The most misused and abused word in the restaurant business these days is probably “bistro,” successor to its distant Italian cousin “trattoria.” Everything from Greek-owned coffee shops to pretentious spaghetti joints call themselves bistros, and some California and New York chefs–perhaps at the suggestion of their marketing consultants–have even laid claim to creating the “true” American bistro.

No one, not even the French, has ever come up with a perfect definition for the word, but the French know a bistro when they see one, even if they sometimes spell it bistrot. A true bistro is typically a small to middle-sized neighborhood place, usually family-owned, historically with a zinc-topped bar up front. The menu changes frequently, based on market availability. Some bistros feature a specific regional cuisine, or even specialize in fish. House wines are simple and often served in a pitcher. Prices are usually moderate.

Bistro cooking is simpler than that of the grand restaurant, but more elaborate and varied than at a cafe or brasserie. It features traditional or updated versions of provincial classics–from ragouts and cassoulets to simply sauced roasts and grills to the perennial steak and french fries. Since definitions are often made clearer by their exceptions, I must also note that I’ve paid more than a hundred bucks a person in a couple of Paris bistros (worth every sou), been in one that looked like a Helmut Jahn fantasy, visited several run as sidelines by some of France’s most celebrated haute chefs, and devoured a couple of complex constructions that might have come from the kitchen of Le Francais. About the only unifying factor was the bar up front.

We have a few spots in our town that transplanted to the City of Light would be welcomed as authentic. Kiki’s Bistro, run by a Frenchman, is one; Bistro 110, run by a trio of gringos, comes very close, as does Un Grand Cafe, run by a Spaniard and an American. Most authentic and perhaps most wonderful of all is Bucktown’s French-owned Le Bouchon, which means “the cork,” the nickname for bistros in Lyons.

But until recently I’ve been hard-pressed to find anything I’d call a genuine American bistro. That is, a place that marries a bistro’s ambience with a culinary style rooted in contemporary American cuisine. The Marc and Relish come close, but their food is a bit too fanciful. Zinfandel, like a suspect patriot, tries too hard to proclaim its Americanness on paper while it misses on the platter.

My two candidates, interestingly enough, do not have the word bistro anywhere in their names. One is the Hubbard Street Grill, located on the site of several failed River North restaurants; the other is Erwin, on the site of our town’s first really great French bistro, the original L’Escargot.

Hubbard Street Grill, the better of the two–maybe the best new restaurant of the year so far–is run by David Schy, former chef of Hat Dance. It’s a bit more sprawling than one would expect of a bistro, and its bar has a pianist–rare to nonexistent in Paris–but the kitchen does the right thing. Its product is idiosyncratic but firmly rooted in reality, reflecting the best in modern American cooking in all its multiregional, multicultural glory, and the prices are truly modest.

Among the starters are whole grilled squid, perfectly charred, with a tomato-citrus relish that includes green olive ($4.95); baby artichokes braised to tenderness and accented by garlic bread crumbs ($4.95); and two dishes that could find their place on any bistro table: simple mussels steamed in white wine ($5.95) and dill-cured salmon burnished with a mustard glaze ($4.95).

The entree that really knocked me out was the ahi tuna burger–huge, done on a bun with a teriyaki glaze and accompanied by an all-American condiment, wasabi tartar sauce ($8.95). Have it rare. A mixed grill ($14.95) of shrimp, salmon, and skirt steak (a flavorful and underrated cut) was perfectly done in every aspect, which is no mean feat. But I also fell in love with the chicken sausages dressed up with oyster mushrooms, all moistened with an herbal broth ($10.95). Sides include magnificent spinach with oil and lemon and feisty mashed potatoes with garlic and romano cheese.

Similar items, such as skirt steak and lemony spinach, appear on the menu of Erwin, named for chef-owner Erwin Drechsler, who has been plugging away for more than a decade and began to hit his stride at the recently closed Metropolis 1800. The new joint has a more authentic bistro ambience, though its main room is a bit noisy and some waitpersons are too aggressively perky.

The menu changes monthly, but many items, with some modification, remain. Don’t miss the vidalia onion soup ($3.95) if it’s on the menu, or the caramelized vidalias with blue cheese and walnuts ($4.95). On one visit there was also a well-crusted vegetable tart topped with tapenade, the Provencal olive-caper dip ($4.95), and an ambrosial, chive-scented corn chowder featuring grand clams, shrimp, and scallops ($5.50).

Liver with smoked bacon, shallots, and a vinegar-hit pan sauce was a dream ($11.95), but the kitchen’s unevenness showed up in a blah slab of sauteed walleye pike lying weirdly athwart a huge pile of “smashed” potatoes ($13.95). Still, despite its occasional blemishes, Erwin is in the right groove, and even its misses beat a lot of pricier places’ hits.

Hubbard Street Grill, 351 W. Hubbard, is open Monday through Thursday 11:30 AM to 10 PM, Friday 11:30 to 11, and Saturday 5 to 11. Call 222-0770.

Erwin, 2925 N. Halsted, is open Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11, and Sunday 5:30 to 9:30. Call 528-7200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.