27, rue Malar (7)
Fabulous. Noisy. Busy. Non-descript exterior opens to busy, crowded, high- energy bistro with semi-open kitchen and ever-present chef. Not a locale for an intimate evening.
Showing its popularity. Prices creeping up. Tables turn too quickly. Go with a group.
There has been an announced change. Supposedly, the chef decided to slow down. Fewer tables (hard to notice; maybe fewer bookings), less turnover and fewer covers; an emphasis on tasting menus (at dinner 75€ for multiple courses, at lunch 42€ and 52€), plus a shorter a la carte menu. Table cloths. Decidedly less noise, except from the kitchen. Still the source of great fun, frantic activity and a stream of large casseroles and luxury meats, punctuated by shouts from the chef. In all, it is a better experience than before.
Excellent. Hearty. Never delicate. Southwestern tilt.
Soups, charcuterie Basque ham, veal chop, pintade, beef, some fish. Hearty. Large portions. Roasts. Casseroles with vegetables. Large portions from serious kitchen, all plated carefully or at tableside without frills.
Fast, maybe rushed, but competent. Very friendly.
Sadly, turnover has become the model. Uncomfortably hectic on a weekend night.
What hasn’t changed is the frantic atmosphere. Small, always full. Experienced, long serving waiters run, slide, shout, gesture. They know what they are doing, are having almost rollicking fun at it and make it fun for the customer. If this looks, feels and sounds like a Basque soccer bar with a focused, serious luxury kitchen, they play their parts.
Prices were always high. If you are prepared to spend 75€ plus wines (offered in a high but wide range, with only a few below 50€), it is a great value. A la carte with a 50€ St. Joseph, 180€ for two.
As evidenced from three write-ups of 8 meals in the early years of this guide, the last in 2012, L’Ami Jean was once one of our favorites. It changed and we changed. In the interim it changed again. We returned to a jumble of contradictions.
The energy of a coiled spring inspired by the highly visible chef, who continues to shout impatiently from the kitchen, now renovated and with a slim window to the dining room removed to make an open wall, allowing the energy and theater to spill out into the tight, uncomfortable dining room. There is no real renovation except a possible rearrangement of tables. Maybe they have squeezed in more seats, however challenging that must have been. Now, chairs and tables must be lifted and moved to allow access to the banquette along one unbroken wall. Don’t try for the bathroom!
Service is chaotic if deliberately so, surely part of the style of the house. The menu is smaller and shorter, the prices higher, a la carte with a multi-course tasting menu. The food is very good, although our entrees and principal courses were all insufficiently hot. Maybe a kitchen issue, maybe service. Each of the four servers who work the room covered our table, a system which must work for them, less so for us. All work with intensity, speed and gruff manner in French and English. Lucky for that, because half the tables (at least) are non-French, a big change from earlier visits.
Glad we returned, but a reinforcement of why we gave up.
Forget a party of two. A table of four would not overcome, but would help push back against the many negative threads of what we used to admire as the restaurant’s unique energy. Simply said, the food is good, but the restaurant is not remotely comfortable (which is different from its level of luxury. This guide is largely composed of restaurants where the physical ambiance is basic, but not so uncomfortable and cramped that it detracts from the food.)
L’Ami Jean is simply not a relaxed place to dine. And the food is simply not so good or the prices so low that we can look past it.