First there's the egg. An oeuf Outhier headlines the menu at the Blanchard, a new French restaurant from chef Jason Paskewitz, who was last seen endeavoring with contemporary American dishes at Gemini Bistro and the late Rustic House. Fans of Next's inaugural Paris 1906 dinner might at a glance mistake Paskewitz's egg for the truffled oeuf Benedictine that kicked off that Escoffier-inspired menu. While it's certainly a wee showstopper, arriving mounted on an egg cup, its crown neatly cut away to reveal a tuft of greenery and onyx pearls of domestic sturgeon caviar, it's a more modern invention named for a French chef who cooked for the shah of Iran in the 70s. As your spoon swirls around egg curds and creme fraiche spiked with vodka, you might just feel a bit like a pampered and dissolute monarch.
There are dishes like that all over the menu at the Blanchard; lush, luxurious echoes of opulence in a casual, almost bucolic Lincoln Park setting. It includes an entire section devoted to foie gras dishes, among them a seared lobe sliced and set atop a slice of pain perdu (aka brioche French toast), with strawberries and vanilla gastrique—it's the most extravagant breakfast you could possibly eat for dinner. If that's too rich for your blood, a creamy section of torchon with cherry and blueberry preserves forms the filling for a cassis-and-citron-spiked macaron meringue, creating a bite that would be perfectly at home on the dessert menu.
And then there's the blanquette de veau. When was the last time you ate this old home-cooking warhorse when it wasn't some ersatz 80s travesty of boiled meat in cream of mushroom soup? Paskewitz reinvents the classic with a precisely cut, gently braised veal breast lightly draped in truffle-scented veloute, served with the customary vegetables—pearl onions, carrots, and trumpet mushrooms, roasted to intensify their flavors—plus summer squash, crispy sweetbreads, and in bold defiance of the commandment that the dish be entirely white, a garnish of pink and purple nasturtiums. It's easily among the very best things I've eaten all year.
This nouvelle approach works equally well on other dishes, namely duck a l'orange, rare planks of duck breast lacquered in a Grand Marnier glaze that hardens into a thin skin of crunchy candy, its sweetness augmented by an orange chip embalmed in syrup, roasted baby carrots, and turnips braised in red wine. Paskewitz's approach to surf and turf involves a delicately poached cod fillet, its sumptuous flesh hiding a beef-stuffed cabbage leaf, all wallowing in a light sauce Veronique sweetened by red grapes and redolent of fennel.
But it isn't all artful platings and sublime sauces. Paskewitz includes very good renderings of typical rustic bistro dishes: roast chicken and green beans that glisten with stock reduction; fall-apart rabbit leg and seared loin in an understated mustard sauce, perched atop a mountain of snappy pappardelle; rare tournedos of tender steak, crowned with shimmering cylinders of jiggling marrow and served alongside thick frites that soak up a bordelaise sauce. I wish the excellent rustic bread that appears at the beginning of the meal were served grilled, like the lighter loaf that provides a vehicle for triple-threat rillettes of confit rabbit, duck, and pork; the layer of white fat that sits on top is incorporated into the meaty paste tableside. These are simple, hearty, satisfying plates that are in no way incompatible with the splendor of the others.
The commitment to the French spirit here is such that diners unfamiliar with terms like choux farci, barigoule, and pistou will need lessons from the pleasant servers. And yet Paskewitz takes a few opportunities to go off script: A lobster salad is done in a subtle Thai style, firm meat tossed with shaved summer squash, with sweet and citrusy flavors in the background. And to the dismay of Lincoln Park francophiles, there's a towering bacon cheeseburger, as required by law of every new restaurant no matter the cuisine.
Be alert to the contributions of pastry chef Marjorie Easley, lassoed by Paskewitz from Gemini Bistro. Her pistachio bombe—enrobed in pistachio-white chocolate and accented with piercingly sweet raspberry pate de fruits—is every bit as fanciful as her chocolate pot de creme is primevally satisfying. A moist financier is saturated with coconut and dabbed with blobs of achingly sweet passion-fruit curd. An orange mousse is tempered by cardamom-infused creme anglaise. Her ability to balance sweet, fruity elements with deeper flavors ought to be more imitated.
Finally, the talented Michael Simon, who's acting as interim GM, put together a list of classic cocktails unusually straightforward for a bartender known for progressive and complicated drinks. Simon is also currently revamping a succinct wine list dominated by French and domestic bottles that range from a $32 Loire Valley sauvignon blanc to a $295 Bollinger bubbly.
Excepting Next's efforts, I've often wondered whether it was possible to be thrilled by French food in Chicago anymore. The Blanchard, full of surprises yet still fundamentally French, is pregnant with possibilities. Thanks, chef. v