Many times I imagine myself sitting outside a little café in Paris on a perfectly sunny day. I let one of those long cigarette holders from which Audrey Hepburn smoked hang loosely in one hand, holding a book in the other, while my dashing French waiter pours the wine. Pointy moustache and accent included.
Until I get the funds together for a trip to my imagination, JJ’s Bistro de Paris offers a bite of France right here in Jacksonville.
Founded in 1995, the bistro is located off Gate Parkway and serves French cuisine. The restaurant fashions a 15-foot Eiffel Tower in the center of the dinning room. The murals on the walls mimic the scenery of a Parisian street, giving the allusion of actually eating halfway across the globe.
Chef James Engalla and pastry chef Ken Olson prepare all dishes from scratch. Olson comes into work at 5 a.m. to start creating the large selection of desserts. Ranging from gorgeous cakes to tortes and pastries, all desserts are displayed by the wine bar, luring many customers to ogle. The menu prices include affordable $3.50 soups, $8 desserts, and $18-$30 well-portioned dinners.
Owner J.J. Vigoureux, originally from Bordeaux, France, created a comfy French atmosphere around the restaurant. The subtle French music and décor adds to the theme. He looks over his second restaurant, JJ’s Liberty Bistro in Ponte Vedra, while his wife Bénédicte Vigoureux runs the Bistro de Paris.
For lunch, JJ’s offers soups, hot and cold sandwiches, entrees and dessert. My server, Indi, suggested crêpes — a type of very thin pancake — from the special menu for the entrée. Mine were cooked with herbs and packed with grilled chicken, creamy cheese sauce and vegetables. The hearty portion came with a side dish of fresh pasta salad.
I chose to sit outdoors, and the hot crêpes matched the warmth of the sun. Velvety in texture, they melted in my mouth, leaving behind a trace of herbs and cheese. I also tried the moules parisienne et frites — Prince Edward Island mussels simmered in a garlic, tomato, rosemary cream sauce and served with french fries. The mussels arrived steaming, and the French fries weren’t your regular grease-oozing fries. These came beautifully arranged in a wine glass, fried with the potato skins on, giving them a rustic flavor.
After surpassing my expectations with the entrée, I had high expectations for the crème brûlée I ordered for dessert. Sadly, they were not met. Served in a plate-bowl rather than a ramekin, the brûlée crust tasted a bit too burnt. The caramel layer, a little thick, exaggerated the natural bitterness of burnt sugar. The underlying custard was not cold enough.
For dinner, I sat indoors by the towering la tour Eiffel, and server David Schexnayder ran down the menu with expertise. He knew the ingredients well and was eager to explain the making of each. The serving did not feel rushed, and I received good attention.
When dining at a French place, you really can’t leave without trying snail. I braved the mijotte d’escargots nantaises for the appetizer: sautéed escargots, garlic confit, tomato concasse, lemon, fresh herbs, white wine cream sauce and brioche.
This choice most definitely ranked number one throughout my whole foodie adventure at JJ’s. Served with bread, the escargot tasted rich, almost a fusion between mussel and steak. The white-wine cream sauce made the dish silky. Not much chewing was needed. The subtle tanginess from the lemon and tomatoes really brought everything together.
For my entrée, I ordered the French classic boeuf bourguignon: a stew prepared with beef braised in red wine — traditionally red Burgundy — and beef broth, flavored with garlic and onions. Pearl onions and mushrooms were added toward the end of cooking.
Two words: blissfully creamy. The onions added crunch, and the chunks of beef made the dish very filling. Definitely a winter dinner, warming not just your tummy, but also your soul.
JJ’s will surely see more of me — I’m already craving the escargot as I write this. Stop by there, bring your valentine for café latte and dessert, and say Henna sent you. Bon appétit!
JJ’s Bistro de Paris offers 10 percent off on all orders for college students and faculty. They also cater and host events. Visit jjbistro.com for lunch and dinner menus.
Valentine’s Day recipe:
Call to all gentlemen! I know secrets to making your lady the happiest this Valentine’s Day. The answer, simple — cook for her. I’m already losing you, aren’t I? Now before lazy you flips to the next page, this recipe is fairly cheap, calls for minimal ingredients and time, and involves French cheese. However, the final product looks expensively exotic and, well, very French. Exceptional taste guaranteed. Ah, I got you now!
Baked Brie Lovin’
- A wheel of brie (or a wedge)
- Brown sugar
- Raspberry preserves or raspberry jam
- Walnuts (or any preferred nut)
- A baguette
- Cut rind off of only the top of the cheese.
- Drizzle the wheel with honey — this step is optional, but it helps the brown sugar in the next step to stick.
- Cover the wheel with brown sugar.
- Place brie in oven set to 350 F and leave for about 15 minutes. The brie should ooze and brown, not melt.
- Meanwhile, cut the baguette into slices, butter and toast if desired.
- When the brie is ready, top with raspberry preserve/jam and nuts. Cut and enjoy with freshly toasted baguette.