I so much wanted to like Cuvée, a relatively new French bistro in Willamette Valley wine country opened by Gilbert Henry, who first made his name as the chef/owner of the Portland fish restaurant Winterborne. For after you outrun the Portland traffic and escape across the verdant fields of Yamhill County, passing herds of goats and gleaming silos to arrive at the charming hamlet of Carlton, a town that hosts an ever-growing number of wineries and vineyards, you're ready to wax poetic about nearly any subject.
But alas, Cuvée wanes prosaic. Much of its fare is mundane, and its merely calling the cuisine French won't make the imitation turn into the real thing. Case in point: The cassoulet ($18) couldn't be less authentic. Chicken sausages are served in lieu of Toulouse garlic-flavored pork sausages, lamb stands in for duck confit and pork shoulder, and then there's the incongruous addition of button mushrooms. The whole insipid concoction is a runny stew rather than the crusty, bubbly, steamingly aromatic dish of Southwest France it was meant to be.
I so much wanted to like Cuvée, for the welcome is warm and gracious, the staff generously attentive. But the "prawns à la Thailandaise" (what are they doing on a French menu, anyway?) are really faux Thai. The crustaceans are decent enough but the dish itself ($22) is utterly bland and lacking the vibrant flavorings of the Southeast Asian cuisine, as if chef Henry were worried that strong tastes might scare off his customers.
I so much wanted to like Cuvée, for the restaurant's simple decor is pleasingly serene, with white tablecloths set against warm wood floors, charcoal wainscoting and prints of vineyards. It has the feel of a real French country inn. But even the restaurant's appetizers are confusing: a recent special offering of seafood mousse ($7) was served, strangely, warm when it would have been better bracingly chilled; and the accompanying cold curry sauce threatens to overwhelm the delicate blend of cod and whitefish.
I so much wanted to like Cuvée, for adjoining the restaurant is a sweet antique shop that contains pretty Provençal items: plates and platters, tablecloths and glasses. But when your mousse au chocolat ($6) arrives with a puddle of milk sitting on top like an accidental spill, and your rhubarb tart (also $6) is, as Hamlet says about the world, "flat, stale and unprofitable," I, too, become dyspeptic.
There are, to be sure, a few things to like about Cuvée. There are dishes which, in tandem, could add up to a nice supper. Snails baked in garlic butter ($8) fill the bill. The rib-eye bifteck ($18) is a thin but tasty slab of protein, especially when served rare, and the bleu cheese atop the meat lends it a salty tang, while the accompanying spring vegetables are perfectly done. Just don't expect much from the strawlike fries, which can't hold a candle to McDonald's.
Another combination that might please is a starter of sautéed oysters ($8), plump and crisp with a creamy interior and a sharp bite from the side of horseradish sauce. Pair those oysters with sautéed halibut in a lemon beurre blanc on a bed of deep jade spinach and some Alsatian-inspired broad noodles that soak up the rich sauce (a recent poisson du jour special, $19), and you might leave contented.
But too often things go awry, as in Cuvée's boat of scallops and shrimp ($21): The excellent ingredients are decently cooked, but left swimming in a tarn of soupy liquid that threatens to drown the seafood even as a large dollop of goat cheese melts into the whole affair. Another oddity: Aside from a chicken-liver mousse starter, there's not a single poultry dish on the menu-no chicken, no duck.
On one of my visits there was a table of visiting musicians present, a gathering hosted in part by the owner of a local winery. I asked the vintner why they had all gone to Cuvée rather than dine at such superb wine-country restaurants as Tina's or the Joel Palmer House. The answer: This way, visitors to Oregon get to see what simple, rural, small-town restaurants are capable of.
Fair enough. If you don't expect too much, you can have a nice time at Cuvée. What dismays me is if you didn't know better you might think you were getting genuine regional French cooking, yet the restaurant is getting by with dishes that often seem more ersatz than authentic. If the spirit were there, it wouldn't take much to elevate the cooking to the real thing. But what is needed is a deeper commitment to purity and authenticity. Until that time, Cuvée will be more like the first of its dictionary meanings-a wine vat-rather than its other-a special reserve bottling.
, 214 West Main Street, Carlton, 852-6555. Open 5:30-9:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 4-8 pm Sunday. Credit cards. Children welcome, but seldom seen. $$-$$$ Moderate-expensive.
Picks: Sautéed oysters, bifteck
Nice touches: warm welcome, pleasant country dining room, Provençal antique shop adjoining the restaurant