Queen of Crust

The eternal question: dessert or the check? In Portland, you're usually better off with the check. Our town's eateries can rarely afford a dedicated pastry chef, so even meals at excellent restaurants usually peak with the entree. You pass on the panna cotta and head to a bakery or ice-cream shop—we have plenty of good ones—only to end up in a block-long line, shaking the handle of a locked door or spending a romantic evening on a vinyl bench under fluorescent lighting.

Or so it was before Lauretta Jean's game-changing expansion to Southeast Division Street.

Pie: To my mind, the perfect dessert. Available in varied degrees of sweetness, fruitiness, creaminess and chocolateyness, pie can sit for a few hours before it loses its charm. It's also a loyal companion to coffee that's handily shareable and easily upgraded with ice cream.

Division Street: the perfect place for an after-dinner dessert shop. A half dozen of the city's most exciting restaurants sit along a 25-block stretch, which we'll concede to calling "Restaurant Row" until a less-hackneyed alternative emerges.

Lauretta Jean's: a perfect pie shop. Classy but casual, laid out like a coffee shop with low light, a simple wood-and-glass counter and a poster advocating weed and Willie Nelson Neil Young.

Blackberry Raspberry ($4): the perfect slice. The tart and pulpy filling is lick-your-fork good, with berries crushed so they offer up their nectar without losing their personality. The flaky crust, made with careful attention to an old family recipe, has the soft crunch of high-desert snow.

There's breakfast and lunch—flaky breakfast biscuits are delicious topped with either a pat of butter or bright-pink strawberry preserves with big slivers of berry; a caramelized onion-and-blue-cheese hand pie uses a get-every-crumb herbed crust to make up for the lack of cheese—but weekend evening hours are when Lauretta Jean's really shines. You'll find A Tribe Called Quest on the stereo and unfussy cocktails or bottled beer on the tables, in the space mysteriously abandoned by Pix Patisserie just before Duane Sorenson's new joint, Ava Gene's (no relation), opened across the street.

Baker Kate McMillen is a queen of crust, and whatever she puts in her pies seems to work. Fillings change daily, but you're safe picking your favorite flavor and waiting for the wow. The apple pie, for example, is what I imagine people who order the traditional slice want: al dente slices of apple powdered with cinnamon and vanilla. Neither overly rich nor heavily spiced, it's refreshingly simple. The tart cherry, on the other hand, has fresh fruit and a little bite. Chocolate caramel hazelnut cheesecake with a crust that tastes like it's made of crushed ginger snaps is thick with cream, nuts and cocoa.

The cream pies are an exception of sorts: They're about 80 percent fluffy, barely baked cream, with shallow layers of toasty coconut or a pudding spiked with soft slices of banana. They're satisfying, but I'd like more filling. Then again, they pair well with a dark beer after dinner. That's something you'll find me enjoying here far, far too often.

  1. Order this: Slice of berry pie ($4) and a Black Butte Porter ($3).
  2. I’ll pass: Apple pie ($4).

EAT: Lauretta Jean's, 3402 SE Division St., 235-3119, laurettajean.com. 7 am-5 pm Monday-Wednesday, 7 am-10 pm Thursday-Friday, 8 am-10 pm Saturday, 8 am-5 pm Sunday. $.