The closing of Publican Anker in March of this year left a big gap right in the heart of Wicker Park — the super-visible corner dominates the streetscape. Luckily, in what may be the fastest reconcepting in Chicago history, One Off Hospitality re-opened the space last week as the (totally different and way more beautiful) Café Cancale, a French-inspired seafood spot that’s heavy on shellfish and bright charm.
It’s also got a unique virtue: a cocktail program inspired by the early 20th century drinks of France.
While there are a ton of French restaurants in Chicago, not a lot have actually gone in a French direction with the cocktail programs. While wine programs are often French to the core, on the booze side I mostly still see the standard American craft spirits and classic cocktails.
Scott Kennedy, the bar supervisor at Café Cancale, wanted to do something a little different. “In the 1920s and ’30s, you had Prohibition in the US, so a lot of expat bartenders were leaving the US and spending much of their time in Europe,” he says. “There’s a vein of cocktail history that has its roots in Paris at that time.”
You don’t need a history degree to enjoy this drink list, but you do need to be willing to experiment a little. The usual bourbon-heavy list has been replaced with one that focuses on cognac, eau de vie, Armagnac, and pastis — spirits which have their own set of delights.
Tired of blasting your palate before dinner with overly sweet Manhattan variations? Try a Madagascar Réunion, a combination of Pierre Ferrand cognac, vanilla, a special blend of vermouths and Old Fitzgerald bourbon. It’s like a drier take on a vieux carre, and Kennedy has been working on perfecting it for years. Or the Pablo in Paris, made with absinthe, suze, lilet blank and Rhum Clement VSOP, a richer take on the original “Pablo à Paris” cocktail.
If you’re not familiar with Kennedy, that’s because he’s new to the One Off Hospitality family. He recently transplanted from New York, worked at Beatnik, and before Café Cancale opened he was putting in time at the Violet Hour and Big Star. This program is totally his baby, and his enthusiasm for the geeky side of French liqueurs is obvious.
“Part of what I wanted to do with this program is open people’s eyes to new things. There’s a lot of aperitifs and digestifs that people don’t normally order,” he says.
That’s why you are absolutely required to end your meal with a slug of pastis, the French anise-flavored spirit that is drunk constantly abroad but hasn’t ever quite broken into the American market. Café Cancale has four varieties on the menu right now, served traditionally with ice and water so you can dilute to taste.
Café Cancale’s signature drink is not actually French, but it’s got a Frenchified pedigree — and it’s delicious, so all is forgiven. The classic Last Word cocktail is amped up into the “Superb Last Word” by using a small-batch gin from France (which is distilled from grapes and includes grape leaves among its botanicals for a unique flavor), maraschino liqueur, and lime. The final touch is the king of all French spirits, V.E.P. green chartreuse. It’s a $22 cocktail, but the ingredients make it worth it; plus, it comes with an extra sidecar of cocktail in its own tiny little iced bucket.
Café Cancale is already hopping, so make your reservations for dinner now. Or show up for oyster happy hour (4 to 5:30 p.m., Mon.–Fri.), grab a cocktail at a marble-topped table, and raise a glass to the glory of France.