Capturing France by way of Evanston, an experienced duo shows a strong start.
A suave Frenchman in an impeccably tailored suit approaches your table with “Bonsoir, may I help you find zee perfect wine?” He steers you toward a fantastic value (Gigondas, Châteauneuf du Pape’s more affordable cousin) and returns in a moment with the bottle. He carries the aroma of the ocean; outside, a seafood delivery truck is pulling away from the restaurant’s side door. Later the man (he has revealed by now that he’s the owner here at Bistro Bordeaux) recommends “fresh oysters that just arrived,” and you figure that a man who just sucked down a couple of them himself wouldn’t steer you wrong. So you relax, comfortable that you’ve arrived at what appears to be the real deal, and you settle in, already with thoughts of becoming a regular.
The idea of sauntering into your neighborhood bistro, being greeted by the staff, claiming your regular spot and digging into the perfect steak frites is right up there with romantic ideas like pedaling home for the day with a bike basket overflowing with market produce and a crusty baguette. Bistro Bordeaux fulfills that wish for Evanston locals and defies its main-drag location with hidden-gem hospitality and that cozy quintessential bistro look of mustard-yellow walls, burgundy velvet curtains and globe-shaped wall sconces casting an amber glow. A hard-boiled-egg stand perched upon the bar offers traditional sustenance for drinkers, but really, everyone is here to eat.
Pascal Berthoumieux, that suave oyster man, is originally from Bordeaux, but until opening this bistro he’s been biding his time at Kiki’s Bistro and one sixtyblue. He and chef Frank Mnuk, a NoMI vet who also cooked at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, have assembled a menu that reads like a Francophile’s Christmas wish list, and most of it delivers. Foie gras never took a hiatus in the ’burbs, and the well-heeled North Shore diners order Bistro Bordeaux’s terrine as casually as they ask for more water. Spread the cool slab of buttery duck liver on toasted baguette, drizzle on syrupy aged balsamic, and you could probably even make a convert out of Charlie Trotter.
If not the foie, start with an ideal French onion soup of beefy stock, sweet caramelized onions and Gruyère that’s just gooey enough to make it embarrassing to eat. Avoid an even bigger mess and attack the croque-madame with a fork and knife—while the runny fried egg and nutmeg-laced Mornay sauce makes this one damn fine ham-and-cheese sandwich, it just isn’t a handheld affair. The fries, however, are nearly impossible to keep your hands off of—the crispy shoestring potatoes are greaseless, liberally salted and, when dipped in airy aioli, make the juicy seared flatiron alongside almost unnecessary. Equally good is the coq au vin: Its boozy red wine sauce seems to have seeped into every bite of the chicken, getting it drunk and tender in the process.
While the majority of the food seems to signal Bistro Bordeaux is coming out of the gates strong, a couple of dishes missed the mark: Brandade was wet rather than creamy, the white of the poached egg atop the salad lyonnaise seemed undercooked and ran clear, and the braised snails capped with puff pastry could have used a kick of salt. And while crème brûlée was so textbook it could have doubled as an encyclopedia entry, the apple tarte tatin wasn’t the warm apple tart of our dreams. Instead, it was a whole peeled baked apple, slightly cool and fitted with a little beret of flaky crust. Granted, it was delicious. And by this point in the meal you’ll be fully under the spell of finding a piece of France, so it will be hard for you to mind.