Down East 2013 ©
From a diner’s perspective, Petite Jacqueline has loads of good mojo. Some of that is inherited: The French bistro occupies the storefront that for years housed Café Uffa, one of Portland’s most beloved neighborhood eateries.
More recently, it was home to Evangeline, chef Erik Desjarlais’ effort to translate the adventurous French fine dining he’d offered at Bandol for the masses. So when Petite Jacqueline opened in March, two key elements were already crossed off the to-do list: a comfortable, welcoming vibe (albeit with itty-bitty bathrooms) and a legacy of tasty French fare, heavy on the butter, and perfectly sauced.
Of course, one restaurateur’s ability to serve beautiful food in a particular piece of real estate has little bearing on the success of subsequent tenants’ menus. That’s where Steve and Michelle Corry, with business partner Elizabeth Koenigsberg, come in. Flush from the success of Five Fifty-Five, which landed Steve Corry on the cover of Food & Wine magazine and quickly became a Portland fine dining institution, the Corrys decided to launch a more casual place. “Michelle’s family is from France, and she and Steve had cooked with her grandmother, Jacqueline, who was an amazing French chef,” says Koenigsberg, who first worked with the couple when she served as general manager at Five Fifty-Five. “All three of us thought that Portland really needed something more casual, more approachable, but with the same high-quality ingredients we use at Five Fifty-Five.”
Petite Jacqueline sets the tone — modern, with a hint of retro Parisian flair — the moment you walk in the door. Light streams in from the enormous windows facing Longfellow Square, reflecting off the lightweight aluminum chairs and stainless steel bar, with a few large mirrors that fill the cozy space with a warm glow. A hardwood floor — save for the bar area, which is black-and-white tile — and pale yellow beadboard and marble-topped tables make the room feel unpretentious and inviting.
And then there’s the food, which ranges from deceptively simple dishes featuring one star ingredient to classic French preparations including escargots, terrine of foie gras, charcuterie, coq au vin, and moules frites. If your French is rusty, you may need help deciphering a few menu items. Fortunately, Petite Jacqueline’s friendly, knowledgeable servers — wearing the long white aprons of their Parisian counterparts — are happy to provide translation services for those unaware that, say, poireaux is a delicately flavored pool of braised leeks draped in vinaigrette. The wait staff is also up to speed on the heavily French wine list, which includes both house wines by the carafe and an extensive list by the glass and bottle.
Even the standard bread course receives care and attention — but no extra fuss — at Petite Jacqueline. For one thing, your crusty mini baguette arrives not in a basket, but in a long, thin paper bag stamped with a fleur-de-lis. You and your dining companions can tear off rough chunks and slather them with the accompanying herb butter, a subtle house-made affair. “We want people to feel like they’re eating with friends and family at home, but still offer the service that you’d expect when you’re going out and paying for a nice meal,” says Koenigsberg.
That combination of high and low extends to the rest of the menu as well: the soup du jour on one visit is a rich, silky puree of asparagus, a shining example of the kitchen’s proficiency with French technique. Coq au vin is executed just as beautifully, with chicken thighs braised in red wine until they’re falling apart, piled with mushrooms and lardons atop a tangle of wide noodles. The steak frites are cooked perfectly to order, the steak medium-rare and the crispy frites spilling off the edge of the plate.
Dessert is just lovely, whether you go for the classic chocolate mousse or one night’s decadent special of crepes with banana, Nutella, and hazelnuts. But you don’t have to splurge on a whole meal to sample Petite Jacqueline’s wares: Koenigsberg and the Corrys are happy if you stop by the bar for a drink on a Saturday night, or come in for a late dinner. “We love to have a bustling but relaxed feel in the room,” says Koenigsberg. “French bistros are casual and homey — and that’s just what we want to be.”
Petite Jacqueline is located at 190 State Street in Portland. Open for dinner daily at 5 p.m. Soups and salads $5 to $8; sides $4 to $6; entrees $8 to $13; les plats (full meals with sides) $12 to $25; desserts and cheeses $2.50 to $8. 207-553-7044. Bistropj.com