Broadly suggesting that French cuisine is on the decline touches a nerve with Chef Jason Paskewitz. The owner of one of Chicago’s most talked-about new restaurants—that’s stating it lightly, really—has a different take altogether: blame the ambience, not the food. He conjures up this image to explain.
“People, when they’re thinking of French restaurants, often picture this waiter standing behind you with their hands behind their back waiting for you to sneeze,” says Chef Paskewitz, whose The Blanchard has managed to become a Lincoln Park icon in less than a year. “And wine, when most people go out to eat, they order wine by what they can pronounce. They don’t want to be embarrassed.”
Approachability, simplicity, and honest quality are straightforward, yet sincere reasons for why the Windy City veteran has struck such a chord at his classic French restaurant, which opened in July. Chef Paskewitz, a Queens, New York, native who developed his Chicago reputation at JP Chicago, the Pump Room, Wave, Gemini Bistro, Rustic House, and Gabriel’s, starts reeling off his restaurant’s accolades before pausing for a moment. “I’m not trying to float my own boat, I was actually just very surprised,” he says.
In short summary, The Blanchard was a semifinalist for the James Beard: Best New Restaurant, named the Best New Restaurant in Chicago by The Chicago Tribune, picked up the same distinction at the city’s preeminent restaurant and bar awards—the Jean Banchet Awards—and was touted as the 14th best French eatery in the entire nation byTimeOut. “It was a pretty big first eight months,” Chef Paskewitz understates.
This kind of resume, which would make even the most notable restaurateur flush with envy, has stunned Chef Paskewitz in some ways. But one fact not on his list of surprises: the reality he did so with classic French cuisine in a starring role. Again referring back to the idea of a stuffy, buttoned-up server directing the room, Chef Paskewitz believes the problem often comes down to presentation.
“People are scared to use the word French at times because of restaurants being on the decline, or clientele not understanding what the word means. It’s intimidating sometimes,” he explains. “When people think of French restaurants, they still think of, ‘ooh la la, over the top.’ It’s not like that anymore.”
In fact, there’s plenty of profit in the past these days. Buzz terms like “classic” and “retro” are two marketing pillars operators chase with regularity. So why not head to a cuisine that’s established and revered around the globe? The key, Chef Paskewitz says, was to court nostalgia with a fresh touch.
“I think the biggest thing is that I went back to the basics,” he says. “The food that I’m cooking, I hit the timing with opening this French restaurant just at the right time. There was nothing else French going on in the city. There’s a couple of restaurants but there’s nothing big, and it’s kind of like, what’s old is new again and people have really embraced it.”
After a relatively slow first month, the pace has whirled. The check average is around $55—$60 and the 80-seat restaurant is doing between 80 and 100 covers during the week—around 250 on the weekend. Chef Paskewitz employs 20 people and has cultivated a relaxed but knowledgeable staff. One example is that instead of calling David Bohula The Blanchard’s sommelier, he’s simply known as the wine director. The list itself is also easy to peruse. Unlike some French venues, Chef Paskewitz tries to keep the contents from spilling into novel length. It’s steadily grown, and currently sits somewhere around 100 selections.
Of course, the food is where the real backbone is formed. Chef Paskewitz’s menu pays close attention to remaining recognizable. Most of the offerings are in English. This way, that old stereotype of researching a language in order to impress your date at dinner can be tossed aside.
Chef Paskewitz has an affinity for foie gras, and there are four preparations on the menu. Including a black truffle crusted, candied lavender, sauce Madeira, truffle essence concoction. He also notes the oeuf outhier creamy scrambled egg, which is presented with chive, vodka-spiked crème fraîche, osetra caviar is a hit. As in the Dover Sole Meunière—tournée potato, watercress and pomme purée, broken brown butter, and lemon; the Escargots a la Bourguignonne—garlic and parsley butter, Pernod, mushroom duxelles, herbed panko; and Steak Frites Grilled Delmonico—sauce Bordelaise, bone marrow butter, hand-cut crispy pomme frites.
Chef Paskewitz says he changes something on the menu “almost every other day,” whether that’s a dish or a single component. A large overhaul takes place about six times a year.
Trekking ahead, Chef Paskewitz understands The Blanchard’s short, but spotlighted history carries a certain expectation. “I tell people all the time, getting here was easy, maintaining it is the hard part,” he says.
The restaurant is opening a patio, complete with seating for 64. Chef Paskewitz also wants to find ways to turn the positive reviews into future rewards. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this first year and all this press plays out. How we play it, how we spin it, what we do internally to drive business,” he says. “Because you can’t just rest on it now. You’ve got to maintain it. You’ve to push even more. I just want to keep cooking and hopefully people will be happy. We’ll see if people like French food for more than just one year.”