For the last decade these storefronts have been dominated by antique shops, which might have been what recently inspired a handful of my friends, who were visiting the Brookside Art Fair, to venture away from the tents. They strolled due east, eventually passing the 7-11 at Oak. Those adventurous souls stumbled into Café Maison and saw owner Jeff Fitzpatrick, clad in a starched white tuxedo shirt and black cummerbund and pants, hurrying from one end of the L-shaped space to the other, offering complimentary glasses of wine to his favored customers.
"We don't have a liquor license yet," Fitzpatrick told them sheepishly. "We're applying for one."
The idea of French food without wine might seem grande folie to sophisticated diners, who are forgiven for sneaking in their own bottles. But when Kansas City native Fitzpatrick opened his thirteen-table bistro, he hadn't planned on serving dinners. The restaurant's name translates as "coffee house," and Fitzpatrick, who fled a fifteen-year career as a corporate sales executive to follow his dream, was interested only in offering coffee, cappuccino, croissants and light afternoon meals.
Last year, though, he tried serving limited dinners: prix fixe meals by reservation only. His customers liked the dinners but not the set prices. So in February, with chef Sally Truscheit taking over the kitchen (which isn't much bigger than the confession booth at Notre Dame), Fitzpatrick kicked off a series of Friday and Saturday dinners with a more varied menu that changes at least once a month.
"If we notice an appetizer or a salad isn't selling well, we'll change it," Fitzpatrick says.
That happened last month, when a chicken-liver mousse did a can-can right off the menu; Fitzpatrick replaced it with a savory blue-cheese cake. At the same time, a salad of spring greens and vegetables lasted through April and continued to the May menu. Slices of crusty bread are always on the table (like the restaurant's croissants and cookies, the bread is baked by the Breadmaker in Fairway), but in April they were sided by a dollop of butter whipped with fresh basil and roasted peppers. This month, though, it was plain old butter.
That's both the magic and the disappointment of an ever-changing menu. How I wish the Burgundian crepes, a highlight of April's menu, had also survived. They were thin, griddle-fried pastries filled with ham and cheese and accompanied by a robust mustard sauce -- and I longed for them after trying this month's "pâté" of translucent potted shrimp, a tasteless concoction of cold, chopped crustaceans with microscopic bits of vegetables.
Yet another surprise came after my dinner companions goaded me into ordering a terrible-sounding appetizer: a boiled egg with a mayonnaise glaze. What arrived from Truscheit's kitchen was a luscious marvel of simplicity. Alongside a mound of tartly sweet grated-carrot salad, two hard-boiled eggs were blanketed in a creamy dressing of oil, egg yolks and lemon juice. It's the kind of homespun dish you might find in Chartres at Le Pichet, a crowded neighborhood bistro that resembles Café Maison in spirit and décor. But instead of a picturesque view of a medieval city, the lace-curtained windows at Café Maison look out across 63rd Street onto a used car lot.
C'est la vie. Besides, no one peers out after dusk, when Fitzpatrick lights votives on the tables and dims the lights inside. Ceiling fans cast twirling shadows on the periwinkle-and-maize-colored walls, and Edith Piaf warbles "On Danse Sur Ma Chanson" over the sound system.
Not that Fitzpatrick (who is somewhat shy) or his occasional waiter, John Luongo (briskly efficient but lacking joie de vivre), are loaded with Parisian charm and insouciance. They're not. But the service is attentive and as comforting as Truscheit's rustic tomato-basil soup, a potent brew of simmered tomatoes and herbs, soft ribbons of onion, and fat, crunchy croutons. This month's featured salad is a slightly sweet affair of spinach leaves jumbled with slices of orange, feathery curls of fennel, salty kalamata olives and shaved parmesan. It's just as seductive as the simpler offering of spring greens dressed in a piquant vinaigrette.
The four dinner entrees on the May menu range from the sublime -- airy crepes wrapped around soft pieces of tender chicken, vegetables and a rich cheesy sauce -- to the ridiculous. A gritty, chewy minute steak swathed in a fabulous tarragon sauce was the culinary equivalent of an ugly model in a beautiful ensemble. Sacre coeur! Hearty lamb stew was more sensually satisfying: a heaping bowl of oven-browned onions, round baby French carrots, chunks of potatoes and braised hunks of lamb ladled onto an ivory puree of rice and onions. And my friend Kent, who watches his weight and cholesterol, was scandalized by the generous amount of butter in Truscheit's baked terrine of salmon and cod, but that didn't stop him from indulging in the elegant dish.
Marie Antoinette might appreciate the fact that, at Café Maison, you can eat cake only after your evening meal. A fruit sorbet might be a nice summer addition -- and less threatening than Eiffel Tower-sized wedges of Ghiradelli chocolate cake or lightly citrusy lemon cake (both made in the restaurant's kitchen). But the two cakes are superb, evoking church socials and outdoor picnics. They're not fancy patisseries, but then this is the same dining room where Fitzpatrick leaves Prairie Home Companion on the radio until the restaurant gets busy and he switches over to Piaf.
Then, on Café Maison's romantic weekend nights, you can almost imagine that this is Paris instead of E-Bro.