Chicago

Long Live the Low-Frills, French Bistro Feel at Le Bouchon

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[Photographs: Joe Roy]

Walking into Le Bouchon in Bucktown feels like pulling on a pair of well-worn jeans. The atmosphere is relaxed and unassuming, and the simple smiles from the waitstaff are all the welcome you need to feel right at home. Pretension is at a negative here; after twenty continuous years in business as other restaurants fade in and out of the scene, Le Bouchon's "you get what you get" vibe is refreshing. Rather than relying on an overdone bistro accordion soundtrack, we were treated to the sweet strains of Bob Marley throughout our visit.

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French Bread & Butter (on the house) is a simple, straightforward start to a meal here. The Red Hen Bakery bread is chewy, with a crispy crust and a respectable salt level, while the butter does what it does best: spreads well and adds richness.

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The Soupe á l'Oignon Gratinée ($8.00) leans into its own excess, its cheese layer generously thick and gooey, and its richness on point. The details are spot on, too: the spongy bread spoons apart easily, and the soup itself is not so hot that you have to wait to enjoy it.

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The Salade Lyonnaise ($8.00) is a picture perfect take on the classic, and it gets most everything right. The gushing poached egg is perfect, the croutons don't shatter under fork, and the thick lardons are evenly cooked to a crisp. However, the vinaigrette itself lacked salt and acid, resulting in an aftertaste dominated by bacon.

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On special the night of our visit, the Grilled Hanger Steak ($24.00) has that irony funk you're looking for from this cut. The steak is nicely salted, with a thin, dark crust that gives way to a warm pink interior. And oh, the Frites: these are archetypal McDonald's, in the best way possible. Thin, crispy, and well salted, I can't imagine any meal here without them.

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A classic cap to a classic French meal, the Crème Brûlée ($8.00) is deeply caramelized, its eggshell topper adding an appealing campfire marshmallow toastiness to the rich vanilla custard below.

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There's so many more dishes to try at Le Bouchon that a quick return is more than called for. The Roasted Duck for Two, smelling of orange marmalade and duck fat, is especially on my mind. But even if I come back for more of the same, I know I'll leave comfortable. Le Bouchon is one of those places you hope never changes, and after twenty years of doing the same, I doubt it ever will.

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