Cozy La Kitchenette is tucked into a small brick building at 805 Williamson Street. Here you’ll find comforting French dishes, like beef bourguignon, onion soup with gooey cheese, buckwheat crepes, and lavender crème brûlée. Brightly colored chairs dot the small dining room, and a wall-sized chalkboard displays the menu and specials. Warm lights hang from heavy rope, and weathered wood encases the front counter. The restaurant is so small, guests are treated to enticing aromas from the kitchen the second they walk in.
Owner Virginie Ok moved to Madison from France in early 2016 with the intention of opening her own restaurant. She began helping in the kitchen at Chez Nanou while she searched for the perfect location. Anne-Marie Rieunier, owner of Chez Nanou, decided to retire, and Virginie was ready to take over the space. After an interior makeover adding brightness and color to better reflect Virginie’s style, La Kitchenette opened in September, a mere six months after she arrived in Wisconsin.
Virginie was born and raised in France by her Cambodian parents. As a child, when all of her cousins would play outside, she chose to be in the kitchen listening to her mom, aunts, and grandmother talking and gossiping while she watched them cook. “My mom learned how to cook French, but she was always putting her spin on it and adding Asian flavors. She taught me how to play with different flavors and techniques.”
Cooking and food were important in her family, and gatherings always centered around family-prepared meals. But Virginie didn’t start out with culinary ambitions. She studied business and landed in the cosmetics industry developing products and managing projects. The logistical and organizational skills she learned in this field would be helpful in running a successful restaurant.
When her husband got a job offer in Madison, the two decided to go for it. “Why not?” says Virginie. “We were young, it was a good opportunity for him, and I was looking for a change.” She wanted to open a restaurant, and she gave herself a timeline to achieve that goal. If she wasn’t able to do it, Virginie would find an office job. One of her two brothers followed a similar path, leaving his job at Microsoft to move to Denmark and work at the world-famous Noma restaurant.
While Virginie had a lot of home-cooking experience learned from the women in her life, including both French and Asian techniques and flavors, working at Chez Nanou helped develop her professional kitchen skills. She learned quickly that timing was critical, how to get things to the table hot, and how to shop for ingredients in bulk.
When people walk into La Kitchenette, Virginie wants them to feel welcome and at home, as if they are sitting down to a meal at a friend’s house. Beef bourguignon is her favorite dish to prepare at the restaurant. “It’s super warm and comforting, and smells so good. People walk in, gasp, and ask us what we’re cooking. It makes for a very cozy atmosphere.” This traditional French recipe combines beef braised in red wine and beef stock with vegetables and aromatics. La Kitchenette serves theirs with mashed potatoes. Chicken Doria is another popular dish, a rice gratin layered with bacon, green onions, béchamel, and cheese. Though this dish was created in France, it’s now very popular in Japan.
The comfortable menu is rounded out with both sweet and savory crepes, French bistro sandwiches (croq’ monsieur and madame), and onion soup made in the traditional French style—caramelized onions, house-made stock and croutons, and melty Swiss cheese. This is one of those dishes that has a modest ingredient list, but takes a lot of time to prepare and isn’t that simple to do yourself. On a cool rainy day, this is what you want, and La Kitchenette is where you want to get it.
People come to La Kitchenette looking for traditional French comfort food—the richer the better. Customers love the recipes laden with melted cheese, butter, and cream, but Virginie loves to add in fresh Asian influences when she can. Her soy-marinated deviled eggs come with ginger, pickled red onion, and are topped with crispy rice. Virginie also brings in Asian-inspired recipes for weekend specials.
When she’s cooking at home and missing her French friends and family, Virginie makes her mother’s Cambodian-style pho, a beef noodle soup called ka thiew. When she visits her family in France, she always has a list of dishes she wants her mother to prepare. When Virginie has time to dine out in Madison, two of her favorite restaurants are Fairchild (2611 Monroe Street) and A Pig in a Fur Coat (940 Williamson Street).
Like everyone in the restaurant business, the pandemic hit La Kitchenette hard. They stayed in business by offering takeout, which regulars and the neighborhood appreciated. Virginie also added an option of buying whole cakes and tarts. A current favorite of her customers is the pistachio strawberry tart. La Kitchenette opened for dine-in service in May and is hoping to add more hours, but the restaurant will continue to offer takeout and whole desserts to boost their income until restaurants are allowed to operate at full capacity and there are enough workers downtown to fill the dining room at lunch.
If you’re looking for French-inspired homestyle cooking (and a few Asian dishes), intimate La Kitchenette is for you. It’s warm and appealing, and always delicious. It’s like you have a French best friend who loves to cook, and you’re always invited.
Anna Thomas Bates moved to Wisconsin 21 years ago, and after shopping at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and wandering through the Driftless Area, she hasn’t looked back. Co-owner of Landmark Creamery in Paoli, if she isn’t tasting/selling cheese, you’ll find her writing about food, reading a good book, swimming, or hiking with her two boys.
805 Williamson Street
Madison, WI 53703