One step inside intimate (read: tiny-but-cozy) Bistro Voltaire on West Chicago Avenue in Chicago and I was transported to Paris. From the garçon at the door to the black-and-white-floor tiles, to the white tablecloths and plush red banquettes, to the candlelit dark-wood bar, my expectations for an authentic French experience were very high. And I wasn't disappointed.
We started with warm crusty French bread and appetizers -- Vols au Vents au Champignons (puff pastry shells with mushrooms) -- and La Salade Maison (the house salad of mixed baby greens with herbes de provence spices and a warmed goat-cheese crouton). These simple dishes are so evocative of even the tiniest restaurants in France where everything is made with pride and great passion, elevating the most humble of dishes to a gift from the gods.
Boeuf Bourguinon (braised short ribs in a red-wine Burgundy sauce, pearl onions, carrots, fingerling potatoes and bacon) was fork tender and redolent of good red wine is a terrific main-course choice, as is the Pavé de Saumon Grillé (grilled salmon with couscous, asparagus, tomatoes and a lemon-butter sauce). The couscous in the latter bespeaks chef Farid Oualidi's Moroccan heritage, which is in evidence throughout France.
As with everything else except the excellent crusty bread (made by La Provence Bakery), the desserts are made inhouse and the Crème Brûlée and Apple Tart with its flaky pâte brisée crust had me at a tiny cafe table in the Rue de la Paix with one bite. Simple food made with care and élan!
One of the bistro walls is adorned with a black-and-white drawing of Voltaire's head with this quote: "Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity." Voltaire, you are my hero.
Owner Ned Boukram has made sure that all the bistro classics -- steak pomme frites, coq au vin, escargots, mussels -- are represented. Amenities include a three-course $29 pre-theater (5 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays) and Monday night (5 to 11 p.m.) prix-fixe menu (with four choices in the appetizer and main-course categories, and three choices in the dessert category) that is a steal.
Bistro Voltaire is a 2012 OpenTable.com Diners' Choice winner and rightfully so. This is a restaurant I will come to again and again.
Along with 250 other restaurants, Bistro Voltaire will be part of Chicago Restaurant Week from Feb. 1 to 10, featuring a $33 three-course prix-fixe menu with choices among all the bistro classics.
Classically trained chef that I am and a college French major, dining at Bistro Voltaire was a delightful experience. If I had one teensy disappointment, it was that I couldn't speak French with anyone except the chef who was just a little too busy to parlez with me. Fancy that, eh? Still, the wait staff pronounced the dishes correctly and were knowledgeable about the ingredients. That was more than enough for me.