Friday, February 25, 2011

The Restaurant of My Dreams

Describing your ideal restaurant is like listing the characteristics you look for in the ideal mate—it's entirely subjective. Tall and thin? Or perhaps you prefer someone a bit more, as my son described me once, "comfy." A serious-minded business type? A whimsical creative?

I've been in places that declare their bona fides in leather-bound menus, tuxedo-clad waiters and sparkling silver; in the aura of exclusivity emanating from the clothes on the guests and the upholstery on the seats.

Though it no doubt speaks volumes about me that I prefer homier surroundings, with the buzz of conversation (not too loud) and the clinking of glasses, the bustle of waiters, the smells of the night's specials flowing from the kitchen and wafting from plates as they pass by.

Epi's just outside Boise felt right the moment I walked in the door, as did Ariana in Bend, Lark in Seattle and Fore Street in Portland, Maine. Our own city boasts a bunch, from Bread & Ink and 3 Doors Down on Hawthorne to Tabla and Navarre on 28th. Toast, Bar Avignon, Lucca, Ned Ludd…they're all comfortable and unpretentious, and the food is locally sourced, well-made and even reasonably priced. Even better, they're staffed by passionate local folks who not only love good food and drink, but are committed to making their communities better places to live (and eat). Imagine that!

To that list I'd add St. Jack, a newcomer to the busy restaurant row clustered around Southeast 21st and Division. A patisserie and coffee bar from morning till midafternoon, the action cranks up in the bar with a hopping happy hour that starts at 4 pm. (Why don't more places open then?) The bar manager is an earnest-looking fellow, Kyle Webster, who's serious about his cocktails, stirring mean classics with a a "no froo-froo" rule stressing fresh squeezed juices, well-chosen liquors and well-balanced flavors. I'm saying it here if it hasn't been said before: this is a guy who's going places.

Yet another of Kurt Huffman's Chefstable projects, the ambience is much less the design-y, tony aesthetic reflected in their other projects like Ping and Grüner, and more a personal statement that fits easily into the funky, laid-back atmo of the neighborhood.

The menu put forth by Chef Aaron Barnett is where rustic French cuisine crosses Northwest ingredients, with a heavy emphasis on traditional preparations. Which means you'll find not only excellent pommes frites, but a poached egg-topped rich onion tart (left), a version of tripe that was a little wiener schnitzel-ish for me and, yes, even frog legs cooked in wine and lemon.

Aside from the crispy, salty, get-them-away-from-me-because-I-can't-stop-eating-them frites and aioli and that onion tart, on both recent trips we also ordered the petit salé (top photo), a lusciously braised pork belly astride perfectly tender green lentils along with a big, marrow-filled bone. The little spoon plunged into it made it easy to scoop out the marrow and smear it on a bit of baguette, and it made me feel like I was sitting in a bistro in Paris.

The whole roasted trout (right) I had one night was a stand-out, drizzled with a brown butter vinaigrette and capers draped over the delicious but a-little-too-ubiquitous lentils. The "gratin de macaroni," a Frenchified name for good ol' mac'n'cheese with gruyere, aged cheddar, Rogue blue and bacon was a creamy delight I could easily develop a serious crush on. The dish I didn't have but will next time and, believe me, there will be a next time, is the boudin noir, a housemade blood sausage with roasted apple and mustard.

Desserts are also trés Français, with pastry chef Alissa Rozos light hand evident in the apple tarte tatin with fromage blanc ice cream and an airy lemon crème chiboust with tarragon-infused grapefruit slices.

Joel Gunderson's wine list, while not inexpensive by the bottle, has a goodly number of French and Northwest wines available by the glass and, interestingly, also available directly from barrels in 46-oz. Pôts Lyonnais, traditional 46cl bottles imported from Lyon. Cool!

Look for the glowing globe over the bright yellow door on the corner and be prepared to feel right at home, whether you're with your ideal mate or not.

 Details: St. Jack, 2039 SE Clinton. 503-360-1281.

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