Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Enjoying the Art of French Cooking in Evanston

Jilly's Cafe
2614 Green Bay Rd., Evanston

What I ate: Escargots, Rack of Lamb, Chocolate trio, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir Sorbet

I've long been familiar with French cuisine being  considered the most exalted of all cultural cooking styles.

As a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I was aware of Le Perroquet and Le Français being regarded as the two best restaurants in the area, if not well beyond.

And "French cooking" was always one of those phrases, such as "the Rolls-Royce of..." or "24 Carat," that was used as shorthand for things of superior quality and/or belonging to "the good life."

Thing was, I never went to the aforementioned restaurants, or on a high school French class outing to Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights.

Nor did I ever watch Julia Child or peruse her famed cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

So even in having been to Paris four times--where if not seeking out the toniest restaurants, I've repeatedly ordered pricey selections only to get a Sizzler-type steak with soggy French fries--I really am little clued into what characterizes French cuisine and why it is considered so distinguished.

Even in having sought out lunch at some of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, including Le Bernardin and Le Cirque, I remember my meals being terrific, but can't recall anything that defined them as distinctively French.

So when my mom invited me for a birthday dinner at the restaurant of my choice--within reason, as in the past I've chosen Charlie Trotter's (sniff) and Alinea and wound up going Dutch--I didn't select French fare because I knew it would be sensational, but rather because I hoped so and had yet to write about it for as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour.

I noted two French restaurants in Evanston--Bistro Bordeaux and Jilly's Cafe--that seemed to be well-rated on Yelp. Jilly's was chosen because its vegetarian selections were more appealing to my sister Allison, who also joined us on a Sunday night.

Jilly's has been in the same, easy-to-miss spot on Green Bay Road just west of Central St. for 28 years, so it must be doing something right. Given its proximity to Northwestern University, I imagine its popular with NU professors. But on the night we visited, only two other tables were in use.

Which was fine, as it made it seem even more like a quaint restaurant in the French countryside.

Not that I've ever been to one.

But with a friendly waitress, pleasant decor including several nice paintings, good company and excellent food, in scarcely recalling the teachings of high school French, I would say that Jilly's Cafe was tres bon. 

Although I'm not much of a drinker, a glass of wine seemed apropos at a French restaurant. So I ordered Sauvignon Blanc, hailing in this instance--a bit curiously--from Chile.

I'm not nearly enough of a wine connoisseur to have a point of comparison, but it certainly seemed fine. Allison ordered a Bordeaux and had no complaints either.

Appropriately, we brought some terrific sliced French bread, accompanied not only but butter but--to the delight of at least one of us--Chicken Liver Pate. (Along with Allison being a vegetarian, not only am I allergic to chicken, but there is no flavor I abhor more than that of liver. But Mom, who has long loved chopped liver, was happy.

As my great gastroethinic excursion of 2013 should portray, while I am admittedly a meat & potatoes guy at heart, I have tried a pretty wide variety of foods--whether around Chicago, at the Taste of Chicago or around the world.

But never before this particular Sunday had I had escargots, or specifically Escargots a la Bourguignon, which were snails baked with herb butter and garlic. 

As you can see in the photo nearby, the escargots came on a tray oddly reminiscent of a revolver chamber, with each snail hidden under a puff pastry in a bath of herb butter, with garlic.

The little puffs were good themselves, but the snails even more so. I'd say they tasted like oysters, or had a similar consistency, but I've really only had those a few times in my life.

Mom and Allison shared a Field Greens and Poached Pear Salad with Blue Cheese, Walnuts and Red Wine Vinaigrette, which they enjoyed. I had some, too, and found it really good.

Then, unexpectedly, we were each brought a small scoop of Pinot Noir Sorbet, with which to cleanse our palattes before the main course. This also was delicious.

As was the Herbed Marinated Rack of Lamb with Blue Cheese Whipped Potato, Asparagus and Rosemary Jus. This was listed as a special, but appears to often be as our waitress cited it as one of their most popular dishes. 

I had also been considering an Herb Crusted Salmon Fillet with Pearl Couscous and Two Mustard Sauce, which sounds terrific, but I can't imagine it being any more satisfying than the lamb.

Allison ordered Mushroom Risotto with Herbs, Roma Tomato, and Garlic, Finished With Parmesan Cheese and Sweet Cream Butter. Risotto is typically an Italian concoction, but this made for satisfying French fare for ma soeur. Though I don't love mushrooms, I tried some and concur that it was quite tasty.

My mom went with the most typical French dish--among the three of us but perhaps more universally--Bouillabaisse = Scallops, Shrimp, Mussels and Market Fish with Braised Fennel, Roma Tomato, Garlic, Saffron, White Wine and Crouton with Rouille.

She really liked it, and my taste of the mussels reminded me of a meal I had late on the first night of my most recent visit to Paris. The Bouillabaisse is certainly something I might order on a return visit to Jilly's Cafe.

Before we bid adieu--and, of course, because this was a birthday dinner, we had to get dessert.

A lot of choices looked good, but we settled on the Chocolate Trio, featuring flourless chocolate cake, chocolate pout au creme and finally a vanilla ice cream filled profiterole with chocolate sauce.

It was just terrible.

As in terribly wonderful.

All-in-all, our little French excursion provided a multi-course dinner that was très magnifique, and for which I again say:

Merci beaucoup.

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