[Editor’s note: Eric Aubriot left Pasteur in April 2012]
I woke up, culinarily speaking, for the second time in 1998. That was the year I gave up an ascetic if instructive seven years of vegetarianism and began eating across the city, high (Frontera Grill, Blackbird, Charlie Trotter’s) and low (Maxwell Street Market, Lem’s, and the cheap banh mi and fragrant pho of Argyle Street). It was one of those periods of discovery and epiphany that come around more than once in a lifetime—only if you’re lucky.
That year I also had my first taste of wine- braised beef cheeks at a new French restaurant in Lincoln Park called Aubriot, named for the chef as well as his wife at the time, who ran the front of the house. In the late 90s beef jowls were still pretty weird things to see on a menu, but I was keen to exercise my new omnivorousness. I was rewarded with a piece of meat slow-cooked so lovingly that its melting texture was indistinguishable from its deep beefy flavor, in perfect harmony with whatever red I was drinking. It was one of my first lessons in the metamorphosis of a seemingly humble piece of flesh into something sublime.
Something similar happened to me that summer at Pasteur. Formerly a casual storefront cafe in Uptown, it had risen from the ashes of a fire and moved to new quarters in Edgewater, where it was serving authentic but refined Vietnamese food in a gorgeous setting that summoned the dissipated tropical elegance of colonial Indochina. I ordered a tamarind-spiked sweet-and-sour seafood soup—something I’d encountered plenty of times in more humbly appointed restaurants—and was rewarded by a server’s observation, “That’s something someone Vietnamese would order.” I might roll my eyes at that today, but at the time I swallowed it with some pride.
Pasteur closed for the second time in 2007, four years after Eric Aubriot’s eponymous restaurant had. But he’d made enough of an impression that I watched closely as he bounced from kitchen to kitchen, sometimes forgettably (Alhambra Palace, Fuse, Il Fiasco) and sometimes with great results (Tournesol, and, recently, at the underrated Lure Izakaya).
Pasteur stuck with me too, and when it was announced that Aubriot was joining forces with Dan and Kim Nguyen, contributing classic French dishes to a reprise of Pasteur’s Vietnamese menu, I sat up—and not just because I was nostalgic. It’s often joked that the historical fusion of French and Vietnamese food was the best thing to come out of colonialism, and the Parisian-born Aubriot epitomizes the adaptability and universality of classic French technique.
But at the new Pasteur pains are taken to separate these two great cuisines—or at least disabuse one of the notion that any synergy is occurring. Servers are quick to assert that the kitchen isn’t attempting “fusion”: there are Vietnamese dishes (plenty of classics from the old Pasteur) and French dishes (by Aubriot). How to tell the difference? “Anytime you see duck—that’s French,” I was told with a mysterious smirk.
It’s more effective to search the menu for items that don’t have parenthetical Vietnamese translations (sauteed scallops, chicken liver mousse, seared pork loin, truffled arugula salad). But by that measure it doesn’t seem that Aubriot makes a very strong statement at all, and based on the French dishes I tried, his influence on the kitchen operation seems to be far too minimal as well. On a slow night I was served the most wretched foie gras I’ve ever encountered—overseared slices of lobe, singed and wrinkled, posed sadly in the center of a port wine reduction. Ashes in the mouth. Another appetizer of buttery steamed razor clams had been held so far beyond their sell-by date I smelled them before they hit the table.
It’s tempting to speculate that these two plates might never have made it out of the kitchen if Aubriot hadn’t been in his street clothes having a drink at the bar, but a simple seared duck breast with onions and peas in a balsamic sauce was a competently executed if pedestrian exception.
Discouraging, but besides that, it’s difficult to formulate an ordering strategy between Aubriot and Dan Nguyen’s dishes. On another visit I tried to attack them together, trying an appetizer of sauteed escargots and mushrooms with shallot confit and tomato sauce, a muddy tasting lump that was eclipsed by a bowl of ca kho to. That’s a bitter caramel-sauced catfish dish cooked in a clay pot, a homey bowl whose powerful saltiness demands it be extended with its accompanying rice. So too, an appetizer of thickly sliced Japanese eggplant topped with powdered dry shrimp and soured by lime was a ballsy, powerfully meaty, satisfying plate.
While some of the Viet stuff seems scarcely considered—the signature bo luc lac (aka “shaking beef”), beef tips sauteed in red wine and butter, is diminished by two pale, limp tomato slices on the side; a beef curry with rice noodles is just an overpriced mess; and spring and egg rolls are perfunctory stomach fillers—a lot of it is pretty good. For one, salads, like a formation of cold grilled beef slices over red pepper, carrot, and onion, dusted with toasted rice powder, or a springy, sweet squid toss-up blazed with chiled lime acidity. A selection of noodle soups, including a respectably beefy pho and the tamarind-boosted can chua tom that scored me server points so long ago, aren’t the bottomless tureens of Argyle Street pho, but for $5 they’re a fresh and fragrant value.
And while it’s rarely amusing to see street food treated (and priced) as if it’s more rarefied than it is, Pasteur’s rice flour crepe takes this to a level that’s hilarious. A respectably crispy if understuffed banh xeo—enfolding shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts, redolent of coconut, and goldened by turmeric arrives with its customary herbal garnishes. First the server delivers a remedial lesson in wrapping portions in lettuce, “like an Asian taco,” then proceeds to cut it with knife and fork into manageable portions as if boning sole Meunière for Julia Child at La Couronne. It’s an act of service meant to demonstrate the apex of professionalism while assuring unsteady eaters, but it only served to remind me of my fawning server from 14 years ago.
Such obsequiousness somehow doesn’t seem inconsistent with the vibe. The new Pasteur has been remodeled, but it’s every bit as lovely as the old one, French windows opening on palm trees, ceiling fans dangling over linen-draped tables, and deep, bottom-swallowing wicker chairs that induce a sense of indolence accessorizable by a specialty cocktail menu with sweet tropical drinks.
And that’s not a complaint. I’m happy to see Pasteur back, especially since the prices, while not as ridiculously cheap as at the mom- and-pops a few blocks south on Argyle, are remarkably low: not a single entree over $19, and most running around $15.
That makes it a worthwhile place to visit if you feel like inserting yourself in a Graham Greene novel. I’m not sure what Aubriot is contributing to the plot. But you never know how long he’ll be around anyway, and I’m never not interested to see him step into a new culinary character.