Café Jean Pierre
La crème de la crème
Because it was Bastille Day, a guest wandered into the kitchen and serenaded the cooks with "La Marseillaise," the national anthem of France. Outside the insulated walls of Café Jean Pierre, the sun beat down on a maze of interconnected parking lots and the Century Rio megaplex. But inside, it was Paris.
The cozy bistro is tastefully decorated with curtained windows, sculptures made from found objects, and paintings of French scenes both elegant and rustic. A galaxy of light fixtures hangs from a high metal ceiling with exposed ducts. Directly above the kitchen, what appears to be the second story of a house—with potted plants on the sills of shuttered windows—is a private dining room for special occasions.
My first meal began with a bowl of vichyssoise, a classic chilled potato and leek soup that Anthony Bourdain credited for his awakening as a foodie, as a young lad aboard a transatlantic crossing. How fitting then that my vichyssoise, served in a wide bowl and sprinkled with minced chives, initiated me into the deep skill set of Chef Jean-Pierre. It was spectacular yet mild; rich but not obscenely so; complex but not busy; earthy and livened with the occasional sliver of bitter potato peel.
The soup was followed by a boeuf au vin crepe: beef braised to near disintegration in a potent red wine sauce. The thin, eggy crepe had artfully browned edges and was arranged around a generous mountain of tender beef with the careful dishevelment of Meg Ryan’s hair.
The thin, eggy crepe had artfully browned edges and was arranged around a generous mountain of tender beef with the careful dishevelment of Meg Ryan’s hair.
On my next visit I brought Shorty, not usually a fan of French food because it's often heavy on butter and cream. She ordered two salads: one with beets and goat cheese, the other endive-based with Roquefort and walnuts. Both were splendid for different reasons. The endive salad did justice to a too-often overlooked vegetable, and the beet salad tingled with an unbelievably tart champagne vinaigrette. My only complaint was that I would have hoped, this time of year, for vine-ripened tomatoes—the ones on the salad were stiff.
As we ate, Chef/owner Jean-Pierre Gozard periodically cruised the dining room with just the right level of stress. He was like a lookout on the crow’s nest of a ship, the person whose job it is to scan the horizon for trouble.
While an order of escargot was amazingly tender, it was hard to taste anything but overly salty butter. This bump was quickly forgotten when my molecules were rearranged by the sole meunière. Sole is not my favorite fish. But in her autobiography, Julia Child described a sole meunière—enjoyed when she had just arrived in France—as “an epiphany” and “the most exciting meal of my life.” So I ordered it.
Cooked in a thick lemon-butter sauce, the sole that rocked Child was a flat filet, while Jean-Pierre served his filets rolled; they sat like boats in a sea of sauce that was so good even my butter-bashing girlfriend lapped it up. Meanwhile, a ratatouille crepe encapsulated the rustic, peasant-style side of French cuisine. Emboldened with herbs, the crepe contained a juicy array of summer squash, eggplant and tomato.
As the sun set over the parking lot, Café Jean Pierre's busboy lit a candle at our table, and a starry night of low-voltage fixtures swelled to life below the café's metal firmament. It was a good day to be a restaurant critic. But I felt bad for the dishwasher, who must have felt as useful as the Maytag repairman.
The Alibi recommends:
• Crepes (ratatouille or boeuf au vin)
• Goat cheese and roast beet salad
• Sole meunière
Café Jean Pierre
4959 Pan American Freeway NE, A, 345-3241
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner hours: Mon-Thu 5:30-8:30 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Fri and Sat). Closed Sunday.
Price: $10 (a filling crepe) to $29 (rack of lamb)
Ambience: Paris in a bubble
Booze: Beer and wine
Catering, private parties, menu and specials change frequently