The all-purpose utility of Cafe Marie-Jeanne, on the suddenly restaurant-thick intersection of California and Augusta, is what makes it the most attractive among the newer venues to colonize this once desolate Humboldt Park junction. Pioneered by the California Clipper, a surge of restaurants and bars took a foothold here with the great Rootstock and, in more recent times, the Haywood Tavern, Spinning J Bakery and Soda Fountain, and Hogsalt Hospitality’s coffee shop, C.C. Ferns, tucked in a backdoor annex to the Clipper.
Cafe Marie-Jeanne isn’t even a pioneer in its own space, replacing the erstwhile Knockbox Cafe, which, at a rather late date, inspired the first truly audible antigentrification outcries related to this neighborhood boomlet. One doesn’t hear them much anymore.
The all-day cafe is the brainchild of chef Michael Simmons, a Lula vet who abdicated his post across the street at Rootstock, bringing along a few colleagues, significantly Jamie McLennan, who handles the small but assiduously unorthodox wine list.
Given the three menus, there’s a lot to contend with, particularly when brunch and lunch overlap and one is faced with a list of two-dozen a la carte breakfast items in addition to pastries, specials (many of which are found on other menus), and morning cocktails, plus snacks, soups, salads, sandwiches, sides, sweets, and “proper lunch” entrees. As you’d expect of a place with this much breadth, it’s a haphazardly cleared minefield. But Simmons, who places a priority on house-smoked and cured meats and fishes as well as freshly baked breads and pastries, has packed an almost unmanageable selection of appealing things to choose from—on paper anyway.
It can be overwhelming on the plate too, thanks to some awkward service protocols. Try to build a breakfast from some three or four small items on the a la carte menu and they might arrive at your two-top or small counter ledge on three to four separate plates; say, eggs, smoked brisket, broccoli smothered in melted cheese, and braunschweiger, each with its own small, blue-and-white vintage china turf to protect. If you somehow manage to rearrange those all on a single plate, they’re the makings of a fine breakfast, the crispy fried braunschweiger a nice foil for some runny eggs, the brisket not close to the Montreal-style smoked meat the cafe’s understated French-Canadian shtick might imply, but still dependably fragrant with woodsmoke even though it’s reheated on the flattop to order. Little dishes of sauteed button mushrooms are irresistible garlic bombs, and whole fingerling potatoes are similarly carried by the rich, almost stewlike beef jus they’re bathed in.
A number of these a la carte items can be had on composed plates, like the preserved fish: fuchsia-colored beet-cured salmon, blaze-orange roe settling into a dollop of creme fraiche, sweet cured herring in cream sharing the plate with assertive smoked mackerel and salmon. Or, for an even more indulgent breakfast, slabs of thick, sourdough toast darkened with briny black sturgeon roe and a bit of cool creme fraiche to offset the salty, tart cultured butter.
Simmons gets a lot out of his smoker. In addition to the brisket, the bacon, the fish, and the popular smoked chickens, roasted beets get the treatment too, which distinguishes an otherwise pedestrian salad of candied walnuts and sheets of superfluous, thinly sliced Mimolette cheese. Interesting cheeses abound as accents on some of these dishes, as with a baked sweet potato forming a bed for crumbled, half-melted funky Mouton sheep’s milk cheese.
There is a surprisingly heavy hand with sweetness across the menu. That sweet potato hides an unnecessary dose of some syrupy concoction, and there’s a candied undertone to an ample bowl of navy beans making a foundation for three crispy breakfast sausage patties. One of Cafe Marie-Jeanne’s few main courses, a whole butterflied trout, is plated skin side down, smothered in a velvety crawfish-laden sauce américaine that overwhelms the delicate fish with salt and sweetness and helps to quickly disintegrate the filets at the first touch of the fork. It’s also true of the much-admired chicken, so heavily brined as to take on a near uniform pink color, its exterior coated in a sweet glaze—more Easter ham than bird. Meanwhile, a towering pile of shaved apple and fennel with hazelnut, in a creamy yogurt dressing, extrudes so much liquid that it approaches a sweet, drippy kimchi.
As opposed to the food menu, the wine list is brief but full of interesting, food-friendly varietals, a baker’s dozen of which are available by the glass and bottle—and retail—including a smoky Austrian red, a dry, fizzy Lambrusco, and a rich, acidic Riesling, none topping $50.
The emphasis on baking and pastry—croissants, monkey bread, and biscuits in addition to Simmons’s superb breads—contributes to the daytime appeal at Cafe Marie-Jeanne. (Though the babas au rhum ordered one evening for dessert were served ice-cold.) The space is bright and plain, and if you don’t mind being left alone for unexplainable stretches of time midday, it’s a not bad place to make camp for a few hours. v