| Mood and Food: at Fenouil. |
At times, though, the restaurant feels like a classy corporate affair; everything is so gleaming and self-consciously important. You sense the money that's been poured into the venue. If Fenouil (the word for "fennel" and one even the French have difficulty pronouncing) lacks any ingredient, it's an easy manner and an atmosphere of bonhomie. With few exceptions, however, the cooking is authoritative and assured.
Pascal Chureau, the restaurant's co-owner and Bordeaux-born chef, has created a menu authentically French. The dishes represent the culinary munificence of the entire country: mussels with a Provençal splashing of Pastis, Marseilles merguez, an onion tarte from Alsace and duck from the Perigord.
Among the warm appetizers, the deep-fried frogs' legs ($11) are meatier than usual. Call them a French version of Buffalo wings for their addictive quality, though the accompanying sauce is a tad oily and ordinary. The carpaccio of tuna ($10) is paper-thin, set off with a showering of watercress and a sprinkle of sea salt, for a bracing, ambrosial experience. Fenouil's steak tartare ($13) is a discreetly small square of Kobe beef, with a tiny raw quail egg atop that gushes golden gore for pure sensuous pleasure. Aesthetics count as much as taste here: Everything looks stunning on the plate, and some of those plates are long and narrow, as if guiding your eating in linear fashion left to right.
The best single dish I had was duck two ways ($23): a crisp confit with crackling fat and a barnyard-earthy magret, allowing you to shift back and forth between different styles of richness. In another register, the flavor of smoked bacon permeates plump scallops ($24), making for a briny and pungent dish. Or try the surprisingly succulent filet of wild boar ($29). It is to pork what venison is to beef: woodsy, deep and nutty. Each dish at Fenouil is garnished differently: The duck comes with crunchy flageolets and prunes macerated in Armagnac, the scallops with a luscious fondue of leeks, and best of all the boar with unctuous bone marrow and garlicky potatoes in duck fat.
Desserts are small but inexpensive ($2-$4.50), so it makes sense to order a medley: a puckeringly intense lemon tart, a fig tart with saffron cream (an homage to the chef's mother's Maghreb roots) and a terrine of chocolate and apricot.
If you are in a Francophilic mood, be sure to ask for Paul, a splendid waiter also from Bordeaux, who will guide you through the menu with aplomb and poise, and may give you a bit of gastronomic history in the bargain. Less an informal bistro than Pascal Sauton's Carafe, more concertedly French than Philippe Boulot's Heathman, Fenouil is the most elegant French restaurant Portland has had in some while.
Fenouil, 900 NW 11th Ave., 525-2225. Lunch 11:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, dinner 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday and 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, brunch 10 am-3 pm Sunday. $$$ Expensive.