Eat at Jo’s

Since arriving here from France ten years ago, chef Jean Joho has helped revolutionize fine dining in Chicago. First he briefly presided over the now-defunct Maxim’s, and for the past nine years his nouvelle French cuisine has kept the Everest Room on the short list of the city’s best dining rooms. Now, after a decade of showing off his considerable talents at fancy French restaurants, Joho says he is ready to have some fun with Brasserie Jo, which he opened earlier this month with the financial backing of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

While a number of bistro-type establishments have popped up in Chicago in recent years, both Joho and Lettuce Entertain You managing partner Robert Vick say theirs is the city’s only genuine brasserie–a large, casual eatery that focuses on hearty, Alsatian-style cooking and offers a wide assortment of wines and beers (brasserie is French for “brewery”). In true brasserie fashion, Brasserie Jo will stay open every night of the week until the wee hours, which is unusual for downtown and near-north restaurants.

But what’s even more uncommon about Brasserie Jo is its menu, which is peppered with dishes certain to shock those intent on eating healthy. Plats du jour include duck a l’orange and beef Wellington, culinary dinosaurs from an era when low fat was not the mantra it is today. Among the hot entrees, meat and sausage dishes–such as calf’s liver, braised lamb shank, pot-au-feu, hanger steak with bearnaise sauce, blood sausage, and choucroute a l’Alsacienne–far outnumber fish items. One of the featured salads can be ordered with a fried egg on top. Those less inclined to eat typical brasserie fare may find solace in cold-plate offerings such as a smoked chicken, whitefish, or poached salmon. But the cold dishes also include steak tartare.

Other chefs who’ve tried to interest local diners in exotic fare insist that, for all his cooking abilities, Joho will have a tough time selling much of this menu. When chef Paul LoDuca opened his Italian seafood restaurant Mare two years ago, the menu featured dishes with exotic ingredients such as squid ink. But LoDuca says he eventually dropped them because they didn’t sell. “Most people want what they are familiar with,” says LoDuca, who also operates another Italian restaurant, Vinci. Restaurateur Roger Greenfield, who owns Grappa and Bossa Nova and whose new venture Cassis features Mediterranean cuisine with a number of fish and pasta preparations, says a brasserie is something he “would not want to do at this time.”

Dennis Terczak, chef/proprietor at Sole Mio on the near north side, also doesn’t believe Chicagoans are ready to revisit dishes such as beef Wellington and duck a l’orange, to say nothing of blood sausage or pot-au-feu. “I didn’t see any future in that kind of food when it disappeared, and I don’t see any future in it coming back,” says Terczak, who was the original chef at Lettuce Entertain You’s Avanzare restaurant. He predicts that Joho and Vick will change the Brasserie Jo menu “about 97 percent over the next several months.” Indeed Joho and Vick say they’ve already gone through ten drafts of their menu.

Not everyone is skeptical, however. “Retro cooking is in high demand,” says chef Gale Gand, who six weeks ago opened Brasserie T in suburban Northfield. She and her husband, Rick Tramonto, who are partners in the acclaimed Trio restaurant in Evanston, admit Brasserie T isn’t an authentic French brasserie. Though they did visit 31 different brasseries in France before crystallizing their plans for the place, they eventually opened a restaurant that is part French, part Italian, and part American. “I wanted to be able to do other things besides authentic brasserie fare,” explains Gand, whose menu for Brasserie T includes root beer floats, pizza made in a wood-burning oven, and hamburgers stuffed with garlic.

Both Gand and Joho are confident they will succeed. “I think people want to enjoy cooking when they go out to eat, as long as they enjoy it in moderation,” says Joho.

A Fence Around the Coyote

Around the Coyote, the annual Bucktown/Wicker Park arts festival, has been plagued by controversy since its inception, and last weekend’s edition was no exception. According to ATC board member Mary Beth Cregier, the organization had hoped to raise a substantial amount of money this year by cordoning off the area between North and Wabansia on Damen and asking festivalgoers wishing to enter the area to contribute $3. But an apparent misunderstanding between the area’s alderman and ATC organizers forced the festival to abandon that plan and move the music stage and various booths to Wicker Park, away from most of the ATC-related foot traffic. Though Cregier says festival organizers were able to obtain the city permits necessary to close off the park, traffic through the park was light.

In addition to the park’s out-of-the-way location, the $3 donation–and the way in which it was solicited by volunteers–may have deterred some visitors. Festivalgoer Bruce Koenig says he was barred from entering the park by an ATC volunteer who acted as if a $3 donation were required. “When somebody blocks an entrance to a public park, that’s no longer a donation,” says Koenig, who adds that he would have been glad to make a donation if the volunteer had asked nicely instead of acting as if ATC were entitled to his $3.

Cregier says some people who didn’t understand why they were being asked to make a contribution were reluctant to donate and that volunteers had better luck getting money when they explained what the contributions were for. “People don’t understand that it costs money to rent lights, chairs, and props for the 120 free theatrical performances that were part of Around the Coyote,” says Cregier.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.