More than a decade after he reopened the restaurant at the Windsor Arms, French chef J.P. Challet is returning to revamp the dining options at the classic hotel, along with partners Jennifer Decorte and Peter Tsang. Their company Ici La-bas Partout, which has been operating out of an as-yet-unopened bistro on Harbord, will be transforming Prime, the hotel’s steakhouse, into a modern French restaurant called Ici. As for the spot on Harbord, it’s still coming, assures Decorte; they plan to open Ici Aussi in March.
This isn’t the first delay for the buzzed-about bistro; it was slated to open a year ago, but a protracted tangle with the city over liquor licensing (since approved but pending) and plumbing woes slowed plans. “I was going bananas doing nothing,” Challet says. Boredom and the bottom line (he’s had no salary for a year) soon got the better of him; he started sublimating his frustration into brioche. Catering became a means of survival, and soon, Challet’s sigh-inducing pastries were picked up by Sam James Coffee and the wholesale biz was born. He started selling his baking to the Windsor Arms, and when Prime’s chef resigned, Challet urged hotel management to take a cue from such hospitality giants as the George V in Paris and get a big-name chef on board. Challet’s team will start as guest chefs at the hotel during Winterlicious next week.
The apex of Yorkville luxe seems far from a gritty strip of Harbord, but the Ici trio plans to bridge the gap with a common concept: affordable, modern interpretations of classic French food. (Price points at both locations will hover around $60 a meal.) Challet believes his greatest challenge will be convincing diners that the Windsor Arms isn’t just champagne and caviar. The menu hits on many current dining trends, including sharing plates, a reinvigorated brunch buffet and tableside slicing and mixing for dishes like terrine, soup and salad.
Since leaving the Windsor Arms in 2001, Challet has worked all over the city. After stints at Rosewood Grill, Bouchon, Le Sélect Bistro and The Fifth (where he worked with Tsang and Decorte), he founded his food company Jean-Pierre and Co. in 2008. “It will be strange going back,” he says, but sees it as an opportunity to revive the city’s hotel dining scene and take on apprentices. “A few chefs really helped me when I was young, and it’s my turn now,” he says.