Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: French Accent
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Oui, oui. Fromage. Escargot. Café au lait. Croissant. And...that's about all the French I know. Is it sad that the only French words I know are the names of basic food items? Yes, it's sad. I'm a sad, sad little man. A sad, sad little man who gets hungry and has to go get lunch near the office. With my limited knowledge of the French language out of the way, I continue my forays into lunch, this time, back at the Willis Tower.
I've already covered Salseria Grill and Venice Café, but there's still a few other places I haven't covered, one of them being French Accent (not to be confused with its sister restaurant on the same floor, Market Creations Cafe). Once you enter the Willis Tower from the east entrance, stay to your right till you hit the escalators, go up one floor, and then wander around aimlessly until you find French Accent, because that's how I found it. The food is served buffet style (I see some you buffet-haters rolling your eyes already) and it's a little overwhelming at first; there are a ton of choices. There's a carving station, a panini station, a very big hot buffet line (complete with desserts), and a bar—for those of you who prefer your calories in the form of alcohol.
The lunch menu rotates daily, and you can find it on their website here, updated every weekday, so the food you'll see on your visit might not be exactly what I had. That being said, your food is charged a flat rate by the pound ($8.85/lb) aside from sandwiches. From left to right in the picture: The pork shoulder, the flap steak, and the Cajun lamb leg. The pork shoulder is tender, but it's hardly seasoned. Despite that fact, the pork flavor is distinct and hard not to enjoy. It's accompanied with cranberry sauce, which is an odd pairing, jarringly sweet, nuking the flavor of the shoulder. Skip the flap steak. While it has a great char to it, it's overcooked and chewy. The lamb is extremely tender and hardly gamy at all, and it comes with disconcertingly green mint jelly (in this case, the candy-sweet jelly also doesn't mesh well with the mild meat).
From the hot line, we took a fair sampling, and were pleasantly surprised at more than a few of the items. The roasted baby skirt steak in mushroom demiglace is cooked to a perfect medium rare. The mushrooms in a balsamic reduction are meaty, juicy, and sweet. The zucchini ratatouille is a light stew of soft zucchini and tangy tomatoes. The roasted Brussel sprouts are also a great standard version, roasted just enough to caramelize the outer leaves, cooked through to the interior without turning them into baby food.
There are, of course, a few bummers along the way. The gnocchi carbonara sounds good in theory, but the gnocchi are gummy to the point where it becomes chewy and unpleasant. Also skip the chicken kiev, it's a dry breaded chicken breast that can't be saved by the red pepper coulis. However, I do recommend the Middle Eastern Flair Beef Stew. Despite having the word "flair" in its title, it's a slow-cooked beef stew with in a rich curry sauce that would be perfect ladled over rice.
Along with all the hot buffet items (everything you see here can be loaded in a carry-out container), French Accent also offers a few panini, including the Cajun Chicken Panini ($6.99), which is an odd combination of Cajun chicken breast, two fried eggs, avocado, tomato, and lettuce, but no cheese to glue it all together. It's a very big and hearty sandwich, but I'm still not sure I agree with fried eggs and chicken on a sandwich together.
If you're with some coworkers and you can't quite choose what you want for lunch, French Accent's huge number of choices will likely have something for everyone. Overall, even though not everything is the greatest, as with most buffet-style restaurants, it's worth a visit. The ingredient quality is high for a quick-service lunch, and it'd be hard not to find something you want to try.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.