39 Rue de Jean
39 John St., Downtown
Lunch, Dinner, Sun. Brunch
You would be hard-pressed to find a more popular spot in the trendsetting Upper King Design District than 39 Rue de Jean. The original uptown provocateur, bold enough to roll sushi amidst a bona fide Parisian shtick, still marches on. Once the vanguard, it has become a standby, weathered and worn like old shoe leather that just softens with time, burnished to creased and comfortable warmth. Rue seems content to revel in this role — the place that started it all, now a regular among the future stars and gaudy pretenders north of Calhoun Street.
That is not to say that such success does not exact an inevitable price. The tweaks of a new chef, the corporate dollars of conglomerate ownership, and the loyalty of bar patrons divided between tourists and collegians all keep the place trapped in a somewhat static state. Press releases arrive touting the new fall menu, which looks about the same as the old summer menu, but with the new beef bourguignon for Saturday night supper ($24.95 and about as classic as it gets). The best mussels in town still flow from the kitchen in six preparations, and the champagne cocktail, full of Angostura bitters and bubbling fruit, makes it an enduring first stop when embarking on a night out in the district.
The Sunday brunch has the familiar eggs and omelets, with ham and cheese or duck confit peeking from beneath. And these are acceptable, if not so thrilling. For nine bucks, they could be better. The Charleston Eggs ($10.95) look rather exciting, two eggs perched atop an English muffin alongside big chunks of backfin crab, a thick drape of hollandaise, and fat asparagus spears, but in the end, the dish seems muddled, doomed to mediocre execution that never lives up to such an opulent presentation. The crab is muted, under-seasoned, and without character — or at least with so little that the gloopy sauce, which itself seems to have succumbed to mass production, does not disguise. The eggs, though perfectly poached, should receive more seasoning as well, at least enough salt and pepper that they don't also fall into the flavorless abyss. It's not that they don't like salt over there. The Oeufs en Meurette ($9.95) — poached eggs swimming in a red wine broth alongside crusty bread, sautéed mushrooms, and big crisped lardoons — is almost too salty to eat. Clearly there's a lack of understanding in the kitchen, or at the least a failure to account for the salty bacon.
Rue shines when she polishes up for dinner. The smoky bar that ruined most meals in the past is gone, which is a good enough reason to re-elect Mayor Joe Riley for another term. Now that you can actually taste the food, rather than the guy's cigarette next door, it turns out to be pretty good after all. The big Plateaux de Fruits de Mer ($34.95 for two), continues to stake out the center of the menu, the aforementioned mussels seem as popular as ever, and the sushi-monsieur in the back room churns out quality maki like a well-tuned cyborg, but the entrees still lead the way.
The Scallops Saint Jacques ($20.95) are dazzling. Big mollusks with a perfectly caramelized crust float in a rich pool of heavy cream infused with the flavor of the sea. Slices of potato rest nearby; dunking them in the cream produces a sublime effect. But the potatoes are hit and miss — some come out perfectly cooked, and some crunch with that starch vegetal character that only a raw potato can provide.
Braised rabbit ($22.95) also shows promise, and not just because you can't find enough braised rabbit in Charleston. The dish comes with a delicious white wine and mustard sauce smoothed out with a generous dollop of crème fraîche. The saddle portion of the rabbit could use a few threads of lard stitched into it to counteract its dry nature, but the leg portions, more naturally endowed with lubricity, fall apart on the fork, shredded into that delicious sauce and medley of flavor that's alone worth the trip.
The old girl may be worn at the edges, her booths may have seen better days, the beautiful people may have moved up the street and left the place full of average Joes, but when the lights go down in the evening and the smells of mussels and French bread begin floating across the alley, the sidewalk tables fill, the wine flows, and you're back at a place that can still make you want to see Paris again.