This used to be a French restaurant, the first Petit Robert Bistro, opened in 2005. It closed in March. Now it is Josephine, Restaurant Parisien, opened in June. The chef is Stefano Quaresima, who has worked at various Michelin-starred spots around Europe but was, most recently, at Petit Robert Bistro in the South End. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Here's what's different. Petit Robert specialized in everyday comforts — frisee salads with warm goat cheese, steamed mussels, roast chicken, boeuf Bourguignon. Josephine takes such dishes and zaps them with bibbidi bobbidi boo. They sprout orchids and lotus chips, deconstruct into modernist landscapes, get served with spicy smoothie shots, frills of foam, crests of enoki mushroom. They become something grander, more ornate, sometimes better, sometimes not. Either way, there is newfound passion within the white walls of this two-level space, where the flames of a faux fireplace undulate hypnotically at one end and, at the other, chefs gaze from a glassed-in kitchen like scientists observing the subjects of their experiment.
Much of that passion seems to come from owner Samuel Gosselin, who branched out from a corporate career in biotech to open the restaurant he'd always imagined. (Petit Robert's Loic Le Garrec remains involved too.) This fantasy is one many harbored, before the economy crashed and civilians began to have the tiniest comprehension of how grueling the business can be. Thank you, food television, food memoirs, food movies, for crushing our dreams. Gosselin still believes. He cites hospitality guru Danny Meyer as a hero. He has named the place after his mother. He walks the floor, sporting well-cut suits and unruly curls, advising on food and wine. The list here is all French, and it's a real strength, with many options by the glass.
It's good to have him in house, as some servers still need to work on their game. (Oh, low-talker, I cannot make out your words. Oh, impatient one, we are leaving. I can see your next destination compels.) Opening general manager Sam Wolf and sous chef Nick Oldham have moved on, which likely has not helped matters.
Each meal begins with a tray of elegant amuse-bouches — maybe a mouthful of smoked salmon panna cotta, a foie gras macaron, an eggplant Napoleon, but always anchored by a glass of hot-pink beet yogurt. The presentation is beautiful, generous, and not ostentatious. It sets the tone. Anyone who arrives expecting standard bistro fare has now been placed on alert.
Old-school steamed mussels have been replaced by moules Indochine, the shellfish served shucked in a heady, lemongrass-scented broth of coconut milk and red curry. Florets of purple cauliflower, green beans, baby carrots, and diminutive zucchini are bright against the black bowl, delicate white mushrooms affixed like a corsage.
That salad of frisee with goat cheese ditches the frisee altogether (and, honestly, who would miss it?). Now we've got crottin de Chavignol chaud, the puck of warm goat cheese melting into lightly cooked vegetables, garnished with slices of pink radish and flowery lotus root and crumbles of what might be burnt kale but look like garden soil. Both look lovely and taste wonderful, light and full of flavor.
Risotto printanier, earthy with mushrooms and more purple cauliflower, is strewn with blossoms, lotus chips, and shreds of citrus, the rim of the bowl sprinkled in citrusy dust that looks like pollen. No matter that spring has turned to summer and summer to fall. I hope Josephine serves some version of this year-round, because the risotto is cooked perfectly.
The pates maison adhere to tradition in content — country pork, chicken liver mousse, duck rillettes — but not form. The rillettes are in a wee Mason jar topped with a flower and toasts. The mousse is a quenelle atop another toast. The pork is a slice topped with a cornichon and a pickled onion. They are arranged at angles to one another on a square white plate decorated with dots and lines and sprinkles of various accompaniments. What really matters is that the pates themselves are excellent. Josephine's foie gras isn't bad either, accented with red wine gelee, roasted pear, and a swoosh of pear puree. (Oh, and an orchid and a lotus chip, still pretty but starting to feel a little less fresh. Many, in fact most, of Josephine's dishes are garnished this way.)
This kitchen handles surf-and-turf cleverly and well. La pasta du chef features delicate saffron tagliolini coated in decadent lobster cream and tossed with bites of crisp, rich pork belly. Roast chicken breast is served on a bed of vegetables with shrimp mousseline, a fish demi-glace, and duck fat potatoes. It's a lot of beasts, textures, and flavors in one package, but for the most part it comes together.
The same cannot be said for calamars farcis, wherein squid are stuffed with merguez sausage and stood on end like a row of papal headdresses in a zippy red broth with more of that tagliolini. The flavors don't add up, and the texture of the squid veers toward rubbery.
Another main course featured roast duck breast and duck confit with a creamy white puree of root vegetables and sauce bigarade. The citrus accents brighten the dish, but they can't do much about the dry meat. A version of homard a l'americaine features plenty of tender meat, the creature's head perched beside it like a gruesome tiara. There's another shot here, and it's not clear whether one is supposed to sip it like a soup or pour it over like a sauce. The real mystery, though, is the pilaf-esque concoction under the lobster, laden with undercooked beans.
Braised veal cheeks appear in a crimson tide of red wine and beet jus, the tonal layers revealing themselves at first bite. The flavors of root and grape are balanced. There is vegetal celeriac fondue on the side, and a "spicy smoothie shot" that tastes like a parsnip-gingerbread milkshake served room temperature. As much as all of this is interesting, the cheeks need to braise a bit longer, and the smoothie is not a success. "What did you think of the shot?" our server asks. "Most people don't like it." OK.
A classic, Saint-Jacques
poelees, is ably prepared — well-seared scallops served with mushrooms and smashed potatoes — and dressed up with truffle foam. So it is a disappointment to find an unappealing take on hanger steak frites, the grilled meat tough and terrifically overcooked.
Desserts lack the sense of adventure found in the rest of the menu, but the likes of chocolate mousse and creme brulee can hit the spot, sweet simplicity after all those hothouse flowers.
Josephine isn't perfect, but the restaurant Parisien has passion and a point of view.