Trends do not sweep through Portland's food world the way they do in larger cities. In New York, for instance, the hot ticket is French food--and even hotter is the French cheese restaurant. Within a few months of opening, the best fromagerie, Artisanel, had spawned several followers. Likewise, word is out that the only way to get into the new chic West Village bistro Pastis, without waiting many weeks, is to know their private reservation phone line. The big fuss last year was the opening of Alain Ducasse. When Ducasse, a chef with an unprecedented six Michelin stars, came to New York, he promptly raised the bar for
dining, setting it at $180, not including wine, tax or tip. Hardly anyone blinked.
Astute followers of Portland's restaurant scene will notice that of late a Gallic resurgence has taken place here. Though hardly an invasion, it may represent a little drift, if not a wave. Tartine, the pleasant, informal bistro in Sellwood, opened this year and serves homey food, some of it emanating from owner-chef Gigi Machet's native region of the Haute Savoie in the French Alps. While the food may never satisfy seriously discriminating francophiles, Tartine turns out a decent version of French neighborhood cooking. Still doing nicely is the bistro Le Bouchon, which feels more like a corner of France, perhaps because it draws a savvier crowd and has a city feel about it. Here is a restaurant that's fun to go to, especially late at night when everyone kicks back a bit. And you can usually depend on finding several items not easily available elsewhere, such as kidneys and sweetbreads.
Perhaps the most awaited opening since Bluehour's was that of Zinc Bistrot, which this year took over the notable corner of Northwest 21st Avenue and Glisan Street where Zefiro (the former restaurant of Bluehour's Bruce Carey) had once established its dominance. Zinc has so far been a scene, and it does a more-than-credible version of a Parisian bistro, perhaps as much as one can hope for without an entrepreneur bringing Parisian staff, expertise, tradition and ingredients to these shores lock, stock and barrel. It's good to see on the menu at Zinc such items as a salad of frisée with a poached egg and lardons.
Moving up the scale of local French (or French-inspired) restaurants are the Heathman, Esplanade and Couvron. Each has matured this year, in its own way. As everyone knows by now, the Heathman's Philippe Boulot won the coveted James Beard award for the best chef in the Northwest. Boulot, who comes from Normandy, introduced a number of superb bistro classics to the menu, such as braised rabbit in mustard sauce and pheasant breast wrapped in bacon. Pascal Sauton continues to produce stunning meals at Esplanade, which will undergo a facelift this fall. Sauton brings a sophisticated Parisian background to his work, which includes a daring and masterful blending of flavors. Couvron introduced lofty prix fixe dinners (one of the options, at $95, includes nine courses), making chef Tony Demes practically the Ducasse of Portland. Couvron's cooking gets better all the time, and Demes does wonderful things with deliciously complex soups, foie gras and venison.
If the previous few years saw an expansion of Italian cuisine, finally allowing Portlanders to sample good, earthy, regional Italian cooking, this seems to be the Year of the Frog. Is there any reason for such a phenomenon, if that's not too grandiose a term? I suspect that Portlanders now understand that "French" does not necessarily equal "forbidding," "over-sauced" or "froufrou," or any other terms of disparagement that once indicated alienating cuisine. Garrison Keillor may get laughs from the Café Boeuf sequence, but the new French cooking in town has no relation to such pretension. What marks the emergent sophistication of the culinary city is that we can begin to discriminate, being neither intimidated by French cuisine nor accepting of just anything done in its name.