September 8, 2011

Bar Guide: Broadening horizons in a big way

Petite Jacqueline brings the ambience of a French cafe and restaurant with the comfort and pricing of a neighborhood favorite.

By ELISA DOUCETTE

Anyone who is looking for a dose of culture and international travel in the Greater Portland area will be well-served to visit Petite Jacqueline, a new French bistro in Longfellow Square.

click image to enlarge

Joshua Loring, a bartender at Petite Jacqueline in Portland, pours a Flaneur, made with Bombay Sapphire gin, "slightly dirty," with dilly beans.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

PETITE JACQUELINE

WHERE: 190 State St., Portland, 553-7044; bistropj.com

HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PARKING: After 6 p.m. the metered parking on State Street is free, or you can venture into the coveted unmetered streets of the West End neighborhood.

SPECIALS: $20 wine carafes (house red, white or rose). Each carafe holds about 1.5 bottles of wine.

PEOPLE WATCHING: Though appearing upscale and "dress-code only" to the passing observer, the bar is filled with local West Enders, couples looking for a night out, and groups of young adults and hipsters crowded around the frosted half-glass wall sipping absinthe drinks.

I-SPY: Owner Michelle Corry's grandmother, the original Petite Jacqueline, graces practically life-size posters and framed photos along the walls of the bar area and restaurant.

BARSTOOL COMFORT: Brushed silver metal stools with concave spinning seat tops.

GUILTY PLEASURE: French 75 (gin, chambord, lemon juice with a champagne topper and sugared rim; $8)

Another offering from owners Michelle and Steve Corry (the folks who graced Portland's Arts District with 555 and the Point 5 Lounge) and their business partner Liz Kayo, Petite Jacqueline brings the ambience of a French cafe and restaurant with the comfort and pricing of a neighborhood favorite, passport stamp optional.

With the fleeting days of summer still here but the crisp autumn season coming soon, the first and most popular feature of the restaurant is the sidewalk patio, filled with mostly two-seat metal tables and chairs. The venue is only open for the evening crowd so the preference is to seat diners in the caf?but it is always worth asking because of the people-watching opportunities in Longfellow Square.

Inside, Petite Jacqueline adopts the same spatial structure as so many businesses in downtown Portland: Long and narrow, reaching far into the back of the building, with the kitchen up a half-stairwell and almost hidden on a platform space looking down into the dining room.

The front of the restaurant area is situated between three-quarter-wall plate-glass windows looking out onto the street and a half-wall on the left, topped with a frosted glass window. If you wander beyond this point, you will find the bar cozily occupying the back corner.

The bar, which easily seats a dozen or so customers, is a tall, wooden L-shaped structure with a gray-painted, thick wooden top. Hanging overhead, bare-bulb yellow light sconces provide a warm setting that will make you wish you were wearing a beret. The servers, all extremely friendly and speedy-quick, scurry from the kitchen to the bar to the restaurant tables and patio patrons, sporting the staple French uniform of red- or black-striped shirts and nondescript bottoms.

As I looked over the drink menus (yes, plural), including a full wine selection, cocktails and beer, I was surprised at the wide range of choices. Expecting to find wines with which I was barely familiar and cocktails drowning in French jargon, instead I found local ales and a vast selection of reds, whites, sparkling and rose wines. The cocktails are a little overwhelming when you look at the online menu, but have no fear -- they are spelled out in detail for customers with the different liquors and mixers.

Draft beer at Petite Jacqueline varies from local darling Allagash White ($4.50) to German Hefe Dunkel Weihenstephan ($6.50), with staples such as Stella Artois ($4.50) and Urquell ($5.50) in between.

Although the wines are almost exclusively French imports, the waitstaff and bartenders are educated in the various blends and flavors. A friend who recently visited asked for a tasting of something red and very smooth. Although the first offering was a little too tart for her palate, the next was precisely what she was looking for.

There are more than a dozen wines available by the glass (reds, whites and rose, $5 to $11). There are also half a dozen half-bottles ($18 to $60), including a couple of different champagnes. There are only a small number of vineyards that are able to claim the genuine "champagne" classification: Made with grapes from the Champagne region of France.

If you are with a large group or have some time to savor, there are also full bottles of regular stock ($23 to $56) and reserve wines ($59 to $170).

The cocktails take their cues from standard French fare, and feature ingredients such as cognac, champagne toppers and Grand Marnier. Wanting to feel a little "Moulin Rouge," I ordered the French Kiss (absinthe, bourbon, Lillet and 7-Up; $7) because I felt there was no way to be disappointed in a drink that was made with both bourbon and absinthe. To the glee of my taste buds, I was not disappointed in the slightest.

If those liquors sound a little gruff, you may want to try the French Connection Cosmo (cognac, Grand Marnier and cranberry juice; $11) or the Belgian Orange Blossom (vodka, grapefruit juice, bitters, almond syrup and seltzer; $7).

You would be remiss not to sample the food at Petite Jacqueline. Whether it's something as simple as the house frites ($4) or as adventurous as the escargots (served with garlic herb butter; $9), there are countless ways to add to your bistro experience. Bartender Josh Loring let me in on the newest food offering, the French Attitude Burger, which is only served from 9 p.m. to close and on a limited basis. If you want this deliciousness, you need to plan accordingly. Fellow customers confirmed it was worth the effort.

Elisa Doucette is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.

 

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