Pros: Tantalizing menu; quality, fresh ingredients; relaxed, charming atmosphere; personable service
Cons: Rather unfocused fixed-price menu
When my foodie father asked me, across the Skype lines from Florida, “What’s the perfect dish for a hot day?” I floundered, though, to my credit, it happened to be mid-winter in Paris. Eventually, the answer came on a sweltering August afternoon from a bistro whose name might speak of the Polynesian Islands but is actually a French term dating from the 1950s for cheap table wine. Jaja, whose owners run the trendy Glou a stone’s throw away, is tucked between trendy shops and off a leafy courtyard in the Marais, but it’s no tourist trap.
Beyond the tiny terrace – metal tables and folding chairs overhung with lush foliage and
private balconies – wide-open glass doors created a seamless flow into the main dining room, with exposed stone walls, chalky arches and circular skylights. While I waited for my friend to arrive, the young but deft waiter talked me through the wine list, foreshadowing impeccable front-of-house service. Among the very impressive international choices (no pichets on offer, only full bottles and glasses priced at €5-€6), I chose, as per his suggestion, a glass of white Jura – nosey, with a really nice finish.
The fixed-price menu didn’t intrigue, so I perused the à la carte offerings – something from the “Envies du Moment” list: roasted rascasse (scorpion fish), say? Or maybe the turkey burger topped with avocado, tomme de Savoie and a pinch of curry, under the heading “Nos Quality Junk”? Incidentally, the latter dish had replaced a glorified hotdog that, while previously knocked by a renowned food critic, the waiter described as having been a high-quality smoked Morteau sausage topped with an exquisitely melted Mont d’Or. The burger, when presented to a neighboring diner, had me drooling.
Never mind; lest I forget, the answer to my father’s question was “ceviche” – in this case, fresh sea bream in a tangy marinade of citrus
and chili with fine spirals of fennel and spring onion, a supremely snappy summer salad that kicked off a totally cool lunch. At least for me. My friend, who opted for the set menu at €16, started with what was probably meant to be a version of the French twist on pizza, pissaladière
– layers of anchovy, caramelized onions, black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and scallion rings atop filo pastry – but it came out heavy-handed, without refinement or focus, more swampy than subtle. We couldn’t help but wish the chef had gone down the route of American cuisine-art deconstruction.
My main course brought another breezy effect for a hot day: Plentiful poulpe (octopus)
harmonized with bite-sized rounds of potatoes, green onions, sun-dried tomatoes, matchsticks of fennel and lemon rind. Though well executed, it settled somewhat on the aggressively acidic side. Meanwhile, my friend’s pan-seared sea bass, crisp-fleshed, was served over a rather flat, flaccid ratatouille that masked the subtle flavors of the fish. On the whole, the set menu turned out to be disconcertingly samey, leaving one note in the mouth.
Well, “the proof is in the pudding.” Three times lucky, my dessert was a generous chunk of robust Roquefort stubbed with walnuts and delicately dribbled with honey, beautifully presented on a slate slab.
My friend’s apple crumble flambée didn’t come flambéed, but sans fireworks and fibrous, served
with an incongruous raspberry sorbet that, like an intruder at the party, gate-crashed the palate. She loved the place anyway, and, having tasted my à la carte dishes, realized what Jaja is capable of, even though her set lunch had not been up to the same standards. It didn’t end so badly for her, after all; her espresso came with
a square of “militant” fair-trade organic chocolate that – like the place itself – had a fine finish and friendly buzz.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call my dad – better late than never.