It's a little daring - you might even say brash - to open up a little bistro just down the street from a very similar restaurant, and name your endeavor the Monroe Street Bistro. After all, Brasserie V was there first. The temerity! But sit down at one of Monroe Street Bistro's little tables, and you'll find hardly a shadow of arrogance.
Shadows are everywhere and nowhere here; recessed lighting is minimal, and tiny oil lamps cast modest and trembling glimmers onto each table. If you visit at night, take a seat along the outer wall for the best balance of light and dark. During the day, the full-glass faade lets in all the light and motion of the street.
Over the course of my visits to Monroe Street Bistro, the service was always attentive and friendly. When co-owner Joseph Rothschild is working the bar, you can be assured of a cheerful greeting within moments of entry, and if tables are open you'll be seated quickly. For nights that demand a wait, both the bar and the benches out front are available.
While the space is not large, at no time did I or my dining companions feel crowded or uncomfortable. You might be within a foot of adjacent diners, and yet their conversations rarely intrude on your own.
The drink menu is an attention-getter. The beer list is a respectable blend of local highlights like Ale Asylum's Contorter Porter and Lake Louie Scotch Ale, as well as Belgium's Delirium Tremens and Pauwel Kwak - the latter is served in an arcane wooden stockade-type thing, so please don't try to remove the glass. For those who appreciate a more lighthearted cocktail, the specialty drink list is well stocked. Among others, the French Colonist, Absinthe Minded Martini and Le Roi Voodoo provide creative and, yes, somewhat cute beverage options.
From the mixed drinks to the fleurs-de-lis on the sign and menu, it's clear that there's a French influence on the whole operation. What's truly refreshing is that this influence isn't limited to the country of France, but instead features highlights from the whole of the French colonial empire. Flavors from Europe, northern Africa, and the American South (hooray for the Louisiana Purchase!) are all brought in and tweaked to fit a modest but appealing dining menu.
The almond-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates have received strong reviews to date, and I'm not going to disrupt that pattern; they're wonderful, oily and sweet. Also available for starters are a big charcuterie plate with local cheeses and crackers, three fairly standard salads, and the hallmark frites. It's a significant portion, and tasty.
There are a mere 10 main dishes on the menu, but my experiences argue for a high success rate. The chops, both lamb and pork, are cooked to perfection. Those squeamish about meat cooked to temperature - and really, you're missing something wonderful - should ask for the lamb cooked to no more than medium. At Monroe Street Bistro, rare means rare, and the servers remind you of such. No worries about the pork, though; it's tender to the center, seasoned simply and beautifully.
Particularly wonderful is the poultry. The pesto grilled airline breast (a chicken breast with the first wing joint attached, so named for its popularity in the early days of cross-continental commercial flight) achieves the difficult balance of smoky char and juicy meat. The pesto flavor is vibrant, definitely more than pesto-in-name-only. For richer palates, the seared duck breast with cherries is a must-try. Again, poultry cooked to temperature seems wrong to some folks, but the mental hurdle is easily overcome with one tangy-sweet, delectably unctuous bite.
Misses are few, but the steak frites leaves a little to be desired. The steak is fine but unremarkable, offering little in the way of that silky mouthfeel that better-marbled cuts provide. Some of the fries were soggy, although a little aioli will save just about any frite dipped into it. Alongside the flavorful main dishes, the fingerling hash robs some momentum. Fingerlings have a singular smoothness, and when shredded and fried to a crisp, they're indistinct and dry. Generally, all the sides are prone to unevenness.
Take heart; all is forgiven when the desserts arrive. What seem like high prices for sweets actually break down pretty favorably. The Cava-poached pear is a fragrant and juicy whole pear steeped in a martini glass of white wine. What would be a perfunctory berry-topped cheesecake is actually a creamy and surprisingly light slice, made in-house. A split of Cava accompanies four very large chocolate-covered strawberries.
There are very few obvious overlaps between Brasserie V and Monroe Street Bistro. The Bistro has a larger dinner menu than Brasserie V, but feels like the smaller and younger operation that it is. From the darker atmosphere to the richer menu, the MSB brings a moodier date night option to the neighborhood. What else would you expect from the French?
Monroe Street Bistro
www.monroestbistro.com, 2611 Monroe St., 608-441-5444
11 am-1:30 am Mon.-Sat.; late-night menu 11 pm-1:30 am. Credit cards, carryout, not handicap-accessible. $4-$21.