WHO: Michelle Corry and Liz Koenigsberg
WHAT: Nine years ago, Corry and her husband, Steve, relocated from northern California to Portland, Maine, to be closer to Steve’s family in Hingham. The pair opened the upscale restaurant Five Fifty-Five and, in 2007, Steve was named best new chef by Food & Wine magazine. Last year, the Corrys expanded with the French bistro Petite Jacqueline and made Koenigsberg, Five Fifty-Five’s general manager, a partner. This month, the bistro was nominated for best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, along with three other New England spots: Trade on Boston’s waterfront, the Dorrance in Providence, and Pistou in Burlington, Vt.
Q. What was the inspiration for Petite Jacqueline?
MC: We knew we wanted to do a bistro because first, there’s nothing like it in Portland for a food town, and second, my heritage is French and we wanted to use my grandmother as an inspiration.
LK: I think the idea was to do something different from Five Fifty-Five so [that] we reached a different market. We were trying to do a neighborhood-y, lower-scale in terms of price point, user-friendly restaurant that people could come to once or twice a week.
Q. For those who haven’t been to your bistro, describe the fare.
LK: The bistro offers very classic, homey, traditional French food, nothing out of the ordinary. We sell very classic recipes, very much like you’re eating in your family’s kitchen. We do get creative once in a while with the specials, but we really are trying to keep it simple and basic, using really nice ingredients and flavors that people will come back for every day rather than once a month or just on holidays.
MC: It’s very stereotypical bistro. All classic - French onion soup and foie gras - all these recipes that my grandmother used to make - chocolate mousse and pot de creme - your usual bistro fare.
Q. Do you get many Boston customers?
MC: We’re excited when we get a lot of people from Boston up to Portland. The bistro isn’t right downtown on the water, and neither is Five Fifty-Five, so we’re sort of destination places. I think that shocks some people coming up, when they’re all thinking lobster and waterfront. There’s much more to this city than just that.
Q. How has Portland’s restaurant culture changed since you opened Five Fifty-Five?
MC: When Steve and I first opened, a lot of restaurants started opening and they were a lot of the same thing; you know, American food. I think one thing that’s getting better about Portland is ethnicity. There are many more ethnic restaurants suddenly. There’s a new German restaurant that just opened up to much success, there’s a lot of Asian influence, so the bistro sort of perfectly fit into that category.
Q. How does Portland stack up against other restaurant cities?
LK: I think we’re growing and we’re becoming a more competitive restaurant city. It’s a totally different feel from a lot of the so-called foodie cities, because we are still on a smaller scale, smaller town. We have hundreds of great restaurants but when you come here, it’s not an overwhelming scene everywhere you go. The restaurants are spread out. You really have to look to find the special places, which makes those places so much more enjoyable and special. They’re not necessarily overcrowded where you’ll be waiting in line for an hour. We definitely have that small town feel that you won’t get in some of those larger cities.
Q. How did you react to being nominated for a James Beard award?
LK: Obviously we were excited and overwhelmed and kind of caught off guard. We hadn’t considered ourselves to be in a place to be in the running. I’m honored and proud of our team and what they’ve done over the past year and what we’ve all put into it. To be nominated as a restaurant as a whole just really shows the teamwork of everybody, and not pinpointing any one person, which is really a nice honor.