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Reviews: The Blanchard and Boeufhaus

Pleading with a rambling chef and discovering the warmth of a meat cocoon

At Boeufhaus (from left): short-rib beignets, ceci cavatelli, leek spaetzle, dry-aged rib eye, salade du marché, cauliflower gratin, porchetta   Photo: Jeff Marini

Like a Zelig in chef’s whites, Jason Paskewitz has turned up everywhere in the past 15 years. The 44-year-old Queens native has bopped from steakhouses (Nine) to tapas bars (Sangria Café), tried to revive classics (Pump Room) and elevate hot spots (One Sixtyblue, Wave), and launched his share of personal restaurants (Rustic House, Gemini Bistro, JP Chicago). He pledges his allegiance to each project. And I keep believing him.

I would’ve given up on the guy years ago if he didn’t always deliver on his promise in the kitchen. If there’s one man you can trust with cream, butter, wine, and/or garlic, it’s Paskewitz. I’m ready to settle down with a nice restaurant of his and have a long, consensual relationship. Call me a sucker, but I believe the Blanchard, his charming six-month-old French boîte tucked away on a cul-de-sac in Lincoln Park, is that place.

Paskewitz has created a terrific modern brasserie that showcases his skills. He’s the owner, so he’s under no obligation to dumb it down, sell his soul, or scream too loudly. The clean space, with its crisp white tablecloths and dreamy abstract paintings, feels patently adult. A mature crowd packs the dining room and the adjoining marble bar, where flawless old-fashioneds are served while a creepy horse’s head watches from the corner. The hard surfaces and open kitchen may rock too loudly for the clientele, but the laughably inoffensive music (Huey Lewis—really?) doesn’t.

The menu appears similarly safe: mussels marinière, escargots, steak frites, and Dover sole. But the familiar dishes land perfectly calibrated punches strong enough to remind you why they were classics in the first place. And when Paskewitz deviates, he’s got a fine reason. Here, wonderful boeuf bourguignon is less a glorified stew than an exquisitely braised, truffle-aïoli’ed short rib with separately cooked glazed beets and baby carrots, and it’s not a gimmick. It’s an improvement.

At Gemini, Paskewitz served duck confit nachos; at the Blanchard, he flavors duck leg confit with anise, keeps the crispy orange-glazed skin on, and flanks it with braised radicchio and cranberry sauce. It’s like a Thanksgiving meal for grownups. And for pure richness, it’s tough to top the crème de champignons, an audacious bowl of porcini cream with dried trumpet mushrooms, a brioche crouton, and a wisp of crème fraîche.

Any menu that devotes a category to foie gras has my attention. Paskewitz plates one seared lobe on a round of pain perdu with sweet plum compote, anise, and vanilla gastrique. Heaven. They crust another with black truffles and prop it up with candied lavender. Remarkable. They turn a third into a ganache with Tilton apricot gelée and Maldon sea salt shavings. Odd but satisfying. Only when they cram it between cassis-citron macarons, a mishmash that plays like a perverse $10 joke, do things go awry.

The oft-changing plats principaux shoot for pleasure. The poulet rôti, a free-range chicken with haricots verts, red pearl onions, and a glorious glace de volaille (chicken stock reduction), boasts an exemplary crisp skin and juicy-tender meat. And two tremendous fish options—an olive-oil-poached cod with stuffed cabbage and daube de boeuf, and a consummate roasted salmon with barigoule artichokes, sunchokes, and marbled potatoes—feel like steals at $26 and $24. I’ll overlook the megasalty burger’s existence as the price of doing business these days.

Marjorie Easley’s desserts venture into three-star land, as in deft molten chocolate cakes and pistachio bombes and a beautiful coconut financier topped with passion fruit dollops and accompanied by homemade vanilla ice cream. Quietly excellent servers have just one flaw: ruthless booze pushing. Yes, I loved the 2012 Domaine de la Janasse Côtes du Rhône from the small and reasonable list. No, I don’t want another glass. And that does not mean I want a bottle.

“I’m looking at this as my real coming-out party,” Paskewitz told Chicago when he opened Rustic House in 2011. He’d said similar things before, and he said them again this time around. I get it. Chefs are under no obligation to remain at a restaurant in perpetuity, and Paskewitz has to go where the situation is best. This time, though, the situation is of his own making. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the Blanchard were his ultimate legacy?

 

On a recent Wednesday night, a thunderstorm ripped through Humboldt Park. Inside Boeufhaus’s cozy meat carnival, lit by antique bulbs and bursts of lightning, customers settled into the banquette or perched on stools at the long copper-topped bar with dry-aged rib eyes and beef fat fries. And they prayed that the deluge would last so they could forever remain in carnivorous refuge.

Boeufhaus knows which way the wind is blowing. Chef-partner Brian Ahern (Fish Bar) lines a tarte flambée with crisp bacon and caramelized shallots. He fills croquettes with pastrami and Taleggio. He stuffs quail with jagdwurst and wraps veal loin in lardo. Even the humble beignets get packed with braised short rib. If all this sounds like overkill, it rarely is. An unexpected balance belies the place’s indulgent name and mission. Take a look at the cavatelli, a gorgeous heap of toothy, paprika-tinged pasta: It gets interspersed with merguez, sweetened by caramelized shallots, tempered with fried ceci (chickpeas), and blanketed with caciocavallo. An inspired composition. Ahern brings the same brainy approach to a sweet raw fluke appetizer, enlivening a classic grenobloise prep with pan-seared capers and parsley.

And when Boeufhaus does give in to overkill, it’s delicious, absurd overkill. The hulking 40-ounce porchetta is the belly of a Slagel Family Farm hog that’s been rolled around the hog’s own loin, stuffed with lardo and chorizo, wrapped in crisp bacony skin, drizzled with natural pork jus, and served on a silver platter. It’s like a coliseum of pig.

Much praise has been heaped on the steaks, especially the 22-ounce rib eye, dry-aged in an off-site locker and in the restaurant for a total of 55 days, which my waiter said is supposed to give it a buttered popcorn tang. Mine didn’t quite pop, but I refuse to complain about six thick slices of impeccable seared prime beef punched up with peppercorns and charred fat. The lukewarm New York strip was another story, and it ain’t a love story. And frankly, I’d run far from the Alaskan king salmon, a pound of skanky, mushy fish served on a circular cutting board with little more than a defenseless charred lemon and good intentions.

But periodic misfires never stifle the place’s charisma. The obnoxious swagger that often pollutes popular restaurants gets channeled into a giddy enthusiasm at Boeufhaus. On one visit, my sharp waiter seemed genuinely thrilled by how much my party loved the custardy, French-toasty bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and sea salt caramel sauce. And no one forced the exhilarating Eurocentric wine list on me. I found it just fine.

The storm eventually cleared on that rainy Wednesday night. And upon my exit from Boeufhaus’s warm cocoon into the outside world, I was sad to find that Western Avenue was not, as I’d begun to imagine, lined with red meat.

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