On a perfect fall day - crisp, sunny, yellow leaves left on the trees - I had a perfect lunch at Chez Nanou. If it is difficult to imagine Willy Street into a boulevard in Paris, at least I couldn't have had a better day to try.
Chez Nanou is a new venture within the familiar Bon Appetit Cafe space. Chef Nanou (Anne-Marie Lalande) has the run of the kitchen for lunches Monday through Friday (and dinner on the third Thursday of the month). Midday, this sweet 20-seat restaurant is transformed, with French songs playing softly in the background. Chef Nanou or one of the servers is likely to greet you with a "comment a va?" as you walk in the door. This could bring back terrifying memories of trying to converse while eating at the French House in college, but it's fine to switch to English.
The menu changes weekly, but is focused largely on crepes, both savory and sweet - with your choice of galette Bretonne (crepes made with buckwheat flour) or crepe froment (white flour). Also likely as entrees: a couple different tartines (open-faced sandwiches); croque-monsieur (more or less a ham-and-gruyere tartine with bechamel sauce); omelets; a large salad. It's all variations on a theme - salmon, for instance, may show up as an ingredient in a crepe, an omelet and a tartine. Ham and gruyère are similar utility players across dishes.
A daily special, like beef bourguignon and mashed potatoes or salmon with rice, is also available.
The crepe paysanne is a classic Paris food, here featuring salty (but not too salty) rustic ham, melted gruyère (but not an avalanche of it) and finally adorned with a fried egg. The buckwheat galette is a little drier than the white-flour version, but the egg yolk brings the whole thing together.
As good as this combo is, it was the side salad that was enough to fall in love with. Baby arugula, slices of apple, raisins and craisins, and generous walnut halves were united by a perfect vinaigrette that resisted any starring role for itself. Why are most salads dressed so poorly? It was a heavenly, harmonic little salad.
When pretending to be in Paris, do as the Parisians. Accompany your crepe with a glass of French cidre (hard cider), a somewhat yeasty version that works with the salad and the crepe.
I was so impressed with that side salad that on a subsequent visit I ordered the large salad, which that week was a nioise. The kitchen was out of mixed greens, so it was based on baby spinach. It was a good mix of the salty and briny (olives and anchovies) with the milder flavors (tuna, potato, green bean and hardboiled egg) again coming together with the help of the vinaigrette. This salad was all about getting a bit of everything in the same forkful, and to that end it could have used more of the dressing.
Because lunch at Chez Nanou is not particularly speedy, and by Madison standards not inexpensive, diners I've seen there have most often been groups of older women who have the time to sit back and enjoy a leisurely noontime visit. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But it's worth knowing going in that this is not a coffeehouse-style encounter, à la Bradbury's - the city's other decent place to savor a crepe - or La Baguette, our other French cafe. Eating lunch at Chez Nanou is more of a commitment. Here, the crepes are priced $10-$13, steep for a local lunch. Add in a beverage and possibly a dessert (and it is really difficult to leave Chez Nanou without ordering dessert), and it's a special occasion.
Why you should not leave without ordering dessert: The crème brûlée is smooth and stylish and never gives in to egginess. It comes with transformative flavorings like lavender or orange cardamom, and is served in a proper shallow oval ramekin to maximize the ratio of the sugar crust to the custard.
With the new Underground Butcher now open just a few doors down, a different clientele could start to notice Chez Nanou, especially as a dessert option. The desserts - including apple tarts, almond cake and a handful of sweet crepes including the beguiling crepe ardechoise (chestnut cream and whipped cream) - are about $5 on average. Which is a decent price point for Willy Street.