Sky Full of Bacon

My Night at Maude’s

(Can I really be the first person to use that headline in regards to Maude’s Liquor Bar? Where has our educational system failed?)

When I interviewed Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social last summer for my week’s stint at Grub Street, he mentioned that a number of restaurant groups had a French-flavored place in the planning stages. I’m not sure which he was necessarily referring to but suddenly we have buzz about three of them— Maude’s Liquor Bar, Paris Club (the revamping of Brasserie Jo), and Grant Achatz doing fin-de-siecle Paris as the first concept at Next. (You could probably add the Belgian Leopold as close enough, too.) It’s not hard to understand why French food would be the next place to turn for small-plates eating and drinking concepts— if any cuisine is ready to be liberated from stuffy fine dining practices, it’s French. So Maude’s, under Chef Jeff Pikus (an Alinea alum, not that there’s much sign of that on Maude’s menu) presents us with French food refracted through the American gastropub trend, with lots of emphasis on cocktails and pork— neither, of course, out of character for Gallic dining. The result, though, seemed more successful the closer it hewed to classic French food, and the less so the closer it got to greasy, porky American gastropub food.

I will say that I was charmed by the room, the moreso as I was slightly expecting to find it too cool for school. It’s as dark as Girl & The Goat across the street, but where that seems cavernous, this was intimate and a little funky, white tiles around the bar, a thrift-shop mismatch of lighting fixtures and eclectic comfy seating. The effect is not so much of a literal evocation of France as of later caricatures of the fin-de-siecle period; it’s a little like being inside the curlicues and squiggles of a drawing by Ronald Searle.

There’s a drink menu of wines, beers and liquors by brand name, but you probably want to hunt out the cocktail list on the back of the food menu. There’s a short list of classic cocktails and then their own collection of “smashes,” drinks muddled much like a mint julep, though the fact that they don’t actually tell you anything beyond the names makes these something of a crapshoot. But someone had liked the Smokey Violet, which I ordered to find that it was neither smokey nor violet but, indeed, green and minty as a julep. (I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that I was given the wrong drink, but since no precise description of the drinks exist, it’s impossible to know for sure.) Kristina Meyer in The Reader said the drinks all tended toward the sweet side, and that was the case here, but I thought it (whatever it was) was a complex and highly refreshing drink. What might be of more concern, though, is that it didn’t seem very alcoholic. Not that I’m looking for a particularly stiff belt, but in February, I’m not exactly looking for the sort of mild, summery drink that goes with sitting on the open-air patio and knocking back five of them with little effect, either.

There was a special of a trotter (pig’s foot) stuffed with sweetbreads and mushrooms, so we ordered that and a cassoulet; brussel sprouts and frites as sides; and a lyonnaise salad. First let me praise the best things; the frites, fried in an oil mixture including pork lard, were terrific, and the brussels sprouts, quite huge by the way, were served in a meaty broth which accented their bitter char, and were excellent.

The lyonnaise salad was, I thought, fairly good. All frisee, it reminded me of the director Lawrence Kasdan’s long-ago comment that eating sprouts was like going down on an alien. But the flavor of the tart bacon dressing on the greens was very well balanced. I’m not sure it was an improvement to serve the lardons as three whole slabs of grilled pork belly, and it definitely wasn’t one to serve an allegedly soft-boiled egg on top which had barely any liquid left in its center. This wasn’t a bad version of a classic dish, but it was one that fixed parts of it that weren’t broken.

The cassoulet… we were divided at our table over this. My companion thought it was a bad cassoulet, I thought it was a pretty good bean dish saddled with a name that promised too much. Cassoulet seems to be a problem for restaurants; nobody wants to do it the hard, two-day way, so they come up with various methods for cooking the parts separately. (My friend Kennyz, for one, prefers this, since the beans aren’t turned to mush in the process.) I’ve had some where the flavors melded beautifully (The Southern) and some where the ingredients seem to have met each other for the first time on my plate seconds earlier (Hot Chocolate, long ago) and some where the meats seemed kind of separate but had so much robust individual flavor it hardly mattered (Leopold a couple of weeks ago). As cassoulets go, this one was pretty good navy bean soup, by which I mean, the beans and the pork (shank, to judge by the look and the gelatiney shimmer) had melded together beautifully, but the dish stopped there, halfway to the variety of tastes and textures that is cassoulet to me. Next to Leopold’s, which had a robust sausage and a savory hunk of rabbit (understudying for duck), this was just ham and beans. (Note: Since Heather Shouse refers to the cassoulet as “sausage-studded,” it must change regularly, as ours was most certainly sausage-impotent.)

And then there was the trotter, which had been praised by some at LTHForum but was, for both of us, a disaster. Below the shank there’s virtually no meat on a pig’s foot; it’s all gelatine. So stuff the skin with sweetbreads and all you’ve created is a turducken-like monstrosity which functions as a delivery system for vast amounts of greasiness, sealed in by the skin. And even if that were appetizing, there was something bitter and antagonistic about the broth that the sweetbreads and the chunks of hen of the woods mushroom were swimming in, that made it hard to even nibble on the parts. This seemed to be filling a American gastropub slot for porcine excess that was certainly alien to the way pork is eaten in in France— except perhaps in the kind of overblown, Bocuse d’Or-ian stunt cooking where you sculpt some dead creature into an unnatural shape, and how it tastes is largely irrelevant.

One problem, that may not have been fatal to the trotter but surely didn’t help, was that it came at the very end. I’m about ready to rebel against the whole way small plates are being served in this town, the “order everything at the beginning and we’ll bring it to you as it’s ready” way of doing things, because I think chefs are shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of logistical convenience. The order of our dishes was the fries first (so they accompanied nothing and filled us up quickly), the brussel sprouts (likewise a side dish without a main), the cassoulet, the salad (at least that had some resemblance to the French practice of eating salad after the entree)— and then the grease bomb. Almost none of this was in an order that made for a satisfying flow of dishes; we started out snacking on fries like teenagers and ended stuffing ourselves with entire pig parts like Mr. Creosote. (Or would have, if we’d finished much of it.)

At the end of it my dining companion said that if he returned, he would stick to something straightforward like steak and frites, and probably be happy; the kitchen did a mostly fine job on the things that were simple like the brussels sprouts (really, one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve had in a while, and calling it simple is not meant to damn it with faint praise), but was led astray by attempts at modern gastropubbby reinterpretations like the trotter, which were just too much and too off-kilter in conception. For all that, and despite the pain of the most expensive dish being the biggest flop, I liked Maude’s overall, a little sophisticated, a little comfy, a little decadent, a lot porky (for better and worse), and having some sense of its strengths and flaws, I’d order accordingly next time— and hope that the kitchen, surely reeling from being slammed as the hot new place of the moment, will follow its strengths over time, as well.

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6 Responses to “My Night at Maude’s”

  1. David Hammond Says:

    Yes, I believe you are the first to use that title, though filmic refs did begin with Trixie’s article that employed Bunuel-related title (prompting me to comb for allusions to Catherine Deneuve, expensive call girls, blinded cuckholds, etc.)

    Totally with you on the root problem with cassoulet at many restaurants: apparently rushed. As with confit (which frequently seems to suffer from same cause), I’d rather make it at home and enjoy it more.

  2. Kenny Says:

    Hate the trotter or love it as much as I did, I don’t think the characterization as American gastropub porcine excess is right. Versions of this dish have long studded the menus of fine dining establishments in France (there are similar versions in Italy too), and the particular version on which Maude’s is based comes from a famous Pierre Koffman restaurant in London. It’s a dish that gets talked about a lot in top culinary schools, because there’s a lot of technical skill required to get it right. I’ve never had any of the iconic versions, but what I tasted at Maude’s matched exactly what I had in mind based on what Koffman fans and culinary school instructors describe. The wobbly and soft texture sounds off-putting, but I thought it was a revelation – unlike anything else I’d ever tasted, and highly enjoyable.

  3. Michael Gebert Says:

    Maybe it had an off night, but for us it was immensely greasy and there was an unpleasant flavor when the mushrooms were eaten with the sauce. I’m sure it wasn’t helped by arriving when we were basically stuffed ourselves, but really, “unpleasant” and “gross” was the reaction we both had. And even if it’s authentic to a certain style of French cooking, it felt like a representative of the let’s-overdo-pork school of Chicago 2011 menu composition.

  4. Jeff Says:

    I think you’re spot on with most things (in relation to my few experiences) and surprised you even ventured into trotter land. I’m always leary of specials on menus for the exact reason that it’s not a strong suit. It’s unfortunate you didn’t get to enjoy the more traditional and delicious parts of the menu like sausage of the day, shortrib, market fish or any raw bar items. I still haven’t even tried the cassoulet because I enjoy everything else too much. Anyway if you could still have a positive experience with a goofy dish and a decent cassoulet, I bet your return would be that much better.

  5. Michael Gebert Says:

    Well, people on LTH, like KennyF, had raved about the trotter, but it just didn’t happen for me.

  6. Michael Morowitz Says:

    I was Mr. Gebert’s dining companion that evening and given more time to reflect, I’m even less positive about my meal than I was when I was leaving the restaurant (especially now that I’ve had more time to look at my credit card bill).

    Very little worked for me at Maude’s especially at the prices they’re charging.

    The cassoulet was a $16 bowl of thick bean soup with a few hunks of meat in it, astounding similar in flavor to something I made at home the prior weekend.

    The trotter was just a disaster.

    And Mike is dead on about the Lyonnaise salad. This did not need a re-working. It’s annoying to have giant slabs of pork on top of your frisse when you really want smaller lardons. The egg should be poached, not soft-boiled, with a nice runny yolk. Again, I think this salad was $12 which I feel is about 30% too much.

    I liked the fries a lot, but I probably won’t return to Maude’s. When it really comes down to it, if you add a few bucks to the price of the fries, I can go to the Hopleaf and get a big pot of mussles AND fries AND bread and enjoy it significantly more.

    This is the 3rd or 4th new restaurant in Chicago in the past year that the whole world is raving about that I had a negative reaction to. Perhaps I’m being extra grumpy lately or I’m just out of step with what’s good and exciting these days, but I think I need to take a break from restaurants that put out press releases.

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