To claim bragging rights these days, a suburb needs a fine French bistro. West suburban Clarendon Hills joined that club in June when Nadia Tilkian opened Maijean just south of its lovely downtown Metra station. The young chef/owner, who earned her stripes at Bistro 110, Zinfandel, and Barrington Country Bistro, has unleashed a bistro guaranteed to boost community pride. Family pride, too. “‘Maijean’ is what Tilkian used to call her grandmother,” explained one server, “and the charming drawing at the bottom of the menu depicts her.” But on one visit, when the chef strolled by our table, she indicated that her mother, a “great cook,” was at least an equal inspiration. Maybe it’s genetic.
Tilkian quickly seduced me with her generous plate of delicious pâtés—chicken liver, pork rillettes, and pheasant—from the lengthy specials menu. The escargots baked with herbs and garlic blanketed under a golden tender crust and the crisp veal sweetbreads with cornichon-apple relish and caper jus had exactly the same effect. The inevitable French onion soup gratinée should win over even the pickiest bistro traditionalist.
The chef handles salmon, baby bok choy, and haricots verts en papillote with a deft hand and an Asian touch. After our server cut open the parchment, he poured a little pitcher of delicate ginger beurre blanc over the still-steaming fish and vegetables. Aromatherapy at its best. Seared duck breast with Calvados sauce and an apple-shallot Tatin also showed skill, as did the hearty braised beef short ribs with mashed potatoes and shredded Brussels sprouts slaw. One time a thick slab of calf’s liver with bacon-sherry sauce arrived a little overcooked and dry. But on another visit, when I requested the liver lightly cooked, it came up a juicy winner, served with smashed potatoes topped with fried onions (one last quibble: I prefer the onions directly on the liver). As if to dispel the white-wine-with-fish, red-wine-with-meat fable for all time, the well-balanced 2004 Bernard Moray Santenay Burgundy ($52) enhanced each of these entrées.
Kudos to the peaches poached in Champagne with anise angel food cake and lemongrass ice cream as well as the Granny Smith apple tart with raisins and Danish blue cheese ice cream. Maijean is a comfortable art nouveau setting, with well-spaced tables, a big vintage wood bar, and a high ceiling. And bonus points galore for a conversation-friendly room and polished service as well as food.
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The first time I walked through the doors of Viet Bistro, I thought MapQuest had failed me. I found myself in a big lounge abuzz with happy thirty, maybe fortysomethings, busy with each other and colorful cocktails. I plowed through the bar area and found the inviting dining room decked with raw brick walls, big orange-upholstered banquettes, and tables with white paper over white cloths set with dark chopsticks and votive candles. It didn’t look Vietnamese. Nor did it look French, as the name would imply. I feared yet another shaky East-West fusion incursion cloaked in a modern setting.
But the Nguyen family, the people behind Viet Bistro, know what they’re doing. They used to own Pasteur—long the best Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago—and they put Pasteur’s chef, Daniel Nguyen, in VB’s kitchen. Let’s also recall the long history of the French in Vietnam. In France, Vietnamese restaurants abound. The cuisine is delicate, complex, and refined, employing Chinese cooking techniques with a distinctive palette of flavors and touches of French finesse. Southern Vietnamese cooking also incorporates some of the spices of India. But except for grizzled Vietnam vets and diehard foodies, Americans barely know the cuisine. Too bad. Lighter than the more familiar Chinese, it uses far less oil; I think of it as the spa cuisine of Asian cookery.
Apparently so does the chef. I admire the well-defined flavors of Nguyen’s sauces, beginning with the sweet spicy one he makes for nem, glazed ground chicken and pork meatballs wrapped around lemongrass stalks. A lovely warm salad of shrimp, baby squid, and sliced scallops with cellophane noodles, cucumber, mint, and lime leaves sparkles in tamarind-lime vinaigrette. I could survive on a diet of Nguyen’s pho, the classic Vietnamese beef soup. For a variation on the theme, try hu tie saté, beef noodle soup with zippy garlic-onion sauce. Or, if you want more spice in your life, order the fine shrimp curry soup. No Vietnamese meal would seem complete without dainty spring rolls, and the ones here, made with shrimp, rice noodles, and assorted greens in rice paper wraps do the trick, especially with a run through VB’s complex peanut dipping sauce.
Conservative palates should enjoy the bo lui entrée, more on the French side than the Vietnamese: impossibly tender beef tenderloin cubes marinated in pinot noir, soy sauce, and peppercorns with fresh watercress and other vegetables. For meat with more oomph, look to beef curry (made with filet mignon) served sliced and stir-fried in spicy curry sauce, another nod to the Indian influence in parts of Vietnam. I wasn’t so fond of the stir-fried chicken, bland despite being seasoned with lemongrass and jalapeños. Far better was the tofu fried in curry sauce with vegetables—an inexpensive ($10) vegetarian choice. And Nguyen got my full attention with seafood creations such as stir-fried shrimp in spicy garlic-onion sauce with red and green bell peppers and a beautiful whole red snapper in sweet garlic chili sauce. Both went swimmingly with a dry 2004 Rebenhof Kabinett German riesling ($33).
From the party-hearty lounge drink list, a cantaloupe martini made with fruit sorbet got things off to a bracing start. As for desserts, they are not made in house, and most reflect the fact, although the limoncello gelato provided a refresher after the spicy food.
MAIJEAN 30 S. Prospect Ave., Clarendon Hills; 630-794-8900 Model Meal Pâtés; salmon en papillote; peaches poached in Champagne Tip I prefer the cozy little blue room next to the main dining area Hours Brunch Sunday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Average per person dinner Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $40.
VIET BISTRO 1346 W. Devon Ave.; 773-465-5720 Model Meal Nem (meatballs); whole red snapper; limoncello gelato Tip Vegetable tempura with chili sauce followed by curried tofu makes a fine all-vege dinner. Hours Dinner nightly. Average per person dinner Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $20 to $25.
Photograph: Dave Slivinski