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Tasty food but poor service at Red Rooster restaurant

By Janean L. Watkins
On April 20, 2011


Chicago is known for many things, but food is one of its premier attractions. In Lincoln Park, a multitude of eateries, wedged between trendy clothing stores, lure many Chicagoans and tourists alike. One such den of delicacies is Red Rooster, located on 2100 N. Halsted Street.

Red Rooster restaurant has been in operation since 1990, as the accent feature of its predecessor Café Bernard, which has been opened for over 35 years. Owned and operated by Chef Bernard LeCoq, this provincial French bistro is nestled awkwardly behind the main restaurant along a side street. On approaching the restaurant, I'm greeted with the fading yellow paint on the door that features a peeling red rooster. Once inside the door, my friend and I are greeted with a very steep set of stairs that confused her and left me looking for another way in. I finally glean what I think to be an entrance through a door on my right.

Imagine entering a dim lit, tightly packed closet. Directly in front of us was a path between four tables with dining patrons leading to a coat rack laden with a variety of outerwear. Part of our large party of seven sits at a pre-reserved table with somber looks upon their countenance as we approach and take our seats—something about a host with an attitude that pretended not to know the reservation existed. We take it in stride and attempt to enjoy what is noted to be great French food.

The denizens of patrons in the miniscule restaurant make for difficult dinner conversation; fortunately, not long after we're seated comfortably does the waiter come over to tell their specials for the night. In a very rushed candor and without any details he says, "Tonight we have the Beef Tenderloin salad, the grilled sea scallop salad, the Grilled Atlantic Salmon Salad and the Braised Beef Bourguignon w/ Pasta – are you ready for your order?" It was truly amazing that he said all of this with only two breaths.

But it was important not to be rushed, so I respond, "Well we would like to start with your wines. Tell me about your house wine, what would you suggest?" This didn't seem to go over well, for he gazed haughtily at me and in a very annoyed tone of voice asks, "Well, there are over fifty wines on our list."

Not swayed by his tone, I respond, "Great, do you have any suggestions, any favorites?" He walks away. Yes, walks away. He returns momentarily, though, with a wine list.

After gazing emptily at the list, I sweetly ask him for his favorite, once again annoyed; he wanted to know if we would like to try a red or a white. We go with the red. We end up with a very tasty Syrah. The olive-like tone really gives it good body and aftertaste.

The bread that is given to us was very tasty with rustic flavors bursting in the rye and nice chunks of shitake mushrooms in the mushroom bread. Soft pats of perfectly salted butter spread nicely over the still warm slices. Finally, our waiter is back and, looking as bored with our party as ever, obviously trying very hard not to sneer. He isn't doing so well with hiding his disgust with us.

"Are you all ready to order," he asks, as he seems poised to run for the kitchens to hurry our visit along.

Most of us are and I start us off. We've lined up a pretty nice variety of experiences for the night; there's the braised lamb shank, Apple Bleu Cheese Salad, Baked Brie en Croute, Braised Beef Bourguignon w/Pasta, Grilled Atlantic Salmon Salad, Vegetarian Pasta with Portobello Mushrooms, and the Grilled Salmon Cabernet Sauvignon Sauce. He zips away, not leaving much room for us to ask for separate appetizers. At this point, we are all ready to spend the least amount of money in this establishment as possible and be on our "common" way. It is obvious that we don't belong here, or aren't thought to belong here.

The dark, crowded atmosphere leaves much to be desired and the service is less than acceptable. There is another member of the wait staff who seems to have a much better attitude about "common" people. He is nice enough to offer us refills of water, although we have a decanter on the table; he answers my questions about the establishment, and talks briefly to my friend, who is Latina and a professor for the city colleges, about the types of people that visit the two establishments.

He notes that Café Bernard's is much bigger than where we are, and that they have a larger menu. I begin to with I'd gone there instead, but the service may have been the same. At least the ambiance wouldn't have been so depressing as it was to sit in the claustrophobic inducing room that we were in, surrounded by boring conversations about what should have been done with this dish and what was done in other French restaurants. We are all aware of some of these complaints and glance wearily around the table to see if our worry is reflected in anyone else's eyes.

My friend who visited France recently noted that she sees what they were going for with the look and feel of the place, but that they don't quite pull it off. I for one am relieved when our food arrives and I've taken my first bite of the lamb shank. The lamb shank is succulent as I chew its obsequious texture and revel in the flavors; there is also a hint of Cabernet in the gravy that it is glazed in and the thyme and garlic mashed potatoes are a wonderful accent to the slightly sweet tastes that burst in my mouth from the lamb. Perfectly steamed green beans are also dusted with a smattering of garlic salt; the only complaint on my plate is the carrots, which seem to have been sitting out for a while, waiting for the pickled cabbage and other accents to be added to the plate.

Overall, the dish is a good one. Point one for the haughty, cramped restaurant.

The sample of the grilled salmon in cabernet sauce isn't as fresh as I would have liked and the two worst dishes on the table have to be the vegetarian pasta (which had absolutely no flavor at all) and the apple-blue cheese salad. The blue-cheese was overripe; you could actually smell the ammonia developing.

All in all, the experience was certainly a mixed one.

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