Next to me is a party of four women, all in their late 50s or early 60s, sharing a carafe of Nicolas rosé ($22) and painting the back corner of Petite Jacqueline’s new glass-walled dining room with sporadic whoops and outbursts of raucous laughter. They are having a blast, and their appetizers haven’t even arrived.
I quickly realize why: It is French story time. One woman, dressed all in white, picks up where she left off, “He insisted I couldn’t wear it anywhere on the Île du Levant, so I took it off and put it in by bag. So there I was, topless and bottomless on the beach, with a croissant in my hand. And all I could think about was how I was supposed to FaceTime with my grandson in 15 minutes!”
Nibbling at slices of housemade baguette pulled from a rolled piece of parchment paper and smeared with herbed compound butter, another nearby table gets in on the act (although in a more G-rated fashion). “His first month of his study abroad, he ate so many crepes that we had to send him money to buy new pants,” one man says to the table, mortifying the red-faced young man seated next to him. I sympathize. After a summer in Paris, I piled on my own “Frenchman 15,” thanks to a rehab-worthy addiction to celeriac remoulade, and only managed to whittle myself back down to size by forcing myself to travel everywhere on foot. As I tell my dinner guest this story over a garlicky, parsley-rich – but calamitously undersalted – bowl of puff pastry-topped escargots ($10.95), it dawns on me that I have inadvertently swum into the same net my fellow diners have. As if by design, conversation at Petite Jacqueline seems to be all about food and travel.
A fitting theme, considering that the restaurant itself completed a journey of its own this June – moving from Longfellow Square to slightly smaller, but grander, digs in the Old Port. It’s a convergence of sorts, uniting the bistro with Portland Patisserie, a fellow member (along with Five Fifty-Five), of the Corry Restaurant Group.
“We loved that corner real estate, and when it was time to move the restaurant, we couldn’t find any place that suited our needs better. It just made sense to merge the two,” co-owner Steve Corry explained. “Here, it’s a full-on city bistro, and we see a much broader clientele: young, old and everything in between. Locals, tourists, everybody.”
Another consolidation is going on in the kitchen, where Kyle Robinson, formerly the chef de cuisine at Five Fifty-Five, has been promoted to executive chef, overseeing both restaurants’ kitchens. “It gives me a chance to step up and gives Steve a chance to step back,” Robinson said. “We tightened up the menu a little, but we’re still offering a lot of the same classic dishes. It’s still a classic French bistro, and I don’t think that will change.”
Indeed, more than three years after a five-star review published in this paper, Petite Jacqueline’s menu offers many of the very same dishes it did then, from a torchon of foie gras ($20.95) that a former critic called “an auspicious start to the meal,” right down to the Saturday-only special, which to this day remains seared duck breast ($28).
Given Petite Jacqueline’s early success – it was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2012 – it is easy to understand the logic in retaining a menu of well-loved, faithful perennials. At the same time, giving up variety shifts attention necessarily in the direction of execution and detail.
That’s not always a trade-off that works in Petite Jacqueline’s favor. The warning signs first appear in print, with a menu shot through with misspellings, such as fish “en papoitte,” beef tartare served with “cornishon,” and even (forgive us all, Saint Julia Child) “buerre.”
Perhaps in keeping with stereotypes of snooty French waiters, service can also occasionally be a bit less than friendly. On one recent visit (a birthday dinner), our server returned to the kitchen five separate times to ask the kitchen how classics like the perfectly seared steak frites ($26.95) and (greasy, overdressed) Lyonnaise salad ($12.95) were prepared. “Oh, are you new?” one of my guests asked, figuring he was still completing his training. “No,” our server replied. “I’m just tired, and I’m not French.”
There are occasional back-of-house slip-ups, as well. Some minor, like Espelette pepper-topped deviled eggs ($4.95) – a riff on oeufs mayonnaise – that incorporate too much Dijon mustard. Or crunchy, practically raw roasted Brussels sprouts with rendered lardons ($8). And some major, like a tender, slow-braised beef Bourguignon ($26.95), made with boneless beef short ribs and caramelized pearl onions, that tastes one-dimensional and dilute, lacking any concentrated depth of flavor from the Burgundy wine that gives it its name.
But when Petite Jacqueline does live up to its promise, the results are blissfully good. Pastry chef Michelle Bass’s flourless chocolate cake ($8), with dense striations of fudgy, cherry-and-almond ganache, is at once exactly the right size to share, and just small enough to spark a war of forks over the last bite.
Even better are the moments when everything falls into place, as with the arctic char amandine ($24.95), a faultlessly pan-seared char fillet, cantilevered like the roof of a forest lean-to, across a wild thicket of glossy green beans. Every one of the components – from a loose dollop of cream-simmered sunchoke puree, to the tiny capers and toasted almond slices, sauteed together in brown butter and spooned over the fish – acts as a counterweight to the others.
Ultimately, this is the subtle magic of French bistro cooking: a straightforward-seeming dish (“approachable dining” as Steve Corry smartly puts it), but one that relies on a quietly extraordinary, multidirectional balance. It’s the sort of food you relish as you eat, without thinking too much about what makes it so pleasurable. If you’re lucky, it might become an important part of some of your best stories, and for better or worse, it should never be the focus.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: