Brasserie JO Dishes Fine French Cuisine
By Rachel Heller
The Painted Ladies
Three pairs of painted eyes catch sight of us from our first step through the doorway. As we stroll to our table across Brasserie Jo’s tile floor, the French womens’ stares become tangible – from their mustard-toned mural on the wall, I can feel their gaze seeking mine. This is the romance of Chef Jean Joho’s authentic Alsacienne cuisine: graced with the fare’s earthy aroma, even the walls come alive.
Our waiter is Ernie Lau, a Hong Kong native who has also lived in Paris. He is short and smooth-skinned, “over 50,” and when he laughs, his whole face seems to giggle. Soon after we’re seated, he brings us two snacks: a hot baguette in a white paper bag, and a plate of herbed carrots. My date and I look from our fingers to our forks and begin to sweat. Something else: no bread plates. No bread plates? This affronts our instincts, which tell us we must give the illusion of upper-class table sensibility at fine French restaurants. More sweat. Helpless, we turn to Lau, who clutches his stomach in a toothy laugh. “Don’t worry! You’re supposed to—” he snarls and heartily imitates ripping the bread “—dive into it like the French do. It’s finger food. Dig into it.”
Looking around the stately dining room, its formality and his reckless enthusiasm seem to clash. I turn to the three painted women for answers – this is their world we have stumbled into, after all. The brasserie’s regal wrought-iron clock, black and white tile floors and chairs dressed in dark cherry wood embody 1940s-era elegance. Any of the painted women, peering out from beneath their bobbed hair and cloche hats, would look natural lounging on the moss velvet bench in an elegantly drop-waisted dress. A mustached man painted in the mural’s foreground – the true object of the women’s stares – stoops to kiss the fingers of a fourth lady whose face we can’t see. His coattails happen to match the tile floor. I get the impression that if I snarled over my bread and carrots like Lau told us to, the impeccably dressed grandmother across the aisle would faint.
“These are crepes?” my date asks. Lau has brought our appetizer, the French Ham Crepes Gratin, which looks like four Cinnabon buns nestled under a bonnet of melted glaze. The glaze is a thick pool of sweet Gruyere – a variety of Swiss cheese – and each crepe consists of thinly sliced ham rolled with more cheese and baked into a philo dough pouch. “Alsatian crepes are different from those of other regions,” Lau explains. And nothing, I note, like the canned-fruit sandwich often passed off as a crepe in many Americanized creperies.
The Regal Bar
Despite its formal fittings, we soon catch the room giving us a playful wink every now and then. With bread plates omitted, the tables aren’t covered with cloth, but “dive into it”-friendly paper. Conventional ferns and mini palm trees are creatively lit from beneath, transforming the ceiling into a looming shadow-jungle. The message echoes in the painted ladies’ eyes as they hunger for their mustached man: just beyond the elegant hauteur of high society lies human wilderness.
I had reservations ordering The Famous Shrimp Bag for my entrée. I have never subjected myself to a famous bag of anything, and the notion causes my mind to crawl with doubt. Lau instructs me on how to enjoy my bag, which is presented as a large philo dough pyramid in a pink pool of lobster sauce with wild rice. “It looks like a big Hershey kiss, no?” he suggests. For the best shrimp bag experience, he tells me, I must lean over the plate as I cut into the philo and inhale the aromas as they escape: “Let the essence rise to your face – you will see why it is so famous.” As I pry the flaky philo open, the warm scents of shrimp, butter and lemon chide me for ever doubting The Famous Shrimp Bag. Braised leeks, button mushrooms, and fennel provide earthy complements to the seafood’s salty taste.
Chic Dining Room
My date’s Steak Frites is no less successful. On a bed of French fries – French French fries – a rump steak pounded thin with olive oil and parsley absorbs flavor from a dab of Bordeaux wine butter. We discover the best part of the dish when half the steak is gone – the French fries beneath the meat, soaking in its smoky juices, are a delicacy themselves.
Chef Joho, Lau says, has had plenty of experience crafting such delicacies. Brasserie Jo’s Boston dining room, tucked cozily into the stylish Colonnade Hotel, is a replica of its praised Chicago location. Chicago is also where Joho maintains his five-star restaurant, Everest, on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange building. While Joho is at Everest sautéing fois gras and roasting medallions of venison in wild huckleberry sauce, decorated chef Olivier Rigaud takes over as Chef de Cuisine at Brasserie Jo. “I have eaten many meals in Paris,” Lau says, “and this food is better and fresher than some of the brasseries over there.”
Profiteroles with Chocolate
Gazing hungrily at our doggie bags, the painted women agree. The food has the same nature-based palette as the mural: deep yellow and ochre, burgundy-tinted brown, a sprig of green for accent. They are the colors of the earth and the life that grows out of it.
Dessert is a pleasant surprise. When our Profiteroles With Chocolate arrives, we find two flaky biscuit sandwiches piled high with vanilla ice cream scoops. As we’re wondering where the “with chocolate” is, a waiter appears with dark curls and a ceramic pitcher. He is generous with the hot fudge, which drapes like a curtain over the ice cream and forms a rich moat around it. Look away, impeccably dressed grandmother across the aisle – all this elegance is bringing out my wild side.
The Colonnade Hotel
120 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02116
Dinner Entree Price Range: $15 - $30
To make reservations, call: 617-425-3240
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