GREAT CHARCUTERIE Duck rillettes and pork terrine at Petite Jacqueline.
On a crowded night at Petite Jacqueline it is hard to hear your companion over the din. It won't bother you much, nor should it at a place like P-J. The French have always valued the inarticulable needs of the body over the shallower arts of conversation and thought. The 18th-century Frenchmen who toppled their monarchy immediately set about killing each other over disputes about the production and distribution of bread. By contrast the American founders, who cared absolutely nothing about the poor and their food, devised a political system rigged for eternal argument and other pleasures of the mind. One important legacy of this French privileging of our physical needs and pleasures is their belief in an almost democratic right to a good meal.
With its unpretentious vibe and relative affordability, Petite Jacqueline captures this French spirit well. It is run by Steve and Michelle Corry, who own the celebrated Five Fifty-Five down the road. At Five-Five-Five you get words words words — about what is local, what is foraged, what clever pun they came up with for your dish. At P-J, where entrees run about $10 cheaper, the service is less formal, but equally professional. (Example: They hand you a simple baguette in a plain paper bag, and let you rip away — and scoop up some terrific herbed butter.) The room is a bit less elegant, but still quite handsome. The aluminum chairs look like they would be at home outdoors, and indeed with summer's late-evening light pouring through P-J's massive front windows, it is hard to see where the dining room ends and the front patio begins.
The menu at the new spot is less inventive than at 555, but digs deeply enough into tradition to unearth some treasures of French cuisine. You have probably had plenty of charcuterie, but rarely as good as the duck rillettes we were served the other night. The meat was soft and moist, but with enough texture to chew on, dark and sweet, with a deep fatty richness. It was delicious spread over little toasted slices of baguette. A pork terrine looked like a puck of salami, but was much softer. It had a pleasant country chunkiness, and the flavors were simple — just the fat and meat. It tasted good with a little smear of mustard, but could not measure up to the duck.
A salad with cod and hake was terrific. The smokiness of the fish infused the whole dish and gave it a slightly Scandinavian feel. The light dressing added a dash of tarragon without overwhelming the greens. A dish of soft braised leeks eschewed the usual hint of mustard for a dash of oil and dusting of red French peppers that reminded us of paprika.
It was an interesting idea to steam lobster in paper with couscous, veggies, and saffron. But it was perhaps inevitable that, in seeking a balance between cooking the delicate flesh and the hardier sides, the meat would overcook a little. The peas, carrots, and couscous were perfectly cooked, however, and the musky saffron aroma infused everything to give the dish a south-France meets Mediterranean sensibility. The plat du jour (there is a different special every night) was a coq au vin that was expertly prepared in the classic style, which meant it was not particularly summery. The wine-darkened meat was served over a flat pasta whose toothsome texture worked well with the very tender chicken.