When restaurateur Paul Kahan turned 50 his wife asked him to pick a destination to travel to for his birthday. Without hesitation, he chose the small coastal town of Cancale in Brittany, France, often touted as the oyster capital of the world. Kahan had always admired French chef and Cancale native Olivier Roellinger, and was fortunate enough to have breakfast him with on the trip.
Kahan tucked away fond memories of the trip until the opportunity came years later to revamp the Publican Anker space in Wicker Park. He decided — along with partners Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander, and Eduard Seitan — that “passion was the only way to go.” Together with chef de cuisine AJ Walker, Kahan created an homage to Cancale with Café Cancale, focusing on oysters, fresh seafood, and French cooking.
Of course, as with any of the One Off Hospitality restaurants (Avec, Blackbird, Publican), you can expect seasonal produce and ingredients from small, sustainable producers. Oysters come fresh daily from small purveyors in Maine and the West Coast. And although French food can often feel daunting, Walker believes the menu “is very approachable from top to bottom.” Take the version of walleye quenelles ($13), which he describes as “essentially fish dumplings” bathed lightly in a traditional lobster sauce but topped with English peas to lighten and brighten the dish. From the raw bar, the scallop is a play on traditional radishes and butter ($17) with raw scallops, interspersed with sliced radishes and a salted whipped butter pudding.
Seitan’s wine list is easy drinking, with many natural and biodynamic selections from France and Europe, but also lesser known wineries from Michigan and Washington. Cocktails by Scott Kennedy are heavily French with a focus on aperitifs, like in the Café Paradiso ($12) with vodka, Salers Aperitif, Blume-Marillen Apricot Eau-de-Vie, grains of paradise, grapefruit, and lime.
Right now, the bustling café is dinner only, with brunch and lunch service to be added soon. It will also feature a small bakery selection with baguettes and other French pastries from James Beard Award-winning baker Greg Wade. Don’t bypass dessert, especially the traditional one of Brittany. This version of Kouign Amann ($9) is made with rye and wheat to tame some of the sweetness of this treat and paired with a rich maple ice cream.
“It’s not stodgy,” Walker says of the café. “This is not a fancy French restaurant. We are trying to have fun and we want that to come out.”
1576 N. Milwaukee, 773-904-1121; cafecancale.com
Photos by Marcin Cymmer