Acres of impressively framed mirrors, miles of zinc bar top, chandeliers to rival Phantom of the Opera, spit and polish at every turn … Brasserie Pavil has spared no expense (and the curious have spared no rumors regarding that expense) to evoke Paris in the time of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Folies Bergère. “`Vintage` French Disneyland,” sniffed a friend who had just been seated at an adjacent table. (Friend is a committed modernist.)
So am I, but it’s hard not to be swept up in a well-executed theme, even if it’s not one I would choose. About the only aspects missing are dour waiters with long black aprons and even longer faces, and copies of Le Figaro and Le Monde on the newspaper rack adjacent to the reception desk. About the only classique item obviously missing on the enclylopedic menu is a gigot d’agneau aux flageolets — and it is not an omission most would mourn. In simple French bistros and brasseries, this leg of lamb is most often mutton, overcooked, served with underflavored pale-green beans. The French don’t do everything exquisitely. BP, on the other hand, has set out to dazzle you at every turn, and on many counts they succeed.
Starting with the Hampton and Hurricane oysters we sampled from our own storm-tossed East Coast. The mollusks are impressively served atop an icy plateau with dips of vinegary mignonette and classic cocktail sauce, but all they really need is a squeeze of lemon. Add a buttered slab of some of the best crusty bread in town (it comes partially processed from New York and is finished here) and a glass of Sancerre, and you have the kind of primal eating experience available at very few other places in our fair city, and then only if we give the bread a pass.
The cheese fondue is almost equally epiphany-inducing; it’s that bread again. And lunching ladies should not be the only ones falling for a simple chicory frisée and bacon lardon salad. With its sautéed wild mushrooms, poached egg chapeau, and warm hazelnut shallot vinaigrette, this is a meal that only requires some more of that bread. Alors, bien — assez du pain.
The salad was sampled at lunch, a busy time at BP, as was the onglet (hanger steak) with fries. I’ll give the steak a solid 15/20 in the French scholastic scoring system; it was good but not really memorable, and the side of red-wine sauce seriously needed reduction. The fries, on the other hand, rated 18 — at lunch, remember. Both times I’ve sampled them in the evening they seemed tired out by a hard day’s work.
The ahi tuna crû would never have graced a classic brasserie menu (raw tuna has only recently appeared on our own shores, for that matter), but its appearance here is not unwelcome. Its Texas Ruby Red grapefruit component speaks to Chef Scott Cohen’s involvement with Texas produce while at La Mansion del Rio, and the citrus does give the tuna a tart, yet almost perfumy, aspect. (Too much longer together and the result would be ceviche, however.)
The provençale pissaladiére would appear to be entirely classic on its face, and the goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, and Niçoise olives that augment the onion base are all elements of regional cuisine. Strange that a little cheese and dried tomato might tip the balance, but the simplest version is merely caramelized onions, anchovy, and black olives on a basic bread-dough crust. BP’s rendition comes on puff pastry, and it’s all just a little de trop for this observer. Good, but too fine, if the distinction is clear. I’d have to say the same for the duck rilletes; they lacked the fatty coarseness of the more traditional, pulled-apart product.
The osso bucco, on the other hand, is superb, and I’d only request a little gremolada, that mix of lemon zest, garlic, parsley and sometimes anchovy that serves to cut the dish’s richness. Chef Cohen’s Thursday special does come with “orange essence”, which is an inventive riff on the lemon rind, there is plenty of marrow in the impressive bones, and the orzo underpinning is perfect. A hearty red such as our Delas Frères 2007 Côtes du Rhône is a more than amiable companion, as it would be with a dish that was a total surprise: the vegetable cassoulet. This is complete invention on the kitchen’s part, and I immediately turned up my nose at a cassoulet sans sausage and duck confit. Mon dieu, was I ever wrong. Just try it; that’s all I’m going to say.
You’ll want a lighter wine with the lemon sole Côte d’Azur, but rather than heading for a knee-jerk white, we sidetracked to a Monmousseau Rosé d’Anjou. Maybe it was the dish’s tomato, basil, green peppercorn, etc. vinaigrette that inspired the deviation, but inspired it was. The fish was comme il faut perfectly cooked, its underpinning of silky cauliflower purée might almost come close to getting a kid to like vegetables other than ketchup, and accents of broccoli rabe added both color and a slightly bitter crunch. At the next table, a foodie friend was enjoying (for the third time, if I remember correctly) her Atlantic salmon in an artichoke and root-vegetable barigoule — barigoule being a Provençal name for a mushroom that’s often used in this brothy dish.
After all this, desserts may also seem de trop, but I encourage you to try the Anjou pear frangipane tart; yes, the crêpes (though seemingly out of season, the strawberry version was exquisite); and the lemon tart brazenly pavéed with jewel-like fresh raspberries. After which you might want to repair to the zinc bar for l’heure verte. Once banned for its mind-altering aspects, absinthe, also known as la fée verte, or green fairy, has recently shed its illicit mantle and is back in vogue — with a presumably less deleterious composition. Similar to Pernod in anise-accented flavor, the drink also turns cloudy with the addition of water, which is accomplished here by means of a glass apparatus that drips l’eau through a sugar cube into the glass. It’s a great ritual, if not as danger-frought as it once was, and you can always imagine rubbing shoulders with Beaudelaire, Van Gogh, and even Oscar Wilde if taken enough into the fairy’s spell.
1818 N. Loop 1604 West
Brasserie Pavil’s dazzling period décor doesn’t outshine
its equally ambitious menu
The oysters, almost any fish dish, the osso bucco, all
the tarts ... and finish with a jolt of absinthe
Lunch: 11am-3pm Mon-Fri; Dinner: 5:30-11pm Mon-Sun; Brunch: 10:30am-3pm Sat-Sun
Dinner entrées: $9.95-$35.95