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June 10, 2007

Café Bernard

Dominic Armato
'Twas a beautiful night tonight, my ladylove is a sucker for onion soup and a coworker of hers recently spoke favorably of Café Bernard, so we cruised over for a little dining al fresco. Café Bernard has been around... well... a long time. 1972 is when Bernard LeCoq brought his casual French bistro fare to Lincoln Park, and he expanded in 1990 by adding Red Rooster next door. The two have very similar menus, and I believe they may even share a kitchen, with the primary difference being atmosphere. However, both dining rooms looked the same (invisible, that is to say) from the sidewalk table where we ate. It's impossible not to have a lovely evening with the weather so perfect, and we thoroughly enjoyed our night out. But while others I know have spoken very favorably of the food, I was somewhat less enthused.

Dominic Armato
The menu is exactly what you'd expect from a French bistro, featuring the required onion soup, pates, escargot and cheeses. Entrees are mostly simple meats and seafood with glazed vegetables, plus bouillabaisse and a cassoulet that almost sucked me in. We started off simply enough, sharing the coarse duck pate. It was a no-nonsense opener, served with sliced onion, tomato wedges, cornichons, grainy mustard and some toasted brioche. It was an exceptionally simple and rustic rendition, lightly seasoned and coarse bordering on chunky. Nothing exceptional by any means, but ably prepared and very enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
My first visit to a new bistro almost always entails an order of onion soup, and while the heat kept me away this evening, my ladylove stepped up. There's a reason Thomas Keller wrote an extended treatise on the importance of onion soup in his Bouchon cookbook. Onion soup is one of those perfect benchmarks for a French bistro. Technique, patience and care transform one of the least glamorous ingredients available into a deep, intense, impossibly satisfying dish. This is a dish that separates kitchens that get it from those that don't. Sadly, Café Bernard's rendition fell closer to the latter end of the spectrum. It had the flash, with beautifully browned cheese, delightfully mushy chunks of bread and soft onion throughout. But the flavor just wasn't right. And I don't mean that it was one of those weak versions that came across as onion-flavored water. There was intensity there, but its character was unusually bright. The high notes sang, but the deep, sweet, mellow roundness that grounds a soulful dish like this was missing. If this was an intentional choice, I think it was a poor one. It came across as off-balance and unsatisfying.

Dominic Armato
I'm picky enough about pasta that I probably shouldn't be ordering it in a French restaurant. But the lobster ravioli called to me, so I gave them a try. The sauce was actually rather nice. It was lightly creamed but a touch watery, perhaps, and it had a bold, gnarly, parts of the lobster that aren't used in the other lobster dishes kind of quality to it. And I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The ravioli themselves were a little less exciting. I'm not going to hold a French bistro's pasta dough to the same standards I'd use at a trattoria, so let's just say it did the job. The filling, however, was rather dry and dense and belied its "lobster mousse" billing. It was an okay dish, it just fell a little short for me. Taking some bread to the sauce was the best part.

Dominic Armato
For an entree, I bit on one of the day's specials, a piece of haddock served with a sautéed leek and saffron sauce, as well as mashed potatoes and some simple glazed vegetables. The potatoes were heavily seasoned and nicely creamy, and there's only so much you can say about glazed vegetables... they were good... but the fish really left something to be desired. In some ways, it suffered from a problem similar to the soup's, that of a lack of balance. The sauce was fragrant and acidic, but it was heavily skewed toward the bright end of the flavor spectrum and it felt incomplete. It's not that I think fish needs to be buried in complex sauces. Quite the contrary, I love it when a perfect piece of fish needs little more than some salt and lemon to shine. But this just needed... something... I'm not certain what. But again, the dish just felt incomplete. On top of which, the fish itself was... okay.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove fared marginally better. She had a pork tenderloin with cherry sauce and caramelized shallots, served with the same potatoes and vegetables as my fish. The tenderloin was served whole, pressed flat and pan-seared. It looked a little overdone on first cut, but was perfectly juicy and tender on the tongue, so no complaints there. The sauce, however, had balance issues again. We were surprised to find that the sauce was laced with an abundance of some type of smoky dried chile powder that wasn't unwelcome, just a little raw and un-subtle, as though it had been tossed into the tail end of a quick sauce rather than left to simmer and develop. The dish came across as more Southwestern than French, which would have been fine if it weren't somewhat clumsily so. It fared much better cold, out of the fridge as a late-night snack.

As usual, in the course of doing a nit-picky error analysis, I worry that I've given the impression that our dinner was worse than it was. It wasn't a bad meal, by any stretch. It was a decent meal... just "meh", as my ladylove put it. And this coming from a woman who's been subsisting on Atkins bars and lettuce salads for the past five months and for whom anything else tastes AWESOME right now. Enough people I trust have spoken well of the place that I have to wonder if the restaurant or I had an off night, but that doesn't change the fact that I can't visualize a situation where I'd choose Café Bernard over some of the other options in the city.

Café Bernard
2100 N. Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60614
773-871-2100
Mon - Thu5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

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