"This is the best French onion soup I've ever eaten," my dining companion said.
I smiled. My companion, like a lot of other Milwaukeeans, had never tasted real French onion soup with its sweet broth, chewy crotons and
melted gruyere cheese. The soup she tasted had nothing in common with the dark, salty stuff that goes by the same name in supper clubs here.
As I sat beside her in the new Chez Jacques, that soup was one of several dishes that delighted me with their authentic French flavor.
When the restaurant's owner, Jacques Chaumet, opened his first café at 1101 S. 2nd St. in 2001, he told me his goal was to create a casual
neighborhood restaurant like the ones he knew in Paris.
That piqued my curiosity. I'd eaten in casual restaurants in other parts of France, but not in Paris. So when I was in Paris two years ago, I ate dinner in three such places. They were unassuming spots where the food was authentic and not a word of English was spoken.
And all it took was two recent dinners at Chez Jacques to bring those memories back.
That's because Chaumet and his talented chef, Michel Koenig, have made Chez Jacques a little island of Paris in a sea of south side bungalows.
The new location is in a building that once housed Forelle Fish Netting Corp. Last year, Chaumet transformed the structure into a 192-seat restaurant, complete with a classically French blue and yellow exterior and a number of tables out front. Inside, the three dining rooms have warm, wooden tables and are done in pastels. A combination of French and world music plays softly over the restaurant's sound system.
And most of the dishes are classically French. Take a steak au poivre ($25) that appeared on the daily special. At American places, this dish is usually a steak with coarsely ground peppercorns rubbed onto it before it's sautéed or grilled. The authentic French version is a little more elaborate - in its final stages, a sauce is made of the pan juices, softened butter and brandy.
That's the version Koenig prepared for us, and that creamy sauce really added richness to an already fine piece of beef. And, true to French tradition, that steak was served with real french fries, which are a little smaller than American ones and left in the fryer until they reach a reddish brown color.
Scallops ($19) reminded me what a well-made cream sauce should taste like. The five plump shellfish on my plate had been sautéed in butter and then finished with a bit of vermouth. After the shellfish were removed from the pan, whole cream was added.
Unlike the stuff that many chain restaurants call Alfredo, a true French cream sauce isn't the slightest bit gummy. Mine was just thick enough to coat the shellfish and flavor the saffron rice in the center of the plate.
Veal medallions ($23) had been prepared in much the same way, but the meat had been sautéed with cèpes - a type of mushroom - and then finished with a dark brown meat sauce that was richly flavored with shallots and red wine. It gave a full, rich flavor to each of the three tender cutlets on the plate.
And while I know that most Americans don't like it, I couldn't resist a rabbit special ($17). A tender rabbit had been cut into pieces, sautéed and then covered with yet another cream sauce that was flavored with coarsely ground French mustard. The combination of flavors was exquisite. One of the reasons was that French mustard is so much milder than American. The other was that the chef hadn't used a lot of it, so the taste of the rabbit and cream sauce came through perfectly. The sauce was so mild that it tasted just as good on the bowtie pasta beneath the rabbit as it did on the meat itself.
Appetizers play almost as big a role in French meals as entrées, and all but one of the four we sampled were worthy of high praise.
A delicate shell of puff pastry was filled with tender chunks of veal in a light, rich cream sauce and more of those delicate mushrooms. Unlike the veal entrée, the flavor of this appetizer was mild yet wonderfully rich.
The French version of crab cakes ($8.95) differs from its American cousin, mostly in texture. Unlike American crab cakes, which are prized for large pieces of crab, the mixture of crab and crumbs in these had been ground exceptionally fine and not browned as long. But they had no shortage of sweet crab flavor, which a creamy mustard sauce complemented well.
And then there was an appetizer called croutons a la Tapenade ($6.95). In French, a crouton is a crust of bread, and tapenade is a spread made from sweet black olives that grow in the southern part of the country. These were four slices of toasted French bread spread with the slightly salty olive paste, and then crowned with a slice of feta cheese and a strip of pimiento. In combination, those flavors worked extremely well - with that sweet strip of pepper playing well against the creaminess of the cheese and the earthy tartness of the olive spread.
The only appetizer that didn't work was stuffed mushroom caps ($8.95). I would have preferred a more traditional French mushroom stuffing - usually made up of the finely diced mushroom stalks and some meat - to the goat cheese and spinach filling chosen by the kitchen. The strong flavor of the cheese seemed to overpower the mushroom.
Raspberry Melba ($5.95), with whipped cream, ice cream and fresh berries, seemed like a perfect, cool sweet dessert for summer, but I preferred the chef's chocolate truffle cake ($5.95) because it featured rich, dark chocolate that had no trace of bitterness.
But on my next visit, I may do the same thing I did at a recent dinner. Instead of choosing from the regular desserts, I asked for an order of fresh crepes with bananas and Nutella ($6.95), a commercial spread made of chocolate and toasted hazelnuts. With freshly whipped cream on top, these crepes ended dinner on a sweet, tropical note.
Service at both meals was pretty well paced, though I would have liked my beet salad ($8.95) served after the appetizers and not with them. That, and the minor annoyance of a couple fruit flies circling my wine glass, was something I could easily ignore for food so authentic and so good.