110 E. Pearson St., (312)266-3110
Dinner entrees from $13.50-$28
Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Noise: bustling but comfortable; bothersome near kitchen
Bistro 110 is an Inspector Clouseau of restaurants: the accent is so thick that it makes you smile. From the chanteuse singing through the speakers, to the francais-studded menu, this place is ooo-la-la all zee way.
Bistro 110, a soccer kick's distance from the Water Tower, is a good choice when you want to dine without fear of cream, butter or garlic. It has its non-bistro moments—it seats nearly 200, for instance, sports a surprising number of non-French wines, and prices are ooo-la-la, too—but here's the place for a fat fix.
Start with an artichoke baked with brie ($8.75), the cheese melted into a pool of mustardy sauce. (Ask for an extra napkin and a plate to the side for all your work and spent leaves.) Or a platter of French charcuterie ($10)—slices of garlicky sausage; perfect, see-through waves of ham; and a chunk of pate—nicely rounded out by heady French mustard and a small crock of super-sour cornichons.
French onion soup ($6)—oddly, one of the only classic bistro menu items not listed in its original French—is topped off with a manhole cover-like escarpment of gruyere cheese (who's complaining?), but also slices of too-lightly toasted baguette. Were that the onions had been sliced rather than chopped up, and caramelized more rather than left merely made golden.
The steamed mussels ($10.50) can't be faulted for their white wine and garlic and herb broth, but they strangely come in various sizes, with the result that some are overcooked while others are done just right. The pommes frites that accompany them aren't hot at all and have lost their crispness, which is sad because there isn't much else that screams 'bistro' as much as a great french fry.
Bistro 110 is keen on—and good at—a variety of salads. One such, the 'salade du jardin meli-melo' ($13.50) brings a wealth of perfectly dressed greens and sliced vegetables topped with tender chicken breast. And you'll love the whisper of good olive oil in something as humble as a side salad at lunch. The French are sticklers for the correct balance of oil, acid and seasonings in their salad dressings, and for this, Bistro 110 scores.
Main dishes cost a pretty franc, and some are worth it. For a heavenly taste of chicken and cream, go for a plate of chicken and morels 'Paul Bocuse' ($22), a fricassee of chicken parts bathed in lusciousness, studded with an ample amount of morels and set over a bed of black-green spinach leaves, sauteed until they are jam.
The cassoulet toulousain ($17.25) is well-assembled—all the classic pieces of meat show up; the beans are in abundance; garlic wafts everywhere—but it's a tad dry, and the parsleyed bread crumbs that cover the piping hot whole are so fine and resolutely green that they resemble a mold more than anything appetizing. But, never mind, there's a confit de canard in there somewhere.
No one serves brandade de morue ($15.50) anymore—salt cod-infused mashed potatoes having died with Maurice Chevalier—but Bistro 100 makes a game effort. Instead of salt cod, the kitchen sagely chooses to use fresh cod, and fairly whips the mixture of it, the potatoes and a heavy hand with the olive oil into froth. (There's almost too much raw garlic to be true, but it's there, in all its eye-burning glory.) It's rather tasty, if tiring, and is served perfectly piping hot. That will take the cold out of any Chicago winter's day.
I haven't been to many restaurants lately where people are more accommodating, from the person who greets at the door, to servers who work the floor. Bistro 110 isn't a small restaurant and, so, this is even more impressive. What feeling of intimacy one gets here comes by way of people rather than place.
The walls are painted in what Lily Pulitzer would do if she tried her hand at a naef Impressionism, sort of large swaths of pinkish red and green from which you can vaguely pull out a set of eyes or a nose. In any case, it's not off-putting and has its own liveliness. (I'm not so sanguine about all the hats tacked to one wall. They oversee a row of tables and you can't help but feel that grandmére's dust is feathering down.)
Finally, a note about the bread. It's wonderful: cracklingly crusty, warmed just through (the bane of bread these days is too much heat) and set aside triangles of butter —sometimes sweet, sometimes salted—and an entire head of garlic that's been roasted to nuttiness.
Tres francais, just like the restaurant itself.