I'm betting that no sooner does Grant Achatz release the first teasers for Next's futuristic Thai-street-food menu than restaurateurs start popping up lemongrass-cupcake bakeries and revving their cold-fusion-powered papaya-salad food trucks.
Now even the unrealized ideas of the great chef act as bellwethers for tomorrow's overdone restaurant trends. Look what happened last spring, when he declared the first three months of his historically periodic restaurant would be devoted to the cream-drenched cuisine of early-20th-century Paris. Chefs all over Chicago were suddenly possessed by the ghost of Fernand Point, warbling Edith Piaf, and rolling ballotines and torchons as if they were the new bacon.
First there was Dirk Flanigan's elegant Henri, followed by the sultry Maude's Liquor Bar, helmed by Alinea alum Jeff Pikus. And now two more: one from a respected Paris-born chef who's worked under a constellation of Michelin stars, the other from the green but well-funded scions of a restaurant emperor.
What they all have in common is a lighting scheme that might comfort the undead. Take the Gold Coast's Bistronomic, from former One SixtyBlue/Cafe des Architectes toque Martial Noguier. His partners have darkened the former Eve's starburst-blue brilliance with heavy wood, slate drapes, and an atmosphere so dusky the mirrored walls look like windows onto the abyss. It's a somnambulant vibe even when it's packed and the chef is working the room like he's running for office—which is often.
The menu, worlds away from the haute cuisine Noguier was creating in previous positions, seems a bit snoozy itself. A collection of charcuterie and cheese, Amish chicken breast, seared scallops, whitefish, tuna tartare, and meat and potatoes, the templates are now so familiar to most diners that they might as well be written in invisible ink.
But the clever few that stand out immediately—beginning with a creamy, sweet cauliflower veloute enriched with shavings of Wisconsin's venerated Gruyere-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve—signal that Noguier isn't phoning it in. Same goes for the grilled cheese du jour—in my case a surprisingly light, cool blue on brioche with hazelnuts and apple. (At the moment Noguier is fetishizing these green apples—they're julienned in a number of dishes.)
"Martial's mother's" pâté, a spongy loaf that exudes a bit of moisture, is the textural opposite of his chicken-liver mousse—superfatty, fluffy, rich, and spreadable like whipped cream. Light gnocchi with butternut squash sauce, tossed with wonderful rock shrimp, shows dexterity next to more heavily creamed fish-and-mussel soup with tarragon and saffron. Even leaden-sounding dishes like a finely textured braised lamb shoulder in a deep dish of saffroned couscous are almost buoyant.
Not all goes so well. An oddly unseasoned nicoise salad, too-tough duck breast, and a peppery fillet with an almost cured quality suggest that perhaps the chef shouldn't spend so much time in the dining room. But overall Noguier's new spot is more conservative (if less canonically oriented) than its new French brethren and it ought to serve its neighborhood well.
The same can't be said for Paris Club, R.J. and Jerrod Melman's takeover of the late Brasserie Jo—though I'm certain the sort of diners they're courting will respond very well. The brothers' first restaurant, Hub 51—just to the east, on the other side of Te' Jay's Adult Books—proved their ability to get mobs of loud, thirsty bodies though the door, but also displayed a distinct disregard for serious food. The boys have a lot to prove, but this time Lettuce Entertain You has enlisted a team of formidable talent, beginning with longtime confederate Jean Joho and including Ducasse/French Laundry vet Doug Psaltis and Tim Graham of Tru.
But with a total of five chefs name-checked on Lettuce boilerplate, what results is a sprawling, unnavigable minefield of well-executed classics, incompatible oddballs, and hilariously misguided attempts to reinvent and popularize iconic French dishes. If the idea of vegetable pot-au-feu somehow makes you nostalgic for a time and place you've never been, or if you're unconcerned with sashimi-style fish in what passes for a brasserie, you'll do fine. But I can't imagine the staying power of some truly absurd gimmicks such as a trio of croque monsieur "fingers" layered with ham and cheese and thrust into a poached egg plopped inaccessibly at the bottom of a deep rocks glass. (I've heard the storming of the Bastille was sparked by Marie Antoinette telling the peasants to go eat cup o' croque—history proves it's a head-slappingly stupid dish.)
Almost as physically inedible are escargots bourguignonne, individual snails imprisoned in hot buttery suspension in tiny ceramic crocks capped with puff pastry—gastropod shooters for frat boys. Bland balls of shredded trotter—"pig's feet bons bons"—can at least be brightened with a fiery dipping sauce, but roasted cauliflower with candied orange peel and pine nuts is tossed with some appallingly overcooked broccoli.
Other dishes are simply inexcusable coming from a kitchen overseen by so many accomplished chefs—witness a piece of gnarly, pounded Steak-umm grade beef accompanied by dry, overfried frites (prime New York strip and filet mignon are available at upcharges) or a line of bland scallops amid tiny dollops of sea urchin overdressed with lime and thin slices of searing raw jalapeño, possibly a calculated distraction from the unremarkable shellfish.
But on a menu this large, odds are some things are going to work. An exceedingly generous and varied charcuterie plate contains some surprises, including an excellent chicken-liver mousse topped with cassis gelee. A spectacular snapper ballotine molded into a firm, sweet puck of piscine flesh competed with a snapper fillet steamed with fennel in parchment that despite being slightly overcooked was one of the few dishes anyone at my table finished.
A judicious selection of small plates could make a decent meal here. The steak tartare—the sole holdover from Brasserie Jo's menu—was familiarly delicious, and a small crock of "drippings" will be instantly recognizable to fans of the New Orleans debris po'boy. But one could drop a significant amount of dough trying to discover the hidden winners, like the fresh-cured sardines, the nicely gamy lamb meatballs in a bright, tangy harissa tomato sauce, and the surprisingly flavorful and filling vegetable cassoulet.
And there's something very strange hanging over the whole enterprise. Those with sensitive noses will instantly mark a sharp, persistent barnyard aroma permeating the cavernous, noisy bar and dining room. Paris Club's publicist says it arises from a part of the salvaged wooden floor that wasn't treated properly, and will be replaced if it can't be deodorized. It's an atmospheric detail I'm sure the Melmans never bargained for, and it's a shame a perfectly comfortable spot like Brasserie Jo had to come to this. It's also sad BJ's menu has given way to this unfocused, Disney-esque approximation of French food—but I'm guessing the boys are shooting for a crowd that won't know the difference.