I want to tell you about a sweet little place over on the east side that is perfect for having lunch with friends. La Kitchenette, which took over the space of Chez Nanou back in September, has been open now for nine months, serving French-inspired comfort food dishes under the direction of owner and cook Virginie Ok.
Recently, I met a few friends there for lunch. It’s cozy inside with a handful of bistro tables and bench seating along the back wall, which holds a chalkboard illustrated with hand-drawn maps of France and explanations of menu items. What is a tartine? It’s on the wall. (Hint: think bruschetta.) So much natural light enters the room thanks to those charming window-paned, storefront windows. Pleasant wait staff are happy to help you pronounce Croq Madame, thereby bringing out your best Francophile attributes. This is a cheerful place.
Upon being seated, we were quickly met by savory aromas wafting from the small kitchen adjacent to the dining room. It felt as if we were in Ok’s home, and she had gone into the kitchen to bring out another delightful plate just for you (vous).
Let’s begin where my companions and I left off during our visit—which was dessert—because, why not?
The chocolate ultra fondant is for those who fancy the gooey center of a brownie. A soft, mini, dark and sexy chocolate cake is served with a petite scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream drizzled with from-scratch salted caramel sauce. The presentation is delightfully petite—an indulgence that is refined and tame.
An almond tart with a sandy/crunchy bite of a sable (a French butter cookie), combined with cherries and plenty of almond flavor was the special that afternoon. It came to us warm and fragrant, right from the oven.
The mini café Gourmand is a sort of dessert flight for those who want it all, or those who exude a joie de vivre for life, (these are the friends to spend more time with). That day, it was a sampling of lemon curd-filled sweet crêpe, an apple turnover and Nanou’s lavender crème brûlée, a wonderful homage to the popular menu item at the restaurant that came before La Kitchenette. This flight selection is served with tea or espresso.
In addition to the lavender crème brûlée, the spirit of Nanou lingers on the menu in the form of the former owner’s sweet and savory crêpes and the French onion soup. Everything else is all of Ok’s creation.
This includes Ok’s tartines. I enjoyed one that was so fresh and light, yet I felt perfectly satiated by the end of the meal. A toasted slice of Madison Sourdough’s miche (a large loaf of sourdough bread) was dressed with a cashew honey sauce, then topped with a layer each of creamy avocado slices, crunchy cucumber, cool smoked salmon and sprouts.
There were savory buckwheat crepes at our table filled with a variety of tempting ingredients including: brie cheese, prosciutto, eggs, both sunny side and hard-boiled, fresh spinach, shallots, a Béchamel sauce, more of that delicious smoked salmon and dill.
Various croques (French sandwiches) round out the lunch menu, featuring ingredients including ham, mustard, tuna, black olives, roasted tomatoes and pipérade, a French stew made with peppers.
All sauces and accompaniments including the cashew-honey sauce, the roasted tomatoes and pipérade are made in-house and are standouts.
Born in Paris, Ok worked in the patisserie her family owned. She knows very well the flavors of the French countryside, particularly the Basque region.
Now nine months later, Ok says she knows what her customers like and dislike at the first restaurant of her own. She’s learned that even though “at home in France, they love it,” here in Madison, that may not be the case. Like the salmon tartare special; she says it didn’t quite take off like she expected.
Her greatest challenge in the past several months has been to maintain consistency and continue “to serve the good quality food I always wanted,” she says.
Her confidence in creating the menu has grown since opening her doors. “I get to know the customers, their taste and what to cook for them,” Ok says.
La Kitchenette is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch on the weekends. Check out the Facebook page and Instagram accounts for updates.