Telephone: (971) 339-2822
Hours of operation: Open 5PM - 12AM every day
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Rostra rating: 4.5
MagoGuide first learned of La Moule from Chef Aaron Barnett last summer. He spoke about his 70’s-themed Euro Bar concept with such excitement that I quickly caught the vibe. Evidently St. Jack’s chef and co-owner stumbled upon a moules and frites bar in Washington D.C. late one night and decided to bring the concept to Portland. My own introduction to cafes and dive bars in France and the Benelux occurred a bit earlier, as in the actual 1970s. I was at once appalled and intrigued that Barnett was thinking about a themed venue that I had employed for sustenance many times while wandering around the continent with a massive and heavily thumbed copy of Lets Go Europe for ballast in my backpack during that benighted decade.
Since I doubt that the 70s will ever be remembered as a decade of culinary excellence, I found it hard to believe that Chef Barnett would find anything but gastronomic tailings in that played out mine. On the other hand, my appreciation for the kind of food that Barnett revives, creates, and elevates at St. Jack also originated in the frugal bistros and brasseries where I fueled up before boarding a night train to wherever with my trusty EurRail Pass; reasoning that I could either pay for a bed in a hostel or use my dwindling supply of ducats for food and then sleep on the train.
And yet, however much one yearns for one’s misspent youth, there are compensations associated with innervating decrepitude. For one thing, I can afford to eat at Chef Barnett’s establishments. And even if memory is an increasingly fickle mistress, I can say with non-trivial certitude that I do not recall the cafes and bars I frequented in mid-seventies Europe to be nearly as nicely appointed nor disposed to serve food and drink to Barnett’s exacting standards. Thus La Moule is, even more than St. Jack, an idealized culinary realization. And all the better for it, I might add.
La Moule is located in a nice capillary right off Portland’s culinary artery, SE Division St. The neighborhoods that housed my regular dining establishments back in the day tended to cluster around train stations and generally sported more hookers than perambulators stuffed with adorable millennial breeding projects. The décor is also a bit classier than the standards I came to associate with European VFM comestibles. Indeed, La Moule’s sleek industrial lines and hypnotic blue tinted mussel wallpaper motif have less than a nodding acquaintance with the ubiquitous tobacco and cannabis smoke-yellowed linoleum covering both the floors and walls where I usually ate and imbibed.
Most importantly, no place I could afford had anyone like Valerie Carrasco managing the front of the house. Moving Valerie from St. Jack made sure from the get-go that service at La Moule was both hyper professional yet friendly. She recognized Team Mago immediately–even though we have been away from Rose City for months breathing wood smoke in Montucky–and made us feel right at home despite the fact that we had the temerity to walk in a nanosecond after the bar’s 5PM opening time. Valerie has done a great job getting the wait staff up to full operational speed in less than a month since La Moule’s opening. Our server Tim was extremely nice and helpful, but most importantly he saw to our evening without either hovering or disappearing just when we needed another beer.
This observation segues neatly into a larger point concerning food and drink at La Moule. Its successful operation owes more to culinary logistics than finding a hot but inevitably transitory theme-bar niche. The superb fries and Philippe’s bread are imported directly from St. Jack along with the six mussel offerings that are all riffs on St. Jack’s foundational mussels meuniere. The butter lettuce salad and chicken liver pate also have origins across the Willamette River (or maybe they have just came home, given St. Jack’s original locus). In most cases they arrived with lower prices than either St. Jack’s restaurant or bar.
I was ready for the fries to be fantastic, so I was not surprised, but the blue cheese croquettes almost stole the fryolater prize. Not on the menu at St. Jack to my knowledge, these had more in common with what the Sicilians call fried béchamel than traditional Spanish or French croquettes that I have eaten. A rich, funky, cheesy ethereal mouth feel follows one millimeter of superb crunch. Served with a wonderful foil in the guise of a simple apple, celery, and parsley salad, you should eat these puppies as soon as feasible after they hit your table because they do not get any better than right out of the deep-fry basket. I might argue for a dusting of finishing salt just as they head out of the kitchen.
As to them mussels, I had to have the “classiq” preparation of garlic, white wine, and butter just like in the bad ol’ days. The local Pencove mussels were flawlessly fresh and perfectly prepared. I looked around once I had hoovered all my bivalves and was waiting for Tim to come back with more of Philippe’s staff of life for a go at the liquid residue, and every mussel dish coming out of the kitchen was cooked to the same high standards. The performance of the line at La Moule is a tribute to Barnett’s recruitment and training skills; while the three quarters full house at 6 PM on a Thursday speaks to his Cheftables partners’ business acumen and serves as a reminder to all of us wannabes that chef means boss, not just cook.
My non-mussel friendly spouse had the burger, which may need a little more tweaking before it can become the mainstay menu alternative to mussels and fries. You will definitely get the French version of medium rare at Le Moule and those who like their burgers a bit more cooked should consider ordering medium without any qualms. The ground chuck, thick bacon, and triple cream Brie all work, but the burger is strangely lacking in condiments. All I could detect was a slather of butter on the very good brioche bun. The big difference between the La Moule version and the burger served up in St. Jack’s bar is the absence of St. Jack sauce (as long as you don’t add eighteen bucks worth of foie that is). If the sauce can’t follow the burger over the river then some of that killer bespoke dipping aioli and good mustard would be a nice touch.
In my salad days the only Belgian beer available where I could afford to eat was Jupiler lager, now owned by Anheuser–Busch InBev, the Death Star of giant brewers that is currently ingesting SAB Miller. With seven of the nine taps devoted to real Belgian beer, I am confident that La Moule will never relegate a tap to Jupiler. We made it through four of the holdings: St. Louis Framboise (crisp and quenching with loads of raspberry fruit); St. Bernardus (sour and chocolate notes with a rich and malty finish); Saison Dupont (“the definition of Saison” according to Tim and who are we to disagree?); and Liefmans Goudenband (a rich sour base with spicy Christmas fruit notes). In a nod to chef Barnett’s fanatical attention to detail, each type of beer is served in a correctly shaped and monogramed glass. If I had ever seen beer treated with such respect during my Euro wanderings, I would have kiped the glass for use at the next bar in another town.
Valarie was kind enough to introduce us to Tommy Klus, Barnett’s partner in charge of libations. The venue space is split between chef Cameron Addy’s food domain (café) where you can get booze and Klus’s booze domain (bar) where you can get food. But there is a significant ambience shift between the two and Klus has gone well beyond beer and wine, building a cocktail list that has been labled “approachable” by other reviewers — who will go nameless for such a ridiculous description — but in reality is a clever orthogonal contrast to the whole 1970s Euro theme.
Speaking of which, although Chef Barnett’s avant guarde 1970s mix works well in 2015 Portland, authenticity would dictate a big dollop of Abba and more Donna Summer than is good for anyone if you want to hear what was playing way back when. Otherwise La Moule comes pretty close to a Platonic form in terms of the food, beer, and experience it seeks to provide. Can’t ask for much more than that except maybe an occasional eel dish every now and then, please.