The Dining Report – Le Vieux

Touring the World in One Restaurant

As many of you know, our little group has taken a long sabbatical, in the beginning due to me unexpectedly losing my employment.IMG_4271 After finding a job 11 months ago, it took me awhile to get our dining cabal traveling down the local food expressway once again, but on January 24th we had our first dinner since September of 2013. Due to illness, my table wasn’t quite as full as I had planned, but the company I did have on this Saturday evening proved almost overwhelmingly enjoyable.

On this evening, It was extremely nice to be reunited with my good dining friends, most of whom I had not seen in a year or more, Tracy and Peter, Glenda, and David. Also joining me, a new member to Restaurant Roulette, Maya, accompanied by her food enthusiastic friend Teresa, filling in for Maya’s husband Will, who had to give us a pass this time out.

As is my usual modus operandi, I tried to select a restaurant that was fairly new, as any decent new Portland restaurant basically becomes impossible to get into on a Saturday night after a month or so, especially if you have a larger sort of group. IMG_4264I had been reading about the soon to open Le Vieux, and thought their rotating menu of classic European dishes sounded interesting. Also, I had dined in this space, that old house at NW 23rd Place and Vaughn St., almost 20 years ago, and wanted to see what they had done with the place after all that time. Unfortunately, this is one of those locations where no one ever seems to have much luck. While 23rd and Vaughn is a high visibility intersection, as that’s where the freeway off-ramp purges itself, NW 23rd Place and Vaughn manages to be much more tucked away, and since the restaurant is elevated from street level, it’s hard to notice unless you are going east down Vaughn. The acclaimed since it opened Ataula is right around the corner though, so maybe more people are lurking around this block looking for eats, especially when Ataula is full.

When I last visited this building it was a NW Regional restaurant with some nutty name I am having a hard time wrenching from my memory banks (it was 20 years ago, for peet’s sake) but I think it might have been Filberts? IMG_4272It was actually a birthday dinner for my boyfriend, and I was meeting his parents for the first time. No wonder I tried to burn the memory out of my head!!! Anyway, the space was attractive, but very simple and austere, as was the case with many little PDX eateries back in those days. Filberts might have lasted a year or two? Anyway, after that time I remember this building hosted a BBQ place, and then a couple of years ago the Couvron guy came back to Portland and put all kinds of money into renovating this house. The restaurant, Noisette, was said to be wonderful, but I have the impression that fancy, small French food that is really expensive is not the best idea in an area like this with limited visibility, and that “to make it”, you probably need to be a neighborhood venue with a lower price point (even if this is an incredibly high end neighborhood) somewhere that isn’t just a special occasion kind of place.

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve been inside this place, but to say that this old house has been through a large scale transition and is all gussied up these days is a major understatement. Anthony Demes, the fellow who owned the upscale Couvron for many years, spent much time, money, and personal labor renovating the building, and it’s sad that his restaurant lasted so briefly after all his labors.IMG_4266 I’m pretty sure I read Mr. Demes was the person who designed the outdoor patio area, and the swanky little fireplace where you come up the stairs looks incredibly inviting. Inside, while Noisette was incredibly high-end with huge crystal chandeliers and starched white linen tablecloths, Le Vieux has a more friendly vibe, with warm yellow walls, cozy wooden booths and a wonderful hammered tin ceiling. Where Noisette had sort of a Las Vegas like polish, Le Vieux has more of a Paris bistro feel. Definitely a very pleasant atmosphere on a lousy winter evening. My only complaint about the physical restaurant would be the bathroom sink. Neat though the modern vessel sink looked, the stream was very strong from the horizontal spigot, and consequently I spent all evening with one cold and clammy arm, since when I turned on the facet, the water pressure shot cold water right up the sleeve of my sweater. Although this sounds like a reason for chuckles to the outside observer, I happen to be one of those people who is very annoyed by damp sleeves, so black marks spew from my direction over this challenging hand washing situation.

The rotating regional menu format is certainly an intriguing one, but as most chefs tend to have a style of cooking that is their specialty, it has to be a relatively challenging situation for almost any kitchen, constantly dumping all the dishes you have been featuring and perfecting then moving on to other regions of food and cooking techniques. Navarre has been doing the rotating regional menu thing for years, but Navarre is such a kooky place, you can never compare it to any other eatery. For the first 2-3 weeks, the menu focus at Le Vieux had Middle Eastern overtones, but right before we visited, the menu format had changed to classic French. A period of only three weeks seems pretty brief to be changing up your menu, so it makes me wonder if the Middle Eastern format was not going over awfully well. IMG_4270People love places like Nicholas, Hoda’s and Ya Hala, but those are all sort of inexpensive places to eat, and while I think Levant has a higher price point, it seems like much of that restaurant’s success comes from the originality of the menu. I rather wondered if Le Vieux had switched up their menu only three weeks after opening because their opening regional menu was not going over well enough in the toney Alphabet District?

IMG_4258Of course maybe this isn’t it at all, perhaps they are just an incredibly ambitious kitchen, and not just throwing everything up against the wall to see what sticks the best. I did see on their online menu they are about to move on to Tuscany. And really, is there anything more popular than some hearty, welcoming Italian specialties? How long had Pastini been plying their trade, not at all far from here, and while Pastini is a good deal, they have always been pretty hit or miss with their food, and their cafeteria like dining room, and as the  mes, with the tables jammed together, always leave something to be desired. When I look inside the Le Vieux space, I definitely envision France more than Italy, but maybe the Tuscan dishes will be where Le Vieux hits their stride. But if this happens, will they want to chuck it all for the next region?

The problem with being too ambitious, however, is that when you fall short in the execution department, it can be very noticeable. So far the reviews of Le Vieux have been pretty mixed, and this was certainly our general opinion with the food we tried. That being said, the service was very good, and the staff and management quite friendly.

Everyone was very generous on this evening about ordering extra things and sharing, and with a little prodding by the waitress, we ended up ordering all the starters (there were only four.) Most of the items on the Levieux come in small plate size, except for the items classified as “Supper”.

Here’s our list …

Appetizers –

GOUGERES – Gruyere (cheese puffs)

PETITE FRITTATA – chévre, fine herbes

FRIED CAULIFLOWER – meyer lemon-anchovy aioli

PATE MAISON pork & duck, brandied prunes

All of these were okay, but nothing really knocked anyone’s socks off.

First Courses –

CELERY ROOT REMOULADE – fried oysters, capers

SIMPLE Salad – radish, banyuls vinaigrette

The celery root salad was an interesting combination to pair with oysters, and while the oysters were decent, they weren’t overly exciting. Much better were the crispy fried oysters I had had at the Sunshine Tavern back in November. Those were happy hour priced, too.

Vegetables –

LEEKS VINAIGRETTE – red wine, egg mimosa.

Teresa and Maya shared this as as appetizer, and gave me a bite too. It was an interesting little molded presentation, and went over well with both Maya and Teresa.

Supper –

BOUILLABAISSE – cod, halibut, mussels, squid, rouille.

Maybe it’s just the restaurants I select, but I certainly can’t remember the last time I saw Bouillabaisse on the menu (although I remember seeing fish stew several times). I know sometimes I order something that has like one unfamiliar ingredient, and often it’s this one ingredient that puts a taint on the whole dish.IMG_4265 As many of you know, I’ve been out to eat a few times, and I cook okay too, but I certainly didn’t know what a Rouille is. I think this would have to be the case with Teresa as well, who was surprised that her nice looking bowl of fish soup had a mayonnaise like accoutrement drizzled all over the top in hearty amounts. As it turns out, Rouille is an olive oil and egg based condiment that is much like mayo, and Tracy was actually familiar with the French practice of dumping it on top of Bouillabaisse. Teresa was not, however, and didn’t appear to be a mayonnaise glutton like many of us. That being said, she did not want to be a difficult person, so she only sent it back after much prodding from the table. Le Vieux were really good sports about the situation, however, and whipped up another bowl sans rouille in about 10 minutes. Teresa found this second serving much more enjoyable.

CASSOULET – duck confit, pork sausage, crumbs

Peter became excited when he saw the Cassoulet, maybe because it was a relatively cold and dreary winter evening. He probably enjoyed his entree more than anyone else at our table, so evidently this hearty French stew is one of the “keeper” items from the Le Vieux regional French menu.

STEAK FRITES – hangar steak, sauce bearnaise

Rather strangely, all of the rest of us had Steak Frites as our main dish. Glenda, who is not a frites gal, requested a vegetable instead of frites, and Le Vieux obliged, but other than that distinction, the surface of our table was pretty much covered in steak and french fries (isn’t it ironic that “French fries” are such a staple in our diets, but that the French instead eat “frites”. IMG_4269Come to think of it, instead of French toast, Frenchies often eat Pain Perdu. Show offs!). As it’s the only way to really eat steak, the first person to order up their hunk of beef requested rare, but the waitress advised everyone to order medium rare, as the cut was a bit toothsome (hanger steak). Three people at the table followed this advice and did have medium rare, but Glenda and I cannot stomach beef that is not bloody, so we bucked the tide and went for rare. To be honest, I didn’t really see where this steak ended-up being any chewier than many steaks I have been served in a variety Portland restaurants. The frites struck me as very unprofessionally prepped, however, as they were 50 different sizes, some the correct, slender frites size, some almost as large as steak fries. I suppose they tasted fine, but there were certainly different levels of doneness between the sizes, the main reason you try to keep anything you cook uniform in size, so they all get done at the same time. Also, I think what makes a potato product a frites, not a fry, is that it is long, thin, and a little crispy. These were lacking frite-ness. The little pitchers of Bearnaise sauce that you could pour on in moderation or excess were a nice touch, however, especially since no kitchen I can remember gives you the choice of determining your own meat to sauce ratio.

Milk and Honey (Dessert)

CHOCOLATE PAVE – Whipped cream –

When we were deciding on desserts, Maya turned to me to ask what a Pavé was. In my usual knowledgeable fashion, I shared with her the fact that i had no idea. Glenda had one, however, at which time Maya decided it basically looked like a brownie. I guess my gut instinct was more like a flour less chocolate cake. Whatever the case, Glenda enjoyed it enough to gobble it all up.

EARL GREY POT DE CREME – poppyseed shortbread

As a general rule, David almost never orders dessert, although he is usually not adverse to tasting (or eating a large portion) of yours. Tonight was an exception to the rule, however, as he said Pot de Creme is a particular favorite. I wasn’t quite sure how tea and a silky type pudding would be combined, bit David kindly save me one of the final bites, and the flavor was really distinctive and delicious. I supposed bergamot must be the key (which I just learned is actually a type of Italian orange. I suppose it’s sad that I didn’t know this fact, but I’m really not much of a tea guzzler).

MEYER LEMON BARS – sweet and tart

I think three of us had the lemon bars, and they were very tasty. Maya’s comment, “now these are good lemon bars”. I had to agree, and while they were of a modest size (most of Le Vieux’s desserts were cheaper than you see in good restaurants) the crust was rich and buttery, and the lemon filling was not overwhelmingly sweet like you often find in lemon based desserts. (over-compensation I guess).

It was wonderful to see all my great dining friends again (as well as meet some new ones) and to share everyone’s food, revel in the kookie conversation, and as usual, have lots of laughs. Also, as is typical, I practically left the table with whiplash, trying to participate in all of the conversations at the same time. Thanks co-dinees.

That being said, the reviews of Le Vieux seem more mixed. IMG_4273A recent review on the Po Mo website talked about a general inconsistency during the dinner hour at Le Vieux (although they did say brunch was hearty and top rate) and I think that was the general feeling at our table, a couple of things were good, many were average, and one or two things we ate left something to be desired. Pluses at Le Vieux, the physical restaurant is very welcoming, the staff pleasant and professional, and the rotating menu of specialties of different regions is a great, if perhaps hard to maintain, concept. Perhaps someday Le Vieux will rotate around to a menu that they do especially well, and decide that in the best interest of their clientele and financial stability, they will just stick with that.