December 22, 2013

Dine Out Maine: At Petite Jacqueline, meals for the (French) food gods

A torchon of foie gras sets the stage for a remarkable meal to follow.

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.

click image to enlarge

Petite Jacqueline offers views of the busy passing scene from its State Street vantage point in Portland.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

PETITE JACQUELINE

★★★★★

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

RESERVATIONS: Yes

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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