Bread and Brew
Butter, butter, butter was all I could think about on my way to St. Jack. And from the bright yellow door of this new French restaurant on Southeast Clinton Street to the fresh madeleines that we took home with us, St. Jack was indeed very buttery.
Of course, there is more to French food than butter. There's cream and cheese and eggs. This is some of the richest food I've had in a long time, an echo from the days of the 'fancy French restaurant' - here with focus on the specialties of the northern city of Lyon.
These include fried tripe, salade Lyonnaise with lardons and egg, and boudin noir, a blood sausage that is made in-house.
Lyon is also famous for rillettes, a rustic pork dish similar to pate. At St. Jack the rillettes are creamy, with the pork flavor hovering in the background, contrasting nicely with sharp mustard, tiny cornichons and crunchy pickled fennel. Cervelle de canut is a dish of whipped goat cheese and herbs that is light and fluffy, not too pungent or chalky, flecked with cheery snips of fresh green herbs.
These appetizers are served with baguettes from Little T American Baker just up the street, which, despite the name, is a high temple of French baking technique.
Another appetizer, a casserole dish of escargot, didn't quite work. Cooked under a puff pastry lid, the snails didn't slide down my throat quite as quickly as I wanted them to. They were baked with a mixture of crumbled sausage, garlic and wine, a grainy mixture that conflicted with the snails and the pastry.
Pastry was put to better use in a Lyonnaise onion tart, with caramelized onions, leeks and goat cheese, topped with a poached egg. It was a sweet, pungent, salty, creamy dream, with every flavor melting into every other. It was so rich, though, that it might work better as a shared dish than as an entrée.
Most of the main courses are similarly decadent. The $17 macaroni casserole has three kinds of cheese, plus bacon. The steak is topped with béarnaise sauce.
Possibly the lightest dish is a whole roasted trout. It's pink, fresh and delicate, lightly breaded, with a thin slice of lemon draped tactfully over its face. Capers provided bursts of saltiness, but unfortunately the fish was also salty, and together it was too much. A bed of tiny lentils were a nice backdrop, just this side of crunchy and tasting of lemon.
Now take a deep breath, because it's time for dessert.
The mousse au chocolat is dense, with the pure taste of chocolate surfing on a wave of creaminess. It's bolstered by a puff of espresso ganache, crunchy bits of cookie, a thin disc of dark chocolate and, just for kicks, brandy soaked cherries.
A dainty pile of made-to-order madeleines, buttery cookies with a hint of citrus, are served warm, with the crunch of the cookie pan still upon them. They are deceptively light. After a meal like this, you will be going to bed early.
Another choice is to visit St. Jack during the day, when it operates as a café and pastry shop. The madeleines, of course, go well with tea. There are other sweets to go with espresso, which is served in adorable sky blue cups. One afternoon I admired the light on St. Jack's hardwood floors and rows of glass bottles while eating an éclair with a light and airy filling.
A little later, happy hour at the zinc-topped bar brings discounts on charcuterie and wine, and there are cocktails like a traditional sazerac - a big glass of rye whiskey, tinged with absinthe and bitters - and a royal gin daisy, a liquid lemon meringue pie spiked with gin. Wines by the glass come from a tapped barrel and can also be ordered in pots de Lyonnaise, or a little more than half a bottle.
By tapping into the traditions of Lyon, St. Jack has found out its own niche at a time when France is suddenly back in style. And when I think of that niche, I imagine it filled with butter.
St. Jack, patisserie daily 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., restaurant 4 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday; 2039 S.E. Clinton St.; 503-360-1281, stjack pdx.com, entrees $16-$22