Serious Food at an Unassuming Paris Spot

Tucked down the diminutive rue Malar in the city’s Seventh Arrondissement is an unremarkable entry to a most remarkable restaurant.

From the street, L’Ami Jean looks more like a neighborhood bar than a full-on restaurant. A fading red-and-green awning and casual signage belie the serious food inside. Step through the front door and you are met with one of the tiniest coat racks in Paris and a host who is beaming and cheerful. Through the din of conversation and laughter, he leads you to your table, where cutlery rests on little wire butterflies, plates are small chunks of slate, and water glasses are deep red (each is a different size and shape). Waiting for you is a loaf of pate and a ceramic pot of cornichons and pickled onions to snack on while you peruse the menu, a celebration of the French southwest.

This isn’t the place to come for a haute cuisine experience. There aren’t brigades of servers for each table, no elaborate menus, no pretense. Our table happens to be the only one in the entire restaurant with a tablecloth. Lamps hanging from the ceiling don’t match. Waiters crack bad jokes, even in French (it’s not a language-barrier thing). Walls are adorned with Basque sports memorabilia and crudely drawn cartoons of pigs at play. But close your eyes and take a bite of whatever dish happens to be in front of you, and the Michelin stars appear. The surprise isn’t that L’Ami Jean has a dedicated following — it’s very popular in its neighborhood; chef-owner Stephane Jego is a protege of celebrated chef Yves Camdeborde — it’s that more people outside Paris don’t know about it.

With so many creative and appealing options, selecting your food can be challenging. If you have the time and the courage, order chef Jego’s seven-course “carte blanche” tasting menu (just under $90), and get ready for a memorable night: sweet Parmesan cream, a frothy soup with smoked bacon, chives, and croutons; briny razor clams with chicken jelly and fennel; rich cod stew with shaved black truffle; roast squab stuffed with foie gras and more truffles; fresh and tangy sheep’s milk yogurt with candied citrus peel and chilled grapefruit. Every dish is more creative and delicious than the last. The tasting lasts from two to three hours, depending on how much wine the jovial, English-speaking waiter can talk you into having. The all-French wine list offers a wide range of styles and prices, although it favors the restaurant’s Basque leanings.

When you’re convinced you can’t possibly eat another bite (portions are huge), the waiter broaches the subject of dessert. At first, it seems unlikely. Then there’s mention of vanilla creme laced with Japanese bourbon, sweet-and-salty Breton sables with fig sauce, and the piece de resistance: legendary riz au lait (rice pudding) made from the recipe of Jego’s grandmother. The waiter brings a large bowl filled with sweet, creamy pudding topped with candied pralines. Shots of iced Calvados (apple brandy) keep dessert from being too sweet.

As the meal winds down, there is time to notice more of the little details that make L’Ami Jean a home instead of a house. The tiny kitchen’s open doorway, where Jego’s energy and passion are on full display as he hunches over each plate, adding a final touch before loudly suggesting the waiter get it to your table as fast as possible. The elbow-to-elbow dining room tables, often resulting in conversations between them. Exposed brick walls and tile floors, even the badly-executed tile mosaic of Batman and Robin in the restroom. It all comes together in a comfortable, inviting way, and yet never interferes with the reason everyone is here.

As we collect our coats, we ask the host what the secret is here: What is it that makes L’Ami Jean the local institution it has become?

“In Paris, it’s the food that matters,” he says. “Pomp and circumstance are nice, but distracting. We know the food is what matters.”

A remarkable notion.

First published in the Boston Globe, March 2015.

Adam Centamore