Escargot at Paris Club

There was once a great French restaurant in River North, owned by Lettuce Entertain You and run by Chef Jean Joho. Not great in the Michelin sense, perfection of technique and high-end service—for that you went into the Loop to Joho’s Everest. Great as in it looked like a Parisian brasserie, it was lively, the food was utterly reliable, and it felt like Gallic sophistication in the heart of Chicago.

Brasserie Jo had a good run—1995 to 2010—and when Paris Club opened in 2011 it sounded like it might follow in its predecessor’s footsteps; Joho is among the chefs who had input. But, in fact, it was a project of the junior Melmans, complete with a nightclub upstairs. As Mike Sula wrote, it was “a sprawling, unnavigable minefield of well-executed classics, incompatible oddballs, and hilariously misguided attempts to reinvent and popularize iconic French dishes.”

And then there was the problem with the smell—a little barnyard funk in wine or an offal dish is very French, but the whole restaurant allegedly smelled of it. The theory advanced by Lettuce was that the salvaged wood in the place was responsible. (I actually popped in there early on to see if I could smell it and I couldn’t; I suspect you had to have a lot of people in there, creating heat and their own earthy smells, to get it.)

Anyway, Paris Club wasn’t a flop by any means, but it never quite lived down its opening or lived up to its heritage either, and it was less than surprising when half of the restaurant was carved off to become Ramen-San. What maybe is surprising is that the half that’s left of what’s now called Paris Club Bar & Bistro is easily the most satisfying incarnation. (Disclosure: I dined there as a guest of the house, so these are my impressions, not a review.)

What was once a big barn of a brasserie is now a darker, more intimate space, with the kind of old-school, black-leather glamor that places like Brendan Sodikoff’s Bavette’s have. The menu, now under Doug Psaltis, a veteran Lettuce hand who also opened RPM Italian, has been pared back to respectable classics of the steak-frites and roasted-chicken varieties, and when they’re determined to be good, they’re very good: a dish of escargot in butter was everything you’d want it to be, and both steak and chicken hit the mark as well-executed versions with no funny business. On the other hand, there were also dishes that could have been better, for not that much effort; a plate of Camembert with apples and quince wanted a cheese of more distinction than this one, which tasted like something I could have picked up at Whole Foods, and the frozen frites were no match for the old shoestring ones at Brasserie Jo—and besides, they arrived in a cup of their own, missing out on the best part of steak frites, which is potatoes that have soaked up the juices of the steak.

Those hints of half heartedness were disappointing because if you catch a whiff of something in the dining room these days, it’s of a restaurant that’s just keeping the space warm until the next reconcepting. Certainly the crowd suggested a demographic for French classics that was a couple of decades past the ones the younger Melmans had in mind—but there’s no reason that this space couldn’t be made to feel sexy and the food essential to a younger crowd looking to impress and be decadent, the whole aura around dining that Sodikoff sells so successfully. Based on my meal, it wouldn’t take so much to push this Paris Club into being a top example of a genre, French food, that’s gotten kind of scarce in recent years, especially in Italian-centric River North—just the desire to make it happen again, and matter again.

Correction: This post has been edited to reflect that Doug Psaltis was not a chef at the original Paris Club; also the current incarnation is called Paris Club Bar & Bistro.