Until recently, in France any village of 200 people was required by law to have a bakery. In Portland, for years we relied on Franz and Oroweat, then on later arrivals like Grand Central and Pearl, so it's no wonder a bakery like Saint Honoré that bills itself as the real French thing attracts locals in droves. They built a bigger boulangerie, and the people came.
And it is big, with exposed pipes hanging from lofty ceilings, enormous windows flooding the place with light, a long counter to accommodate the mobs reading Le Monde while waiting to place orders, and an open kitchen that allows you to view dough-laden workers scurrying about. A huge gas-fired oven made of clay from a French geological site lends atmosphere, as does a working electric mill that each day grinds 60 kilos of whole-wheat grain. Among the many tables there's a very un-French communal one, as well as those placed on the front sidewalk that fill with hearty customers who defy foul weather as if in training for a Jacques Cousteau expedition.
As for its namesake, Saint Honoré was a sixth-century miracle-producing priest for whom a Parisian baker built a commemorative chapel. Are this bakery's products equally miraculous? Yes and no.
The specialty breads that are a staple of the business aren't cheap, ranging from $3.75-$7.50 per loaf. The Miche Banal, a whole-wheat levain affair, is moist and hearty, but the flavor of the country bread disappoints with its excessive density and leaden feel. The baguette and its fatter cousin, the Parisian, are conventional but not entirely authentic: The final batch of the day emerges from the ovens at 10 am, while any respectable French bakery pulls them out of the oven all day long, since baguettes quickly lose their freshness.
The best of the petits pains are the walnut rolls, with a good grainy crunch and earthy flavor, while the onion rolls (both 95 cents) have just enough pungency and, when slathered with butter, go surprisingly well with morning coffee. To satisfy a sweet tooth, spring for the classic mille feuilles ($3.75), strata of caramelized puff pastry oozing with cream custard.
As for the rest of the breakfast offerings, the plain croissants ($1.95)--the truest test--are too chewy and lack the lightness and crisp-browned crust characterizing the most authentic and best of the breed. But the almond croissants ($2.95) are wonderful, buttery and satisfyingly sweet with a generous sprinkling of nuts. Chouquettes ($3.25 per dozen), little balls of light cream-puff pastry, are a perfect accompaniment to the rich, authentically powerful coffee served here.
Other pastries, too, are hit-and-miss: The pain aux raisins tasted soggy ($2.15), and the Normandy apple toast ($3.25) lacked much taste, a heap of dull fruit sitting atop the brioche dough without any flavor integration. Yet the mini-brioche ($1.75), a buttery golden glazed bread with fluted base and the characteristically jaunty top-knob, is meltingly delicious, enough to make you agree with the often-misquoted statement, wrongly attributed to Marie Antoinette: "They have no more bread, let them eat brioche."
For its lunch menu, Saint Honoré's food deserves, at best, a mixed report card. There are no haricots verts in the salad Niçoise ($8.50), a shocking omission, but an abundance of lettuce, a shocking commission. The croque-monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) was decent, but the cheese tasted burned and the ham was dry, while the tarte au fromage, a sensuous melange of gruyère, bleu and chèvre cheeses, was bubbly, smooth and perfectly crusted.
Saint Honoré reminds me of Paul, a chain bakery in Paris, which is to say that while the product is generally quite acceptable, occasionally superb, there's a bit of a corporate flavor to this place. In the absence of a boulangerie located on every Portland block, Saint Honoré will do just fine. But if you want to taste the results of a baker's imagination that's both authentically classic and stunningly inventive, there's still only one place to go in this town: Ken's Artisan Bakery.
2335 NW Thurman St., 445-4342.7 am-8 pm daily. Credit cards accepted. $-$$ Inexpensive-moderate.
Best bets: chouquettes, almond croissants, walnut bread, onion bread, mille feuilles.
Nice touch: The natives behind the counter will allow you to practice your high-school French.
Also in the neighborhood: Ken's Artisan Bakery, 338 NW 21st Ave., 248-2202.