French connection: Bistro specializes in small, simple plates done well

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Bill Livick, Special to the Gazette
Thursday, August 1, 2013

MADISON—Anne-Marie Rieunier and her business partner, Dee Kuech—the chefs behind the new French restaurant Chez Nanou—bill the tiny bistro as “a little piece of France in Madison.”

And so it is, from the way they greet customers en francais to the concise menu of French “peasant food” to the small dining room's décor, which features vintage prints and maps of Paris in a bright, homey space.

It's all very intimate and, in the classic sense, not very American.

That means you won't find large servings of meat and potatoes, and you probably won't take home leftovers. Instead, the plates at Chez Nanou (“at Nanou's place”) are small, simple and exacting: a fresh salad, a few pieces of thinly sliced potato or steamed vegetable, a small portion of meat, a crepe containing a bit of melted Gruyere.

It's cooking characterized by simple techniques and few ingredients.

Rieunier, who hails from Aix-en-Provence in southern France, and her American partner, Kuech, a bilingual Francophile, took over the space in March that for the past 15 years had been Bon Appetit.

Neither had worked as a professional chef or restaurateur, but each had a love of preparing and eating good food.

The café's fixed menu is partly designed around the crepe. There are savory crepes (Les Crepes Salees), which are more of a meal, and sweet crepes (Les Crepes Sucrees) that are more like a sweet snack.

The bistro side of the menu offers such things as French onion soup, cassolettes (a meat dish with beans, sausage, lamb or pork, and vegetables), a salmon plate, a charcuterie plate (which includes prosciutto, ham, sausage and salad with a baguette), large salads and sandwiches such as the croque monsieur.

The café also uses a blackboard to list daily specials, which on the night of our visit included three salads and such main courses as duck a l'orange ($17.50), a plate built around duck sausage ($14.50) and whitefish escabeche ($15).

We made a reservation, which gave the café staff time to push several small tables together. Our party of eight occupied about half the seats in the dining room.

For the most part, everyone appreciated the quaint charm of the place and its staff, although at least a couple of people were still hungry when they left the café.

A group that large also presented a challenge for the two chefs, who weren't used to turning out eight orders at the same time. Instead, the orders came out in pairs, more or less, which meant that the people served first had to wait a while before digging in.

Nobody seemed to be put off by that, and the consensus was that the food was, for the most part, delicious. We also consumed our share of wine—mostly red, but also one bottle of white. The café also serves a couple of local bottled beers.

An order of French onion gratinee soup ($5.80) featured a dark, rich broth intensely flavored with onion and topped with a baguette and a molten cheese crust. Our friend, Heather, noted approvingly that there was very little broth that hadn't been absorbed by the bread, yet at the surface she found a savory crust of cheese and bread that was crisp.

The duck a l'orange combined tender medallions of duck breast flavored with sliced oranges and thinly sliced potatoes, steamed asparagus, green beans and a salad of mixed greens, while the duck sausage plate included the same perfectly prepared green beans and potatoes, a marinated fruit (either pear or apple) and a two savory sausages.

A salmon plate ($13.50) included thin slices of smoked salmon in a lemon cream sauce, a mixed greens salad and baguette toast. A friend liked the flavors but left the table still hungry.

Likewise, another friend who ordered the paysanne plate ($12.75)—a salad and a crepe filled with ham and Gruyere cheese, topped with a fried egg—also thought the flavor was good but felt underfed.

The kitchen's Norvegienne plate of smoked salmon, lemon cream sauce and dill ($12.75) wrapped in a white flour crepe was remarkable for its interesting balance of smoky and tart, while a Parisienne crepe ($12.75) exuded a rich blend of flavors with ham, mushrooms and Gruyere wrapped in a crepe, topped with béchamel sauce.

We also shared starters such as a fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil salad ($6), a cherry tomato salad ($7) and plate of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe ($6).

For dessert, the kitchen turns out some pretty plates. A wonderful lavender crème brulee ($6) was a velvety, creamy custard with a crisp crust. An intensely flavored lemon curd ($6) virtually burst with juice and zest.

Chez Nanou is the polar opposite of a traditional American supper club. Each, of course, holds its own appeal. But if you're in the mood for a French experience that's close to home, this is an excellent place to start.

Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.

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