Jean-Luc's French Bistro

Wes Marshall visits Jean-Luc's French Bistro on a weeknight to check out the food-wine pairings.

Jean-Luc's French Bistro

705 Colorado, 494-0033

Tue-Fri, 11:30am-2pm; Tue-Thu, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm; Sun, 5-9pm

Happy Hour, Tue-Sun, 4:30-7pm

Over the past few years, the most famous chefs of France have been opening bistros and spending more time in them than in their Michelin multi-star temples. They tire of constantly creating culinary works of art; they yearn for simpler fare. Bistros are thought to be small, unpretentious places, and Jean-Luc's fits the bill. As you enter the restaurant, you are first impressed by the mingling aromas of complex sauces, wine, and flowers. Quiet music which leans toward jazz and bossa nova plays in the background. The warm, comfortable interior features a small bar and about 30 white, clothed tables. A very relaxed setting invites lingering.

Even when full, the restaurant is surprisingly quiet, cozy, even, thanks to an intelligent use of fabrics and materials. But "small" and "unpretentious" should not be confused with "commonplace" or "conventional."

The wine list gives the first hint of what is to come. Every wine has a symbolic description to guide you to the dry, sweet, fruity, peppery, or oaky wines. Nearly all of the 40 wines are available by the glass, which allows you to mix and match foods with appropriate wines without having to buy several bottles. Unlike many restaurants with wine by the glass, there is no price penalty compared to buying by the bottle, which demonstrates a financial commitment by the restaurant to pairing the most pleasing wine with your food choice. All but three of the wines are French.

Jean-Luc searches for what he calls "nice little obscure wines," so many are unorthodox choices that you may have never tried before. This is where Christophe Vain, the dining room manager, becomes an invaluable asset. He is extremely knowledgeable about the wines offered and how they complement Jean-Luc's food creations. His recommendations are spot-on and trustworthy. (And, uncommon for Austin restaurants, he does not automatically steer you to the most expensive wines but targets the best combinations.)

The menu is diverse but not overwhelming. Jean-Luc changes it twice a year to take advantage of fresh local produce. He generally has 10-15 vegetarian offerings and buys organic when available. For the carnivores, he presents hard-to-find, toothsome, quintessentially French items on the menu like sweetbreads, snails, duck confit, and foie gras. There are several specials each night, and during the week there is a Prix Fixe Menu which on Wednesday night includes a duck cassoulet. For a real taste of France, get a side order of pommes frites (French fries) with aioli (garlic mayonnaise).

On a recent weeknight, we decided to put Jean-Luc's French Bistro to the test with the best wine and food combinations available in the house. We started with Scallops and Foie Gras en Chemise with Monbazillac Beurre Blanc ($16.95 and only occasionally available). On a large, attractive plate sat a puff pastry which looked like a Bishop's hat surrounded by a thread of sauce made from Monbazillac wine and butter. Cutting the pastry brought a puff of seductive truffle aroma and a small flood of melted foie gras which gushed out to join with the beurre blanc. Inside the pastry, Jean-Luc had alternated four layers of 1é8-inch-thin slices each of scallop, foie gras, and black truffles -- decadently rich and thoroughly exciting food. To match, he chose Monbazillac Cuvèe Mademoiselle ($8.95 per glass). The traditional choice in France for foie gras is Sauternes, the sweet wine of southern Bordeaux. He prefers, however, the Monbazillac because of the additional bite and spice to the taste, the reduced richness and the lower price. I would go a step further. The pepperiness of this wine really cuts through the richness of the dish, while the abundant honey in the nose enhances the richness. Like any good marriage, this combination provided both diversity and harmony.

We then tried the Shrimp Soucoupe ($8.95). A portobello mushroom was filled with a tapenade made from sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, and grated lemon rind with three large shrimp atop. Dabs of pistou and saffron aioli surrounded the mushroom. Jean-Luc's philosophy of matching food and wine frequently revolves around geography. This dish is prototypical Provence, so he chose a Cassis, a classic wine from the outskirts of Marseille composed of Sauvignon Blanc and Marsanne, very fruity and dense with an apply, yeasty nose. Combining the lemon rind in the tapenade with the fruit of the Casis is a very pleasing touch; the union was sun-drenched Mediterranean flavors all the way.

Our next course was Moules Marinières ($8.95), a classic French dish of mussels steamed with wine and herbs. Jean-Luc uses Texas bay leaves (which he much prefers to California leaves) and adds pancetta. We were able to pry from him his secret for the slightly smoky taste he brings to the dish: He adds just a touch of duck fat. He paired this dish with Chateau de la Ragotière Muscadet Sur Lies ($5.75 per glass). Muscadet, which originates near Nantes in central western France, is a time-honored wine for shellfish. It is light, lemony, and so bone-dry it's austere. But, combined with the sweet meat of the mussels, it made a rousing match.

An incredibly complicated Napoléon de Ris de Veau ($8.95) followed. As you might guess from the Napoléon name, it is a dish of stacked layers. Here, Jean-Luc poaches veal sweetbreads and presses them overnight, then sautes them for the plate. He then purees potatoes, mixes them with egg whites, and makes crisp wafers. The final addition is portobello mushrooms. The dish ends as layers of potato, mushroom, and sweetbreads. Over this, he spoons some demi-glace and then drizzles a pepper-infused olive oil. Sweetbreads are an acquired taste (I adore them). If you like them, I don't think you'll find any to compare to these in Austin, perhaps not in the entire state of Texas. The richness of the sweetbreads and the peppery olive oil cried out for a strong red wine. He delivered a glass of Chateau Greysac ($10.25). This wine from the northern end of Bordeaux is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, and 13% Merlot. Greysac is more popular in the U.S. than in Europe, partly because the winemaker aims it at American tastebuds with more fruit, pepper, and vanilla oak than Europeans generally like. Regardless, it was perfect with the sweetbreads. The wine carried an aroma somewhat like a forest after a rain that complemented the smoky character of the sweetbreads and the earthiness of the mushrooms.

The meal ended with Duck Confit Crêpes With Peppercorn Demi-glace ($8.95). Confits are very rich and take quite a while to make properly. Jean-Luc's interpretation was beautifully prepared and packed with flavor. The crêpe was stuffed with julienned carrots, leeks, celery, and duck confit, then covered with the peppery sauce, making what could have been an unduly heavy dish balanced by the fresh vegetables. The flavors came alive when tasted with the wine, a Chateau de Jau ($7.50), from the Rousillon area where France, Spain, and the Mediterranean coincide. Made with Syrah and Mouvèdre grapes, it tasted of tart blackberries and mustang grapes with a strawberry back note that absolutely supercharged the crepes.

If you get the impression I like this restaurant, you're right. The wine and food matchings are expert and imaginative, the service discreet and proficient. The ambience is quiet and cozy. Overall, it is an intense, soulful, and professional restaurant experience that coaxes diners into a happy state of satisfaction.

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