I am just two days away from a long-anticipated trip to Paris, so I am already in a French frame of mind when I arrive at Petite Jacqueline for lunch. It’s a rainy afternoon, but the bistro is warm and snug. On the walls are black and white photographs from France and framed vintage wine advertisements. The worn wood floor and bright red stools add to the vibe. By the bar, there’s a large chalkboard advertising the “plats du jour” (specials of the day), just like one might find at a Left Bank cafe.
Chef Fred Eliot is a born and bred Frenchman. He was raised in Paris and learned to cook at his grandparents’ wood-fired stove in Normandy. He says this is where his palate developed, with a taste for traditional country dishes. Eliot honed his cooking skills at some of the top restaurants in New York, including Le Cirque and Prune. It was at Prune, with Gabrielle Hamilton, that he learned to be meticulous with flavor, but more relaxed about presentation—he prefers an unfussy look, that’s rustic and not overdone.
Eliot is very enthusiastic when he talks about his foie gras, explaining the very process with a slight, and very charming, French accent. He only buys foie gras from Quebec, where the geese are handled more humanely, and thus the liver is cleaner and more flavorful. He uses a multi-step process to prepare it that involves curing, poaching, and finally, pressing it into a terrine. There it’s capped with a thin layer of foie fat. “The taste is very dramatic, much more so than in most restaurants,” says Eliot. “It doesn’t get more foie than this!” I spread some on a toasted piece of bread. His enthusiasm, and effort, is warranted. It’s so rich and buttery that I’m tempted to eat more than is good for me.
On weekends only, the bistro offers a two-pound côte de boeuf. This is a giant bone-in, grass-fed rib-eye steak meant for sharing. It’s prepared in a traditional French manner, which of course means seasoned with salt, pan-seared with loads of butter and finished with garlic, thyme, and more butter. This makes for a perfect caramelization and a steak that’s deliciously meaty, salty, and the best kind of fatty. Sure, you can get it sliced, but the chef recommends you ”get a bunch of steak knives and just go crazy.”
Eliot acknowledges that Petite Jacqueline is fairly meat-centric, but there are definitely other delicious options available. We tasted the grand aioli, a beautiful plate of barely cooked vegetables and house-made aioli. Eliot explained that he adds a cooked potato to the aioli, a technique that is used in some parts of France, to give the garlic mayonnaise a thicker texture. I dip haricots verts, local radishes, and small red potatoes into the tangy sauce. Fresh artichokes poached in olive oil, shallots, wine, and broth are also on the plate and taste of spring.
The French have a wonderful way with asparagus, and that is certainly the case at Petite Jacqueline. Fat, well-trimmed spears are poached until just cooked through and bright green. On top is a smooth cream sauce full of chewy morels that make a simple vegetable into an indulgent standout dish. When you’re done with the asparagus, I highly recommend using a bit of bread to get the last of the sauce.
I’m not sure where he finds the time, but Eliot also makes the desserts at the bistro. Most are classic French—pot de crème, chocolate mousse, and delicate éclairs. The raspberry éclair is crispy and creamy, stuffed with a light Chambord cream and decked out with a bright pink icing. Coming soon: an éclair filled with lemon curd, topped with a Swiss meringue brûlée.
Catherine Cote-Eliot, Fred’s wife, is a pastry chef as well. Along with Petite Jacqueline owners Steve and Michelle Corry, she is working hard to open their next venture, Portland Patisserie and Grand Cafe. The new Market Street eatery opened in June and featured sweet and savory crepes, salads, sandwiches, and French pastries.
I picture myself visiting Petite Jacqueline again on a sunny day, sitting outside at one of the sidewalk tables. I’m sipping a glass of the refreshing rosé and enjoying a plate of French cheeses and maybe some mussels dijonnaise. I’ll have that lemon éclair, too. The scenery will be a little different, but I’ll probably feel like I’m still in Paris.