At some point you’ve probably seen a Shonda Rhimes show, whether you realize it or not. Either Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal, or maybe that one where sexy people get away with sexy murder. They’re all from the same creator, but vary in success and quality - and the same could be said of one of Chicago’s biggest restaurant groups. In other words:
From the team that brought you such excellent restaurants as Avec and The Publican...but also the middling Dove’s Luncheonette and Big Star...comes Cafe Cancale.
And it falls somewhere between a prestige production and mid-season filler. A lot of the French-inspired food is well-prepared and tasty enough to make this place worth checking out, but there aren’t enough hits on the menu to make it much more than a one-time destination.
Some of the things on Cancale’s seafood-focused menu remind us of what’s best about The Publican and Avec: the dishes include an unexpected element that makes them stand out. A simple plate of raw scallops comes with a butter pudding that complements the briny sweetness and creates one of the best bites we’ve had in a long time. The moist halibut is served with a corn beurre blanc that makes such a light fish feel rich and decadent. The smooth duck terrine is spiced with nutmeg and wrapped in bacon that adds a nice smokiness. But the menu swaps out dishes more often than Roseanne swaps out Beckys, so your table’s fan favorites might not be around next season.
But that also means some elements that aren’t working will, hopefully, be axed. We won’t be sad to see the end of the walleye quenelles story arc: they’re not very enjoyable, a dense and flavorless ball of fish. And the mussels dish just isn’t a very well-developed character, either. There isn’t enough broth in the bowl to support the Jurassic-sized mussels, plus the fries and baguette they’re served with, leaving everything dry.
Even a good TV show can suffer from a lousy time slot, and in some ways, Cancale is a victim of where it’s situated, too. It’s in the former Publican Anker space (a since-canceled Publican spinoff), which has an awkward triangular shape. They’ve done a good job of creating a bistro-y atmosphere, but that doesn’t change the unavoidably cramped narrowness of the main dining room. The bar area feels more airy and open, and it’s our favorite place to sit.
Grey’s Anatomy has been on for 16 seasons, while its spinoff Private Practice only lasted six - not a bad lifespan for a show, but maybe a sign that they weren’t equally enjoyable. The same might be true of Cafe Cancale. Overall, it’s pretty average, and even more so when compared to some of its predecessors. But like half-hour dramas that pass the time while you do dishes, this restaurant is a good spot to pass the time over drinks, oysters, or a casual French dinner in Wicker Park.
The oysters at Cafe Cancale are very good, and there are some good deals during Happy Hour. If you order a few different kinds, they’re not very diligent about explaining which one is which. But that doesn’t stop us from sitting at the bar and seeing how many we can eat in one evening.
This is one of our favorite small plates. The taramasalata (a roe spread) is nicely seasoned with fennel and togarashi.
For being a rather small plate of cold leeks and mussels, this ends up being rich and flavorful. It’s served with walnuts and a cream sauce. Do yourself a favor and ask for some bread to go with it.
The raw seafood here is fantastic, and the scallops are our favorite. They’re served with a “butter pudding” that’s basically a scoop of delicious flavored butter. Some of that and a bite of raw scallop is one of our favorite things we’ve put in our mouth.
This is a great duck terrine. It has a smooth texture, wrapped in a thin slice of fatty bacon that adds some nice smoky flavor. The accompanying sweet and sour cherries cut through the terrine’s richness perfectly.
It’s not the best tartare in the city (that would be at Maude’s), but it’s certainly not the worst. So if someone at the table says, “Let’s get the tartare,” just go ahead and do it. It’s fine.
This is just a very well-prepared and delicious fish dish. It’s in a beurre blanc sauce along with oyster mushrooms. Everything works together, and you should order this if you can.
The steak is medium rare and well seasoned. It comes with an escargot bolognese that seems unnecessary, but does add some earthiness.
There’s usually a pasta on the menu, and it’s probably going to be the only thing your vegetarian friend can order. The good news is that it’s also probably going to be great. The ravioli is filled with fresh corn, pecorino, and some black truffle in a buttery sauce. It’s very rich and very good.
Not even lobster butter made us like this. The fish balls were dense and bland, and had an unpleasantly springy texture.
Whenever we’ve gotten the mussels at Cafe Cancale, they’ve consistently been large and dry. They’re served in a white wine broth with creme fraiche, but there’s not enough of either. Our favorite part about this is the side of fries and baguette it’s served with, but there’s not enough sauce happening here to fully enjoy those things either.