Sometimes you just know.
Sometimes you walk into a place, it smells good, the other diners are unmistakably happy, and it’s obvious that something good is in store.
The best things in life are like this, I think, these easy surprises that arrive with a sense of inevitability, like you’ve been waiting and preparing for it all along without knowing it.
Strangely enough, I hadn’t read a single thing about Chez l’Ami Jean when I arrived there for dinner back in May. I had no expectations. What I know is that when we were seated, the two men next to us were sharing a whole lobe of foie gras piled with morelles, and that we wanted it. A search of the somewhat confusing menu was fruitless.
We had to ask them what they had ordered.
“C’est le menu ‘carte blanche’,” they informed us in giddy voices. Honestly, these two grown men were practically giggling.
And so off we went. There was an intense lobster soup with petit pois, a surf-and-turf of cod and poule de Bresse, monkfish with wild asparagus, and ris d’agneau with morelles and more asparagus. It was a seven course marathon of more-or-less Basque dishes that somehow managed to be elegant and creative, unpretentious, and generous down to the last round, a large bowl of riz-au-lait with a wooden spoon sticking out of it.
We waited in vain for any foie gras.
It’s the risk you take, ordering this menu. It is not the same for all people, and not even the harried servers know what’s coming. It’s an act of faith, one that chef Stephane Jego will reward, assuming you consider being rendered immobile by so much good food to be a positive thing.
That meal was special for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was taken in what I will here call the fog of love, that set of sentiments that renders everything in shades of optimism and blush, and turns moderates into hedonists (and occasionally masochists). We were already hedonists, though, and had no trouble working our way through the feast, from the bread served with a spread of soft brebis frais, olive oil and piment d’esplette to that now-famous rice pudding.
A little more than two months later, a return trip. The fog had cleared since May, like it always does. The sun rolls in and the soft focus lens is removed, and in the bright light of day a decision has to be made, to continue or not. We chose not, but kept this reservation for l’Ami Jean. Some commitments are easier than others, I suppose.
We nibbled on Basque charcuterie while waiting for our table, observing the crowd, watching the waiters jump and dash to the kitchen every time Chef Jego smacked his hands together, a thunder clap that said “Come and get it, NOW.”
Once seated, we didn’t even bother with menus. The first course arrived, a few shots of chilled parmesan soup with tiny croutons and chives. In the privacy of my own home I would have licked the glass clean. The next course, a small potato pancake with a dumpling of salt cod, made us smile and sigh. It was a different set of dishes, more summery, this time heavy on the cod and tomatoes, the ris d’agneau with a sauce of girolles, almost every plate garnished with a crispy strip of smoky lard, a rosy duck breast to share. But it was the same two people sitting at the table, the same order, even the same wine. Again, we were denied any foie gras. Again, that dessert that could feed a pack of teenage boys.
Again, we walked home along Rue de l’Université, behind government palaces deserted for the night, but that’s where the parallels end.
I loved this meal as much as the first. I can’t help it, it’s my kind of place. And if I met the hungry person sitting across from me for the first time tomorrow I have little doubt that the story would play out again in precisely the same way from start to finish.
I know it’s true what they say, that you can never go back. But I’m sure we’ll go back to l’Ami Jean.
Chez l’Ami Jean 27 Rue Malar, Paris 75007, +33 (0)1 47 05 86 89 website