Cozy French charm in Oak­land Park

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Let us praise snails. Not sim­ply as food, but also as a sym­bol to protest a world be­com­ing ever more fre­netic. Al­though the tra­di­tional French dish of es­car­gots is easy to ma­lign with “ewws” and “ughs,” the dark, mys­te­ri­ous meat has its virtues. They are high in pro­tein and low in fat. At Es­car­got Bistro in Oak­land Park, a whole menu sec­tion is de­voted to their ver­sa­til­ity. Snails are broiled in but­ter with gar­lic and pars­ley, heaped atop sal­ads, steaks, eggs and ar­ti­chokes, folded into crepes and baked into puff pas­try.

Snails not only show up on plates, they also dec­o­rate the walls and shelves with pic­tures, sculp­tures and other knick­knacks. There’s even a poem about snails painted on a pad­dle in a re­stroom. One does not have to like or eat snails to en­joy a meal at Es­car­got Bistro. The menu of­fers many com­fort­ing clas­sics, such as baked brie, onion soup blan­keted with melted Gruyere, mus­sels in white wine and a fine beef Bour­guignon with spinach fet­tucine.

But the snail mo­tif dom­i­nates, and I be­lieve it’s meant to send a mes­sage in this re­lent­less, 24⁄ news

7 and-so­cial-me­dia world. A snail crawls at a snail’s pace, but its speed doesn’t seem slow to the snail. It can re­treat into its shell, bliss­fully shut­ting out the chaos sur­round­ing it. Es­car­got Bistro is a snail of a restau­rant, and I mean that as a com­pli­ment.

When I stepped in­side Es­car­got Bistro for the first time re­cently, I felt wel­comed, warm and pro­tected. There are no televi- sions, and I did not get the urge in two hours to look at a smart­phone, watch or clock. I felt as if I had stepped into some­one’s den, or a bistro in a rus­tic vil­lage in Bur­gundy or Provence, far from the tourist path. It is a place for grownups to en­joy a leisurely meal over a bot­tle of wine and con­ver­sa­tion. You will not rush or feel rushed, partly be­cause the din­ing here is pur­posely nonAmer­i­can and partly be­cause the only ones roam­ing the floor tend­ing to the seven ta­bles are co-own­ers Di­dier and An­drea Mar­tin. There are no other servers.

Di­dier says he does not have any other help be­cause he wants to in­ter­act with all cus­tomers, and he wants Es­car­got Bistro to main­tain an in­ti­mate, homey char­ac­ter. Things move at their own pace, and that pace feels right. Es­car­got Bistro serves food you will want to linger over, an at­mos­phere that al­most makes you pine for the days when you could pull out a pack of Gi­tanes cig­a­rettes and take long drags be­tween cour­ses and sips of Beau­jo­lais.

Di­dier, who chats up new­com­ers and reg­u­lars alike, is from Nor­mandy, the rugged re­gion on France’s north shore. An­drea, who dashes from the din­ing room to the small kitchen to make ap­pe­tiz­ers and desserts and as­sist chef Jacques Bagot, is from Cannes, on the sun-splashed south­ern coast. Put them to­gether and you have happy equi­lib­rium.

When An­drea serves her baked brie in puff pas­try with sauteed ap­ples ($13.50), or a dessert crepe with goat cheese and honey ($9.50), she un­leashes cries of “Oh la la” that seem born of earnest joy and not con­trived hokey­ness. After tak­ing com­fort­ing bites of each, I al­most shouted the same.

Es­car­got Bistro is small and cozy, with 26 seats. It is the per­fect an­ti­dote to a restau­rant land­scape that has be­come too loud, too cor­po­rate and too cal­i­brated. The phrase “charm­ing French bistro” is one of those food cliches that usu­ally stays locked in my word pantry, but Es­car­got Bistro truly is charm­ing.

The din­ing com­pan­ion who called for a Satur­day night reser­va­tion said she was charmed when Di­dier quickly called back to fi­nal­ize the de­tails. “He sounded so nice,” she said. She was charmed when he opened a bot­tle of Chateauneuf du Pape and asked who would like to taste it, not au­to­mat­i­cally pour­ing it into a man’s glass (she did the hon­ors and it was good). She was charmed when she saw the first item listed on the dessert menu was a proper cheese plat­ter ($9.50), be­cause she can­not fathom why any restau­rant would not of­fer cheese after a meal.

When we ar­rived, Di­dier cheer­fully sat our in­com­plete party while we waited for a late­comer. He ban­tered breezily while we or­dered wine. When our fi­nal guest ar­rived, he went over the spe­cials and when I asked the cost of the daily fish, a sole fil­let, he kept a straight face and said, “Fifty-five dol­lars.” Noth­ing else on the menu ex­ceeded $35.

I arched an eye­brow. “Too much?” he dead­panned. “Ac­tu­ally, it’s

Es­car­got Bistro

1506 E. Com­mer­cial Blvd., Oak­land Park 754-206-4116, or Es­car­ Cui­sine: French Cost: Moder­ate-ex­pen­sive. Soups, sal­ads and ap­pe­tiz­ers cost $7.50 to $14.50, en­trees $24.50-$34.50, desserts $7.50-$9.50. Lunch menu in­cludes sand­wiches, quiche and eggs ($9.50-$13.50). Three-course, early-bird din­ner avail­able 4:30-5:30 p.m. Tues­day-Thurs­day for $28.50 Hours: 11:45 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues­day-Satur­day. Closed Sun­day-Mon­day. Closed Christ­mas Eve, Christ­mas Day and New Year’s Day. Open New Year’s Eve (spe­cial menu, reser­va­tions re­quired) Reser­va­tions: Rec­om­mended, par­tic­u­larly on Fri­day-Satur­day Credit cards: All ma­jor Bar: Wine and beer (Kro­nen­bourg is the sole se­lec­tion) only. Com­pact, rea­son­able French-cen­tered wine list, with most bot­tles in the $30-$60 range. $25 cork­age fee to bring own wine Noise level: Con­ver­sa­tional, even when full. Wheel­chair ac­cess: Ground level Park­ing: Free lot or can use valet for Thai Spice restau­rant in same plaza $33.50 … Would you have payed $55?”

“I have at some places on the beach,” I said.

“We are not the beach,” he said.

Di­dier and An­drea


Es­car­gots Tra­di­tion ($13.50) fea­tures snails with­out shells broiled in but­ter, gar­lic and pars­ley, served with French bread.

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