Jason Paskewitz waited a long time to open Gemini Bistro, and he couldn’t have picked a better time to do it. Drizzly fall nights are perfect for warm tomato soup with grilled cheese and juicy steak frites, classics Paskewitz nails at his new Lincoln Park restaurant. But seasonality is not the extent of the veteran chef’s good timing: He’s seized a moment when Chicago is rife with competition, when conventional wisdom says that even a neighborhood bar had better turn out creative twists if it wants to survive. Paskewitz has noted this wisdom and confidently dismissed it—he’s betting on execution rather than reinvention.
For the last three years, Paskewitz (SushiSamba Rio, Wave, JP Chicago) struggled to overcome financial hurdles and logistical nightmares to open Jackson Park, which he touted as his magnum opus (“It’ll be bigger than life,” he told TOC in 2007). After the project fizzled in January of this year, it looked as if Paskewitz got the memo that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and he settled on opening a simple neighborhood bistro instead. The result is the kind of place that successfully straddles casual weeknights and weekend dinners with the parents. (But be warned: If Mom or Dad are even slightly hard of hearing, conversation might be impossible.)
Paskewitz’s menu gives the people what they want: comforting, familiar food, mostly impeccably prepared. Steak frites rise above bistro-standard status thanks to the incredibly tender hanger cut and the pool of marrow-rich bordelaise. The house burger (the menu bargain at $9) is a juicy, messy thing tucked into a hearty pretzel bun, proof the kitchen knows what medium-rare is. And the crab cake (pictured) packs in more plump crab meat than perhaps any in town, retaining sweet moisture while its edges are crisped and golden.
This isn’t to say that Paskewitz always sticks to textbook renditions, but even glimpses of creativity never veer so far as to lose the point. All seems traditional with the Bistro salad—meaty lardons and wisps of frisée lightly dressed with tart mustard vinaigrette—but the twist comes when bread crumbs replace croutons and coat an egg before it’s fried. It’s nothing crazy—it’s the same flavor profile—but it’s clever.
Truth be told, the “crispy skin chicken” wasn’t all that crispy, and the breast meat was nearing dry. And since I’m quibbling, I may as well mention that the side of brussels sprouts was as boring as…well, listening to a rehashing of the day’s Wall Street Journal. But when you can end with a crème brûlée that is so exemplary—from the satisfying crack of its sugar top to the velvety vanilla custard beneath—it reminds us that in times like these, the tried and true can actually stand out.