June 1st of this year will mark the five year anniversary of my move to Maine. In that time, I’ve dined out hundreds of times, and had meals of varying quality all over the Forest City. I regret none of those meals, even the bad ones.
What I do regret are the missed opportunities: the restaurants that I bypassed, telling myself, “Oh, I’ll get to it eventually,” only to learn weeks or months later that they had closed their doors for one reason or another. In my case, that list is mercifully short. Still, each missed opportunity—the Cafe at Pat’s [Meat Market], Rachel’s L’Osteria and others—stings a little bit every time I think of it.
At the very top of that list is Evangeline, Erik Dejarlais’ classic French restaurant at 190 Congress Street that opened in 2008. For people who aren’t great with addresses, they would probably recognize the location if you told them it was the restaurant with the massive front window featuring the image of the pig. Whenever I’d pass through the area and catch sight of that pig, I’d imagine him springing to life and beckoning me to stop by for a meal. “Come inside,” he’d say with a suave French accent, “Enjoy some calves brains. Or a cocktail. Try the pressed duck. It is exquisite.”
Alas, I never did. I took it for granted that Evangeline would be there in perpetuity and that I had all the time in the world.
And then, one day last autumn I learned that Dejarlais’ had closed the doors of Evangeline to focus all of his energies on being a full-time dad (an admirable reason to close the restaurant if ever there was one). Just like that, Evangeline was gone.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. No matter how successful an establishment is—critically or financially—there are no guarantees in the restaurant world. I resolved that if there was a restaurant on my “must try” list, I would never dawdle again.
And so, when Petite Jacqueline—a casual French bistro owned by the folks who gave this city Five Fifty-Five—opened in that same location some months later, I knew that I must not take it for granted in the way that I had with Evangeline. And when I learned, a couple of weeks back, that Petite Jacqueline would be featuring a burger on its lunch menu, my sense of “I won’t let this opportunity slip through my fingers” turned into “I will go there immediately.”
And that’s what I did, more or less. On Good Friday—after a rather grueling, 60-hour work week—I found myself with a few hours available. Mid-afternoon was approaching, but all I had eaten that day was a piece of toast and lots of coffee, so I hopped in the car and drove straight to Petite Jacqueline. In my haste, it hadn’t occurred to me that—while I wasn’t exactly dressed like a hobo—my blue jeans and flannel shirt might be a little too casual for this establishment.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. As I walked through the front door of Petite Jacqueline, I discovered a dining area with a casual, cheery, cozy vibe. The large window remains intact (though the pig is gone), and allows for plenty of sunlight and people-watching. Trendy-looking tables and brushed metal chairs combine with wooden benches and throw pillows to make the dining room feel less like a restaurant than a lunch terrace in the home of a dear friend in the French countryside. On the day of my visit, modern, upbeat French music poured out from hidden speakers, adding to the cheeriness of the sun-soaked day.
My waitress, Rebecca, introduced herself to me at the door and invited me to sit wherever I liked. I selected a spot on one of the wooden benches, and she brought water and menus. In addition to telling me about the day’s specials, Rebecca also took the time to tell me about a couple her personal favorites from the menu. I love it when waiters and waitresses do this. Not only does it demonstrate their confidence in the menu, I love having an “inside scoop” as to what’s great. And who would know better than the wait staff?
Somewhat to my surprise, one of the stand-out items recommended by Rebecca was the bistro burger. I say “to my surprise” only because burgers are sometimes an afterthought at non burger-centric restaurants… something that exists on the menu only for the sake of appeasing the unadventurous eater who doesn’t want to try the escargot, the croque madam or the nicoise salade. The fact that it was listed on the menu simply as “bistro burger” with no description had me wondering if this might be the case at Petite Jacqueline.
But now, with Rebecca not only suggesting the burger to me, but also mentioning that the chef recommends dressing it with caramelized onions and blue cheese, my expectations were heightened. I ordered the burger, telling Rebecca that I’d like it hot and pink in the center. She told me that she would put “medium well” on the order and—despite my issues with overcooked burgers recently—I did not fight her on this. I also ordered the onion soup with gruyère chees, a side of frites (fries) and a Stella Artois.The onion soup arrived to the table first, as I had requested. Breaking through the hermetic seal of melted cheese and french bread croutons with my spoon, I found an abundance of tangy onions swimming in a full-bodied, copper-colored broth. The croutons managed to soak up the rich soup without breaking down into mush, and I found that this added a nice textural element to the dish. I do wish that the soup had been just a little bit hotter (temperature-wise) than it was, but this is a minor grievance.
Next up was the burger and frites. I should mention that you do need to order the fries separately, as they do not come with the burger by default. Rebecca was great about bringing this to my attention, and I was thankful for her guidance. The burger arrived on its own plate. The bun was topped with a little bit of fresh parsley, but the plate was otherwise devoid of any other garnishes. From a presentation standpoint, I loved the approach. Seeing the burger, all on its own, and not fighting for attention with fries, pickles and other accompaniments, forces the diner to focus on just the burger and makes for quite a striking visual. In the case of my burger, my eye was immediately drawn to the colorful interplay of the purplish-colored onions with the melted cheese. Even the cracks on the top of the brioche bun have a sort of artistic quality to them.As good as the burger looks, it tasted even better. Cooked exactly as I had requested (I tip my hat to you, Rebecca and kitchen staff!), the grilled burger patty was tender, flavorful and juicy. On its own, without the toppings, it would have been an example of a really outstanding straightforward burger. But the addition of the salty blue cheese and those amazing, sweet-tasting caramelized onions propelled the burger to a sublime level. Whereas lesser buns might have given way to the weight and juiciness of the patty, mine held up extremely well. I was provided with mustard and ketchup, but found that I had want for neither.
The frites, overflowing from the little paper-lined bucket that they are served in, were great as well. Thin (they are matchstick-style fries) and crispy, they were sprinkled with parsley and just the right amount of salt. I found that I could not eat all of mine, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As I took the last bites of my meal, I glanced out the large front window to see a pretty young girl ride by on a bicycle. And for a moment, I was no longer in Maine, but rather, sitting in some Parisian cafe overlooking the Place des Abbesses.
The illusion was broken as Rebecca returned to take away my plates. She inquired as to whether I might like some dessert, or perhaps an espresso. My belly full and my heart content, I reluctantly declined her offer. But I will return to Petite Jacqueline very soon, and I anticipate many splendid espresso-filled afternoons, and many wonderful dinners, in the days and evenings yet to come.
MY RATING: 4.5 MOONS (out of 5)