Magnolia Cafe, Uptown

she said:

I must be missing something.  We’ve been to Magnolia twice, both times on weekday evenings, and almost every table has been full, not to mention the bar stools.   They’ve received one glowing review after another and, frankly, I’m a little stumped.

I do have a few kind words and I’ll start with those.  Magnolia is a cozy, candlelit neighborhood bistro in an area that needs encouragement.  Located on Wilson Avenue, right by Truman college, Magnolia Cafe is like a little French oasis, a cubic zirconia in the rough.  And, in Uptown, I mean rough.  I want Uptown to succeed so I’m behind any establishment that helps it to do so.  Also on my list of compliments: the wine selection and the yummy foccacia-style bread.

Next, a disclaimer.  I think the problem might be me and my strained, but cherished, relationship with French cuisine, which tends to lean hard on meat.  Believe me, I want to enjoy French food in its full creamy glory and when there’s a dish I can eat, I’m often weak at the knees.   The problem is that my choices are limited, but that’s my issue and I wouldn’t dream of arguing otherwise.

Well, maybe just a little. See, I don’t have this problem at every French restaurant.  In fact, Bistro Campagne, a French place in Lincoln Square, which, inexplicably, we’ve yet to review, is one of my favorite restaurants in the city.  Is it so wrong to hope for one or two vegetarian options?  Not every French chef thinks so, as is evidenced by many other French menus throughout Chicago.

To their credit, Magnolia was really great about creating options for me.  The thing is, I generally try to avoid altering dishes to make them vegetarian.  I trust that a chef knows what he or she is doing and when you remove a key ingredient, you change the  essence of a dish.

This, I believe, is exactly what happened with Magnolia’s tragically lackluster rendition of macaroni and cheese (macaroni au gratin), usually one of my favorite dishes at French establishments.  Without its smoked bacon, the mac and cheese was virtually tasteless.  I’m ashamed to admit that I ended up taking it home and dousing it in hot sauce.  My side of sauteed spinach wasn’t tasteless; it tasted metallic and fishy and permeated with burnt garlic.

On another occasion, I ordered the truffle goat cheese raviolis, served with mushroom ragout, butternut squash and a brown butter vinaigrette.  This was the vegetarian version of their seared scallops, which normally come on top of the aforementioned ingredients, and was actually quite good, but nothing to write home about and not enough to entirely redeem Magnolia for me.

Look, everyone else seems to love Magnolia so you should go check it out.  No seriously, just go.  I’ll stay home and warm up a nice can of soup.  I’ll be fine, really.  I’m sure there’s something good on Bravo.

he said:

Like the wife, I’m surprised we’ve eaten here more than once. I think what it comes down to is that Magnolia offered a well-timed Groupon. As the meat eater of the group, I feel the need to carry the weight of this review, but I’m afraid I may let you down.

In struggling to find a way to describe my experience at Magnolia, I’m reminded of our first date. It’s kind of a long story, but the quick version is: We lived in different cities, and we decided to meet up in Mexico, because, hey, why not have your first date at an all-inclusive resort, right?

Anyway, while we were there we met with a tour operator who was offering day trips from the resort. He showed us a flyer of his offerings, and each trip had a short descriptor.  A fishing tour was “pulse pounding,” scuba was “electrifying,*” You get the idea. Whoever made the flyer ran out of extreme adjectives apparently, because a cave snorkeling trip (the one we ended up going on) was described as enjoyable.

Enjoyable. Don’t oversell it or anything. It’s just enjoyable.**

*Electrifying – not a good word to describe an activity in which you’re surrounded by water, or have a chance to come into contact with eels.

**I’m actually very thankful for this little bit of underwhelming salesmanship. My wife and I saw this at the exact same time and it struck each of us as funny in exactly the same way. It made us realize how similar our senses of humor are and it was one of the first “moments” we shared. 

Back to Magnolia. On one trip I had the roasted half chicken over Dijon whipped potatoes and brussels sprouts.  Enjoyable. On another trip, I had the hangar steak and house cut fries with sautéed spinach and blue cheese.   Or was it the beef tenderloin with braised beef short rib and sautéed spinach in a red wine reduction? Whatever it was, it too was enjoyable, but clearly didn’t make an impression.

I don’t have any real complaints.  But don’t you think it’s a problem that I can barely remember what I had? I do remember thinking “this is good,” but in a city like Chicago, with the restaurants we have, good is forgettable. Enjoyable is not enough.

The funny thing - that cave snorkeling trip we went on, the one described as enjoyable, was so much more than that. It was wonderful, a perfect activity for two people on a first date who are interested in nature and swimming and seeing things off the beaten path. For Magnolia though, enjoyable is a pretty accurate description.  It’s a nice place to have a nice meal, but probably not worth going out of the way for.

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