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The backstory: Virginie Ok points out her hometown of Paris on the chalkboard map of France on the wall at her Willy Street restaurant. "It was hard to leave my friends and family," says Ok, who moved to Madison a few years ago with her boyfriend, who got a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But the move led her to a perfectly timed opportunity. Ok worked for about three weekends at Chez Nanou, the French restaurant on Williamson Street owned by Anne-Marie Rieunier, before Rieunier decided to sell it. Ok, who didn't come from a traditional culinary background but loved to cook with her family, bought it from her and opened a French bistro of her own, La Kitchenette.
The vibe: Ok, who misses the frantic, exciting atmosphere of her hometown, has brought a piece of Paris to Madison with her French home-style cafe. "Paris is a big city, but you can always find some very hidden and cozy spots," Ok says. That's exactly what La Kitchenette feels like. The intimate space is the definition of "charming bistro" with mismatched chairs, a chalkboard wall, sleek silverware and Polaroids and love notes from customers displayed throughout.
The menu: Ok offers both traditional French cuisine and comfort food dishes. The French onion soup — made with caramelized onions cooked in white wine and cognac and topped with house-made croutons and Swiss cheese — is a bestseller. Other French favorites at La Kitchenette include croque monsieur (a baked ham and cheese sandwich), crêpes, bœuf bourguignon (Ok marinates beef in burgundy wine for at least 24 hours and braises it for two days with carrots, onions mushrooms and bacon) and delectable desserts, including lavender crème brûlée.
The must-try: Brunch gets busy at La Kitchenette, but the green toast is worth packing into the cozy café. This savory French toast made with Madison Sourdough brioche is dipped in a green onion and spinach batter and topped with a lime mayonnaise, roasted pine nuts, sautéed spinach and a fried egg. You can add prosciutto or smoked salmon on top. If you're visiting for dinner, order the œufs mimosa — deviled eggs marinated in soy sauce and topped with green onions, pickled red onions and crispy rice.
The bottom line: It's been about three years since Ok opened La Kitchenette, and Madisonians who crave French dishes and an atmosphere to match are still completely charmed. But Ok is also feeling inspired to branch out and host a few pop-ups featuring Cambodian fare (Ok's parents were born in Cambodia and moved to France), so keep an eye out for those.
805 Williamson St., 283-4266
Andrea Behling is editor of Madison Magazine.
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