Through eating, we sometimes seek, crave, and desire transport, a mental whisking toward another time and location, to places of comfort, the spots which may now not be near, but where we once were when we experienced profound happiness. For you, this may be your mom’s kitchen, the state you grew up, in or the European city that changed your life. We are not always physically able to return to those places, but in a local bite, we might still experience a reasonable mental facsimile.
This is sometimes easier said than done. If you are from Montreal, you will not find anything close to the honey-kissed wood-fired bagels of St. Viateur. Though Smoque does an incredible job, you will not find Austin-caliber brisket in Chicago.
However, you might also, as I did recently at Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square find a crackling caramelized cheese-rimmed pizza that is better than what I once believed to be the best pie anywhere, the Buddy’s Detroit-style Sicilian crust I grew up on.
Then again, you might still struggle. It’s is decidedly a cliché, but ice cream at Berthillon, macaron from Pierre Hermes, and frankly almost every pain au chocolate served on every corner in Paris changed my life years ago. But, while I’d succeeded with pizza, I’d never been able to fully rekindle those French tastes here in Chicago. I’d come close, maybe a great croissant at Americano 2211 in Wicker Park or a macaron at Maison Parisienne in Lakeview, but the environment was still wrong. If I took a bite near a Chicago sidewalk, I was also likely choking on dust kicked up by and Escalade on North Ave, which does nothing for conjuring the moveable feast of France so aptly captured by Ernest Hemingway, that is until a recent visit to Petit Margeaux in the Waldorf Astoria.
The background: I did not expect this. In fact I’d been a little snarky when I heard Michael Mina, the San Francisco-chef who now has a culinary empire spanning 11 states and Dubai was opening two French spots in Chicago. Chicago maybe once needed celebrity toques, star out of towners to lend legitimacy to our sleepy meat and potatoes town. But those days were over. It was our chefs adding something new to places like Vegas and New York and California. Also, while I respect and admired Mina, I’d had a couple of middling meals at his outposts in Las Vegas and felt like maybe he was overextending himself.
But, this is not the case at Petit Margeaux. Maybe it’s that Mina tapped an executive chef, Brent Balika who spent time in Chicago interning under Matthias Merges at Charlie Trotter’s and working at The Dawson. Or maybe that it’s that they brought in Ashley Torto who worked at MK, the Sofitel Water Tower, The Bristol and The Boarding House to oversee pastry. Which is to say, Mina collaborated with folks who had to the skills to translate classic French food but also understood what it is Chicagoans want.
The food: If the fare was an exact facsimile of classic French café food, it would probably be boring, but what’s exciting here is that while the technique is spot on, there’s also a local or modern spin that makes what seems old, quite new. “We wanted to do something very, very French that honored the classics, but we didn’t want it to be straight 1920s France, but a balance of old and new school,” said Torto
As the old school goes, the laminated pastries including the croissant are made in house. They are buttery, flaky and they ooze with nutty gruyere and salty ham ($11). The éclair ($5) is made with custard-perfumed pate a choux dough which has a salty and savory quality, a complexity that balances the sweet chocolate glaze and the cream inside.
But, the new school too is in abundance. A strawberry chevre cheesecake ($5) encased in a pale pink glaze featuring sleek white pinstriping and fancy pearlescent sprinkles looks less like a pastry and more like an oval couture clutch purse. But, it is as tasty as it is pretty, a delightful swirl of sweet strawberry jam and funky velvety goat cheese.
The macarons ($7) are the size of Olympic medals and stuffed with tart jam made from Klug Farm (St. Joseph, Michigan) cherries. They have a shattering crust that wafts a lilt of roasted almond in each bite.
Balika’s French dip ($14) features a cracklin’ baguette that swaddles luscious ribbons of Midwestern top round which has been massaged with salt, brown, sugar and coriander and slow roasted. The whole thing is topped with caramelized onion confit and served with a side of gravy so rich I kind of wanted to shoot it straight once I finished the sandwich. The sandwich eats like the very best Italian beef mixed with a soul-soothing French onion soup. My only quibble is that the jus was served in a plastic cup. While I’m the kind of dude who’s often happy drinking Boone’s Farm from a red Solo cup, the café is so elegant, a porcelain ramekin or a silver finger bowl seemed more appropriate. Balika said they planned on using something more permanent, but that the serveware they’d chosen was on backorder.
Generally speaking, if Trump really wanted to make America great again, he’d ban caprese and beet salads from menus for the next decade. They’ve become ubiquitous and sorry, usually made from out of season produce and rubbery cheeses. But, Balika’s beet salad ($12), tossed with curly, buttery lolla rossa lettuce and sprinkled with winey toasted pistachios redeems the form. The beets glisten with a lavender vinaigrette whose essence conjures a run through a meadow in spring.
The magnificence of the salad and the dip however make it hard to understand a ratatouille tartine ($12) which is heavy, soggy with overcooked squash and tomatoes, and garnished with bruised basil.
The drinks: Petit Margaux is a café and as such serves up masala chai ($5.25) bursting with cardamom, and iced chocolate milk ($5) thick with a fruity and bright Valrhona chocolate infusion.
The room: What makes Peit Margaux particularly evocative of France however is its location, which is to say the cobblestone courtyard of the Waldorf Astoria. If you were dropped in here blindly, you would swear you were in a real chateau. There is an unreal hush and a reprieve from the bustling Gold Coast just outside. In rainstorms, doormen ply you with umbrellas and scramble to open the front door with the seriousness of ER docs attending a coded patient. If you sit in the right spot in the café, you can gaze at the magnificent lobby chandelier, what looks like a crystalline reproduction of a dandelion seed puff, modeled on one of Coco Chanel’s favored brooches.
Bottom line: Petit Margeaux is a destination for fabulous French-inspired pastry and maybe the greatest French dip sandwich in America. Though it’s a hotel café, it is anything but drab or pedestrian. It is a respite, a sort of time machine which can conjure Parisian boulevards and reacquaint you with the wonders of a past trip to France.
Mini-review: Petit Margeaux
11 E. Walton; 415.359.0791
Rating: ** (out of four)
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.