THE DINING REPORT – ST. JACK

Tasty, But I Swear I Did Not Order Seven Butter Lettuce Salads!

I suppose this is an offshoot of some national trend, but French Bistro’s are popping up here like moss on North facing roofs. A year ago we had Allium in West Linn, then at the beginning of winter we saw Gabriel Rucker’s Little Bird. A few months ago, St. Jack ‘booooooooiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiged into being, then slightly later, Cocotte on Killingsworth. IMG_2198Now, just this week, the re-opening of Brasserie Montmarte, this latest reincarnation a French Bistro by the Allium guy. Funny thing about the Allium guy, Pascal Chureau, he’s also been on the inverse side as well, the fancy French downward spiral, he started at the now closed Fenouil, and was also  involved in the doomed from the beginning Lucier. We love our new French places full of hearty, filling, and moderately priced French tasties, but refuse to support the stuffy, high-end, really expensive, but you leave hungry, kind of places. You would think with an ever lingering recession that French would hardly be the way to go, but many “foodies” are having their economic challenges too, and want belly filling comfort food, well prepared but not costing an arm and a leg, and the French Bistros have been doing a great job filling this role.

As previous to this time, French restaurants in Portland were not places I flocked to on a regular basis (it’s that money thing) it was interesting to visit two rather similar French Bistro’s over a few months time span and compare what is going on there.IMG_2186 As many know. Little Bird Bistro has big shoes to fill, being the creation of one of Portland’s most famous chefs, and now the James Beard National winner for Best Young Chef, the aforementioned Rucker. I must admit I’d never heard of Aaron Barnett, who is at the helm of St. Jack, but his pedigree includes much admired kitchens like Paley’s Place, and the management behind St. Jack is ChefStable, already enjoying popularity for running establishments like Ping and Gruner. So there is a good pedigree at St. Jack, although not the local fame of being a Le Pigeon spin-off.Since we visited Little Bird in mid-December, and I’ve lost a billion brain cells since then, I’m having a hard time remembering comprehensively everything about the decor, but I remember the space struck me as quite long and narrow, it seemed pretty dark (mid-December, everything’s dark of course) but comfy, with rich tourquoise walls, red leather banquettes, hanging dead animals, and hammered tin ceiling (faux.) I liked the surroundings a ton more than Le Pigeon, and found the environment pleasing, but there was something strange about the long narrow kitchen space (which you can see from the street) and the food delivery window spewing harsh white light into the otherwise rather sophisticated decor in the dining area.

St. Jack is a different kind of animal, light, bright, and old fashioned, housed in what I read is an old home, but which from the street looks like another storefront.IMG_2182 I thought I was running pretty late when I got to St. Jack, and it was starting to rain hard, so when I eventually found parking (the bane of old Portland neighborhood restaurants) and went dashing in, I didn’t even see where the retail patisserie is located that sells all those lovely baked goods. As our original reservation  kept changing, first 8 people, then 12 people, then back down to 8 again, I don’t think St. Jack wanted to take any chances, so they they gave us most of their back room. Although the space was pleasant to eat in, it seemed like it might be a bit ventilation challenged, and they had both windows open above my head. (which sent in occasional drafts of cold air, as it was a somewhat cool spring evening.) Even through this scenario Heidi, sitting right beside me, also under the windows, was boiling, perhaps due to her upcoming motherhood, but whatever the issue, it might be an indication that St. Jack might need to do something about airflow in the rather narrow back room. Perhaps when summer comes they have air conditioning, and just did not what to whip it on prematurely.

The service seemed very professional, and aside from a later faux pas at billing time, it was immediately clear the waiter was good at his job. He was immensely pleased with everyone’s food selection, which always makes me chuckle, as just once I would like to hear a server say “oh, you’re not going to be very pleased with that” or “excellent, a substandard item.”

It wasn’t long before we we brought baguettes, which were not cut and had to be ripped apart (Emily Post would not be proud) and lovely, high quality butter with large flecks of salt.IMG_2179 The bread was not overly easy to manipulate, so you had to be quite a savage to wrangle off your hunk of the motherload, and I felt a bit shameless, having petted chickens about an hour earlier (if only I had not run out of water, soap, and towels at the old homestead.) It was good bread though, and the butter was wonderful, one of those indicators of just how lousy common store bought butter really is.

We had the pleasure of a couple of our longest running group members joining us on this evening, Frank and Grace, so this meant a total ordering bonanza this outing, as our dear friend Grace orders at every restaurant like it’s a dim sum evening (and we love her for it, as we all benefit, but do none of the paying!)IMG_2191 Also returning to the rank and file this Friday, the always fun to dine with Liz, who had been a regular since joining but all the dinners since late last October due to dietary issues. It was great to have her back, especially as we needed an extra mouth to gobble all of Grace’s “leftovers” (leftovers being an item that Grace samples, then kindly hands around to all takers.)

St. Jack has many interesting cocktails, and we had many takers this evening, all served with mysterious gigantic ice cubes that could have sank a large ocean liner. Below is their entire list of specially drinks –

Guillotine – APPLETON V/X RUM, COINTREAU, FRESH LEMON, HOUSEMADE GRENADINE, KÜBLER ABSINTHE

Jasmine – BEEFEATER GIN, COMBIER ORANGE LIQUEUR, CAMPARI, FRESH LEMON

FrenchPearl – FRESH MINT, LONDON DRY GIN, RICARD PASTIS, FRESH LEMON, SUGAR

VieuxRhumCarre – NIESSON VIEUX RHUM RESERVE, RITTENHOUSE BONDED RYE WHISKEY, CARPANO ANTICA FORMULA VERMOUTH, BENEDICTINE, PEYCHAUD’S & ANGOSTURA BITTERS

Imperial Gin Daisy – AVIATION GIN, FRESH LEMON, GRAND MARNIER, BRUT CHAMPAGNE

Baccarat – BOURBON, CARPANO ANTICA FORMULA VERMOUTH, APEROL, MARASKA MARASCHINO LIQUEUR, REGAN’S NO . 6 ORANGE BITTERS

DeRigueur –  FAMOUS GROUSE BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKEY, HONEY, FRESH GRAPEFRUIT, REGAN’S NO . 6 ORANGE BITTERS

Montparnasse –  SILVER TEQUILA, FRESH ORANGE AND GRAPEFRUIT, CARPANO ANTICA FORMULA VERMOUTH, DOLIN DRY VERMOUTH, CARDAMARO, ANGOSTURA BITTERS

Sazerac – HENNESSY VS COGNAC, BOULARD CALVADOS, COINTREAU, FRESH LEMON

LastWord – BEEFEATER GIN, GREEN CHARTREUSE, MARASCHINO LIQUEUR, FRESH LIME

The cocktail list was a nice compromise between those popular trendy drinks and some good old fashioned cocktails, and several called out to me, although I only had one because they were extremely expensive. Liz, making her triumphant return to hedonism seemed to enjoy her French Pearl, and I knew when I saw that the Imperial Gin Daisy had both Aviation Gin and champagne that Glenda would be all over it, and sure enough, she was.IMG_2177 Frank actually had some really scary looking thing full of nasty whiskey (DeRigueur?) and more or less lived through it, and Grace had a couple of drinks, a Montparnasse and something that I can’t make out on her dining slip, but looks like Lady Hand (??) Actually, she also has another drink called a Deauville listed, which might have been Frank’s drink, but as i don’t see this listed on the online menu either, I’m not sure if St. Jack has changed up their drinks, if Grace’s first drink was just too strong, or if it’s just her Physician’s handwriting in action (actually, her handwriting is completely legible, some medical professional she is!)

I can see why the drinks at St. Jack are so expensive, they all tend to have a laundry list of spendy ingredients. As for my $11 Last Word, it was pretty tasty, but not knock your socks off great, and if I was rolling in the dough and had a second drink I probably would have sampled something else. IMG_2189These $10, $11, and $12 drinks worry me though. I have promised the group that this summer, when the new Trader Vic’s opens right next to Oba! (in the Mazana Grill space) that we would have a dinner there, as I have fond memories of extremely youthful drinking at TVs, at the old location in the Benson. I remember even in my college days (at Prehistoric U) that the drinks at Trader Vic’s were pretty expensive, what must they cost these days?  And do you still get to keep your glassware and other accouterments? (I know a Potted Parrot awaits me!)

a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/60370770@N05/5724584907/” title=”IMG_2193 by Eatin’ & Meetin’, on Flickr”>IMG_2193Here is a list of the items we ordered this evening, most by Grace, of course (there were 12 items on her and Frank’s food list, including desserts, and I think they shared all of them.) This includes both a single and a double order of the delicious Beef Tenderloin (whose sauce actually reminded both Frank and I of the Horsey Sauce you get at Arbey’s. Sad but true, we both thought this was a good thing.)

Petits Plats

OLIVES 

POMMES FRITES 

CERVELLE de CANUT GOAT CHEESE, FROMAGE BLANC, SHALLOT & GARLIC (yum, yum.)

Hors D’oeuvre

IMG_2197BUTTER LETTUCE FINES HERBS, AVOCADO, RADISH, CROUTONS & DIJON VINAIGRETTE (Interesting, and popular, but the dressing seemed to have Tarragon in it, not a favorite herb of mine.)

FISHERMAN’S STEW SCALLOP, POACHED OYSTERS, CLAMS, TROUT ROE & LEEKS

FROG LEGS en PERSILLADE WHITE WINE, GARLIC, LEMON, BUTTER & FRESH HERBS (I didn’t try, I hate seeing a frog in a wheelchair!)

TENDERLOIN SPECIAL – Seared and served with greens and horseradish . (Really good, thanks Grace for ordering so much!!!)

IMG_2190GRATIN D’ESCARGOTS HAM, MUSHROOMS, GARLICS, RAMPS, FINE HERBS AND GRUYERE CROUTON (as per usual, the snails were probably the less tasty part of the conglomeration.)

Charcuterie De Maison

Rustic Pork Terrine with Pistachio • Chicken Liver Mousse • Pork Rillettes • Saucisson d’ Alsace • Saucisson

served with traditional accompaniments.

IMG_2188So much of the charcuterie was ordered and passed around, it was hard to know what was what. I thought the Rustic Pork Terrine was tasty though, and people seemed to enjoy the creamy texture of my Chicken Liver Mousse, although I found the sweet overtones a bit odd.)

Plats Principaux

IMG_2200WHOLE ROASTED TROUT WARM LENTIL SALAD & BROWNED BUTTER VINAIGRETTE – Very pretty, popular, and enjoyed on this evening. Heidi appreciated that it was competently boned out.

LYONNAISE ONION TARTE GOAT CHEESE, MELTED ONIONS, LEEKS, POACHED EGG AND SAUTEED KALE – Not your usual Onion Tart, more like an oozy mound of flavor. Julian seemed happy and gobbled it down.

ONGLET STEAK FRITES WITH SHALLOT & RED WINE DEMI GLACE & POMMES FRITES WITH BÉARNAISE –  A good contrast with Little Bird, as I had Steak Frites there too. Little Bird takes the odd step of putting the meat on top on the frites and pouring the wine sauce over everything. Good, although your frites can get soggy, better sauce though. St Jack’s meat was really nice, and perfectly cooked, but the Bearnaise also seemed full or Tarragon, so I deduct points.IMG_2202 It was totally on the side though, so completely optional, not like the sauce at Little Bird. Also, I found the frites a bit salty. I would give the advantage to Little Bird here, largely because of the tarragon issue. Frank, sitting next to me seemed pleased though, he might like Tarragon.

GRATIN de MACARONI GRUYÈRE, AGED CHEDDAR, ROGUE BLUE, BACON AND SHALLOT – One of the three best things at the table, incredibly rich and delicious from the smoky bacon flavor. David had to take most of it home though, too many rich and filling snacks before.

Desserts

TARTE à la RHUBARBE THYME, CRÈME FRAÎCHE CHANTILLY, RHUBARB COULIS

MOUSSE AU CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO GANACHE, PRALINE SABLE, BRANDIED CHERRIES

COCONUT GÂTEAU LEMON CRÉMEUX, ORANGE LIQUOR POACHED TANGELOS – This was my dessert, and instead of Coconut Cake they could have called it Big Moist Wad of Coconut.IMG_2208 That might sound a little harsher than I intend, because I’m not implying it was particularly bad, it was just disconcerting, because it’s almost like the cake part was left out. Several people at the table really like coconut, and I’m one of them, but almost everyone mentioned that the amount of coconut was rather overwhelming, although Liz thought the poached tangelos on the top helped even out the flavor. As I’ve said before, I love cake, and coconut is one of my favorites, but this brought to mind eating a naked Mounds bar.

MADELEINES BAKED TO ORDER – This is the item I have been reading about most at St. Jack, and it’s no wonder, they’re delicious.IMG_2210 I grew up in Felony Flats and didn’t even know what a Madeline was until I bought some at Trader Joe’s about 12 years ago, and now I can see I really missed out  by being raised in gritty SE Portland rather than a quaint village in France where I could nibble on Madelines all the time (this is the only time in my life I ever thought this.) Grace kindly got these for the table, and the portion seemed almost endless (of course maybe she was charged for seven orders of Madelines.) So light, so warm, so tender, with just a perfect hint of citrus.

HOMEMADE PISTACHIO GELATO – Chock full of nutty flavor!

From what I observed, the overall impression of St. Jack was a favorable one, everyone seemed to like almost all of their eats. IMG_2201The food was rich and flavorful, the portions were hearty, and the prices were moderate, with all entrees except one under $20, the small plates a few dollars less, and most of the charcuterie around $7 per selection. The drinks were good, if high priced. Another added bonus, it’s one of those places that offers to break up large party checks any way you like, completely eliminating the fear of rules about too many credit cards at one table. They did seem to having a couple of issues as far as the bills being right though, for example, they forgot to add David’s Butter Lettuce Salad, which he honestly pointed out to the waiter, but then Frank and Grace got charged for SEVEN (count them seven) Butter Lettuce Salads when they only had one. Like their bill isn’t big enough with just the items they did order. It’s good Grace was giving her bill the old eyeball, since when you have such a substantial tab it might be easy to just be lax and pay whatever they plunk in front of you. Those were really the only faux pas I can remember at St. Jack though, considering it’s been open a mere few months and is basically run by a bevy of young-uns, it’s a very professional. impressive dining experience.

So which is better, St. Jack or Little Bird? It’s still up for debate. Mainly, as far as service goes, I’ve heard some things about Little Bird being shaky at times, but I’ve also been reading many glowing comments, so who knows if they are really having issues? IMG_2205St. Jack is so new, not that many comments have circulated yet, but I’ve read either ecstatic praise or that it’s still a work in progress, but even the work in progress people seem to be largely positive that’s it’s becoming a really good restaurant. And everyone loves those Madelines, which you can also buy right in the Patisserie.

Our group itself was divided. When we went to Little Bird right after they opened, almost everyone loved the food, and David said it ended up being a really good choice for a birthday dinner. That being said, he preferred St. Jack, I think mainly due to atmosphere. Resident Francophile, Glenda, was in heaven all evening at both Little Bird and St. Jack, and seemed reluctant to select a favorite, not surprising, as she’s the ultimate Gabriel Rucker fan. When asked if she’d come back to St. Jack, her reply was “tomorrow.” So my guess is, she’s just happy to have multiple French Bistros to select from. Frank and Grace, who visited Little Bird separate from the group, weren’t overly thrilled by that place, but both seemed favorable as far as their experience at  St Jack, and they should know, as they tried most of the menu.

I’m not entirely certain which place I thought was better, much of the food was very similar, and almost everything was good. One thing I do remember about Little Bird though, our evening there was fat piled upon fat  piled upon fat, perhaps the French way, but certainly a workout for one’s innards.IMG_2213 St. Jack, also an exercise in gastronomic excess, just didn’t seem quite as heart attack on a plate oriented, although there were certainly plenty of naughty, fatty items to select from. I suppose because I’m a lover of pleasant little neighborhood  spots rather than places with a downtown vibe, I too preferred St. Jack. I think it also helps going to restaurants when it’s still light out, dreary Spring evening thought it might be, it’s still preferable to a dinner on a dark and gloomy Winter’s night. Whatever the case, I think Portland is really lucky to have two such fine French Bistros run by young, innovative Kitchenmasters. So check out St. Jack, but try to have as much variety as you can (take Grace along!) and don’t just order seven butter lettuce salads. (Although seven orders of Madelines might be acceptable.)

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