Frank & Betsie, French & Tasty
For some of us, French cuisine can seem esoteric or reserved for only the most extravagant occasions. For over a decade, Frank & Betsie's have been making it look easy in Winnetka with their accessible, cozy eatery.
When it comes to foods that are really good at freaking out Americans in general, sushi and French cuisine are probably at the top of that list. Many people consider French food to be too sophisticated, something outside of casual dining. No one goes to a restaurant to feel confused and out of place.
Many also may think that French food is too expensive to go and try out of curiosity. There's a long standing association with all things French and sophistication: we adopt a French accent and say "ooh la la," when we want to mock a friend for being too fancy.
Or maybe it's just that, somewhere deep in our memories, we have an uncomfortable memory of caricatures of French chefs trying to catch and eat our childhood heroes.
On the other hand, maybe the image of French food is justified. Where are the equivalents of the taco in French cuisine? The pizza? The fries?
Well, maybe not that last one.
The thing is, French food is actually deceptively simple. There are few ingredients in it that aren't commonly used here. Egg and cheese, two of the most common American staples, are also staples in France, and though they may indeed cook the occasional rabbit, none of them has ever been a Warner Brothers employee.
There are ways to begin to explore what French cooking has to offer, and it's possible to do so comfortably and relatively inexpensively. That's where Frank and Betsie's comes in. It's only fitting that the restaurant whose name sounds like something out of Americana, like some Route 66 roadhouse, found its way to Winnetka, grew up, and learned how to make baguettes.
We started with - familiar enough - soup and salad. The New England-style clam chowder ($6) came to the table boiling hot, with a warning from Betsie that I best wait before tucking in. It was populated with pieces of the same wonderful bread served at the table. As in many French soup recipes, it was filled with blended herbs and bits of vegetable: in this case, celery, bell pepper, potato and carrot.
The caesar salad ($9), most assuredly not a French dish, was delicious regardless. Frank is proud of his salad dressing, and other reviews of F&B's bear that out. The dressing is light with the ability to make the salad disappear before you know it, leaving you exploring your bowl with a small piece of bread for the remnants before anyone else in the restaurant spots you being so undignified.
The following two entrees we tried were the most French of the afternoon. We began with the quiche ($12), an oven baked dish made primarily from eggs and cream, cooked with a variety of fillings and served in a pie crust. We chose the ham and swiss version. One on hand, the smoked cubes of ham in the quiche were delicious, but overall, we felt non-plussed. We went in with the understanding that French portions have a reputation for being smaller in size, but it seemed that the quality didn't warrant the price here.
We had much better luck with the pate a la maison, or 'house liver' ($9). In this case, a whipped chicken liver. This is where most initiates to French food falter - if they can convince me to eat liver, surely snails are next! - but for those new to the cuisine, I suggest bravely diving in. The pate is spreadable, and served alongside a host of flavorful companions. This plate came with a spicy yellow mustard, slices of tomato and cucumber, salty capers to balance the, well, livery taste of the pate, and, in an unexpectedly delicious touch, beets. The dish may sound odd, but if it helps, think of it as a cheese plate with a rich, tasty, spreadable meat instead of cheese.
As skilled as Frank is in the kitchen, Betsie's thoughtful service is what makes one feel most at home. Without being overbearing, she kept an eye on my plate, and offered me extras based on my preferences, like bringing me more beets as she noticed them disappearing rapidly from my plate. I felt most at home, however, when she brought me my soup. "You looked so cold as you came in," she said. "I told the kitchen to make the soup extra hot for you."
Details like that are unforgettable. No matter how much you like a given cuisine, or how familiar or unfamiliar you are with it, having that kind of thoughtful kindness brought to the table is universally enjoyed.