Saturday, April 9, 2011

Chez L'Ami Jean, Paris France

After a luxurious lunch at Le Cinq and many hours of walking, art, shopping, and more walking in between our dinner plans on the second night in Paris would be somewhat similar to those on day one – a member of the “bistronomic” genre with a Basque chef and humble yet bustling confines; Chez L’Ami Jean. Recommended highly by many respected palates and with reservations made and confirmed by a local/regular the meal would represent the latest start I’ve ever had to a dinner – 9:00pm – a decision made so that we could experience the space “in full swing.”

Arriving perhaps 5 minutes early it did not take long to establish what was meant by full swing as we entered the bustling space to find nary an inch to move – all but two seats in the tight space were filled and the bar was standing two deep with people waiting for a seat. Greeted promptly by a thin young woman we gave/shouted our name and with a quick check of the tattered reservation book we were led quickly to a table which literally required lifting from the floor to allow us room to squeeze in. Within moments our server, a tall gentleman who spoke perfect English stopped by to offer the menu, list of specials, wine list, and a carafe of water – he then suggested we “get his attention” when we were ready to order.

Browsing the tight space while perusing the menu it was funny as both my sister and I said at the same time “this place is fantastic.” Inherently loud, squeezed elbow to elbow, and with walls decorated in everything from rugby paraphernalia to oblong superheroes to food items I cannot be sure, but I’m rather certain we were the only non-natives in the space. With Chef Jégo rather quiet that evening (compared to rumors I’ve heard) and his team literally in a state of non-stop motion in the miniscule kitchen the pace was frenetic yet the service was superlative, albeit a bit abrupt, and it seemed no table was ever for want and everyone was having an excellent time.

Flagging down our server with a mere head-nod and with two questions answered (no, unfortunately they cannot do a half order of the foie gras and yes they were indeed sold out of the sweetbreads) orders were placed and within moments a wire basket of bread arrived – seemingly the same pain de champagne served the night before at Le Chateaubriand and once again served without butter. Crusty yet supple and with an excellent crumb I later managed to inquire and my assumption was confirmed – the bread is delivered from Poujauran (and for the germaphobes out there, whatever you don’t finish will simply be dropped off at the next table.)

Shortly following the bread would be an item I attempted to order but was told “it’s on the house” – the house terrine du jour and a large pot of cornichons and pickled onions. With the restaurant increasingly loud I must admit I did not catch all of the ingredients in that day’s terrine but my notes indicate at least boar, pork, veal, and rabbit. Gamey but restrained and quite ample in portion the terrine was hefty with notes of garlic, pepper, onion, and paprika – and much to my surprise my sister loved it. Always a fan of my mother’s meatloaf it was to this that she compared the terrine – a high compliment indeed.

With my sister opting for the 42€ prix fixe and myself choosing a la carte it was perhaps 9:45 when our first proper courses would arrive – a bit of a delay, sure, but understandable given the capacity crowd and small kitchen. First, for myself, a daily special of white and green asparagus with button mushrooms, poached egg, and bacon resting in pork jus. Never one to pass up an egg dish and additionally now four for four in meals containing asparagus this rather traditional dish was quite good despite a slightly overcooked egg. Salty and savory yet vegetal and earthy this was perhaps the least “fussed with” dish of our trip to that point and a nice change of pace, even for someone who prefers “fussy” food.

For Erika’s first course we were given a warning – “It has BLOOD Sausage in it.” Apparently assuming neither of us can read French (I can, just can’t speak it conversationally) I assured him this was okay – while isn’t my favorite thing in the world my sister really enjoyed her previous experience with the saline meat at Bistro LQ in December. Arriving steaming hot the dish described as Mussels, scallops, chopped tripe, blood sausage, garlic, chives, and fine herbs was fantastic – a mélange of flavors and textures that you could smell coming a mile away yet each distinct and nicely prepared with the chewy tripe, textural sausage, and the briny mushrooms most distinct amongst the nearly stew-like preparation.

While we were sitting awaiting our main courses we made conversation with a table next to us and on their departure a group of four would take their place – clearly regulars and well known to the chef who would emerge from the kitchen, kiss each on both cheeks, and subsequently begin sending out small course after small course of items clearly not on the menu – it was then that I noted on my next visit to Paris a return with the man who made our reservation was in order. It was also during this short wait that my sister would make a trip to the restroom – a trip made worthy of comment as she displayed a visible startle response across the room on opening the door and seeing diners right next to her thanks to the use of a one-way mirror.

With my sister returning and laughing at herself it would be perhaps 10:20 when our main courses arrived – the first Erika’s Scallops with Lobster butter and bread crumbs, vegetable cocktail with bacon, and Pommes puree. Thankfully small in portion as she was already beginning to get full these four medium sized scallops were served in the shell and topped with savory butter and crisp breadcrumbs while the center of the plate contained a mélange of vegetables and a stick of bacon strangely reminiscent of a bloody Mary without the alcohol. With the main plate quite tasty I knew the moment I saw it arrive that my sister’s Pièce de résistance would be the potatoes – one of her favorite foods and a stunning example likely equal parts butter and tuber.

Moving forward to my main course it seemed as though French isn’t quite as good as I’d thought – I thought I’d ordered lamb chops when in fact what I’d truly ordered was a large crock containing a whole milk fed lamb shoulder with white beans, carrots, sundried tomatoes, peppers, stuffing, and fine herbs. With the first chop plated tableside on a bed of toasted bread and house cured ham our server departed with raised eyebrows, a smile, and a “bon appetite.” Pink, rich, and slightly more gamey than most American lambs I’ve tasted it was with my first bite that I was glad they’d been sold out of the sweetbreads – while I’m sure they were good it is hard for me to imagine that they would have been this hearty, rustic, and satisfying. With each bite as good as the last and the vegetables and legumes providing ample contrast to the rich meat this was precisely the sort of dish I’d hoped for at L’Ami Jean – the sort of dish I’m sure many French folks including Chef Jégo grew up and the sort of dish I wish more places did well stateside – and yes, I finished all but the bones and cup of the broth garnering a “good job” from our server and a thumbs up from the kitchen.

With the hour nearing 11:00 at this point and people continuing to file in to fill the empty spaces our desserts would arrive next – the first a personal favorite and the second a dish recommended by pretty much everyone who’d ever visited L’Ami Jean prior. Beginning first with the Vanilla Brioche Bread Pudding with whipped cream, pistachio, and strawberry the dish arrived with instructions – namely “don’t touch the bowl, it is very hot.” Featuring four large cubes of golden bread lightly toasted on the corners and soaked through with rich caramel the hefty squares actually bordered on being overly sweet on their own, yet when matched with the mild and airy whipped cream, crumbled pistachio, and potage of vanilla the flavor mellowed out substantially forming an almost butterscotch flavor. Tasty, rustic, and indeed hot I will note I’m glad we ordered it as bread pudding is my favorite type of dessert, but it couldn’t hold a candle to what followed.

For our final taste of Chez L’Ami Jean the order would be Chef Jégo’s famous Rice Pudding in the fashion of his grandmother. Served with with confiture du lait atop the short grain rice plus more as a sidecar, granola with pralines and dried fruit, and multiple flavored meringues I can confirm that the rumors are true - the portion is enormous. Delivered on a serving board with two large plates placed before us our server offered another smile and a “enjoy” – and enjoy we did, plate after plate until there was nothing left but an empty bowl and a spoon licked clean. Thick, creamy, and smooth as velvet on the tongue without being sticky the rice itself was mildly sweet with the bourbon vanilla tones washing over the palate in waves – on its own it was the best rice pudding I’ve ever tasted, yet with the addition of each additional ingredient it became something different, my favorite being crumbles of the pistachio meringue with an added spoonful of the confiture.

Stuffed and immensely satisfied with the clock nearing midnight and a long metro ride back to the 19th we asked for the check – a check delivered in a small tin with just the words “prix fixe x 2 - 84€” – and bidding us farewell we were instructed to pay at the bar – a bar still full and with folks with patrons enjoying wine and charcuterie plus a few more standing outside smoking cigarettes and/or waiting to get in and enjoy some of Chef Jégo’s rustic yet mostly exemplary cuisine and hospitality…two things that in conjunction with the excellent price tag and lively atmosphere would see me as a regular if I lived locally.

No comments: