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What a difference 50 feet can make. If you enter the new French brasserie of Sue and Peter Drohomyrecky (Custom House Tavern) through the doors facing Randolph Street, you’ll swear you’re in the wrong restaurant. Up front, it’s all sun and steel, with floor-to-ceiling windows letting in the kind of harsh early-evening light that would make any self-respecting impressionist pack up his easel and go home. It’s the last thing you’d expect from a restaurant cozily named Maison.
But first impressions are often deceiving. Follow the scent of lavender to the host stand, where bundles of the sweet-smelling flowers are stacked up like firewood, and the world is right again. The casual front dining area—designed to look like a contemporary French kitchen—is merely a gateway to the main dining room, a stunning exercise in merging clean-lined modernity with Old World grace. It’s appropriately dark and moody, with chocolate-colored walls, a vaulted ceiling, tables made of pale ash wood, and exquisite chandeliers draped with French lace. It’s also the perfect setting for Perry Hendrix’s deceptively simple menu of French classics. At first glance, you’re going to have a bit of bistro déjà vu. There are serviceable chilled seafood platters and familiar goat cheese salads. There’s a nice mild offering of duck confit and a fine arctic char starter topped with crème fraîche and beets. As our excellent, if riddle-prone, waiter told us, “I like to say we’re different because we’re not different. Classic French preparations. Classic French ingredients.”
At a time when it’s chic to reinvent French food for the American palate—think gimmicky small plates and low-fat dishes for the calorie conscious—it’s comforting to find a place that can produce a garlicky sausage, artfully hovering between a coarse andouille and creamy boudin blanc, and slow-roast a chicken with just the right amount of rosemary. In fact, Hendrix’s roasted chicken, basted with plenty of lemon and garlic, is a revelation. The drippings soak into a slice of toast under the bird. It will redefine your definition of French toast forever.
If there’s an overriding flaw, it’s the repetition of flavors: Dried figs and a potato purée show up too often. But for every misstep—an overpowering take on veal liver, a pale-tasting duck pâté, an uninspired chocolate mousse—there is a success. Bocuse-style Parisian gnocchi, for example, are golden brown and pillowy soft. A liberal amount of Dijon mustard and rich tufts of rabbit add dimensionality to Maison’s lone pasta option, while the house’s delicious trout is moistened by a delicate brown butter sauce, its skin as crunchy as cracklings. And although the dessert list lacks depth, I haven’t enjoyed a better lemon tart in some time, its flavors redolent of iced lemonade, its texture soufflé-like.
But ultimately it’s the cohesion between Hendrix’s unpretentious menu and the dining room’s charm that makes the experience feel complete.
Maison manages to avoid most of the clichés that cling like lint to brasseries in the States. No Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. No distressed glass. No kitschy art nouveau knickknacks. Just the illusion that you’ve been invited to take supper at a fashionable French appartement brimming with flowers, friends, and fine food—the sort of place we’d all be proud to call home.
Jeff Ruby, Chicago’s chief dining critic, is on leave for September and October.
Photography: Anna Knott