The West Liberty Avenue spot that was previously home to Needle & Pin, an Indian fusion restaurant and cocktail bar, has reopened as a bright and cozy French bistro called Jean Louis.
The blue and white checked tablecloths at this Dormont eatery invoke the French countryside, while warm brown wood and rich yellow curtains create a homey atmosphere. The menu isn’t long, but it covers the classics and has a clear focus on highlighting quality ingredients.
The star, though, of Jean Louis is the man behind the menu, Chef Gaetano Ascione. Chef Ascione is originally from Naples, Italy, but he has travelled the world over. He’s lived and cooked in Germany, the U.K., Singapore, the Bahamas, Chicago and Miami.
The chef welcomed the Current into his kitchen at Jean Louis recently, where he gave us a demo of a few special dishes and shared anecdotes collected from across the world.
Ascione originally came to Pittsburgh to be a part of The Pennsylvania Market, but left to open Jean Louis with co-owner Shiv Bandhu.
“Pittsburgh, for me, I like it because people are food oriented,” Ascione says. “They are loyal and they go to the restaurant because they like to eat, not because they like to be seen.
“People come to see you because they trust you and they know that they can get a good experience.”
Ascione’s resume includes achievements like working for the White House and cooking at a Michelin star restaurant. He could name drop the people who have eaten his food—Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela—all day if he wanted to. At one time, his list of references would have included the late Jean-Louis Palladin, the celebrated French chef whose seventeen years cooking at the Watergate Hotel are the second most legendary thing to ever happen there.
Chef Ascione decided to name Jean Louis in honor of Palladin because of everything Palladin taught him about cuisine. The premiere lesson that Ascione still abides by today: ingredients, ingredients, ingredients.
“[Palladin taught me] about the respect for the ingredients, and the uniqueness of the ingredients,” Ascione said. “What I loved about his approach was the [attention to] quality.”
Palladin discovered and loved to use the pasture-raised lamb from Jamison Farm in Latrobe that Ascione uses today at Jean Louis. Another ingredient that Ascione is very fond of are the Kennebec potatoes that he believes create Jean Louis’ perfect french fry.
Ascione spoke at length about the ingredients as he prepared two dishes for us in the restaurant’s kitchen. His maple glazed pork belly uses his favorite Berkshire pork and Pennsylvania maple syrup. It is marinated for 36 hours, and then roasted for three.
His crab cakes, which Ascione told us once gained a seal of approval from a former Maryland governor, contain Ritz Crackers, but no bread crumbs, flour or egg to bind them, because Ascione says they take away from the taste of the crabmeat. He adds Old Bay to keep it classic, a mayonnaise that he makes in house and Lebanese zaatar, which he is “very partial to” over other varieties.
Both dishes come together beautifully. The crab cake is perfectly seasoned and the giant lumps of meat remain tender and in tact. The maple pork belly is deliciously sweet, savory and fatty.
Neither of these dishes are on the menu at Jean Louis, but Ascione says they are always available if you request them. And we recommend that you do.
Chef Ascione’s food was a delight to eat, and his company was delightful to be in. Ascione doesn’t work from recipes, so he could never write a cookbook. Though, he said several times that if anyone wants to learn, they should come join him in his kitchen. And he sounded like he sincerely meant it, even if he did joke that he loves “free staff.”
When it comes to the restaurant industry, a lot has changed over Chef Ascione’s career. But, the two things that haven’t are the two things he loves: the importance of the ingredients and that people still come together to eat them.
“I like the interaction,” Ascione said. “Restaurants are still a person-to-person business—no matter how many computers or handheld phones and things you have, it’s still person to person.”