High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Follow the Person with the Outraaageous Franche Accent! A La Card #3: Bistro Campagne

In the month of January, I cleverly "planned" my schedule so that I was up in Lincoln Square at the OTSFM Monday (guitar lesson), Tuesday (Songwriting class), and Wednesday (volunteering at the Resource Center). I happen to love Lincoln Square (and, of course, the OTSFM), so this isn't a problem exactly, except that the place IS 150 blocks from the Acres, and I hate to drive. On a handful of nights, I was able to lure the ZK into driving me up there, offering the opportunity to use another A La Card as bait. FAIL! FAIL! SUCCESS!

The deck contains 3 options up in Hun Town. Ironically, none of the three is German. Tallulah is directly across the street from OTSFM, having replaced the short-lived Soirée about a year or so ago. Bistro Campagne is just down the street, and every time I see its excellent Zagat rating, I think it's stupid I've never been there. Chalkboard is about 2 blocks down Lincoln, and also a relative newcomer to the 'hood.

The two nights that I conned my spousal unit into chauffeuring me were both Mondays. That took Tallulah off the table, as it's closed. BC claimed to close relatively early, whereas Chalkboard was supposed to be open until 10 on Mondays. Hmmmm . . . The first Chalkboard fail was our fault really. Actually, it was the ZK's fault, as he deemed it "too fancy" for his mood. On the second occasion, though, we found the door locked tight at about 8:45.

On Friday the 30th, we had tickets to the Faculty, Staff, & Friends Tribute to the British Invasion. It made sense for me to drive up to Lincoln Square and the ZK to El it up there to meet me. I even remembered to grab the deck of cards on my way out the door.

We met up at about 6, and the weather and parking gods did their share in making our choice for us: Chalkboard was deemed too far to walk in the cold, and I had just wedged myself into a parallel parking space that I was NOT inclined to give up. We wound up at Bistro Campagne won the coin toss.

Interested parties should have a gander at the gallery on their website. They should then bear in mind that in focusing exclusively on the outside garden, what that doesn't show you is a really lovely interior. The wood beams and bay windows give it a very homelike feel. The walls are covered with low-key murals that feature beautiful mosaic pieces as accents. The tables are close together, but I never felt like we were sitting on top of our neighbors, even after the place filled up.

I noted on our way in (we were in the dining room at the back) that the bar is gorgeous, and the drinks menu proves it's not just a pretty face. I stuck with two glasses of the very good Autard Côtes du Rhône, but after exploring their cocktail list more thoroughly, I wished I'd tried their rendition of the sidecar. The ZK had a French Manhattan, and the Grand Marnier was an intriguing addition.

You know you've probably hit the jackpot when you are considering conscripting labor from the street to increase the size of your party and thus the number of appetizers and main courses that you can sample. Ultimately, I decided that I was NOT A SHARER and went with the escargot, which there was no chance of the ZK wanting to sample. He more generously went with the shrimp in ginger-champagne sauce, even though he knew he'd be surrendering a portion of that.

I'd hesitated for a brief moment in ordering the escargot because I wondered if the pernod would interfere with the divinely ordained role of snails as a vehicle for butter and garlic. It Did Not, I am happy to report. There was barely a hint of actual anise flavor (I'm not a big fan), but it seemed to give the sauce a sharp, almost astringent quality at the finish. Very pleasant, and it kept at bay the oiliness that can sometimes bog down escargot. Also, props to our server—she of the outrageous accent—for realizing that yes, I WOULD be needing another baguette for sopping-up purposes. The shrimp were likewise lovely, both in their perfect preparation and in the sauce that enhanced, rather than swamped, the flavor of the shrimp themselves.

For the main course, I was torn between the duck special (I am –15 versus spätzle), the cassoulet, and the rabbit. As in all times of doubt and uncertainty, I turned to the Jesus!Phone and the Twitterverse:
Mr. Wire Monkey Mother: THUMPER!
Wire Monkey Mother: i am sorry i am so late to the CASSOULET, YOU FOOL party

Although this input is invaluable, I decided to get the input of our server—she of the outrageous accent—who noted that the cassoulet is very big and heavy, plus the rabbit is her favorite. Cute and delicious bunny it was! The ZK's brain stuttered as he ordered his main dish. I believe he said quite clearly that he wanted the pork loin. Roughly 5 seconds later, just when our server turned away, he finished scrolling through his Terminator options and said, "I"m sorry. I meant the duck."

Everything about my rabbit dish was perfect. The roasted loin and braised leg provided nice variation in texture and flavor. I can imagine some people not liking the "shredded" aspect of the leg, it's much more a presentation issue than anything to do with mouth feel, nothing at all stringy or dry about it. The mustard sauce was subtle, but with a nice bit of bite to it. The potatoes were done to a turn and took on more of the mustard flavoring. Perhaps the best evidence of their attention to detail was the fact the brussels sprouts had been pulled apart into individual leaves framing the dish. I happen to like sprouts pretty well, but they can be difficult to eat and, worse, difficult to cook thoroughly without reducing some parts to bile-colored mush, and this approach avoided all problems. Even the ZK enjoyed his taste of them.

He was of the opinion that his duck was the winner. I'm calling it a draw. The duck was beautiful, and the red wine reduction was amazing. And spätzle and braised cabbage soaking in it? Pretty indescribable.

For dessert, my beloved spouse asked—rather snidely—which of the chocolate things I was getting. IT JUST SO HAPPENED that I wanted to the chocolate "soufflé" (sarcastic quote marks theirs), so BITE ME. He's a mad man and got the Financier de Poire (a white cake). The sarcastic quote marks around the soufflé, I think, are intended to denote that the cake is only about half an inch high, but it is plenty soufflé-y nonetheless. It also has a huge dollop of the smoothest, most beautifully melty and luscious ganache EVAR on top. And the strawberry port compote? Oh, the magnificent tartness of it! Mmmmmmm!

And despite my snarking about white things for dessert, the Financier was really good as well. Perfectly poached pears, cake delicate in both flavor and texture, and the crème fraiche ice cream did bring something more than just vanilla ice cream in French clothing to the party.

Bistro Campagne was thus a very nearly unqualified success for our third outing. The service was a little slow, and we were about 15 minutes late for the show (and, unusually for an "in house" show, the place was packed to the rafters). This seemed mostly attributable to a dearth of wait staff. Our server had at least the whole back room, comprising at least 15 tables, all of which were full by the time we left. I suspect that if we'd let our server know up front that we had a show to get to, there wouldn't have been a problem, so we'll chalk it up to not knowing any better on our first go. A La Card deck is definitely 3 for 3, though.

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