After a period of uneven visits, I’m happy to say that Brasserie Jo Boston is back in form again. The funny thing is that the very people who complained the most wanted to keep coming back, and we’ve had some memorable evenings there after concerts in Jordan Hall or the Boston Symphony. It is once again one of the best places you can go if you’re in that part of town. And, ups and downs in the kitchen aside, the state are among the nicest you’ll ever encounter in a restaurant. No Goth sommeliers here!
After originally filing this review on April 15th, 2009, I’ve been back to Brasserie Jo numerous times, and I regret to report that the happy visits have been interspersed with disappointments. Some dishes were heavy and bland. Others, like the leg and breast of duck I had recently, had been kept warm for too long. The breast was supposed to have been pink, but it arrived at the table grey and dried out. The clam chowder has become starchy and lifeless. The most successful visits have been after concerts, with a light snack and drinks. The restaurant continues to enjoy a lively pre-concert crowd, and perhaps the prodigious crowd that has to be served is partly to blame. The kitchen will have to improve considerably before Brasserie Jo earns our recommendation back. (10/27/10)
Years ago it was pretty much unthinkable to dine after an evening concert in Symphony Hall, unless you happened to find a Hayes Bickford that was open all night. It’s still not easy to find a place where you could relax and converse for a couple of hours without feeling rushed, much less being surrounded by floor sweeping, the overturning of chairs, and a glaring waiter. I do know a few places in the neighborhood that are open late, but I wouldn’t recommend them. Brasserie Jo, however, is one restaurant—a five minute walk away—where I’d feel comfortable settling in after a concert. The main menu remains available until 11 pm Monday through Saturday, and a bar menu takes over until 1.30 am. It’s also worth noting that lunch is served until 3 pm—a small blessing for us tardy folk and busy guests in the Colonnade Hotel.
Brasserie Jo is a transplanted brasserie. Its founder and owner, Jean Joho, is a native Alsatian from a restaurant family, who began his training at the age of thirteen in the Auberge de L’Ill and continued to study in Strasbourg. This all speaks for the authenticity of the tradition behind the kitchen, but it’s not as simple as all that. M. Joho is an energetic and clever entrepreneur, whose first American project, Everest, an uncompromising establishment on the fortieth floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, started in 1986, has won numerous awards and was named in 2003 the best restaurant in Chicago. In 1995 he opened Brasserie Jo, also in Chicago, as “the city’s first authentic brasserie,” which was promptly awarded the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant Award.” Brasserie Jo opened in Boston in 1998, but I must confess I haven’t found my way there until now. (M. Joho’s latest eneterprise is the Eiffel Tower, which is on the eleventh floor of Las Vegas’ own Eiffel Tower replica).
There is no denying that the fact that M. Joho first established his transatlantic roots in Chicago has left its mark on the house style. There is a generosity to the portions and the flavors that I associate with Chicago, which abounds with excellent, generally informal restaurants, and these tend to treat whatever national cuisine they profess with midwestern heartiness and straightforwardness. I’m very fond of Chicago and its food, so this is no disadvantage, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll explain this more thoroughly when I discuss Brasserie Jo’s choucroute garni.
Brasserie Jo consists of one spacious room—dark below with wooden panelling around the banquettes, yellow walls above, decorated with art deco posters and murals imitating the style, but well-lit within the divided dining spaces, giving them an intimate feeling. A tile floor decorated out front with an art deco logo provides a hint of the brasseries back in France. Potted palms occupy the corners. I don’t think there is anywhere one would be uncomfortable in the dining room or the bar, which has smaller tables and its own simpler menu—basically sandwiches, a cheese plate, and a small raw bar selection. There are also oysters, tout court. Don’t expect any exotic varieties. My companion, Geraldine Ramer, our wine editor, liked the open, airy space, which reminded her of several she knows in Paris. It’s cheerful, convivial, and somehow fun with all the bustle. The noise level was thankfully low. In the warm weather there are tables on the Huntington Avenue sidewalk.
In fact, as I arrived, Geraldine was having a glass of wine at the bar, and this she also enjoyed, finding the barmen attentive, but not intrusive. She liked the fact that they brought her a tiny tasting plate of food, and she thought “it was nice of the server to pour you a bit of wine to see if you liked it, rather than just go ahead and pour you a glass.”
The main dinner menu resembles the encyclopedic cartes of the traditional French brasserie, although the selection is sensibly reduced, since, although there are several traditional brasserie dishes on the menu, Brasserie Jo is not an entirely unambitious restaurant. Of course it wouldn’t be worthy of its name without an introductory chapter on beers, in this case heavily weighted towards the popular Belgian ales, followed by starters like onion soup ($7.95), an Alsatian onion tart ($8.95), escargots ($10.95), charcuterie ($14.94), salade frisée ($9.95), mussels in riesling ($18.25), steak frites ($22.95), or choucroute Alsacienne ($22.95). There are daily specials, which include a roasted whole New York strip ($28.95), duck à l’orange ($21.95), lobster bouillabaisse ($28.95), cassoulet ($21.95), and calves liver in madeira ($17.95). Beyond that there is another special prix fixe menu. which is hard to pass up. French egg noodles Mediterranean style with olives and basil ($18.95) is the only listed recourse for vegetarians who do not consume fish. However, the chef is happy to prepare vegetarian dishes to order, not to mention any kind of special diet.
The staff are friendly, even a little chatty, and extremely professional. Geraldine’s choice of a 2005 Domaine Courbis St. Joseph, a solid, satisfying bottle, as she described it, led to a pleasant conversation with Hugo the sommelier, about the actual makeup of the wine. Both had visited the vineyard and were convinced that the Courbis St. Joseph is still made entirely from the Syrah grape. Some vineyards, Hugo observed, to cater to contemporary European tastes, are blending it with a small amount of Viognier, a white grape native to the Rhone Valley. Its complex, almost mineral flavor could interestingly complement the traditional Rhone red grape, but I was especially pleased with the coherence and richness of the pure Syrah. At four years old it was close to but not quite at its peak, but this hint of fruitiness gave it its versatility, so that it was as good a companion for Geraldine’s monkfish as it was for my guines fowl. Geraldine found it “lush with fruit that’s balanced by a judicious use of barrel ageing, and offers blackberry, spice and earthy notes.”
We both ordered from the special menu. Geraldine ordered cauliflower soup, since she’s very keen on cauliflower this year. “It had a smooth, creamy texture but didn’t seem to have much fat in it; the texture might have been due to the cauliflower itself, the flavor of which was only enhanced, not masked, by the seasonings.” I had a spicy dish of shrimp à l’Espagnole. The pepper and tomato based marinade/sauce was both sharp and full-bodied, a satisfyingly powerful concoction which suggested the aromas of the entire hispanic world, as well as that Chicago heartiness. I was delighted with it.
Geraldine ordered a substantial, but still light and not oversauced monkfish with lardons on a bed of greens. This was indeed the sort of fish dish you can enjoy with a red wine. I ordered pintadeau, which was served in two ways, both en confit and roasted, with celeriac purée and greens. There was an interesting contrast between the two preparations, and there were also contrasts between the sharp and the rich in the vegetables. This was a hearty, satisfying dish, which was unpretentious and hearty, but not without sophistication. I found it thoroughly delicious and satisfying, just the sort of thing that keeps me coming back to a restaurant.
In fact, the following week I was unexpectedly able to come in once again for Symphony, and my friend who was coming with me invited me to dinner. He wasn’t quite sure where he wanted to go, but he mentioned a few things he was in the mood for, and I immediately suggested Brasserie Jo. He hadn’t been there yet, himself, and he found it just as happy a discovery as I did the week before. This time I had the choucroute à l’Alsacienne, preceded by clam chowder. A brasserie in Boston has to have something local after all. It was probably the best clam chowder I’ve ever had, a creamy perfectly balanced combination of clams, seafood broth, smoked bacon, and cream, with a dose of sherry, which was by no means shy, but not excessive. Another excellent dish to come back for. I checked the Chicago menu to see what local specialities Chef Joho might have found for the menu. Sure enough, Wiener Schnitzel and Slowly Roasted Pork with Braised Red Cabbage are dishes you might typically expect to find at the Berghoff, and in Chicago there was no clam chowder on the menu.
The choucroute was both a trifle milder and a trifle more substantial than in France, where the desirable sauerkraut would be sharper, but its texture was also light, as it is in France. In recent years I’ve become a devotee of the the choucroute garni’s robust Polish cousin, bigos, which is to choucroute what a great żubr (aurochs) would be to a Persian cat. The dominant flavor came from the sausage and the smoked ham and bacon, which was substantial. Instead of the traditional cervelat, there were two sausages, one like a boudin blanc, and the other piquant, vigorously spiced and smoked like a Bauernbratwurst. And of course the dish was perfumed with an Alsatian Riesling or the like. The dish was also enormous. Hugo dared me to finish it, but I could not.
I couldn’t say that the desserts were on quite the same level as the starters and the main courses. Geraldine and I shared a bread pudding, which was perfectly good, but not exceptional. On the other hand, I may not be the one to testify to its excellence of lack thereof.
It should be obvious that both of my dinner companions were delighted with Brasserie Jo, and we all look forward to coming back often.
Saturday & Sunday 7:00am-12:00pm
Located across the street from the Prudential Center at:
The Colonnade Hotel
120 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02116
Saturday & Sunday 12:00pm-3:00pm
Served Monday-Friday 2:30pm-5:00pm
Bar – serving a special menu
Friday & Saturday 11:00am-1:30am
Phone – (617) 425-3240
Fax – (617) 424-1717