2-STAR DINING REVIEW

French, without the accent

Paris Club is an unintimidating bistro for the next generation

It's impossible for me to view Paris Club, the hip French bistro that opened in River North five months ago, without feeling a sense of loss.

Paris Club, you see, replaced Brasserie Jo, and I've loved that restaurant ever since it opened in 1995 (Brasserie Jo received the James Beard Foundation award for best new restaurant, so I wasn't the only fan). I loved its bustle, the spot-on decor that included behind-the-banquette hat shelves, and Jean Joho's terrific food.

Just thinking about the place makes me long for a piece of tart flambee, a favorite happy-hour bar nibble.

Now the space sports a modern, industrial-loft look, wherein ductwork and conduit are visible against a black-ceiling background. There are unadorned wood tables, shiny black and white wall tiles — it's attractive, but in a bet-hedging, neutral way. If the concept changed overnight to Mediterranean seafood, the decor would work still.

But even Joho, who remains a partner in the new venture, acknowledged that it was time for a change.

"We did great things at Brasserie Jo," he says, "but the question was, what are we doing for the next 15 years?"

Paris Club, like any other restaurant that hopes to be in business 10 years hence, is aimed at a younger demographic. That means lighter food, smaller plates, low-commitment stuff. Escargots are sold by the piece; the croque monsieur sandwich is sliced into fingers. All designed for the take-a-bite, pass-it-down crowd.

"It's still French, what we do," Joho says. "It's just a newer version."

And a far less intimidating one.

Peruse the menu and you'll encounter very little written French. Snapper en papillote is just "paper bag snapper" here. The language is applied sparingly, even ironically, as with items called "le hamburger" and "frites fromage."

The left half of the menu lists small plates, charcuterie, raw items and jars, the last category embracing spreadable items in glass jars — items, by and large, one could find at American and even Italian restaurants. Dishes that once would have occupied center stage on a bistro menu — coq au vin, duck confit, beef bourguignonne — are sequestered under the heading "French Soul Food."

This contemporary and traditional balancing act falls to executive chef Tim Graham, who was with Brasserie Jo in its final year and at Tru for the previous eight. He oversees lots of dishes that, in his words, "don't have a threat factor" but demonstrates that unintimidating does not mean uninteresting.

The smaller plates, for instance, include no-brainer hits such as toasted goat cheese with a tangy tomato marmalade and tuna tartare brightened with lemon and mint. Less obvious is the pork rillettes, a seriously good dish accented with Dijon mustard, and a lovely chicken-liver mousse crowned with cassis gelee.

Duck cracklings (twice-fried skin) with spicy vinaigrette are as tasty as they are bad for you; think of them as chicharrones a la Francaise, though given their addictive nature, "duck crack" sounds about right. And I'm a big fan of the lamb meatballs, a straightforward-looking dish brought to life by hints of mint and basil and a lively piquillo pepper and tomato sauce.

Brasserie Jo fans can trip down Memory Lane by ordering the steak tartare, skate wing in brown butter and the Alsatian apple strudel — all straight from the original menu, and all terrific. Short ribs bourguignonne are a murky, richly flavored delight. Coq au vin "two ways" pairs a traditional braised thigh with a juicy, poached and roasted breast. Sometimes change is good, non?

Of course, there is steak frites — I mean, there are steak frites; the menu offers versions made with prime N.Y. strip steak and filet mignon, as well as a classic, pounded steak frites (probably the best choice). There's even a version made with grilled tuna and zucchini fries and bearnaise dipping sauce.

Desserts, besides the aforementioned strudel, are highlighted by the coconut island, a pillow-soft disk of whipped cream, coconut milk and gelatin topped with toasted coconut. There's a fine chocolate mousse, topped with chocolate shavings, and two months ago I enjoyed a yummy coffee pot de creme that is off the menu for now.

Above the dining room sits Studio Paris, a black-and-white nightclub with a retractable roof for open-air revels. Except for the very early hours in the evening, tables are available only by reservation, which requires bottle service. That would never work for a two-cocktails-and-call-a-cab guy like me, but as I've suggested earlier, Paris Club wasn't built with me in mind. I suspect it's not Brasserie Jo I miss so much as my youth.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

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