Last week, off the plane for only a few hours, my first stop in Lyon, France, was at a bouchon. These traditional and informal restaurants are characteristic of the region, and I was eager to see what the food was like.
The bouchon, though as casual as the bistro, is unlike a bistro in that it specializes in locally sourced food. There is also a marked tendency toward offal. Offal – including liver, kidney and other organ meats – is inexpensive. In Lyon, such less-favored cuts were regularly enjoyed – partly, one suspects, out of economic necessity – by the silk workers of this region who for centuries frequented these small restaurants.
We saw a lot of offal at our bouchon lunches, including chicken livers sprinkled over green salads, sausages made of pig intestine, and charcuterie, such as tender pates composed of small bits of meat that might otherwise not make it into a main course.
At Lyon's Daniel et Denise, Chef Joseph Viola won coveted "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" recognition for his pate, and of course, he serves an exceptional liver.
Back in Chicago, liver kicked off our meal at at Chicago's Le Bouchon. We enjoyed the small medallions of liver pate served with a raspberry swish and salad, dressed with a few crunchy grinds of sea salt.
Chicago's Le Bouchon celebrates 20 years in business this month, which is a remarkable accomplishment given that 70% of all restaurants in the U.S. close within ten years of opening. Le Bouchon has lasted twice that long, and a key to that longevity is due in part to the efforts of Jean Claude Poilevey, who opened Le Bouchon after a cooking in the French army and, later, at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in Lake Geneva Wisconsin.
Like the bouchon of France, Poilevey's bouchon on Damen serves a good deal of charcuterie. Now, however, Poilevey says, that "the charcuterie plate is usually too much for one person, and at dinner people tend to get five to six small dishes to share."
I asked Poilevey who he admired most in the restaurant business, and without pausing he said, "Rich Melman [of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises]. Forty years ago, going out an Italian restaurant meant you had spaghetti and meatballs. Now, American taste is much more sophisticated, thanks to people like Melman. At his restaurant Scoozi, he made thin crust pizza that was wonderful, so delicious."
Similarly, Poilevey worked to bring French cooking to Chicago; he was part of the new wave of French chefs that included fellow Playboy Club chef Jean Bancet, who would go on to open Le Francais in Wheeling, a restaurant some feel put Chicago on the international culinary map.
Like Scoozi and other restaurants in the Lettuce Entertain You empire, Poilevey's bouchon is serving traditional food that is sophisticated and yet simple. The food of the bouchon is not the stereotypically heavily sauced French cuisine. Rather, it's working man's food, meat-centered, with great bread and good though unpretentious wine.
Poilevey's tastes tend toward the simple, and when I asked him what Oak Park restaurant he liked most, he said, to my surprise, Winberie's. "They serve a very good hamburger, it's a good value and you know just want to expect."
At Le Bouchon, we asked our server to pick a wine for us, and she chose an excellent white Macon-Village, light enough to work well with fish yet with enough character to stand up to meat.
Last week, in the area around Macon and Lyon, I was touring Chateau de la Chaize. Owner and winemaker Caroline de Roussy de Sales was talking about the Chicago market, and she asked, "Do you know Claude Poilevey of Le Bouchon?" I was glad to say I did, and if you don't know Claude – and his son, Oliver, who is now assuming kitchen duties at Le Bouchon – you can stop by his restaurants or perhaps if you spot him walking along the boulevards of Oak Park.
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