Chez L’Ami Jean

Paris, Restaurants
I didn’t want to get too close because
as you can see, all of the waiters and cooks
are out front enjoying the evening sunshine
just before the  busy dinner service started.

You know Yvette, that pretty young woman in Casablanca who gets up in her pale evening gown at Rick’s and sings the French national anthem, her voice trembling and tears in her eyes?  After my dinner at Chez L’Ami Jean in Paris tonight, I wanted to stand on my chair and do the same for the entire room.

First, let me say that if you go early you risk being part of what I’ll call, the “American Seating.” Because I had work to do and was eating alone, I preferred the earlier seating, but apparently so do all of the Americans visiting Paris.  I am not the first food fanatic to write about this terrific little Basque restaurant which sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, nor will I be the last, and the Americans obviously do their research before eating their way through Paris these days.  But this little bistro is not resting on its laurels or assuming the crowds will continue to fill the room each night.  Chef Stephane Jego puts together a remarkable menu that will delight your palate and offer exciting combinations that would keep the most devoted “foodie” banging on the door.

I immediately ordered the Petit Voyager or Little Traveler menu at 55 Euros and a glass of red wine (I prefer to just let them chose the wine for me when I’m here because they know so much more than I ever will).  The head waiter (there are about 7 young men roaming around the room with different jobs for each stage of service) spoke English and was somewhat brusque, but clearly told me what to expect. I didn’t care, just bring me plate after plate of delicious food, I’ll be happy, I promise, and I smiled my big American smile.

There’s a large cartoon on the back wall next to the kitchen pass where I could see Jego and his team putting the finishing touches on all of the dishes.  In the cartoon the chef is wearing a Superman costume and shaking a sautee pan while a pig squeals in fear as a waiter approaches him bearing a platter of cooked pork.  This must be a modern addition to the dining room which shows evidence of the many different hands that have run this restaurant.

Chez L’Ami Jean’s food is known as some of the best in Paris from the Basque region and it has stood in this spot for 81 years.  The hearty cuisine is a mixture of the earthy authentic food of that area of France and show-offy technique. This casual elegance can be traced back to the Bistro Moderne movement that came of age in 1990s Paris, when low-rent traditional bistros were taken over and their kitchens reinvigorated by chefs who had been formally trained in France’s foremost restaurants.   Cutting edge culinary techniques were combined with the casual ingredients and atmosphere of the bistro and you often, like at Chez L’Ami Jean, you get truly amazing results.

My first dish was a rockfish soup with red wine.  First a bowl full of tiny bread croutons, herbs and walnuts was placed in front of me.  The young waiter told me not to worry, the broth would follow shortly and it was soon poured over the mix, a lovely aroma assaulting me.  Clearly the fish fumet, or stock, has been intensely reduced giving a lovely rich shellfish flavor.  I ate it quickly enough that the bread never became soggy and the herbs lifted the entire dish.

My lobster and pork cheek second course.

In between courses more Americans were seated around the restaurant and I heard one gentleman ask in a very loud voice if this was all tapas?  Oh my….but onward! The second course was a gorgeous lobster dish with turnips, mushrooms, slow cooked pork cheeks all sitting in an oyster foam.  As my waiter presented it he told me I was the first guest to ever sample this item and I feel honored.  It was a symphony of textures, flavors, hot and cold.  I really can’t do it justice.

The turbot with spinach.

Third course was a substantial piece of Turbot sitting on top of a creamy spinach sauce.  The turbot was meaty and the spinach added a subtle something.  By now, a lovely couple from the Boston area was seated next to me and started to deliberate the menu.  I helped answer a couple of the questions I overheard them pondering and we struck up a casual rapport.  They had a layover between their vacation in Morocco and home – lucky them!  Amusingly, they ordered the terrine de maison to start the meal and instead of individual portions the waiter dropped an entire terrine pan full of delicious pork bits on their table with a vat of cornichon and olives to accompany it.  They looked a little taken aback, but dug in, eating what they wanted and the rest was taken away.  When in Paris……

Next came the main, a tenderloin of veal cooked rare sitting in an onion jus. It was my least favorite dish of the six I ate, but perhaps I was just too stuffed at this point.  However I wasn’t too stuffed to finish off the separate serving dish of mashed potatoes served alongside it.  I even overheard the mother of three at the next table asking her husband what they did to make them so delicious.  My guess is that the potato to cream and butter ratio is very high.  It was the smoothest, most delicate mash I’ve ever devoured.

Riz au Lait,  Grand Maman, Caramel Beurre Sale.

Finally desert, or so I thought.  A large bowl of rice pudding, wooden spoon jutting out from the middle of it, was presented with a flourish. “The best rice pudding in the world,” the waiter said.  Mini pots of salted caramel and toasted praline came with it to garnish as you wish.  I dug in thinking this was my last chance to be truly greedy in this meal, but no. Suddenly, another waiter appeared and was gushing over the Japanese style sponge cake he was serving me.  On the plate there was also chocolate ice cream covered with salted peanuts and flambeed bananas with rum-soaked golden raisins.  Two desserts?  It was all too much at this point in the evening, but I still managed to The rice pudding was by far the winner in my little imaginary competition – the consistency perfectly creamy but still slightly al dente.

By this time the room was buzzing with not only the early-bird Americans, but also raucous groups of locals out enjoying the beautiful weather and a good meal together.  What a special meal even if I had to work to get a smile out of the staff and felt as if I needed to be rolled home after it was over.  As I walked to the Metro, the Eiffel Tower twinkled in the night sky up above me, and I channelled Yvette, my head held defiantly high, humming to myself all the way home.

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