It had been half a year since Team Mago had the pleasure of eating at Aaron Barnett’s restaurants. MagoGuide’s 2016 grand tour took us all over Western Europe, but we eschewed the Benelux and France for the flavors of Wales, Ireland, Pantelleria, and Spain secure in the knowledge that Barnett’s devotion to cuisine bourgeoise authentique would welcome us back to Portland in all its artery-clogging glory.
Telephone: (971) 339-2822
Hours of operation: Open 5PM - 12AM every day
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Rostra rating: 4.8
Our reintroduction began at La Moule on a dark and mizzling Monday evening indistinguishable from a soggy Belgian gloaming some 5,000 miles to the east. The food was outstanding, a happy hour order of mussels and fries makes a great starter, but, unlike the larger bi-valve portions on the main menu, allows room to sample other offerings from a bill of fare that has seen an expansion in offerings during our absence yet still remains devoted to the comfort food of northern France and the low countries. However, I have waxed rhapsodic enough in the past concerning La Moule’s signature dish — suffice it to say that MagoGuide continues to credit Barnett and staff with the best moules and the best frites (note the deliberate double definitive article) in a town that takes both very, very seriously. We have also sung similar paeans previously to La Moule’s ricotta croquettes and so need only note that they too remain exemplary.
The coconut beets salad of said shaved Beta vulgaris accompanied by scallions, cilantro, ginger, cumin, mustard seed, and sprouted chickpeas was refreshing and delicious. While some might denounce such a dish as culinary PNW apostasy in a Belgian restaurant, Team Mago will swear on a stack of endive that this beet prep would be warmly received in Ypres where the beet fields provide a deadly secondary harvest of unexploded World War I ordnance. Juxtaposition of non-traditional herbs and ingredients with beets first cultivated by Napoleonic decree two centuries ago, is a long-established culinary approach in Flanders fields drawing on the flavors of empires otherwise abandoned.
Rabbit pot pie: Hercule Poirot would gladly wait the requisite half hour for this dish, devour it with a spoon, and then break down in tears while admitting that Barnett’s rabbit is better than his mother’s lapin à la liégeoise. For one thing, La Moule’s braised lagomorph comes topped with a killer puff pastry crust and eschews the sweet and sour approach to braised rabbit that is popular in both the Flemish and Wallonian parts of Belgium (as well as Lille in northern France). This dish, however, is what Claude Lebel’s grandmother would serve him for lunch after he watched the Jackal’s coffin lowered into the ground on a grey rainy day; a classic lapin à la moutarde with winter roots and pig candy. The only accolade left to add is “that’s MY pot pie bunny!!”
All our food paired superbly with a draft kriek that was clearly a big fave with our waiter. Service in general was very competent and just friendly enough that we made sure to say goodbye to all those involved in the meal who we encountered on our way out. Then we pushed our stomachs across the river, poured ourselves into bed, and woke up with the airline plague.
Telephone: (503) 360-1281
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Rostra rating: 5
Antibiotics and abstemious behavior over the next two weeks restored our bodies but took a surprising toll on our cognitive functions. By the time we could eat and drink again like semi-normal social primates, Team Mago needed a St. Jack fix so bad we hallucinated that Valentines Day fell on February 12. Therefore I was cock a hoop that I secured two seats at the chefs counter on very short notice. And indeed when we arrived the restaurant was jammed packed with lots of couples–all of whom had apparently succumbed to a consensual outbreak of amour fou. Even the larger tables seemed like they contained multiples of couples.
Now one assumes most of these people actually knew that Valentines Day was still two days off, but they had offspring and/or employment-related impedimenta that made it necessary to celebrate on the Sunday prior. This was indeed the explanation offered to us by our waiter when we asked for the Valentine menu that I had perused on the web only to find out that we were about forty-eight hours too early to order from it. Evidently the weekend before Valentines Day is often the venue for premature assignations.
I have never seen St Jack slammed on a Sunday. It is usually a night when Chef Barnett surrenders the tiller to the sous and the front of the house is paired down in anticipation of sparse attendance by the dining public. Sundays at St. Jack are nominally low key and fun with plenty of time to chat with most of the line cooks, while the boundaries between the bar and main menu blur and you can have a burger and fries (or those killer pork rinds topped with quenelles of that sublime chicken liver pate) but still get to watch a great kitchen in action from the chefs counter. At least that was the case half a year ago — recall gentle reader that Team Mago skipped town Bravo Tango and things seem to have taken on a distinctly fin de siècle frisson in Rip City these days.
In sharp contrast to those who refuse to eat at a restaurant unless the chef is in harness, MagoGide has long held that you learn a lot about both in the absence of the maestro. Things were fast and furious from seven to nine thirty. Team Mago is never one to let a culinary crisis go to waste, so we settled in to see how (relatively) newly minted sous chef Jacob Garth was getting on. It quickly became clear that his problems were not in the kitchen per se. The critical shortage was front of the house staff. There were just two wait staff for the entire dining room to include a fully packed chefs counter, which is a far more difficult service proposition than an additional three or four deuce covers would be.
Note from the photographer: Sitting next to the pass provided ample opportunities to take some photos of food that we weren’t sampling that evening.
The culinary Schwerpunkt developed at the expediter position early on in the surge of orders that seemed to begin as we were seated. It was a perfect example of why the pass a) should really be in the hands of someone with a lot of line experience and b) cannot be left unoccupied for any length of time during peak service. The woman expediting was clearly a cool front of the house professional, but she was forced to leave the pass for non-trivial time units in an effort to help out the equally professional but way too thinly spread wait staff. Her enforced absences led directly to the case of The Aboyeur That did not Bark: a classic bottleneck of completed dishes at the pass and some lapses in communicating the tickets to Chef Garth as they came in.
The wait staff were forced into a routine that bore serious resemblance to a plate spinning act, which they pulled off with admirable composure and good humor. The only hint of stress I noticed was the brief but unmistakable look of pathetic gratitude from our waiter when I ordered bottle of Saumur brute rose (hey, it was Valentines Day, or so we thought) and asked him to leave the bottle within reach in an ice bucket on the counter so as to free him up for other thirsty patrons. Throughout the evening those happy few covered for each other deviating from their spheres of service influence to notice glasses that needed refilling and running orders to their colleagues’ tables when necessary.
While audibles and improvisation ruled beyond the pass, behind it Chef Garth fought off two separate tsunamis of tickets with brute force culinary efficiency. My favorite episode was an order for bouillabaisse that covered every inch of real estate on the flame top in what turned out to be the high fumet mark of the evening’s gastro-inundation. The line never got near the weeds that threatened to sprout all night long on the other side of the pass. As far as I could tell nothing got sent back, there were no refires, and zero kitchen drama. The line even got a little down time when the eye of the culinary cyclone drifted over the kitchen as early diners swapped tables with the later crowd.
Opting for an ad seriatim approach to expediting was not consequence free, however. Our fries were not as good as those sampled so recently at La Moule. They were not bad, they had just been pulled from the fryolater a fraction too early so that they were ever so slightly but still noticeably underdone. Not enough to send them back, we ate them right down, but it was a theme that continued throughout our meal.
The gratin d’escargots with fideos pasta, ham, mushrooms, Meyer lemon cream, parmesan and bone marrow butter was my kind of mac and cheese. The snails were perfectly cooked, supplying toothsome texture and a meaty savor to an already rich dish, but the spike of acidity that I was anticipating from the Meyer lemon cream failed to materialize.
The mains also contained minor flaws resulting from the attrition warfare Chef Garth waged relentlessly against the ticket blizzard. Full disclosure: I am notoriously hard to please when it comes to cassoulet. The Nobel laureate and gourmand Anatole France penned the gold standard for cassoulet over a century ago:
“Clemence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. From time to time she puts in the sauce pan now a little bit of goose or bacon, now a sausage or some haricots, but it is always the same cassoulet. The stock remains, and this ancient and precious stock gives it the flavor, which in the pictures of the old Venetian masters, one finds in the amber colored flesh of women.”
Now I realize that public health officials the world over would unite to close a restaurant that sought to emulate Clemence’s approach for rather obvious reasons, but modern chefs can still learn and adapt their cassoulet to resemble the sublime output of la marmite described above. It is clear that cassoulet was a stove top soup in Anatole France’s day and that the key ingredient was the stock, so it is passing strange that today most restaurants, to include St. Jack, reduce the stock in their cassoulet to virtually nothing prior to service. This problem was compounded by the state of the beans themselves on our recent visit. Although possessed of deep and complex flavor, about a quarter of the beans were just a tad chalky (about as under cooked in a temporal sense as the fries). When this happens to my cassoulet at home, it is inevitably the result of not stirring the beans enough to make sure they all get cooked uniformly. Cassoulet at St. Jack is fired in individual servings for good and obvious logistical reasons, but making that work along with orders for dishes such as bouillabaisse and pasta that have to hit a cover at the same time led to an accelerated reduction time that in turn created a slightly dry result with a fraction of underdone beans.
The duck confit, pork belly, braised kale, and parsnips were all exemplary, although I thought the addition of salt when the dish was fired unnecessary given the predominance of salty components. Again, I hoovered my helping, which choked real good with several just-in-time deliveries of outstanding Swick pinot noir (Willamette Valley, 2015). And yet I would part with some serious ducats and sign a liability waiver if Barnett and Garth would take a shot at a contemporary version of Clemence’s cassoulet.
The best and most flawed dish was the strangely named boudin bolognese. Perhaps this dish is a Gallic gastro-idiom that I have never heard of. There is a French approach to pasta that involves making a sauce out of boudin noir, but the description scrupulously avoided any mention of any sausage: casarecce pasta, short rib, tomato, crispy chicken skin, and parmesan. What is indisputable is that this dish had nothing to do with the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. The casarecce pasta revealed its Sicilian origins. Whether intentional or not, this preparation was a tribute to the aristocratic Monzu cuisine of the 19th century Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I usually don’t hold with pasta in a French restaurant (see our Liverpool House review), but this was the exception that proved the rule. Perfectly cooked pasta was sauced in an ultra rich extraction of confit pork short ribs bound together with tomato puree and (perhaps?) a nice dollop of blood sausage and just the right amount of pedigreed parmesano reggiano. But the spark of gastro-genius was supplied by the generous admixture of crispy bits of chicken skin, adding a decadent crunch to the unctuous pasta.
The problem came with the addition of a bone-in pork rib. That noble swine, however, had already done its duty rendering out its very essence into that amazing sauce. The remaining meat was consequently slightly dry and possessed of far too much tooth to harmonize with the pasta component. A Monzu (Sicilian for monsieur) chef would have recycled that rib into his next dish via the surviving members of herd. A modern prep would involve a much longer braise for the ribs, or perhaps pressure cooking, so that the meat was meltingly tender.
But really the pasta was fantastic all by itself. Despite our best efforts, we could not finish this entree and went home with some of the pasta and rib. The pasta was even better reheated the next day (chef, if you have any of it left over you could do some kind of baked approach for a staff meal, and if you do, MagoGuide will pay to attend). The rib went into Team Mago’s version of Clemence’s cassoulet, which we call Forever Soup. Finally, I should have asked someone in the kitchen a lot of questions about this fantastically delicious yet unbalanced dish, but they were so busy and we were having such a good time eating and watching that it just did not happen.
Bottom line: We had a great time and we certainly told everyone who could stand still for a nanosecond that we did. Barnett et al remain in possession of MagoGuide’s coveted five rostras, an honor they share only with Stephanie Izzard. I do think, however, that our slammed Sunday makes a case for the old saw that the best days to eat at a great restaurant are Tuesday through Thursday.