Cafe des Amis feels weight of old-school traditions
Open since 1980, French restaurant's kitchen hits only a few high notes
Cafe des Amis opened in 1980, and it shows. From the stilted ambience to the old-school dessert tray replete with chocolate mousse, the restaurant is many years out of mode.
This is not to argue that every restaurant should be dripping with style or double as a fashion runway for the slender and hip. But restaurants that remain stubbornly unchanged for decades succeed only if they are particularly charming or if they serve outstanding food. Cafe des Amis has neither attribute.
Behind the restaurant's handsome, ivy-covered brick facade lies a surprisingly sterile dining room that is awkwardly split in half by a partition embedded with a window. There's no music, no compelling artwork or gorgeous flowers, just white walls, white tablecloths and lighting that is too harsh at certain tables. It's quiet, but in a way that makes it easy for the neighboring four-top to eavesdrop on your conversation, the kind of hush that can put you on edge.
Cafe des Amis primarily caters to baby boomers and their parents, loyalists who have been supping there for a long time and helped the restaurant earn such a stellar reputation. And that's fine, there's something to be said for a restaurant that isn't a scene or trying to be one. But 23 years after its arrival, in a Portland that boasts more than just a handful of great restaurants, it's hard to imagine that Cafe des Amis holds much appeal to those who aren't regulars.
Steep prices compound the feng shui issues. The French-tilting fare is good enough, but most entrees are $20 and up. The pricier entrees are served with soup or green salad and a few entrees (billed as 'bistro dishes') are available a la carte for under $15, but it's still tricky for two people to dine for less than $70.
Some dishes are quite good. Chicken liver p‰tŽ spiked with port and Madeira is just as you'd hope it to be: satiny-smooth and decadently rich. The smoked mushroom ravioli appetizer features delicate pasta and fleshy wild mushrooms, great with a glass of Riesling. You can craft a satisfying meal by pairing one of these starters with a bistro dish such as Mediterranean-style fish stew. The fortifying, tomato-tinged broth is studded with clams, mussels, bite-sized chunks of salmon and remarkably tender large scallops. The accompanying baguette slices spread with rouille were the only disappointment as the rouille lacked its requisite heat.
People rave about Cafe des Amis' poussin with 40 cloves of garlic, but really, the sweet roasted garlic is the best part. A poussin is a small, young chicken, which means it doesn't have much meat on its bones. While the breast was juicy, the legs had very little flesh. Another throwback entree, duck with blackberry sauce, is positively smothered by the stuff, making for one syrupy-sweet duck dish reminiscent of duck a l'orange.
Desserts don't offer much in the way of innovation, but a couple of tasty choices Ñ pear frangipane tart and nostalgia-inducing chocolate cake Ñ break up the monotony of crme bržlŽe and chocolate mousse.
The plain dŽcor, average food and uninspired plate presentation suggest that Cafe des Amis would be much better cast as a bistro instead of a high-end eatery. Right now, it's only the price tag that bumps the stalwart restaurant into the realm of fine dining.