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A Tribute to the Steadfast Excellence of Jean Claude Poilevey

The celebrated chef, who died on Saturday, was committed to authentic bistro fare.

Chef Jean Claude Poilevey, photographed at his famed Le Bouchon in 1993.   Photo: Val Mazzenga/Chicago Tribune

We live in a restaurant era that celebrates constantly changing menus. But that was never the case at Jean Claude Poilevey’s bistros, Le Bouchon and La Sardine. He was a real-deal French chef who lived and breathed authentic bistro fare. I doubt the words “spin,” “tweak,” “with a twist,” “updated,” or “modern lens” entered the master’s vocabulary—let alone his menu.

I happen to be the proud custodian of Poilevey’s first menu du chef for Le Bouchon, so when I heard of his tragic death on Saturday, I rustled through my files and pulled out that worn 8 ½-by-11-inch folded piece of paper that first beguiled me in June 1993. Then, I found today’s menu online.

How many menus in town are this steadfast?

Then (1993): Now (2016):
Les Moules Marinières, $4.50 Les Moules Normande, $15
Les Escargots, $4.50 Escargots à la Bourguignonne, $11
Salade Maison, $3 Salade Maison, $9
Salade Lyonaise, $4.50 Salade Lyonaise, $10

Of the six original entrées, you can still find a grilled steak with house-cut fries, a free-range chicken with over-the-top buttery potatoes—then a galette, now Robuchon; a rabbit dish, and a salmon preparation.

And then there’s the onion tart, possibly as beloved as Poilevey himself. As recently as November of last year, a Chicago dining critic had this to say about the iconic appetizer:

“What a beautiful Old World Parisian tarte. … we received a perfectly golden slice, carved out like a big piece of apple pie. The flavors here are wondrous, something like a bowl of French onion soup reduced down to a caramelized onion and smoky sweetness. You have to love the texture here—almost quiche-like—and the adherence to classic French culinary values. It’s the sort of thing you would have seen at Brasserie Jo in the old days. We loved every bite.”

To continue my cliché-riddled tribute to Jean Claude Poilevey, his restaurants are the ones you wish you had in your neighborhood. He will be sorely missed. The hell with vive la différence!

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