Renard is named after a fox—the unpredictable charmer of French folk tales. And so far, the tiny restaurant has been equally unpredictable. At this new Frenchified bistro in the old St. Jack space, I have witnessed a complete kitchen meltdown, and also enjoyed a pleasant experience that shows its potential as a fine neighborhood spot slinging coq au vin, French onion soup and terrifically lovely desserts.
On our first visit in August, three months into Renard's life, the restaurant crammed so many failures and errors into a single meal that it would strain even a Yelp moderator's credulity: lost appetizers, entrees gone cold in the staging area, miffed drinks, steak bordelaise that tasted weirdly oystery, and meat gone almost granular under attack from spice powder. You might think it was an episode of Chuck in which the chefs were being held hostage in the kitchen. But without any complaint from our table, the restaurant offered to comp almost everything in the meal—being both gracious and keenly aware of the problems.
But as of Sept. 4, the restaurant has changed chefs, bringing in Paley's Place and Imperial veteran Ian Best. A subsequent experience was entirely different.
In its current form, Renard is an utterly unfussy Gallic spot—like a nice place in Provence or an ode to Julia Child—with old-school French fare and a service staff that might remember you'd left a hat there a month before. The front area is warm-toned, no-nonsense cozy and arranged around the bar, with a side-street patisserie as cute and bright as a child's replica of a midcentury Euro bakery. The menu is more familiar than ambitious, but the spot's very faithfulness to the humble tradition of French bistro is a lot of its appeal. And judging from an ever-accelerating brunch business, Renard seems to be finding its place in the neighborhood.
The dinnertime French onion soup ($11) handily serves as an appetizer for two, and is a rich and satisfying comfort. The massive ramekin comes capped with Comté-Gruyere-Emmenthaler gratinée that hides the deep caramel of long-cooked onions beneath it, a heady stew redolent of the thousands that have come before it.
The charcuterie plate ($14) is very much a country board—galantine, duck liver pâté, a spot of local fig—an art that Best learned from a French Laundry cookbook and from Stan Luoma at Paley's Place. It's a modest offering in a city whose meat boards can look like commentaries on decadence or deeply personal art projects. The duck liver descended a bit too much into iron, but the "country pâté"—which Best calls "soul food"—and galantine recalled fond memories of meals in the small towns surrounding Bordeaux.
And the coq au vin ($26) is likewise both old-school and welcome, chicken (not rooster) leg and breast tenderized with wine and served up with oyster mushroom and healthy bits of lardons, atop a bed of potato puree gone orange from the braise. Two could easily share it, with appetizers.
The best feature on the drink menu is a rare selection of Armagnac, made available in a fairly economical flight of four for $25. Don't pass it up. But mixed cocktails have been up and down at double-digit prices. My favorite was a Smoke and Mirrors martini—vodka with a peaty wash of Laphroaig coating the glass that pairs well with the deep flavors of the food.
Pastry chef Molly Lasko's desserts are wonderful. A goblet of lemon custard topped with fruit was just the right balance of soft and sweet tingled with the gentle sours of lemon and cream. And an apple tarte tatin—a tongue twister that caught our server laughing—was pure cinnamon delight, airy pastry topped with the textured sweetness of caramelized fruit.
Though there's the occasional out-there dish—curried octopus, perhaps—amid a menu of curry moules, steak tartare, and steak frites with parsley on the frites, Renard is perhaps most interesting in its resolute ordinariness. It is the tableclothed fine dining of decades gone, now made as comfy as your favorite chair.
Order this: Coq au vin, french onion soup and one dessert per person.
I'll pass: $3 oysters can be had much better elsewhere.
EAT: Renard, 2039 SE Clinton St., 719-7529, renardpdx.com. 4 pm-close daily, 8 am-2 pm Monday-Friday, 10 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.