At the Buckman Bistro, the nascent offspring of William's on 12th, you could eat like somebody who'd actually benefit from a massive tax cut for just a few dollars more than what most of us in the bottom-95-percent income bracket are likely to get out of the Bush plan. The menu features small plates with generous portions that run from $4 to $9, affordable luxury in a double-dip recession. Start with the perfectly seared scallops barely daubed with simple but defiantly French beurre blanc ($8). Good as the sweet little shellfish are, I really loved the tangle of pickled red onion with bacon alongside. The bacon was cut into long, thin slices that looked so much like the onion they surprised me every time I bit into one.
The mussels with white wine, garlic and lemon ($9) are an even better deal. They overflow a soup bowl, the pastel bivalves peeking out from their midnight-blue shells. Picking them apart makes eating mussels leisurely, and that cooking liquor left in the bowl just cries out for sopping up with bread.
A composed salad of barley, beets and fennel ($4) was homogeneously pink, but the faint liquorice-like flavor of the fennel attenuated the earthy beets, and pine nuts added some texture. I liked the salad, but was even more impressed by the beet-foam garnish. Most food nerds know about Spaniard Ferran Adria and his restaurant El Bulli, the center of the food-as-foam universe, but this was the first time I'd actually encountered the stuff here in Portland. It looked like bright pink shaving cream and tasted like, well, beets. Can't say it rocked my world, food-wise, but I liked the effort.
I don't think I've seen spätzle on a Portland menu since old-school Henry Thiele's closed about 100 years ago, but I don't know why more cooks don't make the "little sparrows." The randomly shaped dumpling-like noodles ($7) are chewy but tender, and at Buckman Bistro they're oven-roasted to get a slightly browned exterior. I had them one night with caramelized onion, hazelnuts and Parmesan cheese, but saw them again with the same onions and morels.
The rosemary-fennel lamb sausage, made in-house, pairs nicely with tender little French green lentils ($7) and would be a nice follow-up to a big slice of the caramelized onion tart ($6). The neighborhood's namesake Buckman burger ($8) is a real contender. Local, sustainably ranched, freshly ground and grilled medium-rare Painted Hills beef slides into a brioche bun from Ken's Artisan Bakery. For company, it has cheese (natch), a side of fries, and a house-made ketchup that hovers somewhere between cocktail sauce and salsa. You can get a rasher of Carlton bacon tossed on for another buck, and I did, but wish I hadn't. I love bacon, and I love burgers, but I feel that a burger this good should be allowed to shine with beefy goodness, and the bacon is like a smoky curtain.
If you want to pretend you're in Paris instead of Southeast Portland, order the oeufs au Meurette. These are poached eggs, duck eggs in this case, and while we're getting past our irrational fear of eating them, most Americans still think eggs should only be consumed in the morning. As is often the case, the French know better, and commonly eat eggs--oeufs bücheronee, oeufs chasser, oeufs justine, oeufs rossini--for a midweek supper.
Oeufs au Meurette is classic bistro fare. The eggs are served on a piece of toasted brioche swimming in a pool of pinot noir sauce. It looks like way too much at first, but by the time you've finished wiping every last drop off the plate you understand that it's not quite enough. Especially after you break the bright-yellow yolk, and combine some egg with the brioche and one of the big lardons hiding in the deep red sauce. Ooh la la.
Oregon's unemployment is the highest in the country. Our fellow citizens who fall through the widening cracks in our once-lauded health plan are featured on the pages of The New York Times. Doonesbury skewers our failure to fund our schools. At least we've got some good restaurants that offer food at decent prices.
213 SE 12th Ave., 230-2381.
5-10 pm Sunday- Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday- Saturday, 8 am-1 pm Saturday- Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. Inexpensive to moderate $-$$.
The Bistro's wine list is the work of Jim Biddle, formerly of Atwater's. Most bottles are $20 or less, and nearly all the wines are served by the glass.
Desserts range from a classic crème brûlée to a polenta cake with a fig sauce. Or go straight to the extensive menu of single- malt scotches.