The thoroughly French menu here is a daily inspiration of fine bistro fare, offering distinctive Euro-French regional cooking as a constant delight.
For a few years the haute fare of French cuisine lost some of its luster as the far reaches of fusion cooking bloomed in the newly posh kitchens of New American, European and Asian cooking. Add to that the plethora of small plate and forager cuisines, now as common as selfies, and French cooking no longer epitomized fine dining. But what’s old becomes new again, and French cooking is as good as it’s always been. And no other restaurant in Maine presents it with as much skill and authenticity as chef Fred Eliot does at Petite Jacqueline in Portland. His dishes are bold bistro classics, combinations where reductions shine with the buttery empathies of the French kitchen in this gem-like space on Longfellow Square. Classics like pot au feu, magret of duck, boeuf bourguignon are civilized dishes served with aplomb.
I hadn’t been to Petite Jacqueline in a long while. After meeting a friend for drinks at Top of East East – still the most glorious room with panoramic views of the city – I walked over to Longfellow Square and pondered the dining choices around me: Pai Men Miyake, LFK, Local 188, Boda and Hot Suppa. As I stood on the square, the room behind the big misty windows of Petite Jacqueline looked so inviting.
At 8 p.m., the room was bustling with diners. I went to the bar and ordered a drink. Since I’m dieting this week (in my line of work I have to tar the feathers every couple of months), I asked that my usual gimlet have just a drop of Rose’s lime juice (very fattening). When I saw the waitress take out a large bottle that had this coal-black liquid inside, I said, “Don’t put that in my drink.” It had gone bad. So she put my straight vodka into a shaker filled with ice and poured it into a large stem glass martini style. It was invigorating.
Since my temporary diet regimen is low-carb, I started off with a simple green salad piled high with the brightest greens looking just picked from the lettuce patch. It was bathed in a kind of pickled shallot vinaigrette that was so delicious in its simplicity.
Then came a beautiful plate of asparagus with morels in a richly luxurious cream sauce as smooth as a savory custard. It was the essence of springtime dining. I could just imagine this made with local asparagus, but that’s months away and morel season would be gone by then. The plump wild mushrooms, foraged in upstate New York, were heavenly set in a classic butter and cream reduction, silky smooth, as only such a classic French sauce can be.
The gentlemen sitting next to me, who was visiting from New Hampshire and said he stops into Petite Jacqueline whenever he’s here, strongly suggested that I have the boeuf bourguignon, a dish he had just finished. The few potatoes would be the only offending ingredient to my diet, but I went for it anyway.
If you had a French grandmother whose reputation was built on her outrageously good home cooking, this is the kind of stew that you’d have. The sauce in which the beef, carrots, onions and potatoes mingled was the deepest mahogany, enriched with veal stock and long reductions to give it this silken, marvelous texture. It was all so good I decided to return the next night.
It was a much quieter evening at the restaurant – the vagaries and attendees of dining out are forever at the mercies of whim. I began with a sedate dish of shrimp cocktail. Four perfectly arranged shrimp seemed to float on a sea of finely crushed ice. And since it’s nearly impossible to get fresh jumbo shrimp in Maine (these were previously frozen) it remains the best we have and were very good – perfect diet fare.
Then a classic Eurocentric little dish of sweetbreads on a cushion of sweet peas and a buttery stash of pearl onions was an earthy second course that had nothing to do with gourmet Korean or rustic Italian but another French classic done so well.
Onto an entrée of skate wings and capers and you have a formidable dish indeed. Just one wing of the fish, deboned from the carcass, is an enormous helping flying superbly solo, a preparation of maiden voyage appurtenances in our post-recession era. With it was a little demi-bowl of sugar snaps still crisp and fresh from the sauté pan.
I couldn’t end my dinner without having a soupcon of dessert, two spoonfuls of an absolutely delicious caramel pot au creme. Eliot and I discussed this after dinner and we both agreed that the caramel version of chocolate pot de crème is so much more satisfying. With the last sips of an excellent sauvignon blanc and a bracing demitasse of espresso, no finer meal could have been had on Longfellow Square.