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Review Wed Dec 03 2008
Brasserie Jo has been a culinary nemesis of mine for several years. Ever since first visiting Lettuce Entertain You's take on French casual dining for a sorely disappointing birthday dinner (things started well with a duck confit flatbread and hit an unpleasant wall with the Alsatian choucroute, a bland and boring house specialty), Jo has been on my list. Not the good list. I haven't had many bad meals in Chicago -- at least, not many from establishments where I'd been expecting better, and maybe I've taken it personally. But in a city where eating well can be so effortless, I feel like my disappointment has merit.
So I haven't been back. For over three years. I'm not great with second chances. And just recently, I got a notice about Brasserie Jo's new menu, unveiled at the beginning of November, and featuring such additions as striped bass with artichokes and a classic sounding braised calf's liver. I thought maybe things had changed. Maybe it was time to forgive and forget and forage on. Maybe I'd judged too harshly, too quickly. Or maybe not. More details on a reconciliation meal and the final verdict, after the fold.
First of all, it must be said that Brasserie Jo has carved out a truly lovely spot in River North. Low lighting, velvet drapes and leather accents make for a warm and inviting atmosphere, where the high ceilings, brightly starched linens and shiny, minutely tiled floor keep the restaurant from feeling overly cozy. The overall effect is something like a sensuous but practical grotto, complete with requisite zinc bar and a display pyramid of brand new Beaujolais. (We happened to dine 24 hours before Beaujolais Day, sadly, so I settled for a glass of the old stuff and just gazed wistfully at this year's tempting new bottles, complete with countdown calendar -- like an advent calendar for wine, as one of the busboys accurately noted.)
The service is attendant, though not particularly knowledgeable. Our waiter handed over a menu of seasonal dishes (mostly involving butternut squash and pumpkin in various configurations, as I recall) and seemed stumped by inquiries into the "new" menu. The menu rotates seasonally, and occasionally new dishes are added to the standard bill of fare, he shrugged -- and didn't have much further explanation to offer. So...so much for the impetus for my return, I guess.
Dining companion L. Stolpman of Chicagoist fame alerted me to a prix-fixe three-course option available for diners who'd made reservations through Open Table (finally, some real rewards from that site, in the adorably named Appetite Stimulus Package promotion -- I guess I really should use that thing more). After verifying the options with our less-than-expert waiter, it was no contest: classic tarte flambee to share, steak frites, profiteroles, all for $35 a pop. Done and done. Not exactly a deal, but a hearty amount of food and decent sampling of the menu.
And it was all...fine. Nothing like the offensively tasteless hot dog hot pot I'd encountered years earlier. But nothing to write home about. Which is the main reason writing up Jo's new menu has been unusually challenging for me -- and that's keeping in mind that were was actually no new menu. The tarte, a flatbread of a ricotta-like fromage blanc, finely minced onion and bacon, was a good balance of crust and toppings. Not too crisp, not too heavy, and with well-balanced flavors. In terms of the main course, the steak was better than the frites -- well seasoned, well grilled and a good representation of that flat, juicy classic French treatment. The fries were standard as standard could be, though improved by soaking up the steak juices and melted herbed butter.
And the profiteroles were decent in taste, though thoroughly out of control in portion. I was expecting a single nugget of pastry and ice cream, maybe two if we were lucky. Instead, I was confronted with two monstrous concoctions each bigger than my fist and drowned in chocolate sauce that tasted like microwaved Hershey's syrup. I like my desserts diminutive, especially when they're rich in flavors -- after-thoughts that I can enjoy without guilt or, more importantly, crossing that uncomfortable line into feeling overly full. I don't want dessert to be a means for the chef to make it up to me. Brasserie Jo's profiteroles could have been a meal in and of themselves, and I couldn't help but think their oversized proportions were just an attempt to atone for something else. Rather than feeling placated, I felt guilty that I didn't even come close to fishing them.
So was this a redemption meal? Of sorts, I suppose. My deep disappointment with Brasserie Joe is now shallow disappointment -- indifference at best. Is it a sleek and cozy place to tuck into a plate of meat and potatoes in River North? Absolutely. Is it an accurate representation of French brasserie-style food? Yeah, sure. Is it a dining destination? Surely not. And if the secret to truly great dining at Brasserie Jo is that "new" menu -- well, I wish you better luck than I had in tracking it down.