Proust had his madeleine, and we have Elysee, a new French restaurant on North State Street. About halfway through my first meal there I was suddenly transported back to the Paris I had first visited 20 years earlier. My husband and I were just out of school and felt recklessly extravagant in the possession of a few surplus dollars. What else to spend them on but food? La Tour d’Argent and Maxim’s would have been too extravagant, so we went often to a small family establishment near the Ecole Militaire, where the wiry proprietor welcomed regulars by name and led them to their special tables, while his wife sat watchfully at the cash register, scowling as she counted up the day’s receipts. In a far corner nearly out of view an older woman often sat in a dark woolen suit, picking daintily at her food and passing tiny bits to a diminutive dog on her lap.
Our meals at that modestly priced, middle-class restaurant were never less than good–frequently they were excellent, and once or twice superb. Ever since we have been on the lookout for something similar but closer to home. Though citadels of haute cuisine have been around for some time in Chicago and ethnic eateries have been proliferating like mushrooms, there has been what might be called a Gallic gap in our culinary landscape–the absence of a reliable source of well-executed French cuisine that won’t wreck the bank balance. Elysee shows promise of filling that gap.
Owner and chef Dominique Dorabi hails from the south of France and did a stint as chef for Yvette and Toulouse before opening his own place. His menu changes frequently, depending on what the market has to offer. Everything is fresh and carefully chosen, even the special Wisconsin butter, which is sold at only one outlet in Chicago. Sauces are unsullied by flour or any other kind of starch; instead, they are reduced slowly, then bound with butter. The result, more often than not, is a rich taste that leaves no cloying residue.
Pink walls, a greenish blue ceiling sporting trompe l’oeil clouds, and a glass wall fronting on State Street enclose as eclectic a decor as one is likely to find in the city. Art nouveau lighting fixtures, none of which match, illuminate an art deco mirror on one wall, a moose head on another, and a faded gilt sconce graced by a pair of cavorting cherubs on a third. High on the wall opposite the entrance, four velvet-lined cases display a small part of Dorabi’s collection of corkscrews, some of which are from the 18th century. Pictures, plants, ceramics, and copper pots are everywhere. Roomy armchairs, well-spaced tables, and white linens provide a comfortable, verging-on-elegant ambience.
Diners can choose from a judicious sampling of la cuisine bourgeoise. Begin with a half dozen steamed oysters on the half shell, plump and pristine, drizzled with a silky sauce redolent of leeks ($4.50). Or try the excellent calves’ liver with two sauces–one dark and winy, the other pale and peppery ($2.95). Chicken pate–coarsely chopped chicken meat, chicken liver, and, occasionally, duck is studded with pistachios and served on a pool of sweet wine gravy flanked by poached pear and gherkins ($3.25). One evening’s special–six New Zealand green mussels steamed in white wine and cream and lightly kissed by lemon–was juicy and bursting with flavor ($4.95). Another time artichoke hearts ($3.50), bathed in a blue cheese sauce made from a mild French import, happily caught our fancy.
There are those who judge a restaurant by its soup. Lee Iaccoca’s father, for example, reportedly told his son that if the soup is good, the chef knows what he’s doing. At Elysee the soupe de marche ($1.95) could not have been better. White turnips, leeks, tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, watercress, and spinach are first boiled in water (not stock), allowed to sit for two days to develop flavor, then pureed. The result is a smooth, full-flavored decoction that tastes the way vegetables should–honest and earthy. On the other hand the mussel soup ($2.25) falls just short of the mark–the generous serving of fresh bivalves in saffron-scented cream is a bit too sweet and intense.
The salmon tartare ($8.25), listed among the entrees, would be better shared as an appetizer. Mixed with capers, onions, and mayonnaise, wrapped in a slice of smoked salmon, and served on a bed of honey-garlic tomato sauce, it seems somewhat unrelieved for a main course, though the dish itself is first-rate. A better bet might be roast duck with Grand Marnier ($10.95); its skin is crisp, the flesh moist and succulent, the sauce rich, sweet, and dotted with tiny fresh raspberries. Poulet a la creme de citron ($7.95)–boneless chicken breast, lightly browned with a tangy lemon-butter cream sauce–can also be recommended, as can fresh grouper with artichoke beurre blanc ($13.95).
The mixed seafood platter ($13.95) allows one to sample widely among fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Slabs of excellent salmon and grouper, some first-rate oysters, mussels, sea scallops, and shrimp; and a tough, dull-tasting lobster tail–all with a light winy cream sauce–filled a huge plate on our last visit. Only noisettes d’agneau ($12.95)–a pair of lamb chops less tender and more fatty than they should have been–have let us down. Entrees are accompanied by several vegetables: zucchini, pea pods, white turnip, brussels sprouts, tomato, carrots–whatever the market has yielded that day–and a potato pancake, an odd and appealing addition. A salad of Boston lettuce, tomato, and marinated bay scallops in a mustard vinaigrette is included in the price of the entrees.
Desserts ($3.25) are top-notch. One can generally get fresh raspberries in creme anglais, but chocolate aficionados would do well to opt for the dark chocolate mousse cake, which comes garnished with raspberries. Dark, intense, and not too sweet, it’s one of the best chocolate endings around. A close runner-up, somewhat milder in flavor and lighter in texture, is the white-chocolate mousse cake. The lemon mousse cake–a rich, tart sponge topped with airy meringue is also good. If the more traditional French dessert of poached pear in red wine appeals, by all means have it. The coffee is excellent, and the service, though hesitant from time to time, is always friendly.
The limited wine list changes frequently and contains a few bottlings for the budget conscious. The Louis Latour chardonnay, a smooth, oaky bargain at $21, goes well with most of the food.
Elysee, 711 N. State, is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 to 3, and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 11. It’s closed Sunday and holidays. For reservations call 649-1788.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.