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Thinking inside the box can be smart-especially if the box is a classic French bistro. Two all-star chefs, Michael Altenberg and Eric Aubriot, saw the same niche in Lincoln Square, and both promptly filled it. Now, a burgeoning neighborhood that was aching for an inexpensive bistro has two: Altenberg’s Bistro Campagne and Aubriot’s Tournesol.
Both bring rolls of butcher paper and wrap the baguettes; both serve affordable country wines and rustic salads-not to mention heartwarming onion soup, garlicky escargots, and steak frites oozing with knobs of maître d’hôtel butter. And I’m a big fan of both.
Near Bistro Campagne’s bar is a bookshelf, and on it is the essential Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. Maybe the owner, Michael Altenberg, needed a refresher course-he’s been thinking Italian at his trendy Campagnola in Evanston since 1996. His cozy new spot, however, is French to the core. A noisy room up front boasts big windows, and there’s a semiprivate nook in back, but that lovely patio should be filed away in your memory until spring. Neighborhood walk-ins rule, perhaps because the Old Town School of Folk Music is a few doors north-which also seems to have inspired the soundtrack of French vocals, alternative country, and everything else under the sun.
Campagne’s chef de cuisine, Arnold Shapiro, obviously knows the right Gallic moves. Predictably, among appetizers his French onion soup is excellent, and the savory caramelized onion strudel is a solidified version of the same in a delicate rolled pastry-familiar flavors, different framework. I tried all five salads and there’s not a dud in the bunch; best are the warm goat cheese and greens with Dijon vinaigrette and the frisée with lardons and a perfectly poached egg. The brandade de morue, a gratinéed crock of salt cod emulsified in olive oil, cream, and potatoes and served with grilled country bread, is another bistro standard done right. And Shapiro steams his mussels Belgian-style in ale with bay leaves and garlic; the perfect accompaniment is one of the fine Belgian Trappist ales on hand, including a creamy-and powerful-Westvleteren Abbey.
Among entrées, the roasted chicken is succulent, crowned with a pile of thin fried onions and enriched with earthy mixed mushroom ragoût. But my personal favorite is the lemony, sweet seared butterflied trout drizzled with brown butter and toasted almonds and topped with haricots verts. In addition to the seared flatiron (skirt) steak frites, meat lovers can choose between juicy roasted pork chop à la provençale with peasant bread salad (frisée, currants, pine nuts, and toasted bread) and a respectable lamb loin chop on flageolets. Vegetarians would do well to order one of the generous salads and terrific ratatouille-stuffed ravioli with pistou sauce topped by shaved Parmesan-and a side of the cheesy cauliflower gratin or sautéed spinach. Bargain hunters can sate themselves for a song on the huge croque monsieur (grilled cheese and ham on country bread) or croque madame with fried egg on top, each just $9 with a heap of the same irresistible fries that come with the $18 steak frites.
Chocolate is the lead singer in Campagne’s melodic band of desserts. In addition to the dense chocolate mousse cake, there are tender profiteroles with fudge sauce and warm dark chocolate soufflé &"Robuchon” served over strawberry coulis. The artisanal cheese plate, a steal at $5 (Tournesol&’s is twice the price), recently included a wonderful double-crème gratte-paille from Île-de-France. From a list of two dozen wines, a full-bodied 1999 Chapoutier Côtes-du-Rhône Belle Ruche ($27; $7 a glass) is pure bistro fare. Service is appropriately low-key, and one waiter’s refreshing brogue made me suspect he was a moonlighting Celtic musician, a Bono-in-training from up the street.
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Tournesol (“sunflower” in French) is even cozier. Traditional big wood framed mirrors above its wainscoting create an illusion of space, and lavish floral arrangements at dark banquettes add a touch of elegance. The tables for four are so small it’s easy to play kneesies while dining-and the cool jazz score encourages such behavior. Consulting chef Eric Aubriot, who has mastered French at his namesake Lincoln Park restaurant, lends a hand to his chef, Bob Zrenner. Nightly specials listed on a chalkboard enliven Zrenner’s core menu with French faves like frog legs and sweetbreads.
The onion gets major billing on the appetizer list. Beyond a stellar French onion soup, there’s also a bacon-seasoned caramelized onion tart and luscious leeks poached in white wine, finished with red wine vinaigrette and bolstered by grated boiled egg and a Parmesan tuile. Again, salads are wonderful, especially the frisée with bacon sherry vinaigrette and green lentils with chopped smoked pork-perfect except for an overlooked pebble that almost took out a filling. Escargots are tenderly fricasseed with mushrooms and garlic butter.
Check out the spuds here: Entrées sport delicious potatoes in a variety of guises. There’s the pan-seared trout in caper brown butter with Brussels sprouts and pommes tournées; tender braised rabbit legs in whole grain mustard sauce with spinach and roasted new potatoes; homey beef daube with mashed potatoes; and, of course, the sirloin steak frites. The rich sautéed veal kidneys in shallot cream sauce with the same pommes tournées is a great deal at $13. And for $1 less, a vegetarian can build a rib-sticking meal around the baguette sandwich with melted Brie, arugula, tomatoes, pesto, and a petite salad.
If I start with silky chicken liver mousse, I like to end with an equally delicate chocolate mousse with orange coulis and an almond tuile. I wish the profiteroles were more tender, but I was consoled by a daily fresh fruit tart-on one visit, a blackberry custard with Bing cherry coulis, good enough to be a regular when berries are in season. Service is friendly but slows as the room fills. Pastry chef/partner Michael Smith triples as a wine steward, and he is a helpful guide through the impressive 130-bottle wine list. He led me to a lusty 1999 “Le C de Camplong” Corbières from Tardieu-Laurent, a favorite of the wine guru Robert Parker and a bargain at $39; most everything is well under $50.
So which of these two restaurants to choose tonight? They’re as close in quality as in address. If you are walking out of a music session at the Old Town School, drop in at Bistro Campagne; if you like the more adventurous stuff-rabbit, kidneys, frog legs-and a more bountiful wine list, head to Tournesol. Or flip a franc.