Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By John Golden
On a quiet evening earlier this month, the other diners at Petite Jacqueline may not have noticed the menu changes made by the restaurant’s newly hired chef, Paris-born Frederick Eliot. We knew the difference right away after one bite of our first course, a torchon of foie gras ($18), a preparation that set the stage for a remarkable meal to follow. There would also be many more extraordinary dinners on subsequent visits that were enjoyed immensely.
Petite Jacqueline offers views of the busy passing scene from its State Street vantage point in Portland.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
WHERE: 190 State St., Portland. 553-7044; Bistropj.com
HOURS: Lunch and dinner: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday: brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Yes
PRICE RANGE: Dinner: first courses, $5 to $17; entrees, $14 to $26
VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)
GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)
KIDS: Yes, welcome
BAR: Full bar
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: For extraordinary bistro fare, every dish is a standout. From the torchon of foie gras to sweetbreads, braised tongue and pork belly to bone marrow and parsley salad, inventive first courses abound from this thoroughly French kitchen. Raw bar includes local oysters, chilled Maine lobster, local clams on the half shell and chilled jumbo shrimp. Masterfully prepared entrees include a special preparation of braised lamb shoulder, fricassee of game hen served in a cast-iron skillet, coq au vin, cassoulet and magret de canard are some of the special dishes served regularly or as plat du jour. A compelling dessert menu includes chocolate mousse, crème brulee, crepes, butterscotch éclair, pears poached in red wine and house-made ice cream. The wine list has many rare or lesser-known bottlings from France and California that are well priced.
Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: ★ Poor ★★ Fair ★★★ Good ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.
Torchon is one of those complex preparations of French cuisine. Simply put, it’s a special salt curing of foie gras (Hudson Valley duck livers). The pate was presented with brioche toasts and apricot chutney – an auspicious start to the meal.
So began the first of several serendipitous dinners in the course of a month where various guests joined me to assess Eliot’s cooking.
After the foie gras, that first dinner progressed with a rapturous feasting on some of Eliot’s signature dishes. We dug into a heady starter course of sweetbreads ($17). These were deep-fried and paired with clams in the shell and bathed in a cunning caper-butter pan sauce that worked very well indeed.
It was followed by braised tongue ($10), a staple of French country cooking. Here it was set in a concentrated veal stock and moistened with an enriched tomato sauce. The meat was highly perfumed from the braising liquor, and the remarkable tomato sauce was slightly sweet but still prodigiously pungent and earthy.
Throughout the meal we enjoyed a Sainte Anne Bordeaux 2010 ($34), a bright and lively claret that stood up nicely to the richness of our food. The Petite Jacqueline wine list is an intriguing one offering lesser known labels from France and a smattering of California wines. It’s a list well worth exploring either by the glass or bottle, and the excellent wait staff knows what to recommend.
Two stellar main courses followed: a glorious coq au vin ($23) and a beautifully presented pot au feu of monkfish ($24).
The chicken was slowly braised in red wine and aromatics until it emerged luxuriously burnished and flavored. It was served over house-made fettuccine.
The pot au feu showcased monkfish, an otherwise assertive fish tempered by the sweetness of leeks, carrots and turned potatoes bound in a delicious broth.
We tried two desserts – a chocolate mousse ($7) in the style of Julia Child, and pears poached in red wine ($9). They were a fine conclusion to a beautifully prepared meal.
In a telephone interview many dinners later, Eliot described his cooking to me as “aggressive” French, a kind of rusticity of flavor and texture that relies on the techniques of the old French masters.
His sauces, however, are simplified and modern, mostly pan sauces enriched with butter and cream compared to the rigidity of the ancien regime era of French cookery.
To experience the evolving menu, a second visit in early December occurred. Here we were transfixed by a stellar progression of courses that showed how flawlessly Eliot can prepare classic bistro fare.
A first course of a puree of turnip soup was delicately wrought, yet it retained the forward flavors of this local root. My guest opted to start off lightly and enjoyed a refreshing salad of escarole with Treviso and candied pecans suavely dressed in blue-cheese sherry vinaigrette.
The two main courses were show-stoppers. A special that evening (which can be ordered in advance) was a fricassee of Cornish game hen ($23), which was one of the most remarkable renditions of this classic bistro dish. The chicken was brined and then broken down into small pieces, lightly colored in a sauté pan with shallots and mushrooms, deglazed with Madeira and finished off in the oven in a rich chicken stock. The final sauce was an amalgam of cream, butter and tarragon that coated the chicken and vegetable tableaux of turned potatoes, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts. It was stunningly presented in a black cast-iron skillet.
The incredible epaulet d’agneau (shoulder of lamb, $26), was another highly sophisticated preparation – roasted first to brown then set in a mirepoix of vegetables, reduced red wine and veal stock to braise for three hours. The meat is then pulled off the bone and set in a large flat pan and pressed with weights to set overnight to concentrate the flavors.
For plating it’s cut into a rectangle, set on a puree of local turnips with roasted carrots and broccolini and served with a simple reduction of the pan sauce. For lamb aficionados, it’s an extraordinary moment.
For dessert we relished an outrageously rich butterscotch éclair ($8). It’s filled with a very sweet butterscotch pastry cream, and the choux-pastry case was coated with a glistening butterscotch glaze, a sugary gilding of the lily that called for some well made espresso to accompany. My guest couldn’t finish hers and I happily polished it off as we both enjoyed the remains of a surprisingly stable (from an iffy vintage) Chateau Simard 2003 ($46), an interesting St. Emilion still holding up with nice bottle age.
For a final coda of assessment, we ventured back specifically to have Eliot’s magret de canard (duck breast), a Saturday plat du jour. This was a “true” preparation using the breast from the Moulard species, raised for its exquisite meat and foie gras. The pan-seared breast was cut into perfectly pink (not rare) noisettes and arranged over butternut squash extravagantly steeped in cream and pureed. The dish was further embellished with a medley of Brussels sprouts, turned apples and butternut cubes pan-seared and finished with shallots, chicken stock, butter and a touch of sherry vinegar. The whole dish is sheathed in a sauce aigre douce (sweet-sour), a dark duck stock that is heavily reduced and finished with a gastrique (caramelized sugar shocked with sherry vinegar) and butter emulsion.
To describe this as a dish fit for the gods is understatement. Then again with food like this you won’t get anything less.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: