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Stale offering start of problems at mostly disappointing Bistro Voltaire

The warm scallop salad drizzled with saffrcream served with fluff crispy greens is one better dishes Bistro Voltaire. | Scott

The warm scallop salad, drizzled with saffron cream and served with a fluff of crispy greens, is one of the better dishes at Bistro Voltaire. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Bistro Voltaire ½★

226 W. Chicago, (312) 265-0911;

Hours: Open for dinner at 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and from
11 a.m.-3 p.m. for lunch Monday-Friday. Closed on Sunday (Sunday brunch coming soon).

Prices: Appetizers and salads, $7-$14; entrees, $19-$23;
desserts, $6.

Try: Warm scallop salad, duck terrine, coq au vin, clafoutis.

In a bite: This space was repurposed from one of the original Bar Louie locations. The atmosphere is casual bistro: tables opposite the bar, nice lighting, conversation-accessible, chalkboard specials on the wall near the peek-in kitchen opening. Pictures, photos and renderings of French philosophers, authors and humanists — Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire — spackle the walls. The limited-choice menu could work against this bistro (considering the nearby competition). And, most definitely, the kitchen needs to get it together. Service was tentative. The short wine list, by the glass and bottle, is reasonably priced and French-oriented. Reservations suggested. Not good for children.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;
★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:33AM

“Common sense is not so common.”

— Voltaire

It just doesn’t make sense that a French restaurant — a bistro, no less — would serve bad bread. Awful bread, in fact. Chicago has so many great bakeries that it is a travesty for any restaurant in these parts to serve bad bread. What were you thinking, Bistro Voltaire? Why would you serve almost stale bread, bread not worth putting on a table? Did you think no one would notice?

When I started going about getting into an appetizer — terrine de canard, cerise pistache — with the idea that a pairing of delicious bread and a meaty slab of pate would be upfront enjoyment, my expectations were thrown out the door onto Chicago Avenue.

Further, it would make sense for a new restaurant to do everything possible to make a great first impression. I was impressed with the pleasant bistro atmosphere, but the food was less than engaging. Other than the simplicity of Italian food at its best, there is nothing that requires an over-the-top approach less than bistro fare.

Over the top? Yes. The attempt to dazzle with French words to describe each dish (something that went out of style about the same time as Le Francais closed its doors) is nothing more than a smoke screen used to block out the real story here: At best, the food is hit or miss.

The terrine de canard — duck terrine with cherry and pistachio — was actually quite good. A finer grind (less coarse) of the meat would have moved this appetizer to an even more enjoyable level, but that did not stop us from finishing it.

Impressive, too, was the warm scallop salad (the primary listing in French went on for around 10 words). I say it this way: the two large sea scallops had been cooked to perfection. A gentle sear on the outside set the stage for the moist, fork-tender goodness underneath. A drizzle of “saffron cream” around the scallops and a fluff of crispy greens alongside made it all come together quite nicely.

From there on out, unfortunately, it was mostly misses. One entree missed by a mile; another simply needed some tweaking. Filet de sole, for example. The menu noted it as “lemon and butter poached.” Not a trace of either with this fillet, which just sat there like a fish on a log. No flavor at all. And the accompaniments — a gummy-thick risotto and a “market vegetable melange” — did nothing, in the least, to enhance the experience. In fact, the vegetable melange was as awful as the bread. No flavor, no redeeming qualities. Try a simple ratatouille with this, Chef.

The coq au vin needed a tweak or two. Bad presentation aside, the half-chicken got fouled up with an uninteresting red wine sauce, giving the chicken the appearance of having been barbecued and little visual appeal. The rest, as the menu notes, “bacon lardon, pearl onion, Dauphinois [sic] potatoes” was missing a few things. No pearl onions, for example, and the potatoes were mashed, not a la Dauphinoise by any stretch of a spud.

There were problems with the desserts, too. The clafoutis, though sporting a soft and flavorful texture, was served cool, not warm. The “chocolate cake,” so said the waiter, was, in fact, a chocolate lava cake, which, though good, is so old hat at this point it is almost from another era of dining.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM News Radio AM (780) and FM (105.9).

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