Restaurants & Bars

Paris report - Chez L'Ami Jean

Bill Strzempek | Nov 21, 200502:41 PM

27, rue Malar, 7e
Metro La Tour Maubourg
01 47 05 86 89

I was really looking forward to trying this bistro as the chef was second in command at La Regalade, a favorite of mine. One visit put it immediately on my A List. It pushed all my buttons, having a welcoming and engaging staff that was knowledgeable and took pride in the menu and wines, an unstuffy relaxed atmosphere, lively conversation making a buzz in the room that seemed to be filled mainly with locals, and food that rose well above the quotidian and offered unusual takes on familiar products.

The staff greeted us with a hale fellow well met attitude that made us feel like a long-time patrons. The room features carved dark wood sideboards, rugby bricabrac and items related to the Basque country, the cuisine of which is featured here. Clientele ran the gamut from a couple of Brits in business suits, a boisterous gang of t-shirt and jeans clad Parisian friends sitting around a large table, the usual middle aged couples casually dressed but looking great, and even a famous French movie star sitting at the table next to us whom no one pestered for autographs.

The rousing entrees we had were grilled mackerel with smokey pimentos and grilled hot peppers, a marvelous combination of briney, smokey and spicey sensations. We also tried a so-called “lasagna” of gibiers and turnips, in which the fowl and turnips were cut into thin discs before being layered with a bit of cream sauce – oh boy did that dish cry out that autumn had arrived. We had that wonderful feeling that hits home when you’ve found a restaurant that is a keeper.

Our mains were perdreau, roasted young partridge, served in a reduction with cream and peppers, homey and elegant, and a spectacular looking plate of five whole Coquilles St. Jacques with roe cooked just “a point” in their showgirl shells with lemongrass and lime, which were then napped in aioli and dressed with a final frizzy bonnet of fried leeks before serving. In summary a summery dish, a wonderful combination of flavors and textures, the only drawback being that since the scallops had not been severed from the bottom shell it was a little difficult to cut them free without disturbing the whole kit n kaboodle on the plate. We found all the dishes to be far lighter and more sophisticated than we expected, and that includes one wonderful dessert creation, a pistachio pudding layered in a parfait glass with a perky and gelatinous lime sauce and a foamy topping that had just a hint of coconut and vanilla. It so outshined our second dessert that I never bothered to write down in my notes what it was.

We were thoroughly delighted by this meal. So much so that the following week when we were at intermission of a tedious Robert Wilson production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle we confessed we’d rather head back to this bistro than to Valhalla and we went to the theatre lobby and phoned to see if they could find room for us at such late notice.

They did, and on arrival greeted us with the same loud bonhomie, not unlike when Norm walked into Cheers.

Our second meal began with a chestnut soup with cracklings. You were given an empty bowl, a teapot of soup and a little cassoulet of fowl cracklings and crispy (cooked) veg to place in the bowl to your liking. The crunchy/silky combo was splendid and delicious and quite similar to a soup on the menu at La Regalade. The other starter was paper-thin mullet sushi which was placed across a tasty knot of soft soba noodles, green and tasting of basil, all tucked under a jaunty crisped potato “cap”. Again, both dishes were creative and a delight to eat.

Our mains did not reach the same heights. My companion’s was a very rich and generous serving of sanglier around which were clustered slices of sauteed fois gras. There was a sauce that was a little tangy that reminded me of A-1 Steak Sauce, and I actually mean that in a nice way as it complemented the meat while successfully cutting its potentially cloying richness. But this was a substantial plate of food to finish, especially with the clock reaching witching hour.

Then rugby lovers, a major fumble. My main course of roasted turbot was served with a variety of olives in a tapenade and a really fragrant couscous with bits of this and that in it that I could not get enough of, which was fortunate as the turbot had some definite cooking problems. As I cut into it I was startled to find that it was nearly raw inside its pearly white exterior. I don’t mind rare fish, but in this case it was so raw that I could not get the fish to come off the bone. I flipped the turbot and the underside was perfectly cooked and was easy and mild eating. So I poked it this way and that and could not decide if it was INTENDED to be half cooked fish and half sushi, some sort of new chef’s creation. But no. What we had here was the case of a late-night order making the kitchen pull fish from the freezer. Its failure to be thawed could account for the fact that the bottom part near the heat was cooked but the top was not. Given that I had eaten enough with the starter, the couscous and bottom half of the fish and didn’t want to wait at that hour for another fish to be prepared, I didn’t make a case out of it.

If I hadn’t been so won over by this place before the fish it might have meant L’Ami Jean and I were to have a short lived relationship. But given the deft cooking experienced up to then, one poorly cooked dish was not going to keep me away in future. By the time I gorged another one of those pistachio and lime parfaits for dessert and a digestif, all was forgiven.

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