Our story thus far: In 1978, the same year voters approved the creation of the nation's first urban growth boundary and WW declared the Bee Gees artists of the year, Brasserie Montmartre opened on the ground floor of the Esquire Hotel, around the corner from the department stores and hotels that made up the heart of pre-Pioneer Courthouse Square downtown. With its nightly live jazz and late hours, the restaurant soon became the sort of place you could, according to a 1988 Oregonian report, spot Rindy Ross chatting up Matt Dillon.
Abdel Omar, a former Benson Hotel busboy, purchased the restaurant in 1983 and ran it until 2006, when the building underwent a major renovation. The six-month closure dragged on, and on, until it became apparent that the Brasserie, which had long since drifted off the city's culinary map, was kaput.
In 2009, Matt and Sara Maletis bought the gutted Brasserie, added a downstairs lounge and optimistically signed a 20-year lease. Their version of the restaurant was a hit with fans of live jazz, but struggled to attract the attention of Portland diners. In April, they sold the business to developer Carl Coffman, who owns the building, and Pascal Chureau, the owner of West Linn's Allium Bistro whose local résumé includes stints at Tucci, Fenouil and the spectacularly failed Lucier.
In the month between purchasing the restaurant and reopening, Coffman and Chureau made some smart changes. The awkward bandstand at the back of the restaurant is gone, replaced by a wine rack, and the acoustic jazz performances have been moved to the front of the dining room. They also ditched the cheesy fireplace lounge, subbing bistro tables for armchairs, and roughed up the decor with exposed brick and chalkboards.
More important, the new owners had the good sense to hire Michael Hanaghan to run the kitchen. A veteran of Thomas Keller's Per Se and Bouchon Bistro, Hanaghan was the last of four chefs to helm Adam Berger's much-missed Ten 01. He had an excellent one-year run at that restaurant, where he created brilliant small plates like fiery confit duck wings.
So far, Hanaghan hasn't had much opportunity to show the inventiveness that marked his term at Ten 01—the Brasserie's menu doesn't venture far from the expected—but his attention to detail is evident. His rabbit boudin blanc ($18) is impeccable: a fat, juicy sausage, mild in flavor but not bland, the skin snapping slightly under the knife. An expertly boned trout came under a hill of green beans dressed with brown butter and capped with a sprinkling of toasted almonds, the sweet, nutty scent so alluring I spent a good minute sniffing the fish before digging in. (It tasted good, too.)
Brasserie Montmarte's menus (you can order from the dinner menu or shorter, cheaper bistro menu in the front of the enormous dining room, but only from the dinner menu in the back) are designed for comfort, offering four sorts of fries (plain or with duck fat, pork belly or truffle dressings), good onion soup ($9) and familiar entrees (roasted chicken, pork chop, mussels frites). You're unlikely to eat anything here that will broaden your culinary horizons, but your meal will taste good and look great.
The re-revived Brasserie is a pleasant, comfortable place to eat, its menu and unrefined but congenial service unlikely to offend anyone. But the restaurant is boring-, and given Hanaghan's success at Ten 01 and Chureau's Icarus-like ambitions at Lucier, it should be anything but. If any of the daring these chefs have shown in the past makes its way onto the menu, Brasserie Montmarte could become a real destination; for now, it is a nice, safe place for dinner and drinks with co-workers, where I guarantee you won't run into Matt Dillon.
- Order this: The fragrant trout, $19.
- Best deal: The huge slab of veal pÃ¢tÃ©, $10 or $6 at happy hour (2-6 pm daily and 10 pm-midnight Monday-Saturday).
- Iâll pass: Fried Parisian gnocchi ($6) look delightfully like Tater Tots, but the too-strong truffle flavor outweighs the novelty.