For all the hoo-hah over three-star Michelin restaurants in France, it’s the one-star and even the good no-star places recommended in the Michelin Guide that are often the most satisfying and surprising. The food is usually tremendous, but the service and dÃ©cor are more down to earth than at the three-star culinary shrines. Salt Lake City’s Chez Michelle is one of those places. As Pam, a woman who resides in Laguna Niguel, Calif., wrote to me about Chez Michelle, “Have you ever, totally by accident, stumbled into an out-of-the-way restaurant in a city you’re visiting and found a surprising little gem?â€nn
Dining at Chez Michelle is akin to discovering the joys of a small family-owned inn or “auberge” in France just off the highway. Maybe that’s not surprising, since Chez Michelle is located in the Best Western Garden Inn downtown, where Sophie Garcia’s and then Chucho’s used to be. There are still some Southwestern remnants in the restaurant, like the adobe-style fireplace in the middle of the dining room. But overall, the space has been transformed into a very comfortable French eatery, complete with lace curtains, candlelight, black-and-white photos of Parisian life on the walls, and articles of whimsy scattered to and fro, like a toddler-size table and chairs and a tiny baby carriage near the fireplace, all enveloped in the sounds of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and occasionally Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra.nn
Don’t get the impression that this is another faux-French bistro though. It’s not. Although there is wine, beer and liquor available at Chez Michelle and the restaurant’s adjacent bar, I doubt you’d even find pastis there. It’s a little slice of France without the all-too-typical French bistro/brasserie theme.nn
After working for three decades as a restaurant manager in local haunts like The Santa Fe, Ruth’s Diner, and the Rhino Grill, Chez Michelle is Bobbyanne Koerner’s first stab at restaurant ownership. And by all appearances, she’s doing just about everything right. Koerner is not a behind-the-scenes restaurateur. Chez Michelle is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, and yet I don’t think she’s ever gone during operating hours. During my visits, she served as hostess, waitress, bartender and restaurant manager. But like the French auberges I mentioned before, Chez Michelle is a family affair. Koerner is assisted by her children, Andrew, Tommy and Michelle, for whom the restaurant is named.
Still, the most important person working at Chez Michelle may be chef Ray Goodman. I’ve been dumbstruck by the food that emerges from his kitchen. On my first visit, my dining companion and I almost came to blows over who’d get the last plump butter-and-garlic-bathed snail (Escargot en Croute) topped with flaky puff pastry ($9). I finally cut a deal with my honey and traded her one of my two Cajun crab cakes ($9) for a mouthful of snails. The superb crab cakes were not easy to part with, consisting mostly of luscious rock-crab meat with minced red-and-green bell peppers, onion, garlic, celery and hints of Old Bay and Cajun seasonings. The cakes are breaded in panko crumbs and pan fried, then served with a divine lemon-egg-mayo aioli. The crab cakes came to the table crisp and hot, not soggy as so often is the case. It makes me think that Chef Goodman has the wisdom to bread his cakes only at the last instant before they hit the hot pan.nn
A fairly standard Caprice salad ($5) of sliced ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil and butter lettuce was elevated to anything-but-standard heights by a heavenly homemade caper-Dijon vinaigrette. And then there is Chez Michelle’s flawless onion soup ($4). And those are just a few of the starters.nn
By the time Goodman’s coq au cin ($13) hit the table I was convinced I’d stepped into a twilight zone and been transported to the French countryside. Your French grandmother couldn’t make coq au cin any better than his. Goodman’s bone-in chicken is simmered in a rich mÃ©lange of pancetta, button mushrooms, pearl onions, garlic, fresh herbs and Burgundy wine and then served on a big pile of thick al dente fettuccini. Remarkably, the coq au vin at Chez Michelle doesn’t taste like restaurant food. It’s deeply rich, but very natural tasting. It’s as close to home cooking as I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant and one of the best dishes I’ve ever been lucky enough to get my lips around. The portion was so large that I took half of my coq au vin home and reheated it for lunch the next day, in part to make certain I hadn’t just dreamed this dish.nn
When the halibut Ã¡ la Grecque ($17) arrived I was convinced I’d been set up. There had to be a famous French chef in the kitchen and a hidden camera somewhere. Someone was screwing with me. But no, it was just another spectacular dish prepared by Chef Goodman. Melt-in-the-mouth, pan-seared Alaskan halibut is topped with a neo-ProvenÃ§al sauce of roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and tomatoes, then drizzled with spiced butter and feta, all served atop fragrant saffron rice pilaf. And, thank you by the way, for not overdoing the saffron. A little saffron goes a long way and almost everywhere it’s overused, but not at Chez Michelle.nn
As delightful as dining at Chez Michelle is, I have my worries. Since, apparently, no one knows about the place, the dining room is usually peppered with but a handful of customers. At a recent lunch, my party were the only customers. So I worry that when the word begins to get out about this little gem of a restaurant, the small service and kitchen staff might get overwhelmed and quality might suffer. But, hey, that’s a chance I’ll take. I want people to discover the small joys of Chez Michelle so that the place survives'if only so I can savor Goodman’s cooking again and again. And maybe with more customers the small but functional wine list will grow to match the fabulous food.nn
In love with Michelle? I think you could say that.