Restaurant review: La Kitchenette helping foster French fare
MADISON—Anyone interested in a taste of France would appreciate La Kitchenette, the tiny café on Williamson Street that offers French homestyle cooking in a cozy setting.
The intimate restaurant has been operating on Willy Street for decades—first as Bon Appetite, then as Chez Nanou for about the past five years, and now La Kitchenette. It's owned and operated by Virginie Ok, a self-taught chef from Paris, and it is open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner.
A few things have changed in the transition from Nanou, but La Kitchenette's menus remain centered on crepes and other simple dishes that highlight pure flavors and elegant presentations.
That begins, of course, with the crepes, which come in two categories: sweet or savory. Savory crepes, which are made with buckwheat instead of traditional flour, appear on the lunch and dinner menus while sweet crepes are prominent on the breakfast and brunch menus.
La Kitchentte's menus are limited to French onion soup, a few salads, open-face sandwiches known as tartines (or toast), Parisian sandwiches and crepes. Breakfast, brunch and lunch menus also include egg recipes, and the dinner menu adds a few entrees: beef stew, a cooked chicken leg with a side of potatoes and a chicken and rice casserole.
And don't forget the desserts, especially the heavenly lavender crème brulee.
Most dishes come with a side salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette. There also are large salads ideal for sharing. The salade du sud ouest ($12) combines prosciutto, croutons, persillade potatoes, marinated red peppers and nicoise olives with fresh greens. It's a great balance of savory flavors with a hint of garlic and parsley mingling with those deliciously dominant olives. This salad works well as a main course served with French bread and a soup, or it can easily be shared.
For those who savor French onion soup ($6), this kitchen's version is not to be missed. Richly seasoned broth is complemented by caramelized onions and croutons and covered with a layer of crusty, browned cheese.
The tartines—open-faced toasts covered with various ingredients—are popular here, but the version we ordered was difficult to eat. The Florentine ($9) comes topped with spinach, shallots, tomatoes, béchamel, Swiss cheese and a sunny-side-up egg. There is terrific flavor there, but the toast itself is a sort of coarse peasant bread with crust that is hard to cut without everything falling apart. The other option is to pick it up and attempt to eat it as you would a traditional sandwich. Either way, it's kind of a mess.
A more traditional sandwich, and one that's much easier to actually eat, is the croque-monsieur ($10), which comes layered with ham, mustard, béchamel and Swiss cheese.
Our favorite item from the dinner menu is chicken doria ($15), a rice gratin with bacon, chicken, green onions, béchamel and Swiss cheese. Essentially a chicken and rice casserole, this dish has a creamy consistency, is seductive with flavors of béchamel and bacon and features a crusty cheese topping.
Eggs are offered as omelettes, scrambled or sunny-side-up. La Kitchenette's omelettes are simple and flavorful, with fresh dill and smoked salmon atop one version, and spinach, shallots, crispy bacon and goat cheese topping on the other (both $12).
For many, the real draw is the crepe. There are five varieties of buckwheat crepe (listed on the menu as savory), which are more dense and a bit heavier than the sweet crepes made with flour (each $12).
Brie and prosciutto are the main elements in the crepe montagnarde, which is topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Other savory crepes include The Parisienne (ham, mushrooms and green onions with béchamel sauce), the savoyarde (potatoes, bacon, green onions and béchamel), the campagnarde (spinach, shallots and béchamel with a hard-boiled egg) and the Norvegienne (smoked salmon and dill).
Sweet crepes include La Kitchenette's standard version, which comes with lemon curd topped with swirls of chocolate sauce. Other options include a Nutella crepe and a chocolate sauce crepe.
If you're heading to the café for breakfast, brunch or lunch, you ought to check out the Brioche French toast ($10) for a real treat. The dish features thick bread served with maple syrup, apples, pecans and whipped cream.
La Kitchenette has a maximum seating capacity of about 20. Its atmosphere is unpretentious; service is friendly, and the prices are reasonable.
When we heard last summer that Chez Nanou was planning to close, we feared losing one of the city's only authentic French restaurants. We were relieved to hear that another chef from Paris would be operating in the quaint eatery and are pleased to report the restaurant is in good hands and continuing the tradition that began there decades ago.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.