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Chez L'Ami Jean -- March 2008 report

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Chez L'Ami Jean -- March 2008 report

tupac17616 | Jun 5, 2008 11:51 PM

I know this restaurant is old news on Chowhound (and elsewhere, for that matter), but we really enjoyed our dinner there during a trip to Paris back in March/April, so I thought I'd share what I wrote about it. For those who are interested in pictures, they can be seen on my blog here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris.... Enjoy.

At popular chain restaurants in the US, the wait for a table can be nerve-racking. The little light-up coaster the hostess has given you may vibrate wildly any minute now. Your raspberry martini is not safe. And I know this was the first time we’d had to wait for a table in France, but the only thing the hostess at Chez L’Ami Jean handed us was a wooden board full of charcuterie. It comes as no surprise which of the two aforementioned countries has lower crime rates, higher voter turnout, lower cholesterol, and a higher life expectancy.

It was 9:30 or so on a Wednesday night, and Chez L’Ami Jean was a madhouse. The kind of madhouse with several pork legs hanging from the ceiling. My kind of madhouse. I munched on some saucisson sec as they told us several times that the wait would be just a few more minutes. With cured pork in my hands, I am a patient man.

Of course, it was about 700° (Celsius, naturally) in the room and there was barely any space to stand, much less to sit. So after we cleaned up the charcuterie board I dashed outside to lose a few layers of clothing. I came back in to find the place no less crowded. Like first graders hovering around the kid at school whose mom packed him homemade cookies for lunch, we had all jammed ourselves into this hot, raucous restaurant just for a taste of Stéphane Jégo’s cooking. I noticed I wasn’t the only one who stared longingly at the dishes that passed by and closed my eyes to take in their aromas. We all seemed to be captivated.

We finally sat down at a tiny cozy four-top along the wall. There were a few daily specials on the nearby chalkboard in addition to the 3-course fixed price menu for 32€, and some of them were too good to pass up (so I’ll list the a la carte prices below). There was also a carte blanche menu for 60€. Next time I am all over that. In any case, we ordered and then snacked on some bread and a dip of cottage cheese, chives and Espelette pepper. Actually the dip was pretty terrible, so we really just snacked on the bread.

It wasn’t long before our entrées arrived, and the first they set down was the Asperges blanche vinaigrette tiede d’herbes maraîchers (17€). Steamed white asparagus came dressed with a warm herb vinaigrette, topped with crispy carrot and beet chips and a thin slice of ham for good measure. The asparagus were fork-tender but not at all mushy, and the refreshing vinaigrette was a nice reminder that this was early spring on a plate, even if the temperature outside suggested otherwise.

A friend of ours ordered the Emulsion de petit pois et asperge, croûtons, ciboulettes et lards, a vibrant green pea and asparagus soup with tiny crispy croûtons, chives and bacon. They brought her not just a cup or a bowl, but the whole tureen. Enough for each of us to have a bowlful and then some. It was thick, velvety, and really tasty. So much so that we seem to have forgotten to snap a photo. Oops.

Certainly the winner among the first courses was the Confit de pomme grenaille au beurre, crème d’ail et escargot de Bourgogne. Ridiculously buttery potatoes with a beautiful bright green parsley and garlic cream, tender snails and spicy chorizo. Oh, and a crispy slice of ham. (Basically everything here is garnished with pork.) Offering my personal analysis with all the wisdom of a five-year-old, I declared this “the best potato-parsley combo ever.” That basically sums it up, I think. Really delicious.

They had unfortunately just run out of the morel-stuffed chicken breast we had seen at a several other tables, so instead our friend got the Fricassé de poulet de ferme “cuisse” crèmé servi en cocotte de tradition. Stewed chicken leg served in a cream sauce and topped with carrots, onions and snap peas. And if that wasn’t enough, on a second plate they served her another huge piece of roasted chicken au jus, garnished with (you guessed it) two strips of crispy ham. The chicken in both cases was cooked well and it was very moist. She seemed to prefer the cream sauce-and-vegetable presentation to the one served with the pan juices. But I think we were all lamenting the unavailability of the morel-stuffed chicken. I say “we” because I definitely would’ve asked for half a small bite of it. It looked wonderful.

We got our morels anyway with the Assiette de morilles cuisinées à la crème tout simplement (32€). These mushrooms are one of my favorite signs of spring, and this ultra simple preparation — basically cooked with loads of cream and butter — was delicious. Mixed in with the morels were some lovely fat English peas, onions and a few stray bits of bacon. In addition to the plated portion, a second helping came in a separate crock so that it stayed warm while you ate, which I thought was a nice touch. It was much easier to enjoy this very tasty dish once I chose not to remind myself of its equivalent price in US dollars.

The weakest of the main courses, and really the lone disappointment of the evening, was the Joue de porcelet cuisiné mijoté en vinaigré de lentille de Puy. It tasted as simple and straightforward as the menu description: braised pork cheeks (garnished with crispy pork, obviously). It was very tender, pulling apart easily without the use of a knife. But ultimately the flavor was bland, even dull. The carrot and onion did little to hide the fact that this was basically just a big chunk of meat that had been cooked for a really long time. Nothing wrong with it, necessarily, but I was hoping for more depth of flavor considering some of the great stuff we’d eaten already.

Far from disappointing were the Ris de veau “pomme” rôti, puis braisé à la vanille, jus tranché (42€). Two fist-sized pieces of sweetbreads (poetically translated as “the calf’s laugh” in French) were first roasted and then braised with vanilla bean. Some very thin and crispy carrot chips were on top. The sweetbreads were cooked very well — really creamy on the inside — and extremely tasty. And the whole dish smelled absolutely fantastic. The portion was so big that I needed some help to finish it off. (And by that I really mean it was so good I was able to use it as a bargaining chip to taste everyone else’s food!) Oh, and I definitely should not forget to mention the smooth, extremely buttery potato purée that came as a side with both the sweetbreads and the pork cheeks. It was Robuchon-esque — which is to say it was a cardiologist’s nightmare and an eater’s dream.

If the myriad of recommendations I had read for this restaurant were to be trusted, Riz au lait grand-mère en service, confiture de lait was the way to go for dessert. And they were right. This rice pudding was thick enough to stand a spoon in and very creamy. It had a very pronounced vanilla flavor; milk jam drizzled everywhere made it even richer. There was enough in the self-serve bowl to feed a small country, but we quickly polished it off (out of politeness, of course).

I thought for a second about asking for another round for the table, but we’d already ordered a second dessert to share — the Sablé breton maison, tombé de fraise et framboise, glacé vanille. A thick round of buttery shortcake was served with macerated raspberries and strawberries, and topped off with vanilla ice cream and crispy nougatine. The cake was sweet and tasty, if a bit dry. But this problem was easily solved if one got enough ice cream in every mouthful. Overall this dessert definitely paled in comparison to the rice pudding, but then again that was a tough act to follow. Fortunately some extra consolation came in the form of a small dish of warm madeleines they brought out as well. That was a nice little surprise.

By the time we wrapped up, it was approaching 1am. Between this dinner and lunch at Pierre Gagnaire it had been a wonderful day, and I was a very happy man. Now I know the exchange rate is killing the US dollar right now (which probably explains why all the folks we stood elbow-to-elbow with before this meal were speaking French). But as far as I’m concerned, Chez L’Ami Jean’s 32€ prix fixe is an incredibly fair neighborhood restaurant price for Michelin star-quality cuisine. This is the kind of bistro I had dreamt about before coming to Paris, but only in the the way a little kid dreams about the tooth fairy. You don’t know if it actually exists, but you sure hope it does. And in the mean time you’ll enjoy whatever gifts it brings your way.

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