Tuesday, June 18, 2013
If you like butter and garlic – and so many of us do – you will revel in a meal at JP's Bistro, squeezed into an intimate space in the Rosemont neighborhood of Portland.
Bartender Jennifer Hart mixes drinks at JP’s Bistro in Portland. Owner and chef John P. Gagnon, who has a background in continental cuisine, has a long history in the restaurant business in Portland. His plan? A good product at a good price.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
JP’S BISTRO, 496 Woodford St., Portland; 899-4224
HOURS: Open for dinner 4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard, Discover and American Express
PRICE RANGE: $15 to $19
VEGETARIAN DISHES: Eggplant rollatini, stuffed portabello mushroom with chevre
GLUTEN-FREE: By request
KIDS: Ravioli, chicken cutlets and pasta alfredo by request.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No
BOTTOM LINE: Grilled steak and seared scallops are among the straightforward good standards served for dinner at JP’s Bistro.
Rating based on a five-star scale. It is the policy of the Maine Sunday Telegram to visit an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory.
Owner and chef John P. Gagnon opened his restaurant on Dec. 8. "I started out years ago with John Martin – from the Merry Manor," Gagnon said. "My last stint I worked for Tom Manning at Miss Portland Diner. I helped set that up."
With a background in continental cuisine, Gagnon waited until the age of 44 to become a business owner. It was something he had always planned to do, and he knew he would be sorry not to try to succeed. "My theory is I want to give a good product and give the customer a good price and keep them coming back," he said.
He has pleased customers for years during his Portland-area career, and he makes sure they can find something at JP's they will like.
Pan-seared scallops and Parmesan-crusted haddock have been among his most successful entrees, but lamb and homemade gnocchi are likely to show up on the list in the future.
Exposed brick and pale walls surround the two small rooms, one holding the kitchen corralled inside a high divider wall. A chalkboard displays the specials and is truly easy to see from almost any spot, while a bar against a window and tall tables share the narrow space left free in front of the kitchen.
The fireplace set into the wall at the end of the bar area under a big clock is more a visual tease than a cozy spot to huddle close and get warm, particularly since the space in front of it is also an access point to the kitchen.
An additional table required by my party of three rose up from the basement steps on the night of my visit, the legs of the man hoisting it coming into sight after the table itself. It was put into use only when we arrived, keeping some area free behind a table of five beforehand.
It was no matter to our capable server, however, who seemed to appear on cue each and every moment we required her.
A Bombay gin martini ($7.50) tasted just right, the big fat olive on its little green plastic sword sunk below the surface until an inch of liquid was sipped away. A Tanqueray gin and tonic ($6.75) was the short version; it can be ordered in a tall 16-ounce glass.
Among the modest wine list of 12 reds and 10 whites (nine by the glass), Fleur de California Pinot Noir ($32) from Carneros was soft and light, a pleasure to drink.
Gagnon said he was changing the list's Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon soon. "I'm trying to keep it a $6 pour – I'm trying to keep it affordable. It's tough out there," he said.
Mussels ($9) served in a salty, buttery and of course garlicky broth studded with cherry tomatoes were small and fresh, and irresistible in that presentation. An arugula salad ($9) founded its success on the freshness of its small arugula leaves. Although the moment for candied pecans has passed elsewhere, they live on here and in innumerable other dining rooms for the simple reason that folks love them – ditto for dried cranberries.
There was garlicky butter served with chewy, warmed white bread.
Rustler Rib Eye ($19) has garlic butter on it, our server explained.
Two large scoops of garlic butter, like the one that arrived to spread on the bread, were still dissolving their riches across the grilled meat when it arrived at the table, and such profligacy with the garlic butter made the meat even more irresistible than the mussels. It reminded me of watching the chefs through the window of Street and Company, the seafood restaurant on Wharf Street, as they shoveled butter into pans with Dionysian exuberance.
Garlic mashed potatoes made a welcome appearance beside the fatty, delectable steak.
Cajun salmon ($18) was grilled with mild Cajun spices and served on linguine. Even with the buttery, garlicky sauce for the pasta, the salmon had undergone too much of the heat in its cooking, leaving it dry and a little tough.
But seared scallops ($19) impressed with their workmanship, sporting precisely browned exteriors and tender, just-translucent centers. The risotto was a few minutes past chewy but remained impressively flavored with portobello mushrooms.
Chocolate pecan pie ($5, as are all desserts) was made by Norman Sprague with chewy, dark-roasted pecans and a center that wasn't over-sweet. It made a fine finale to a rich meal, especially enjoyed with cups of hot, strong coffee. Sprague is also responsible for a chocolate-almond-coconut cake called Almond Joy.
But Gagnon's own creme brulee bread pudding has been the most popular dessert, and an apple crisp has garnered many compliments. He promises it's one crisp that lives up to its name.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of "Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast." Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.