Escargots, a one-time mainstay of French cooking, have disappeared from many French menus, and not at a snail’s pace. Escargots aren’t trendy. They are, however, sensuous and delicious, especially as served at Rob’s Bistro in Madison, where they sizzle in garlic butter, which smells divine and begs to be mopped up with the fine crusty bread Rob’s serves.
Opened in December 2009 by chef Rob Ubhaus, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, Rob’s is next door to Ubhaus’s first and more contemporary French restaurant, Resto (Parisian slang, Ubhaus explains, for an eatery). Brian Fuller, former sous chef of Resto, is chef de cuisine at Rob’s.
Fare is traditional country French. Prices are lower than at Resto. The storefront space is painted in soothing earth tones. Small, charming hand-painted oils of pastoral France grace the walls in ornate gold frames. Otherwise the space is largely unadorned. Simple wooden tables are set without cloth coverings but with crisp white linen napkins. There are no sound-absorbing floor coverings, only an acoustic-tile ceiling, so it can get noisy. But that is part of the charm of dining bistro style.
A deeply warming crock of French onion soup showcases the appeal of this nostalgic, homespun dish. At Rob’s, it is made with concentrated, house-made beef stock, luscious caramelized onions, a hunk of toasted French bread and a crown of tangy, melted Gruyère. The soup was magnificent and filling. Add a small salad, and a glass of wine, and you have a satisfying repast.
Last fall, a roasted red-and-yellow local-beet salad with baby-spinach leaves, candied pecans and chevre was tossed in a tart Dijon mustard dressing—a bit too vinegary one night, spot-on another.
As an entrée, spankingly fresh Prince Edward Island mussels are presented with a pile of gone-in-an-instant, double-fried, Belgian-style frites. The mollusk broth, sweet and saline, combines with white wine, garlic and parsley to create another irresistible bread-dunking opportunity.
Steak frites was a tasty slab of seared hanger steak served with a tower of frites. If you like ketchup with your fries, the staff will bring it and not look at you funny for asking. Speaking of requests, my wife, who likes her fish well done, asked for her wild salmon that way and with a vegetable instead of risotto. It was served exactly as ordered, with a crown of perfectly sautéed spinach.
Hand-cut fresh pasta was served with a combination of Provençal vegetables, zucchini, tomato and onion—a vegetarian paradise in a bowl. The tender noodles were slightly over-cooked, but seasonings were well balanced.
Several happy families with young children dotted the room during our visits. An $8 kids’ bill of fare offers carefully prepared dishes such as buttered noodles with Parmesan and a wonderful seared chicken breast with frites (and ketchup, of course). The kids’ menu is fun and plates usually return to the kitchen empty. Ubhaus says he designed the children’s menu “to teach kids about good food, not just sustenance, but food as a metaphor for growing up via their taste buds.”
Desserts are classic as well: bittersweet chocolate mousse with a long, luxurious finish; crunchy-topped crème brûlée dotted with vanilla bean; and my favorite, a Nutella-and-Grand Marnier crepe. Childhood and adulthood rolled into one gratifying dessert.