French food, tired? French cuisine, stuffy and outdated? You’d never know it in Chicago, where two new restaurants have dusted off the most classic of cuisines for two very different takes. Taureaux Tavern proves to be ideal for downtown business lunches and a welcome return to the brassy French eateries of the ’90s, while Roscoe Village newcomer Le Sud provides an elegant take on French-Mediterranean fare innovative enough to compete with contemporaries but still utterly, timelessly French.
From the first bite at Le Sud—which unequivocally should be the baguette ($3), served crusty, bewitchingly fresh and radiating heat—there’s a feeling that everything is going to go right. And in our case, it did. The wood-grilled escargot ($12), served skewered, get a textural upgrade as each bite ends up a little crispy on the outside—the result of a “happy accident” when, ahead of Le Sud’s opening, National Escargot Day had the kitchenless chef Ryan Brosseau preparing snails without the traditional cocotte. “The smoke from the grill helps a lot, and everybody seems to dig it,” he says. Brosseau, formerly of Table, Donkey and Stick, credits the creation of several other dishes to similar happenstance, while others are his adaptations of classic recipes unearthed from vintage provincial French cookbooks. “I’m very old-fashioned,” Brosseau explains—but his food feels anything but. Creamy, rich croquettes ($8) keep from feeling weighed down, in part thanks to the vegetarian filling of celery root and nutty Gruyere. During one recent dinner, roasted quail ($17) was fork-tender and well-seasoned. Crumbly walnut-bread pudding and cranberries played beautifully off the meaty drumettes, while thin slices of pickled pear sprinkled with mustard seed added yet another dimension.
As for entrees at the welcoming, rustic eatery, Brosseau hits all the right notes: steak frites ($27) comes with a nicely seared steak that is flavorful and texturally great, and pan-roasted duck breast ($27) is brushed with a lavender-honey glaze just floral enough to play off the succulent bird and served with contrasting slices of pickled fennel. Having a vegetarian in tow meant we also tried the seared pumpkin with a pile of spherical fregola pasta ($18). It’s a warm, comforting dish that stands up to its meat-based siblings—something Brosseau prioritized menu-wide. “I try to make sure the meat is almost a garnish,” he says. “If you order a steak, I want you to remember the vegetables.”
The wine list, naturally, leans French, but our charming server sagely pointed us to a 2014 bottle of Lebanese Chateau Musar Hochar ($68), a medium-bodied blend of cinsault, grenache and cabernet sauvignon with plummy, peppery notes and a dry finish. As for cocktails, the frothy Glass Joe ($15) had a sugary-sweet taste gleaned from its peach liqueur, while The Charlatan ($13) was a satisfyingly autumnal blend of rye, oloroso, molasses bitters and white vermouth. We finished the night with a battle of wills (and forks) for every bite of the orange-imbued chocolate mousse ($7), luxuriously rich and topped with a dollop of bright crème fraîche.
Similar fork fights can be expected over the lobster thermidor bites ($20) at Taureaux Tavern, the latest eatery from the folks behind Cochon Volant Brasserie. Buttery, plump morsels of lobster are served in a cocotte dish atop beds of creamy spinach, while a layer of classic thermidor sauce is beautifully brûléed.
“Especially in the really cold months, it’s definitely something that will warm you up,” chef Mike Sheerin notes. The appetizer is among dishes that Sheerin (Blackbird, Rockit Bar & Grill) designed to serve as a return to the days when French was truly king—“those classic dishes you just can’t find anymore,” he explains. His soulful nostalgia translates to foie gras paté ($17), smooth and uplifted by apple mostarda spread together on toasted brioche; filet au roquefort ($35) drizzled in creamy sauce; and mussels served with chile butter, roasted garlic aioli and frites ($24). But it’s the plats du jour where Sheerin’s best dishes can be found—Wednesday night’s cassoulet, for instance, is a delicious blend of duck confit, braised bacon and boudin blanc in a rich tomato broth.
With steaks sourced from Wisconsin and aged with rendered roast-beef fat, dishes like the prime New York Strip ($35) and steak frites ($28) are highlights of the menu. The one hitch came when our slightly flustered server forgot to ask a dinner companion how she wanted her hanger steak cooked, and it came out far rarer than she preferred. Sans such hang-ups, I found the steak well-seasoned and with a nice char from the broiler. Presentation of the Dover sole, Friday’s special, was also a bit uneven: While the buttery sauce was a nice complement, deboning the fish proved a challenge. Still, I will be back for a lunchtime taste of the peppery wagyu beef dip ($19), served with a nice French onion au jus and giardiniera, and I’ll definitely pair it with the French onion soup ($9), made with veal stock and five types of onions. A standard bearer, perhaps, but one for the ages.
2301 W. Roscoe St.
Prices: Appetizers, $8-$19; entrees, $14-$58; desserts, $4-$7
Hours: Open for dinner daily
155 W. Van Buren St.
Prices: Appetizers, $9-$20; entrees, $19-$89; salads and sandwiches, $16-$24
Hours: Open weekdays, 6:30am-10pm