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It might surprise you to learn that some people make a living importing frozen French bread into this country. If that violates everything you hold dear about the baguette, consider that prebaked and preproofed frozen French bread is not infrequently superior to fresh, domestically baked loaves hot from the oven. And in places that don’t have master bakers, it sure beats Wonder Bread.
Ned Boukran of the West Loop’s La Provence Imports is one such wholesaler. His product is sold in farmers’ markets all over the city and suburbs, which is not terribly different than selling Chilean tomatoes or California strawberries in them.
Nevertheless, the mini baguette that initiates a meal at Bistro Voltaire, his snug, congenial new River
West North cafe, provides an auspicious sign, its crackly, chewy crust girding a slightly moist, tangy interior. I was surprised it hadn’t been baked from scratch. But it wasn’t. And in fact, you could say much of the vibe and menu at Bistro Voltaire is frozen and rewarmed to meet the American ideal of what an actual French bistro is supposed to be.
Just so you don’t forget where you are, dozens of framed portraits of French literary lions hang on the walls—plenty to keep lit majors busy boring their dates at the little tables set on black-and-white tiles. There’s a commendable list of regionally delineated French reds and whites (La Provence also imports wine) and only the lack of prescribed Gallic aloofness among the friendly and enthusiastic hosts and servers makes me question the provenance of their accents. And where’s the accordionist?
Chef Colin Beaumier’s menu, for the most part, is a predictable collection of benchmark bistro food that would surprise Francophilic eaters only in its uneven execution. Several appetizers are just as encouraging as the bread: A black-truffle vichyssoise is cool and rich, drizzled with judicious squirts of truffle oil and sprinkled with grated black tuber. An oxtail terrine, an amalgamation of beefy bits in gelatinous suspension, has its richness surgically cut by horseradish cream and sweet grapes. A pair of sweet, jiggly scallops drizzled in saffron cream like an early-80s abstract isn’t exactly on script, but it’s not a bad departure.
Yet some of the most iconic dishes can evince a startling disconnection from fundamental technique. That’s no more apparent than in a sole fillet, overcooked and slathered with a curdled lemon butter sauce and served alongside a gummy, heavy risotto, a consistency duplicated in the grains accompanying silky slices of duck breast sauced with passion-fruit puree. A deep crock of foie gras flan with the texture of Jell-O pudding and devoid of any fatty, rich livery flavor is just as unfinishable as the fatty lamb chops with watery mashed potatoes.
Perhaps the most puzzling plate of all is so divergent from the standard renditions of coq au vin and creamy gratineed dauphinoise potatoes that I’m afraid L’Académie française might open an investigation: the chicken arrives tasting like a bland battery-cage bird that’s been roasted dry rather than braised tender in red wine—no pearl onions, no mushrooms, either—atop a heap of roughly smashed potatoes.
In contrast to the bread service, items requiring pastry work have an institutional, mass-produced character: a flat sheet of puff pastry was too limp to support its overstory of pear, spinach, shallots, and blue cheese; and a tart du jour couldn’t withstand the gravitational demands of the syrupy peaches on top.
I can’t say whether those items were harmed by a gestation on ice, but I do know that simple, familiar bistro food shouldn’t be tossed off so shambolically.