Some restaurants, like some people, have visions. The 19th-century French philosopher Brillat-Savarin, whose Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy attempted to endow food with the status of high art, posited a 10th muse, Gasteria, who "presides over all the pleasures of taste." What is the vision of the muse who watches over the kitchen of Zinc Bistrot?
To begin with, what exactly is a French bistro? (Zinc's extra "t" harks back to an earlier spelling.) Usually, it's an intimate, family-run place, with earthy home cooking and copious, simple but hearty fare; a neighborhood spot where diners engage in noisy conversation, sometimes across tables; and an establishment that offers great value. When you order a hearty terrine in a bistro, the whole terrine might be placed on the table and left there until you've finished with it. If you order herring marinated in oil and herbs, you could get the bowl to plunder to your belly's content. Ditto the chocolate mousse. What foods does one associate with the classic French bistro? That depends partly on the region, since bistros tend to emphasize local recipes, but you can usually count on sizzling gratins, stews and ragouts with meats marinated in red wine, crisp salads, potatoes sautéed in goose fat, garlic-infused dishes and charcuterie. Above all, it's a place with soul and tradition. It's hard to manufacture a new bistro.
But we in America have to settle for that newness. I've always wished that Portland could attract not just a French chef but one who would import French ingredients and the unadulterated spirit of a Parisian bistro, but I know that's a tall order. And if the classic decor were also imported--dark wood paneling, etched glass, mirrored walls, a crafted zinc bar--it might look out of place, slightly ersatz.
So how does the much-touted Zinc Bistrot, with its French features on American soil, measure up? In many ways, it's quite good. Some of the food reminds this old French hand of the real thing, yet some of it doesn't come close. Zinc is trying very hard to look like the real thing: lots of nice French food posters, a traditional menu blackboard of the night's specials, a huge mirror, banquettes around the rim of the room. Trying a bit too hard, perhaps: The chewy demi-baguette--from Wildwood--arrives in a paper bag. "Just like in France," says our waiter (Zinc is very self-conscious about asserting its bistro identity), but in French bistros you would never get your baguette in a sack.
I was delighted to see a warm shirred egg atop the frisée salad ($5.95) with lardons (bacon that's been diced, blanched and fried). Though the menu announced the egg "in brioche," it didn't come that way--and I was glad of that. The best starter is a crêpe piled with chopped beets and celery root and sheep's milk cheese ($8.95)--not exactly a familiar bistro dish but eminently satisfying. Zinc has several apple-infused soups ($5.25); I liked an unctuous version fortified with creamy brie, though the fruit comes through nicely. But Zinc's snails ($8.50) are woefully inadequate, lacking all pungency, skimpy on the garlic, lukewarm instead of sizzling and absolutely bland. The best single dish I sampled was the bouillabaisse ($17.95). The broth is liberally infused with saffron, and, while the serving is modest, it comes with such unusual creatures as octopus. The rich base is sheer pleasure. For a splendid fish plate, there's a clever take on cassoulet ($16.95), the original French version of which would be too heavy for the summer: Monkfish is substituted for pork and duck, and there's a witty pairing of the essential white beans and the more serendipitous haricots verts. But no one is manning the fort on the coq au vin ($12.95). This dish needs lots and lots of wine, a bit of cognac, salt pork and even unsweetened cocoa power; the coq au vin here lacked heartiness and any layering of flavors. Another disappointment is the entrecôte ($22.95), usually one of the most luscious cuts of beef. It was too thin, arrived slightly overcooked and dried (it was asked for rare), though the separately ordered side of potatoes and garlic gratin ($3.95) was up to snuff.
For dessert, a lemon tart ($7) does the restaurant proud; meringue is piped around the border, orange peel graces the center and the custard is bitingly tart.
For a place of such promise, there is work to be done. You can't simply call yourself a bistro, have a scattering of authentic-seeming dishes and declare the game won. I'm not convinced--yet--that there is tradition and authenticity deep in the bones of the kitchen. But I want to give Zinc a chance, because there's a winning earnestness about it, and some things do come off beautifully. In the meantime, the dining room is abuzz, and it's a fun place to be, though I don't quite have the illusion I'm in Paris' sixth arrondissement.
500 NW 21st Ave.
5-9 pm Sunday, 5:30-10:30 pm Tuesday- Thursday, 5:30-11 pm Friday- Saturday. Children welcome but seldom seen.
, sheep's cheese and beet crêpe, bouillabaisse, monkfish cassoulet,
Long refectory tables in center of room, laden with wine.