Leigh Hansen reviews Maude’s Liquor Bar
A restaurant as hyped as Maude’s Liquor Bar has the potential to either live up to its (chef’s) reputation or fall flat on its face, but one thing was inevitable: there would be haters. So, I avoided Yelp like the plague, which isn’t hard for me as when I inadvertently happen upon Yelp Reviews I generally take them with the tiniest grain of salt. But I am human; and worse yet, I happen to be a human who follows the food world like a starving hyena stalking a maimed zebra, so I ended up reading a few reviews… all of which were very mixed. A key article I came across, however, was an interview with Chef Jeff Pikus who cautioned diners against expecting Alinea style food as he was rooting himself to traditional French cuisine. If you know me, you know why I was particularly thrilled by this news. You try being raised bi-culturally (an American brought up French) and navigating the twisted canals of your warped sense of identity! But as an honorary French person and longtime experimenter with traditional French cuisine as acquired by having lived in the regions steeped in said traditions, I went in with great expectations.
So when I called for a reservation and was only offered the possibility of dining at 5pm or 9:45pm I allowed myself to be optimistic since hype can only fill a restaurant’s books for so long…right?
I met my date at 9:30 for our 9:45 reservation, and was struck by the décor of the ground floor. The bar is outlandishly beautiful, and even after having read that the darkened ambiance with its antiqued, eclectic furniture breathed an air of stuffiness and worse yet a pretentious self awareness of how “cool” the restaurant was, the overall ambiance had the opposite effect on me. Granted we were seated in a much quieter upstairs section, but I was charmed by the vibe, which I did not find to be ostentatious or fussy. The hostess was very pleasant, and our waitress was also very friendly and accommodating. I will say that they got the bistro element spot on with their tiny tables that constantly threaten to help your food to the floor for want of space. One small note: if you envision your menu as an array of dishes meant to be shared and allow your kitchen to send out dishes as they become ready, slightly larger tables might be preferable.
So without further ado, I give you the dishes… in order of appearance.
The first things to come out were the French Onion Fondue ($11) and the Roasted Bone Marrow ($13), and what a great way to start our experience. While not exactly traditional, the French Onion Fondue was very tasty and came out with fresh bread that was still steaming. I had previously read a very bad review of this dish, and the main problem as noted by the reviewer was how greasy the fondue was. Here’s my issue with that review: yeah, it’s melted cheese baked with the stewed onions from a traditional French Onion Soup. The fault’s your own for ordering this dish and expecting something non-artery blocking.
The Roasted Bone Marrow was epic. No, really. I don’t throw the term epic around easily. It was perfectly roasted and served with red onion jam and course herb salt, which paired together gave an ideal counterbalance to the marrow. I would go back just to order two plates of marrow for myself. Fortunately, I gave myself reason to go back as we neglected to order two very good dishes with which to assess a restaurant’s claim of staying true to tradition: the Escargot and the Steak Tartare.
Next to come out were the Pomme Frites with garlic aioli ($6). The fries came out alone which may have impacted my opinion of them. They got cold and hard astoundingly quickly which rendered them inedible by the time the Cassoulet and Pork Loin Paillard made their entrance.
I will permit myself a slight detour away from the food for a moment to talk about the liquor accompanying our meal, after all this is Maude’s Liquor Bar. I started with the Boulevardier and my date had a St Germain Fizz from the Sparkling section. I’m convinced that it is nearly impossible to concoct an unsuccessful cocktail with St Germain, but urge Chicago bartenders not to take that as a dare. My drink was heavy on Campari, but I’m sensitive to the taste so shame on me for ordering a drink with Campari in the first place. Our second round of drinks were tailored to our tastes by the very attentive upstairs bartender who made a habit of coming over to check on us and chat with us about his creations. The Robert Burns pleased my date greatly, and I was understandably happy with my specially made whiskey based drink. His zealously attentive nature afforded us the chance to hear about the plans surrounding the opening of Bavette, a beef focused restaurant with a similar vibe. This shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish as Gilt Bar and Maude’s already share similar visions, not to mention clearly share a website designer. Apparently, Bavette will showcase the talents of executive chef Brendan Sodikoff of Gilt Bar and our friendly upstairs bartender’s personal list of cocktails!
Back to the food: the final dishes to come out were the Cassoulet ($19) and the Pork Loin Paillard ($16). The pork was very good. Though I was already quite full, I easily ate my half of the thinly pounded and expertly crusted pork, which came with a sauce gribiche and was complimented very nicely by the zesty and peppery flavors of a perfectly dressed arugula salad. The Cassoulet was easily the most disappointing dish we ordered. I’ll preface this by reminding you that I know my Cassoulet, and I was expecting a lot. The Cassoulet changes in preparation depending on the night, but that night we looked forward to duck, garlicky pork sausages and pork belly. Perhaps I was expecting too much from the pork belly. It is a fatty piece of meat, which, in my humble opinion, should try to avoid preparations in which it could become soggy clumps of undercooked fat. The Cassoulet, a traditional stew from Southern France (arguably most famously from Toulouse, though there are many styles I’m willing to honor as traditional), is not one of these ideal situations for pork belly. It essentially seemed as though the stew had not been given enough time to actualize: the white beans were runny and watery, and the anticipated heartiness of this traditionally meat-heavy dish was simply lost. To add insult to injury, the copious amount of bread crumbs were burnt which could have been overlooked had the rest of dish not been so clearly undercooked.
We ended our meal with Crème Brulée and the chocolate selection, which were both perfectly fine, though the aforementioned selection was less of a selection and more of a two option scenario.
Despite my disappointing Cassoulet I look forward to going back to Maude’s as I genuinely enjoyed my dining experience in the non-pretentious, dimly lit upstairs area with its extremely friendly service staff. That said, heed my warning Maude’s Liquor Bar, I will be back for the Steak Tartare and Escargot, please don’t pull another Cassoulet move on me with what are perhaps my two favorite traditional French dishes and don’t forget my double order of Marrow!