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MagoGuide’s algorithm for choosing our gastronomic bolthole locations involves close proximity to superior restaurants and bars. That does not really help in a town like Portland, so we decided to use posted menus as a tiebreaker. As soon as I saw fried tripe on St. Jack’s menu, I knew where Team Mago was going to live for a year.
Tripe–the gastro gold standard of the 19th and early 20th centuries–is making a small comeback, especially in an offalopolis like Portland. And yet even here it is rare to find tripe as a prominent and permanent part of a menu. Although a Lyonnais staple since God was a commis, chef Fergus Henderson is often credited for re-popularizing deep fat fried tripe, but it is actually as American as Fannie Farmer—dating back to her 1918 cookbook. Regardless of origin, St. Jack’s version beats Fergus’ and Fannie’s hands down. This owes to the skill of the friturier and the killer dipping mayonnaise drawing on capers and purple onions for sapidity that blows away Henderson’s shallot vinegar and Farmer’s chili sauce.
MagoGuide, however, must claim credit for discovering the best way to partake of the “fireman’s apron.” Combine it with St. Jack’s oreilles de crisses, which are pork rinds on steroids that take 72 hours to produce and are served with a dusting of espelette pepper and warm maple syrup. First tuck your napkin into your shirt collar, then break off a piece from the huge slab of ethereal crunchitude, smear a layer of the mayonnaise on it followed by a piece of tripe, and then drizzle some maple syrup on top. Follow with a decent slurp of house red and you will be gifted with a Marseillaise earwig for the rest of the evening.
Need more offal? You can get St. Jack’s bespoke boudin noir two ways, as finger food (pigs en blanquette) with seasonal mustard or old school with caramelized apple slices and potato puree. I prefer the latter because getting the puff pastry blanket crisp and flaky seems to dry out the blood sausage just a tad. Also, those mashed ‘taters are fit to eat dude.
Cow’s stomach, pig’s skin, and coagulated blood just not your idea of comfort food? Try the merguez sandwich containing a lamb dog, fries, caramelized onion, Dijon mustard, and aioli. It comes wrapped in a demi-baguette, which is further encased in aluminum foil and twisted up like a giant party favor. The result is tasty, playful, and easy to eat. Think Lyon food truck owned by entrepreneurs of Algerian extraction. Putting the fries inside the sandwich is neither French nor North African but it works.
One thing I have found that they do not really do well in Lyon or anywhere else in France is a burger. I still have nightmares about a thirty Euro cheeseburger that I would not have fed to Marine Le Pen’s dog. St. Jack’s burger is the antidote: perfectly cooked beef with an excellent fat-to-lean ratio served on a brioche bun with gruyere, St. Jack sauce (most definitely not your grand daddy’s special sauce), and caramelized onion. Even if you add bacon and foie gras (which MagoGuide highly recommends), it still costs less than that abomination I had to choke down in a four star chateau’s restaurant outside Paris.
The salads at St. Jack are wonderfully unhealthy. Example: a special composed of local asparagus with frisee, fried duck egg, crispy pig’s head bacon, and béarnaise sauce was basically a delicious heart valve replacement on a plate. Haricot vert diameter asparagus perfectly cooked, still crunchy with a slightly bitter taste that cuts the unctuous mess made when duck yolk meets béarnaise while crispy pigitude plays a robust supporting role. With salads like that who needs fries?
Well, you do. Whatever you eat at St. Jack be sure to get some pommes frites to go with it. After a month of serious testing, MagoGuide is prepared to declare these thin cut bistro spuds the best in North West and within shouting distance of apotheosis. The only downside is that their slender size generates a fairly narrow eating window so that when the fryolater is slammed at happy hour high tide the fries can degrade from A+ to A- by the time they reach you.
So far this review has not really staggered out of the bar, which indeed was the upshot of MagoGuide’s first three visits to St. Jack. While Team Mago agrees with Willamette Week that St. Jack’s “just might be the best restaurant bar in Portland,” we take serious umbrage at their conclusion that the bar “is where the fun is.” In fact, the best seats in the house are the six at the chef’s counter. The last time Team Mago had as much fun at a restaurant was at Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat in Chicago (see Stephanie Goat-Girl), which also seats dining spectators at the pass.
There are often seats available at the chef’s counter when the restaurant is booked and the bar is packed. This is passing strange given the many advantages of these seats. For one thing, you are as close to the fryolater station as you are ever going to get so that your fries will be perfect. For another, you can order a ‘tizer or two and then choose the rest of your meal by sight and smell, rather than at one remove via written description.
But the best part about these seats is that you get to watch Chef Aaron Barnett and his team perform. Although shrunk to post-modern staffing norms, the Escoffier brigade de cuisine system is gloriously alive and well at St. Jack. Chef Barnett mans the pass backed up by a four-cook line anchored by kitchen centurion, sous chef, and recent Sousnami Throw Down champion Amanda Williams.
Diners are both enlightened and entertained at the chef’s counter, but do not expect any kitchen drama. The only way to tell that the tickets are coming fast and furious is the “runner please!” repetition frequency emanating from the chef in a voice that could send sailors aloft in a storm, not to mention summoning staff across a very noisy bar and restaurant. Chef Barnett claims that he came up in “angry kitchens,” but if so he did not pass the angst on to his team. They constantly help out on other stations as well as at the pass when the chef is otherwise occupied.
Not only does Chef Barnett dig on swine, he has a culinary crush on octopus. His marinated baby octopus is not only exemplary, but it is (surprisingly) the best presentation on the menu—served like they used to showcase Beluga caviar in a large sea shell centered on a tarn of ice contained in a metal cirque. I was impressed until I saw what Chef Barnett does with mature octopus.
When our waitress Kimberly described a special called crispy octopus choucroute with bacon, house kraut, fingerlings, sherry vinegar, and frisée, I was intrigued but skeptical. If God is an octopus I am royally screwed. I have eaten it whacked up in real-time and still wriggling in my mouth or after it was stewed over night in tomatoes, olives, and capers—but with sauerkraut?
Somehow Chef Barnett has managed to locate the Platonic ideal of octopus and serve it to the unwitting residents of Rose City. It was so good that I risked marital stress by insisting Patti have a taste, and she loved it. Since she is the Mikey of Team Mago, the dish passed the acid test. It is all about texture for my spousal unit and this octopus had zero chew. A millimeter thin crust gave way to cephalopod tapioca redolent with oceanic umami flavors. This glorious sea lily was gilded with a rich aioli that brought the whole dish together. All I can say is if I was a Galician chef and tasted what St. Jack does with octopus and taters, I would either eat a bullet or defect to Portland. Smoky, briny, acidic, and rich—I had to know how to make this.
The chef was only too willing to oblige (another reason to sit at the chef’s counter). The octopus is oven braised for hours in water, herbs, spices, and vinegar, then refrigerated overnight in the braising liquid (a braise plus brine technique?). This way, says Chef Barnett, the skin does not slough off as it tends to with the standard approach of assault and battery tenderizing followed by stovetop boiling. The octopus is then dismembered and fried in a couple inches of oil until the skin is crispy.
My next question was why the marinated baby octopus dish had pride of place on his menu, while this masterpiece was a mere periodic special. Chef Barnett explained that this type of dish tends to get lost on the regular menu, but as a special he can employ the front of the house staff in a targeted marketing campaign. Although the bad news is that you cannot head for St. Jack tonight and count on trying this amazing octopus preparation, the good news is the chef alluded to the fact that he has about five dishes that go into stealth mode on the menu but shine as specials—so the odds are good that you will win the black board lottery on any given evening.
The restaurant’s website, which is blessedly free of culinary word salad, describes St. Jack as “an ode to the bouchons of Lyon.” Well MagoGuide can hear the clink of a gastronomic gauntlet hitting a zinc-coated bar. To wit, St. Jack begs for comparison with Thomas Keller’s Bouchon micro-chain, and what better dish for comparison than humble roast chicken?
Like most chefs, neither Keller nor Barnett view roast chicken as “the test of the kitchen” so often claimed by reviewers. The origins of their approaches are in fact much the same, with Keller’s deriving from family meals at The French Laundry and Barnett’s from his home kitchen. The similarities end there with Bouchon’s roast chicken offered as a standard menu item, while St. Jack’s is a whole bird only, roasted to order, special for two.
Bouchon’s poulet roti is cooked off in a hot 450-degree oven over assorted root vegetables, which accompany the chicken along with English peas, garden lettuce, bacon lardons and chicken jus. Since the birds are cooked assembly line fashion, diners are served with a minimal wait. At St. Jack your chicken takes 45 minutes from the time you order, but if you are sitting at the chef’s counter you get to watch its metamorphosis. For our meal, sous chef Amanda first seared the bird on all sides to a deep mahogany and then moved it to a medium-to-hot 375-degree oven. The finished product was given ample time to “gather,” as we say in Montucky, and then Chef Barnett personally carved and plated the dish (yet another reason to sit at the chef’s counter). Perfectly cooked snap peas, celery root remoulade, and a mountain of pommes frites atop a lake of red wine demi-glace mounted with foie gras butter accompanied the chicken.
Having the chef carve your bird is loaded with perks. The first thing he did was serve us the Pope’s nose. I immediately put in a successful bid for the oysters, which he supplied, but not before growling, “I’m getting there!” However, my efforts to secure the herb engorged carcass, or at the very least a quart of the resulting stock, were rebuffed with a laugh as he headed back to the pass.
Mago tips garnered from pestering the chef while he is carving: 1) do not brine the chicken because it makes the skin rubbery. Chef Barnett demonstrated this by cutting some skin off the edge of the body cavity and saying that it would not have reached its level of crispiness if it had been brined; 2) steel your knife away from you using your thumb to set the blade angle; and 3) once the bird is sectioned, test for doneness by touching the joints and if it is underdone then the pieces can go back into the oven for a few minutes without impacting juiciness or texture.
So how do Keller’s and Barnett’s yard birds compare Pope’s nose to Pope’s nose?
- Taste: Chef Barnett’s birdage is seriously superior. The keys are roasting to order and a high heat sear followed by a medium-to-hot oven as opposed to roasting the chicken off entirely in a hot oven.
- Sides: Not even close. Chef Barnett made his bones as a saucier in those angry kitchens and it shows; he knows how to finish a dish like they do in Lyon. Also, Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman notwithstanding, Bouchon’s pommes frites were old and cold on the occasions that MagoGuide anonymously partook at the Las Vegas outpost. On most days I would put my ducats on St. Jack fries against either Bouchon or Les Halles. Portland peas in season blow away anything in Vegas. Finally, the thick and fancy lemon slice accompanying St. Jack’s birdses ain’t just for decoration. Squeeze it on the breast and taste the acid party with the demi on your palette. Chef Keller, eat your heart out.
- Value for money: While you might balk at $55 for a measly roast chicken, the dish was so generous that we had to take a breast and a thigh home from St. Jack. A half chicken at Bouchon clocks in at $ 29.75, so diners pay almost ten percent more for a good, but decidedly inferior dish.
- Experience: Bouchon might just be the best chain in this spiral arm of the galaxy, but it is still a chain with very similar footprints and semi-identical menus. There are no chef’s counters or tables as far as I know. And even if Thomas Keller is actually in one of his restaurants, I somehow doubt that he is going to carve the chicken for you.
Beverages receive the same attention to detail as the comestibles at St. Jack. The mixologists behind the bar fire up some incredible cocktails, while the heavily French wine list also has a decent smattering of Oregon, Washington, and a few California wines. The best thing about the wine list is the bubbly; a baker’s dozen are on offer if you count the by-the-glass fizz. Team Mago’s current favorite is the Saumur Rose’ (Domaine du Vieux Pressoir) which is very dry but with a cotton candy/strawberry parfait sugar hit on the mid-palette—an amazing sparkler. Don’t like pink anything? Try the Blanquette de Limoux (JeanPhilippe), which is quite potable.
But the real tests of a bouchon are the suds, the plonk, and the Gallo-red. Since deploying an array of taps would be like carrying IPA to next-door Lompoc, the bar sports a single bière pression in the form of Heater Allen Pilsner, which you will be shocked to learn chokes pretty good with the food. So does the Gascone Blanc (Domaine Duffour), but the jewel in the crown is St. Jack red. A keg wine from Guild, it is Syrah, or mostly Syrah, with luscious forward dark fruit, very soft round tannins, and a long grapey finish that reminds me of a young wine from a Sicilian maker like Spadafora. The only other requirement for true happiness is a loaf of bread supplied to St. Jack by Phillipe’s, which is owned by one of the restaurant’s investors and turns out some of the best in Portland.
Beyond the food and booze, St. Jack is an extremely well managed restaurant. Valerie Carrasco is an ingratiating and helpful hostess who keeps the front of the house humming. The wait staff is knowledgeable and friendly but above all professional. Serving the chef’s counter is difficult because one either has to dance around the chef and members of the line or serve squiffy gesticulating diners from behind. Kimberly in particular pulls it off flawlessly.
At 4.5 rostras, however, there is still room for improvement at St. Jack. MagoGuide humbly suggests more tripe dishes, especially andouillette. And if we might be so bold, Team Mago predicts that even food-obsessed Portland would swoon over Chef Barnett’s take on Pierre Koffmann’s braised stuffed pig’s trotter. I’m just sayin’ that since Chef Kauffmann has a whole roast chicken on his menu for $86 (at current exchange rates) sans sides, perhaps it is time for Chef Barnett to take the master to school on his iconic signature dish and throw in a lesson on cost-of-food while he’s at it.
Question from the photographer: Morgan… what happened to all of the great desserts that we’ve had at St. Jack? Below are some of the highlights of those desserts.
Epilogue: In April we attended a contest between some of the best sous chefs of Portland (see Sous Nami Smackdown at St. Jack for the results). St. Jack’s very own sous chef Amanda Williams won! Here are a few of the photos from that event.