PORTLAND — Petite Jacqueline has been open since early March, and it’s already been assigned a petit nom by regulars: PJ.
It’s also got a fierce following. On a Saturday night in May, every seat was taken (there are 48, including 10 at the bar). We wedged ourselves into chairs by the bay window — neighboring tables were an elbow away. But tight quarters is the French bistro way. Thankfully, regulations prevented anyone from lighting up a Galoise.
Except for the aluminum chairs and bar counter, the decor — a black-and-white tiled floor, wainscoted walls, a ceiling fan, vintage prints, pendant lights, even the dishtowel napkins — suggested George Sand, easels, protest poetry and the Left Bank.
The crowd was decidedly New England, however. And loud. Or the room allowed noise. Either way, the din didn’t bother us in the slightest. In fact, it felt good to be part of the communal commotion, the guests there to enjoy a new food venture in Portland. And there’s no reason to hush over this fare, which is classic French food for the common man. Rather, order a carafe of house wine, raise a glass and make merry.
And joyous the four of us were, across all courses, which delighted our palates more than they surprised us with their invention and presentation. You won’t find pretension here. But you will find items not on many cafe menus in Maine — confit lamb’s tongue and fluke meuniere (an updated take on Julia Childs’ revelatory sole), for instance.
Soupe du jour was an outstanding English pea and ramp ($6), which was intensely green and flavor-rich, light and smooth. Escargots ($9) in garlic and herb butter came sans shells, their brown sauce rich with tarragon and thicker than expected but still lovely, the snails earthy and taut. Braised leeks ($7) from the salad list were cool and tender, dotted with espellete (a mild red pepper) and drizzled with a simple vinaigrette.
Next up, pied du cochon ($8), a braised pig trotter terrine. The multi-textured mold of silky meat, fat and a touch of cartilage was served with crostini and sauce gribiche. (It’s mayonnaise-like, with minced cornichons, capers, parsley, tarragon and shallots). I liked it well enough; my companion raved and devoured. The pickled ramps were a cool and cleansing accompaniment.
A charcuterie plate came with a delicious smoked duck rillette and a bacon-wrapped pork and chicken liver pate with pickled cornichons (gherkins). Vive la France.
Small, homemade baguettes were served in brown paper bags, as if you picked the bread up at the boulangerie yourself. “Maitre d” butter (parsley and lemon — very good) was served alongside. Note to management: we could have used bread plates.
Quiche du jour ($12) was a marvel, a 2-inch-high hearty triangle of the lightest custard possible, with leeks and goat cheese mixed in just enough to keep the flavor subtle. Lettuce leaves came on the side, untorn but dressed, to fill the plate. I’d like to see a tad more attention paid to the side salad.
A guest in our party ordered hanger steak ($20) cooked just on the rare side of medium rare, and the kitchen came through beautifully with this request, preparing well-seasoned slices of just-so beef. We all dived into his thin hand-cut frites, which were crispy and full of lardy flavor and served with aioli.
The plat du jour is coq au vin on Saturdays ($19). Two dark-meat pieces of chicken in wine sauce surrounded by lots of noodles was comfort food indeed. The only dish that did not reach a high level on this night was the gnocchi ($15); the texture was a little pasty.
Coming as a spooned mound of brown bordered by whipped cream on a large plate, the chocolate mousse ($7) tasted wonderful but needed a more stylish presentation. The creme brulee ($6) was served topped with a cherry/rhubarb compote. Some may prefer the classic dessert unadulterated with the burnt sugar predominant, but I enjoyed this addition.
At Petite Jacqueline, portions are blessedly reasonable. The French eat well, but they don’t overeat. Moreover, the bistro’s prices seem fair for handcrafted food of this caliber. Everything is made in-house. The menu changes with the season. Within this stable framework, several items — soup, quiche, charcuterie and a main course — change daily.
Each course departs the kitchen en masse, a small army of sous chefs bringing the dishes all at once to the table — but without flourish, in keeping with the casual attitude chez PJ. Water carafes are placed on the table for self-service, and the servers keep a good eye out for other needs. Our server knew the menu well and much, but not all, of the wine list.
Petite Jacqueline belongs to Steve and Michelle Corry of 555, an upscale restaurant on Congress Street. Named for Michelle’s grandmother, the new bistro is located in the former Evangeline space at Longfellow Square. When we left the premises, we could be heard exhaling contented sighs and uttering “mercis beaucoup” to all staff within earshot.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.
Correction: This story was updated at 12:07 p.m., June 7, 2011, to correctly spell the last name of restaurant owners Steve and Michelle Corry.