I felt like a stalker last night at L’Ami Jean. I walked into this place carrying more back-story than should ever be brought to a restaurant. I knew of love affairs that had taken off because of chef Stéphane Jego’s cooking. I’d heard about marathon sessions in which the most serious eaters I know couldn’t finish everything that was served. I’d been checking the Facebook page, on which they post the daily changing menu, for several months. And I’d been writing about it for years* without ever having been.
Virgins who wait too long before sex have a similar problem. We want it to be special, so we keep putting off the deed. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity, during these last years, to hook up with L’Ami Jean. But the timing was never right. I always seemed to think of it, and then perish the thought, when booking for a table that included one of the following: a vegetarian, a picky eater, a girl without the strength of Sophie or Barbra… someone who would interfere with the pig- and gut-feasting for which the restaurant is known.
I started 2012 with a list of restaurants that I really, finally had to visit, and L’Ami Jean was at the very top. When Cédric suggested that we grab a bite after the Stein expo on Saturday night, I knew I had found my moment. I called three days in advance and had no problem booking for the second, later service.
So there I was, standing in the doorway last night, trying to convey with my eyes all that had brought me to this place. “Yes, we have booked (and are so very excited)… under the name of Zimbeck (that’s not French but I’ll eat anything)… for two people (and we mean business).”
My telepathy was not well-understood. The man behind the bar suggested a 15 minute wait, but didn’t ask us about drinks or to take our coats. Instead, he continually reached over our heads to take everyone else’s coats and serve everyone else’s drinks. I finally wrangled two coupes** before being seated at a large table with eight other Anglophones.
I was beginning to regret not coming for the first time with a friend who was already known to the house. But that’s not the way that most of our readers get to experience a place. It was an inauspicious start, but things were about to become much better.
We ordered carte blanche, an €80 option including whatever Jego wants to make. I had starved myself all day in preparation for this feast and was more than ready to eat. The meal began on a soothing note with crouton-dotted crème de parmesan soup. Nothing wild, but quite nice as a base for an empty stomach. Next up: two hens’ eggs with mushrooms, cream and truffles. It didn’t make sense, having two dishes in quick succession that were largely composed of frothy cream. Especially since the truffles (they’re not yet at the peak of flavor) didn’t add very much.
After all of this moaning, let me say very clearly that the next three dishes were among the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. To wit: a perfect salmon nugget, wrapped in bacon skin and stuffed with a lucious sliver of pied de veau (calf’s foot), all surrounded by a sprinkling of tiny bulots (sea snails). A luxurious piece of cod atop an intensely flavored pile of boeuf carrottes (beef & carrots). Lamb saddle, served rosy and wearing a toupée of micro-planed truffle.*** Hiding under the lamb was an unnamed knob of what tasted a lot like suckling pig.
I know from the aforementioned Facebook stalking that Jego sources from Terroirs d’Avenir and other great producers. The base product is impeccable. But the real joy comes from watching/eating what the chef does with these ingredients. Jego’s tweaking of classic bistro flavors doesn’t feel, as is so often the case, haphazard or goofy. Those three great dishes each conveyed a feeling of comfort while also sharing – and this is difficult – something new.
My earlier complaints about the welcome dissolved in the wake of Jego’s food. And the Anglophone table turned out to be delightful – we shared an Armagnac with a couple of Maltese experts in Bordeaux wine who have been coming to L’Ami Jean for years. The problems I mentioned (and a few others I didn’t) stem largely from having two seatings and not enough time to devote to every table. If they had only one seating, prices would be higher, it would be harder to get in, and not as many people would have the pleasure of discovering Jego’s food. It’s a trade-off that I can live with.
Address: 27 rue Malar, 75007
Nearest transport: La Tour Maubourg (8)
Hours: Closed Sunday, Closed Monday
Telephone: 01 47 05 86 89
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* When I say that I had written about it, I mean short blurbs (not proper reviews) for guide books like Frommer’s Paris.
** Everyone at the bar was drinking Jacquesson (Champagne) with ice cubes. Are we doing that now?
*** The dish was outstanding, but I’m not sure that shaving truffles this fine is the best way to maximize their flavor.