September 1st, 2010 Deeda Schroeder | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Small Wonders

With a new chef, Fenouil’s small plates shine.

     
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PETITE, C’EST CHIC: Fenouil’s hamachi crudo wih strawberries, red onion, basil seeds and yuzu yogurt.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

At Fenouil in the Pearl District, the kitchen has no problem consistently turning out beautiful food. Whether it’s a Saturday dinner or a late workday lunch, there’s no question the cooks have what it takes to create tiny, work-of-art eats.

Fenouil looks gorgeous, too—from the refined butter-toned interior to the pertly coiffed servers who inhabit it—and yet somehow, it lacks personality. By contrast, the city outside the restaurant bustles. Children scream and splash steps away in the Jamison Square fountain and the streetcar squeals as its metallic wheels grate on rails. It’s real, human and gritty.

Too bad the food isn’t as reliably genuine as the restaurant’s surroundings.

Chef Jake Martin, who came to Portland in 2007 and spent two years at Carlyle, is making progress with that issue. He landed at “Fen-new-ee” in March; hired on by Chris Dussin—of Old Spaghetti Factory fame—to refocus Fenouil’s French-inspired cuisine. For the most part, he’s succeeded.

Small plates shine. Here the kitchen’s technique is rock solid—not a single vegetable or protein is overcooked, and plates are colorful, balanced and tidy. Foie gras au torchon ($20 at dinner) is a good example—the thick slab of poached goose liver was creamy and rich, cut with crunchy-sweet chunks of pear, creamy vanilla sauce and sea salt.

Hamachi tartare ($17 at dinner) arrives as a handful of tender diced yellowtail packed into a square mold and topped with a layer of strawberry and red onion. Sprinkled with chives and a fluff of radish sprouts, it was also garnished with peculiar-looking reconstituted basil seeds and yuzu-spiked yogurt. Mild, fresh, cold and clean, it was delightful and inventive.

An heirloom tomato salad ($10 at lunch)— the gussied-up version of an Italian Caprese salad—lined up cherry-sized fresh mozzarella, farm tomatoes and inky-black taggiasca olives, finished off with a heavy thread of 20-year-old balsamic vinegar. Puget Sound mussels ($12 at lunch) come served in a shiny copper pot, soaking in their own slurp-worthy, sea-flavored cooking liquid. The Oregon Berkshire pork pâté ($12 at lunch, $8 at happy hour) featured a seared crispy brioche crust and a side of crunchy green beans tossed with pickled shallots and whole-grain mustard—tender and perfectly seasoned.

Large plates, while still lovely to look at, weren’t so surefooted. For anyone to plunk down nearly $30 for a single plate at dinner these days, the meal ought to be flawless.

Day-boat scallops ($29 at dinner), though nicely seared, came atop a flat, lackluster pairing of white beans and rings of tender calamari. A roasted Sonoma duck breast ($29 at dinner) had crisp skin and was a thin-sliced medium-rare, but arrived served over kale and lentils with an earthy demi-glace—a dish better suited for a cooler season. The pan-seared shoulder tender that showed up in the steak frites ($16 at lunch) arrived overcooked and underseasoned.

Luckily, the Oregon albacore tuna en brioche ($19 at lunch) was seared rare, and took the best of summer and combined it on a plate—grape tomatoes, capers, baby hand-pared fresh artichokes—yielding a happy marriage of acidic and mild flavors as well as varying textures.

Examine the side dishes on the menu for whatever’s seasonal—a small bowl of spring legumes ($7) came filled with fresh peas and fava beans, heady with the bite of whole cloves of garlic and shallot. But the frites ($4, plus $1 for a toss in duck fat) were a disappointment. They were only crispy-ish, and it’s not worth paying the extra dollar for the quack.

Before the departure of pastry chef Kristen Murray, desserts posed a challenge to those who didn’t care for traditionally savory ingredients in their sweets. Sadly, a recent visit didn’t turn up any Gorgonzola ice cream, hay-flavored caramel or beery hop macaroons. Now, sweets on the menu are less creative but still delicious. A summer berry pudding ($8) was bursting with fruit and moist cake, and the idea of a brownie ($8) translated to two moist cake rounds topped with milk chocolate ice cream and a rich coconut sorbet.

Through it all, Fenouil’s service is gracious and hospitable, making spot-on recommendations for drinks and wine. Lunches on the sprawling patio move at a much slower pace.

So, go to Fenouil when you’re craving a refined, elegant meal. Or when you’d like to linger over a bottle of wine and lunch overlooking Jamison Square. Stick close to the small plates section of the menu and you won’t be disappointed.

  • Order this: Creamy foie gras torchon; Oregon albacore tuna en brioche.

  • Best deal: A copper pot of Puget Sound mussels ($12, at lunch).

  • I’ll pass: Bland steak frites.

EAT: Fenouil, 900 NW 11th Ave., 525-2225, fenouilinthepearl.com. 11:30 am-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm Saturday-Sunday (brunch served until 2 pm). Bar open 9 am Saturday-Sunday. Happy hour 4-6 pm daily.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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