleasing when quenched with an Emile Beyer Pinot Blanc (from the Alsace region of France). Upon the chef’s insistence, we also tasted his Cuisses de Grenouille (roasted frog legs, garlic, and lemon). After a few bites I understood why it was brought to my table. If I was able to create such a wonderful dish, I would also want to show it off. My wife, a mostly vegetarian, also sampled the Composee salad (beets, carrots, lentils, and celery root) and was excited to note that the essential taste and character of the salad transformed with each twirled fork full.
For the main entrée, we chose the Saumon Poche (salmon simmered in a wonderful wine sauce and served upon sautéed green beans), Gnocchis Françaises (a French style gnocchi), and Lapin Sauté Chasseur (sautéed rabbit in a white wine sauce served with carrots, mushrooms, and celery). Again, Gerard chose well in pairing the salmon and pasta dishes with a drier Macon-Villages White Burgundy. The salmon was especially savory and its moist flesh flaked onto my fork that way it should. While the gnocchi was also good, I think I prefer the softer, Italian style over its toasty French cousin. The rabbit required a change in wine and Gerald was quick to pour me a more robust Mas de Guiot Rhone which complemented well the succulent flavor of the meat. This was my first time tasting rabbit but I do not think it will be my last.
I normally skip dessert, but my sense of duty compelled me to sample some homemade maple flavored ice cream, crème brulee, and an opera cake. I do these things for you, the reader. Paired with two dessert wines it was a shame we could not quite finish them off. Writing this now I can close my eyes and almost taste the combinations of espresso, chocolate, and caramel. If it was not past closing hours I would be seriously tempted to drive back for just one more taste (you know, to make sure I got it right the first time around).
Like all good things, the meal did come to an end. Bouncy from coffee, good food and just the right amount of liquor I re-entered Chicago wishing for a quick return back to Wicker Park’s French Quarter.
Bottom line: Le Bouchon (1958 N. Damen) is highly recommended. Reasonably priced considering the exceptional quality of the service and food. Most entrées hover around the $25 mark (starter plates are about half that and all sides are under $10). Given the intimate nature of the restaurant, reservations are highly recommended. For more information related to Le Bouchon you can click here lebouchonofchicago.com/ or call the restaurant directly at (773) 862-6600. Le Bouchon has a sister restaurant in the loop called La Sardine (111 N. Carpenter); related information can be found here lasardine.com/ .
All photos by Noel Schecter