Square Peg

Jamison has ambition, a view and little else.

The one enduring positive at the restaurant now known as Jamison is a location that maximizes the seasonal joy of al fresco dining. On the enclosed patio at the edge of Jamison Square in Northwest Portland’s Pearl District, the sun shines warm and bright filtered through the trees, kids and dogs frolic in the adjacent water feature, cuddling couples and young families lounge around the Pearl District’s lone public patch of grass. A glass of wine or a cocktail with friends in a parkside setting like this, and all is well with the world.  

In its former incarnation as the francophonic Fenouil, the indoor dining area was as much a place to kick back in style as the patio. The food was never great, but it was one of the most attractive dining rooms in town: Furnishings and décor were plush, and in the dreary months that occupy most of the Portland calendar, the fireplace glowed warm, orange and homey. Eventually, Fenouil caved in to never-ending staff changes and its own mediocrity.

Open since the beginning of July, Jamison has doubled down on everything wrong with Fenouil, adding a few unpleasant wrinkles of its own. I will not soon forget walking into the denuded space. The once-elegant interior of white tablecloths, cushy chairs, high-end wall treatments and carpeting had been cast aside, replaced by bare cement floors and repurposed barn wood. It was as though the operators, who also run the underachieving Davis Street Tavern, cynically decided to disguise the place as one of the low-budget indie locavore spaces that gets so much national press. 

The Jamison menu had to have been conceived with either the same cynicism or painfully blind ambition. There are over 50 menu items in eight separate categories. The organizing principle seems to center on seasonal produce, here interpreted as using every possible fruit, vegetable and herb available at the farmers market. It's T.G.I. Friday's goes organic. Several of the dishes appear to have been created using a random ingredient generator while others are just poorly executed. The dozen or so dishes I've tried over three visits have topped out at mediocre.

The bottom of the scale was best exemplified by "tempura squash blossoms, tallegio, truffle honey" ($10). Delicate squash blossoms stuffed with tart chevre, lightly battered and quickly fried to crispness is a simple seasonal pleasure. Jamison's variation was an embarrassing amalgam of an excessively rich and pungent washed-rind cheese, sodden breading, vast quantities of salt and a flavored honey with which no self-respecting bee would ever choose to be associated. The "potato gratin, love, Parmesan" ($8) that had been calling me until I surrendered on my final visit was just about as bad, an overbaked chafing dish of potato slices topped with a darkened, leatherlike sheet of what may or may not have once been Parmesan cheese.  The "love"—cream and butter—intended to lend a rich creaminess to the potatoes seems to have gone missing, leaving a mass whose only flavor derived from the heavy-handed addition of thyme. The wild plum sauce that accompanied my duck breast ($22) was flat-out sour, and the breast itself was chewy with an unwelcome streak of sinew throughout.

If there is a dish on this menu that might bring pleasure, I was unable to unearth it. But it shouldn't take that kind of effort. This is a restaurant in a high-profile location run by experienced operators. The downscale disguise isn't going to fool Portland diners, nor will quantity compensate for quality.

With eight months of gray and damp about to begin, Jamison needs to rethink and rejigger. There's not much of a market for al fresco dining during our long, wet winter. 

  1. Order this: Beer, wine or cocktails, $4-$16
  2. Best deal: Chipotle candied nuts, $3 during happy hour.

EAT: Jamison, 900 NW 11th Ave., 972-3330, jamisonpdx.com. $$$.