With strings of new condominiums and chic little stores on Main Street, downtown Milford seems to be transforming into a very different kind of neighborhood. But there is also deeply rooted history in the place—from the centuries-old stone buildings to institutions like the Milford Mystery Library—which gives you a sense that the area isn’t going to change its character overnight.
Entering this milieu on the far end of Main Street is Chez Renée French Bistrot. Based on American stereotypes of French food—that it’s elaborate, elitist, and expensive—one might expect the restaurant to fall on the chichi side of the new Milford equation. Chez Renée, though, seems as appropriate to the old Milford as the new one. It’s elegant, but in an everyday way. The prices are reasonable, and there is something unassuming, plain, and solid about everything from food to service to decor.
Like any good neighborhood spot, it is a family affair: Chefs Laurent and Cathy Degois moved to Cincinnati from western France, leaving behind a catering business to reunite with expatriate family members living in the area. The turquoise and gold walls are dotted with old black-and-white family pictures. I looked up bistrot (this is apparently the preferred spelling) in French culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique and found its definition apropos for Chez Renée: “restaurant modeste.”
Once, I remember, on our way back to America from Lyon, France, my wife and I picked up a baguette, some medallions of goat cheese, and a bunch of grapes from vendors in the city square. As we ate our meal in a corner of the airport, spreading cheese on bread with our fingers and crunching the occasional grape seed, I remember thinking, Why does everything in this country taste so good?
As I ate a dish of hot Brie at Chez Renée, dusted with dry thyme and served with slices of apple, grapes, and almonds, I thought about how satisfying that meal was. The formula is not complex: Simple ingredients, generally fresh and from nearby, prepared without much fuss. Flavor and texture are balanced by combining something creamy (butter or cheese) and something starchy (often bread), adding an aromatic from common herbs (thyme and parsley, in particular), and finally, something tart and fresh to wake up the dish, such as a pickle, some fruit, a splash of vinegar, or a zippy sauce.
Chez Renée operates on the principle that it is better to excel at simplicity than to badly execute something complicated. Asparagus is beautifully roasted and perfectly salted (this may seem like faint praise, but restaurants mess these things up all the time), and the quiche Lorraine (yes, the old standby) has a nice, firm texture, and a fine balance of bacon, mushrooms, and oignons (to quote the menu, which is a charming hodgepodge of French and English). This is solid, tasty food, both approachable and well executed. My only early disappointments were a strangely baby food-like French onion soup, for which they apparently grated or pureed the onions, and an herbed butter that came straight out of the refrigerator in a little paper cup. A French diner would be aghast. How can one, first, needlessly refrigerate butter, and then serve it cold and hard at the table?
Chez Renée has capitulated in a few other ways to American tastes, particularly in the serving sizes. Most French food is simply not meant to be eaten in these quantities. The creamy “Seafood O’grat” came in a lavish portion, and with a side. I chose the chicken mushroom soup, which was also creamy, served with a great square of fried puff pastry on top. The turkey mushrooms, also in cream sauce, were stuffed inside a large vol-au-vent, a puff pastry shell. My friends tried the Croque Monsieur and the Croque Madame, both of which came with sizable bread slices covered in Gruyère and béchamel, and the latter with an egg on top—all quite good, but overkill for a midday meal.
The side dishes, rather than providing a desired lightness, often add more weight. The carrots Vichy, cooked simply in chicken broth with thyme, came swimming in melted butter, and the kale Parmesan was definitely too much: too salty, too creamy, and with an overwhelming amount of nutmeg. A few lighter preparations would help balance out the meal, and the whole menu, which is sprawling with offerings, would benefit from a narrower focus, like the wine list. There, we only had a few options: a biodynamically grown Bordeaux from Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours was a standout, but everything I tried was good and reasonably priced.
Cathy Degois focuses on the desserts, and again, they are familiar but satisfying—and oh, such good crêpes! I loved the blueberry and the butter sugar, in particular.
Over the past several months, Chez Renée has gotten markedly better. Execution is more consistent, service is more polished, and certain dishes are coming out with better balance and flavor. (People have noticed; it also seems to be getting more crowded.) In its own modest fashion, the restaurant is hitting its stride, and it strikes me as being well on its way to becoming, as a good bistrot should be, a neighborhood institution.
Chez Renée French Bistrot
233 Main St., Milford, (513) 428-0454, chezreneefrenchbistrot.com
Lunch 11 am–3 pm and dinner 5 pm–9 pm Tues–Thurs, lunch and dinner 11 am–10 pm Fri–Sat
$6 (hot Brie)–$29 (entrecôte frites: prime rib eye)
Good wine, good atmosphere, and a firm grip on the French basics.