Classic Italian

JP’s Bistro offers a trip back to the Gilded Age
By BRIAN DUFF  |  May 12, 2010

DEEP, RICH FLAVOR Grilled scallops with mushroom risotto.

JP’S BISTRO | 496 Woodford St, Portland | Tues-Thurs 4-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 4-10 pm | Visa/MC/Disc/AmEx | 207.899.4224

America has reached the point where strip-mall dining can make us nostalgic. JP’s Bistro, tucked in a little line of shops on Woodford, will remind you somewhat of Rachel’s, the Italian spot it replaced. But JP’s reaches farther back and offers a classic Italian menu with the sort of dishes they loved in the Gilded Age — especially grilled meats and fish with rich sauces. A brief kitchen flare-up may have been the cause of a 45-minute delay in seating us, despite the reservation — but they handled it in classic style, offering us a drink for our troubles.

As in the old days, the staff are pros, rather than kids getting through school. They take lighting seriously, and some regulars teased them as they fiddled to get it right. There was nothing old-school about the party of three squeezed around the small table next to us. A purple-fleeced preteen perched on a barstool high above the table, hovering gargoyle-style over her parents and snapping cellphone photos of their meal like a mini-paparazzo. I guess babysitters are getting pricey.

The dining room is a warm, charming little space — with rustic tables and chairs, a wood floor, grayish brick walls, and a wood-framed chalkboard with specials. Once we started paying for our drinks we noticed several familiar bottles of wine, which had the unfortunate effect of reminding us of the scandalous markups on even affordable lists.

A good bread, light but chewy, is served piping hot with a garlicky butter. The bruschetta comes on a thick little toast. Juicy, vinegar-soaked halves of cherry tomatoes — so moist they almost seemed stewed — hid under a pristine white blanket of cheese. The ravioli appetizer came in the form of four big round pillows. They were brown from grilling, which left the pasta more chewy than tender. The creamy cheese filling was a bit bland. It was served with simple grilled asparagus and big slices of grilled portabella mushroom.

A more interesting assortment of mushrooms spotted the risotto that was served with grilled scallops. They gave the risotto a deep, rich flavor. The grains had softened to just the right tenderness in plenty of butter and broth. The scallops were a bit over-seared — their appearance hinted at the slightest of shrivels — but still juicy in the center. A pecan-chicken entree sounds a bit Asian, but sticks to Italian flavors. Two flattened chicken breasts were coated in a sweet sauce and then rolled in chopped pecans. The sauce offered some dark and smoky notes of bourbon, but it was the honey you tasted most. It reminded me just a little of the old barbecue sauce at Honey’s.

The sides were, if anything, a bit too traditional. It is hard to get interested in slices of red bell pepper, green beans, and some chunks of zucchini — even if they all had a nice fresh flavor. But the simple approach is usually a virtue when it comes to dessert, and we liked the straightforward crumble made with raspberries and blueberries. Its sharp tartness spoke to the freshness of the berries, which blended pleasantly with a melting scoop of a very yellow vanilla ice cream.

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