A composed plate featuring two rows of four perfectly aligned nachos shows up on the menu of Gemini, the second act for a long-running Lincoln Park neighborhood restaurant. Each of those well-behaved chips is piled with successively diminishing gobs of garnish, beginning with juicy duck confit, followed by a tiny, perfect square of melted chihuahua cheese, then a wee spread of avocado pico de gallo, a dribble of lime-infused crema, and a thin sliver of bright red chile. It’s a composition so uptight and precious I thought I’d entered a time warp back to 2009. That was the year Jason Paskewitz opened the kitchen at Gemini Bistro. On his menu was “a basket of greasy tortilla chips dus ted with dry, gamy, stringy duck and sprinkled sparsely with mango salsa and queso fresco,” wrote Martha Bayne, eating for the Reader.
Paskewitz has long since moved on (redeeming himself for a time at the Blanchard, among other things), but the fact that the new Gemini, which has dropped the “Bistro,” currently pays some kind of tribute to its original chef’s duck nachos says something about its embrace of the familiar.
The interior is quite different, that’s for sure. Gemini has in fact undergone a significant internal redesign; new additions include an enormous horseshoe bar, fat padded barstools, spacious booths, and banquettes that seem to stretch on for days.
The menu, on the other hand, executed by Miguel Ortiz, if not a faithful duplicate, remains faithfully rooted in the expected and the conventional: no one need fear going without steak frites, roasted chicken, salmon, or a burger. There’s a wedge salad, a beet salad, and a Caesar salad. And for those who feel frisky there’s a crab cake, risotto, and mussels.
For the most part these standards are reliably well executed. The New York strip, glistening with marrow butter, languishes in a sweet port wine sauce. The half roasted chicken is crisp, juicy, and positively birdlike in flavor, the kitchen avoiding the common modern miscalculation of sending out overbrined pastrami-like poultry. If the salmon is slightly overdone atop its bed of brussels-sprout leaves and candied bacon, then the burger—cooked to a default medium odd for such a thick patty—at least goes down in a wet and sloppy tide of aioli, Monterey Jack, and lettuce. But it’s nothing your average Lincoln Park soccer mom and her middle-management husband can’t handle.
There are actually a few gems on this menu. A cheesy potato pave, its finely rendered layers crowned with crispy cauliflower florets, is an exemplar of technique and a comforting indulgence. The natural gaminess of a quartet of lamb meatballs is offset by cucumber fennel and tzatziki. Sweet peas with bacon and cream are emerald jewels of spring.
These likable little dishes compete with an equal number of duds. Tiny calamari ringlets are lost in their crispy breading amid arugula leaves dominated by competing aioli and vinaigrette dressings. Chile, fennel seed, and lemon oil do no favors for bland sauteed broccoli, and a bready crab cake gets a weak assist from julienned green apple and a blob of remoulade.
Gemini’s dessert menu may be its most thrilling feature, with a lineup of smooth house-made ice creams and sorbets (blueberry-limoncello, brown-butter-malt) that at least strive for distinction, and a salted toffee creme brulee that manages to revive the old after-dinner warhorse.
A focused wine list is arranged in price tiers, which should make things easy for most, and Amstel Light and Modelo are trumpeted among a handful of “celebrated” beers.
And yet Gemini Bistro has attained what every restaurateur fervently desires: the enduring patronage of a large group of neighborhood regulars. The new Gemini likely won’t run many of those off. For the rest of us? Move along. Nothing to see here. v