A couple of bits of positive news regarding RR members who you probably all know (or they might like to think.) Our frequent co-diner Christina is soon to be released from the temporary bondage of classy retail sales, having just secured an extremely wanted and quite prestigious position in events coordination at our mutual alma mater, the always dripping in money, University of Portland. I’m purple with envy. But can she play soccer?

And a note concerning my most long timest of members, Michael, our culinary appreciating poet is off for a summer of travels, from the North, to the South, to the even farther South. Happy trails to you, until we eat again. (boy, that was special. I should be a poet too.)

Fenouil logoNow, on to my rain drenched commentary…

PLEASE, SOMEONE CALL OFF THE WINE DOMINATRIX!!!, and memories of monkey fleas….

Sometime, eons ago (or maybe it was a bit closer to a year + ago,) when I was reading a story about the soon to be open lavish French restaurant in the Pearl, someone had offered in the story a pronunciation guide to how to say the name, Fenouil (surely right up there with Laginappe in the mispronounced Hall of Fame – those crazy French sorts.) Something stuck in my feeble little brain, like Fenooey, but each time I said it that way, someone said what? and laughed like I was some sort of bumpkin queen (I may be some sort of bumpkin queen, but not THAT sort.) As our evening at this establishment grew closer, I took to calling it Fen Oui, since after all, that sounded so very French, and everyone seemed happy when I said it that way. Except for the fact that when I called to confirm the reservation, the person at the restaurant actually said Fenooey. (much like kablooey, in this case, wallet kablooey.) So I guess that just goes to prove that there are still one or two bits of useful information hidden somewhere in the depths of my goofy brain cavity.

Something else I remember, it used to be easy to park in the North end of the Pearl, especially in NoLo (North of Lovejoy.) You can kiss those days goodbye, I had to park so far away from Fenouil that the trail of baguette bits I had dropped to find my way back to my car were turning green and moldy by the time I reached the restaurant . Especially after dodging areas closed by construction, I would have to say Lewis and Clark had easier trips. So just remember, there’s NO good parking in the Pearl at NO time NO more.

I just don’t get around like I used to, so although I knew Fenouil was at approximately 11th and Kearney, and faced Jamieson Square, (something I did know the location of,) I didn’t even know which of the millions of new P District buildings it resided in. So in my haste, after my grand parking peccadillo, which didn’t exactly make me early, I was too stupid to even locate the front door of Fenouil, so i skulked in through the bar. I knew I was in the right place though, as almost half of our dining party was there waiting for our table (okay, so what if that was only two people.) For some reason, although our table was ready and waiting, they would not let Jody and Julia sit down until I arrived to tell them if it was a reservation for four or five people. Considering the fact that I had made the reservation for five, the confusion seemed nebulous at best, perhaps just a mind game by the Fenouil staff to make a point that dining parties should always come in even amounts? Finally, when Michael arrived, also skulking through the bar (perhaps like me, bothered by the invasiveness of wading through the jam packed outdoor seating area that surrounds the actual front door,) we were seated in the beautiful main floor dining room surrounded  by the beautiful Pearl denizens who love to lurk in these swanked out places. I kept expecting Paris Hilton to be dragged in crying and screaming that “it’s not fair,” dropping in for a quick bite on her way back to prison.

I admit, I am a person with mixed feelings about the Pearl District. On one hand, as a lover of art and good food and the restoration of old spaces, I love what the Pearl has brought to a downtown area that was slowly dying in sterility and boredom and utter decrepitude. On the other hand, as a lower middle class kid from the outer regions of felony flats, some of these Pearlies really irk me. (After all, if you can’t be them, hate them.) A case in point, the Pearl-est young family sitting to the left of me. They were dressed like they had all rolled up on skateboards. Shorts, baggie t-shirts, sneakers and casual sandals, but great haircuts and golden tans. This is one of the nicest restaurants in Portland, and a French one at that, do you have to look like you just rode in on a big wave? If I can dress up somewhat and wear professionally hemmed pants, (9 dollar) can’t these people of endless funding at least make some effort when they go to a shi-shi restaurant? Which is not to say that there weren’t droves of people dressed to the nines there, people wearing underwear  that probably cost more than my entire outfit (and car.) But what is the mind set of these people who treat trips to Fenouil like a family jaunt down to MacDonalds? Thank God there are actually down to earth (in a high up in a condo way,)  people who live in the Pearl too, like our dining friends Erica and Larry, who always dress stylishly, and understand the value of a dollar (less than a Canadian dollar,) and although they occasionally say eh, are real people shaping the minds of children and the computer illiterate.

It’s so good I never get off track during these reviews. Someone could get bored (eh, Leo?)

As for Fenouil, it was packed to its fancy gills. It has a good layout and acoustics though, so I don’t remember ever feeling crowded or ear encumbered. Which was nice, since there were only five of us, we could actually hold a conversation with everyone at our table without raised voices. The decor, although not exactly to my particular taste (I prefer the heavy, dark brooding Spanish style to a frilly and pastelly French look,) was certainly attractive and dripping in money. The front of the restaurant facing the square is all glass, about half of which opened to a full patio of people and a few live musicians, The decor is very light , airy, and stone oriented, with a clean and beigey pink color pallete. (Although the bar had a more golden color scheme.) A nice contrast, the citrus green button down shirts worn by the servers.(Hmm, this also seemed to be the color of the Rose Festival Princesses gowns. Was there a big sale of discontinued fabric somewhere?)  One strange note to the room, large wooden candelabras that looked like a musketeer should be swinging from them wearing a big floppy hat. More Medieval lodge than French chateau. The other rather strange arrangement in the decor, the fact that our table ran parallel to the large gas fireplace that divides two of the dining areas. I myself didn’t mind at all sitting with my back practically up against the fire, after all, it was a somewhat cool night, the massive doors were open, and I get chilled looking at an ice cube. Is this a good arrangement though, freeze the people by the doors, burn the people jammed against the fireplace?

Aside from a couple oddities like this, however, Fenouil is an impressive place. Obviously, as a French place, it prides itself on its wine selection. We were certainly witness to this, sitting opposite the automated, revolving wine cooler directly opposite the side of our table, taking up most of an entire wall. The white wines served by the glass were of good quality and moderately priced. Although I didn’t look at the prices of the reds, I would say this was probably not the case with them, since our buddy Michael, in his internet pre-dinner boasting (his general description,) had mentioned perhaps buying an entire bottle of wine, but had beer instead. (Of course, what do you expect from someone who claims not to like desserts, but then admits he enjoys Trader Joe’s cheesecake for breakfast?) With the bottled wine, however, came scary wine dominatrix. (The wine sommelier/steward/stewardess.) This very severe young woman, dressed in a semi gothic tight fitting black ensemble, had jet black scary hairdo hair, large jet black glasses, black hosiery and black pointy shoes, a jet black look, but ghostly white skin. She continually paraded all over the place with a rigid gliding walk, and every time I caught a glimpse of her I  was reminded of a Tim Burton movie. To say she contrasted with the surroundings was an extreme understatement.

Physically, the menus in this place are gigantic, place two down on a table for five and it becomes a table for one, they take up so much space. They were very pretty menus, all white and heavy and made of the finest of paper mounted on some sort of board, but I started to get a complex about where to put this big honkin thing, I tried balancing it on my lap, (but then my arms were at neck level,) I tried placing it on the floor leaning up against the side of the table (this worried me over whether it would get dirty or not,) there was just no good place to put this tres gigantic thing, I was so glad when the waitress finally took it away. Of course what is really interesting about such a monstrous sized menu is the fact that there weren’t really that many things on it, about eight starters, eight side dishes, and eight entrees perhaps, and two specials, one a starter, and one an entree. It took a very long time for initial service, but once the waitress showed up she was very pleasant, professional but still someone who seemed to like talking to people and serving them to the best of her restaurant’s capacity. I say this because although several of my co-diners commented on the large amount of servers, especially water glass fillers and bread grabbers and such (I wow you with my technical terms,) this was another of those dinners that moved at a glacial place. Our reservation was at 7:00, and we didn’t get out of there until about 9:45 or so.

Originally, we got off to a slow start because the restaurant knew we had a 5th body coming, and were under the mistaken impression we were waiting for them to arrive. (Come on, we’re not that polite.) Once we made it known that we actually wanted forward progress, they brought on their complimentary “appeteaser”, a little cracker thing about the size of a quarter of a Dorito, with a tiny sliver of raw salmon, a chopping of mint, and some squishy goop in the middle. The thing was tasty, but I could probably eat about 1000 of them in one sitting and still be ready for a light dinner. The bread, served with fancified butter, was good quality, slightly sour and slightly chewy, and judging by the way we all fell upon it, everyone was getting pretty hungry. Finally through stomach grabbing and intense moaning, we made it relatively clear to the waitress we would like to order some fancy French grub. By a happy coincidence, this was exactly when Christina arrived, so we all got to order together and eat together. A couple of starters were selected, mine a very interesting butter lettuce salad ($9) with an incredibly unusual tasting creamy citrus dressing (not the usual orange though, more like lime and lemon,) toasted pumpkin seeds, and shaved cheese. Everyone who sampled it thought it was unique and tasty. Our mother-daughter tag team both selected the French Onion Soup, ($8) a decent sized portion with the obligatory melted cheese dome. It looked yummy, but Julia confided to me she didn’t think it was as good as what Trader Joe’s offers in its freezer.

After a slightly shorter wait than the very long wait for our starters, entrees arrived. Christina, having had the filling onion soup, tucked into her order of Lobster Beignettes with relish. They came tucked into little brown paper cone, which she later momentarily placed on her head (afterall, she was celebrating that new job.) As she generously shared them, we each had some. They were quite good, much like high class popcorn shrimp made with lobster, and not at all greasy. Michael chose the paella, a somewhat modest portion with your typical saffron rice, this version featuring chorizo, calamari, shrimp, (duck?,) and allegedly halibut, which seemed to be either microscopic or totally absent. Michael enjoyed it totally, although he confided to me later that he would not have minded a bit more food. Jody had the duck breast over farro (which the waitress explained was a large form of ancient barley.) The portion was pretty small for the humongous price, and to Jody’s disappointment was dried out and relatively flavorless.

Julia and I both selected the second cheapest entree on the menu, Rib Eye Steak with frittes for $27. It seems odd when the second cheapest thing is a rib eye steak, (and says something about the prices of the rest of the entrees.) Our steaks were decent sized portions, served alone on a plate with a somewhat sweet and rich wine reduction sauce and some sort of pureed mushroom onion blob on top. Soon to follow were our metal goblets filled with paper cones of pomme d’frittes. Although tiny pieces and somewhat hard to eat, these were first class french fries, somewhat dark brown, probably from truffle oil, and highly superior to those I had had two dinners ago at Meriwethers NW. Even better, these came with some of the best aioli ever, intensely rich and garlic laden. Since there were plenty of fries for everyone, we passed as many as possible around the table. The takers were modest, until we had them sample the aoili. After that, Christina and Jody when on a fritte eating field day, the sauce was just so delicious. As for the steaks, I thought mine quite good, and the sauce a nice accompaniment to the rich, very marbled meat. As someone who has had their fair share of dubious cuts of beef, I had no trouble disposing of about 80% of mine, but Julia was somewhat tortured dealing with the very marbled and tendony cut, and could only find about half a steak worth of eatable beef.

By now, the meal was really dragging out, and Jody, who had mentioned an extremely arduous week at work, looked as if this overly long dining experience had sucked most of the life out of her. Three of us continued to torture this poor woman, however, by ordering dessert. Fenouil is famous for serving samplers of small little tastes of desserts, unless you are in an extremely gluttonous mood, then you can have the dessert platter for $24. Our mother and daughter duo were once again in sync, and ordered the souffle samplers, two little souffles served with complimentary sauces to poor over them. One souffle had a tangerine essence, and the other an intense chocolate flavor. I only tasted the tangerine one, but it was delicious, and Julia and Christina were both happy with their selection. I had the ice cream sampler ($7.50), two little squares of ice cream served in a white ceramic dumbbell shaped dish. Both the lemongrass and chocolate were creamy and good, but I don’t know if I would pay $7.50 again for what basically amounted to two mouthfuls of ice cream, high quality or not..

I found the staff at Fenouil surprisingly nice, and our waitress proved very adept at serving all our orders correctly from memory (another place where they don’t write things down.) Since the food took so long, my guess would be that the kitchen might be having a hard time keeping up with the demand of this sized restaurant, this is a really big, jumping place, especially with the additional outdoor seating. And although some of the food lacked consistency, overall I found it a high quality establishment and an enjoyable dining experience. My bill was exactly $50, and most of the others were close to that figure. One nice touch, the restaurant computer itemized each person’s bill who had a credit card by where they were sitting.

As is usual in smaller RR groups, the conversation was perhaps somewhat less outrageous, but everyone could actually chat with everyone else and finish sentences and everything (at least when I was in the restroom.) As usual in crowded restaurants, however, some things are always misheard. I couldn’t quite figure out why Michael was getting so panicked about missing the July 6th dinner, until it was explained to me that he misheard Tapas Bar to be Topless Bar (sorry Michael, not in this group, until the food improves in those places.) It was festive to hear Jody and Christina reminisce about their experiences in Paris, both naturally loving the place and their visits to the Louvre and the Paris street life. I also sat and quietly thought about my memories of France, the giant Gibralter monkeys in the monkey forest in Racamodour, eating the fleas off each other and trying to rip my arm off to get popcorn; the streets of Lourdes filled with the handicapped, the blind, and the non-stop tourist stands selling “Our Lady” ketchup dispensers, (it turns out they were “Our Lady” holy water bottles); and the frantic 13 straight hour drive through the twisty Pyrennes from central France trying to get to Madrid for our plane home early the next morning (9-11 was rough on vacations too.) The Louve, indeed. How could that ever compare with monkey vermin? To each their own, I suppose.