Having thoroughly Portlandized the cuisine of the American Southeast, our local restaurateurs have cast their gaze eastward, in a flurry of Francophile new restaurants: St. Jack, Little Bird Bistro, Cocotte, Alder Pastry and Dessert, and the latest attempt at reviving Brasserie Montmartre. The culinary mood has shifted from lard to butter—lots and lots of butter.
Unlike Gabriel Rucker’s Little Bird Bistro, which feels like the Le Pigeon chef’s attempt to imagine Abigail Breslin in the throes of a Parisian absinthe binge, there is nothing forced about St. Jack. Opened in December by Aaron Barnett, a Canadian chef who had a brief, brilliant run at 23Hoyt, and the prolific Chefstable restaurant group, St. Jack has been comfortably, approachably excellent since day one.
Kurt Huffman, founder of Chefstable, started a successful chain of brewpubs named Ninkasi (unrelated to the Eugene brewery) in Lyon before his current ventures, and has said that the restaurant is inspired by the rustic bouchons of the region. Having never visited Lyon, I can’t compare it to the real thing, but the menu at St. Jack has a casual, earthy character, the service is warm and professional, and the restaurant’s atmosphere, while hardly rural, is one of earnest bon temps. The decor nearly strays into the realm of the precious, with pastries under delicate glass domes, blackboards in gold frames with the specials of the day, olives served in teacups, and candlesticks completely encased in white wax drippings, but is grounded by the Hobart mixer parked in the dining room. St. Jack likes nice things, but isn’t afraid to let you see how the sausage is made.
Lyonnaise cooks are notorious for making inspired use of animal parts no one else wants—the snouts, brains and bits of head—but you won’t find anything at St. Jack much stranger than the tablier de sapeur ($6). Literally “fireman’s apron,” this disk of breaded, fried tripe looks like a chicken-fried steak. Spread with the accompanying caper mayonnaise, it tastes like a chewy, beefy latke. It’s at the top of the menu, and sets the tone of the entire meal: This is fatty, intensely flavorful food, and it demands drink.
St. Jack encourages boozing, with several wines available in pots lyonnais—standard-sized wine bottles with extra-thick bottoms that hold 46 centiliters (about three glasses)—at 17 percent off the price by the glass. I like the Seven of Hearts Pinot Noir. Bartender Kyle Webster’s cocktails are not particularly novel, but they are food-friendly and remarkably potent.
First-timers at St. Jack should beware of fat overdose. I made the mistake of starting with cervelle de canut, a blend of goat cheese, soft fromage blanc, shallots and garlic ($6). Then I moved on to roasted bone marrow ($11), a plate of three enormous bones with toast and shallot-caper vinaigrette; gratin d’escargots, a bowl of snails and ham nearly submerged in butter and mustard ($12); and a tarte Lyonnaise ($16), with goat cheese, melted onions, leeks and a poached egg in a fluffy nest of shockingly buttery pastry. The meal made for a hot, sleepless night.
There are lighter dishes at St. Jack, and they are among the restaurant’s most satisfying: flaky roasted trout ($18), served head and all with lentils and lemony browned-butter vinaigrette; lightly cooked clams ($18), finished with vermouth and fennel, and still reeking of the sea; and earthy blood sausage with roasted apples ($18).
Indeed, every dish I
tried at the restaurant was excellent, but the best of them all was a
special intended for two: pied de cochon ($28), a whole pig trotter,
deboned and stuffed with sweetbreads and mushrooms, breaded, fried and
served over white beans in a brown broth that’s viscous with gelatin.
It’s only available when Barnett can get enough trotters. If you see it,
cancel all plans and order immediately.
- Order this: Pied de cochon, $28.
- Best deal: After the unbelievably buttery $16 onion tart, you won’t want dessert.
- I’ll pass: The Lipitor.
EAT: St. Jack, 2039 SE Clinton St., 360-1281, stjackpdx.com. Patisserie 9 am-4 pm daily, dinner 5-9:30 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.