Eat of the Week: St. Jack

When I try a new restaurant, I hear things. Like if the meal is lackluster, I might hear the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or if it’s grand, I might hear wind chimes or the Happy Days theme song, or if it’s just somewhere in the middle I might hear the flat thud a cupcake makes when it falls from your hand onto the ground, frosting-down. Last night, Michelle and I stopped into St. Jack for a light meal (she’s on a New Years diet, I’d had two lunches), and as I was eating, I heard The Price Is Right theme song.

You could take this literally, the prices were reasonable and quite a good value, although St. Jack isn’t a cheap eat. But beyond that, you know when you’re watching The Price is Right, and they’re playing that happy little song and ringing bells, and the studio audience is clapping maniacally, and people are running willy-nilly down the aisles towards dreams of a new jet ski and a Corvette and a hug from Bob Barker? It’s all very exciting! And since I’ve been anxious to try St. Jack, hoping that it’s great because it’s in my hood and terribly cute and such an ideal addition to the Clinton neighborhood, it was The-Price-Is-Right-exciting to have an excellent first meal there.

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The intimate corner bistro is beautifully-designed, with a big welcoming front door painted the color of a tarte au citron, brick-rimmed wood floors, a convivial mirror-backed zinc bar (so you can see yourself hearing things), perfect lighting, and cozy bistro tables adorned with fresh tulips. At the north end, a double doorway joins St. Jack Restaurant with St. Jack Patisserie, which I visited a few weeks ago (see my madeleine musings here).

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As I mentioned, Michelle is on a New Years diet, so I was the only one who ordered a cocktail, the Guillotine. Being a spirits simpleton for the most part, I tend to order cocktails based on an intriguing name and whether or not they’ve got absinthe in them, and the Guillotine satisfied both counts, being made with Appleton VX rum, Cointreau, fresh lemon, housemade grenadine, and Kübler absinthe. St. Jack’s bar is manned by manager Kyle Webster (House Spirits, Metrovino) and bartender Tommy Klus (Blue Hour, Teardrop Lounge). I’m not sure which one was behind the bar, but I thought both his cocktail and his jaunty checkered shirt/vest/brimmed cap combo were very pleasant. I could tell that Michelle was extremely jealous of my cocktail, by the way she kicked me and said “I hate you!” when I took an extra-noisy sip and said “Neener neener,” and finally her envy consumed her, and she ordered a glass of Cana’s Feast Barbera off the Pacific Northwest and France-centric wine list, which we shared. And then, because there’s no diet like the Share Diet, we shared another.

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The dinner menu, written through the lens of Executive Chef Aaron Barnett’s fascination with the cafés (aka bouchons) of Lyon, France, begins with a few “Petit Plats,” and we couldn’t resist the Cervelle de Canut, an oversized quenelle of creamy goat cheese and fromage blanc mixed with shallots and garlic and served with a thinly-sliced length of Little T baguette. In case you’re interested in the history of Lyon, you might like to know that literally translated, cervelle de canuts means “silk worker’s brain,” signifying the low opinion Lyon’s bourgeouis class held of the canuts, or 19th century silk workers. I’m glad I didn’t know this until after I’d eaten it.

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Moving on to the “Hors d’ouevres,” we had to try the Salad Lyonnaise, because it’s such a beloved classic, and because like most normal carnivores, we love bacon, a very diet-friendly food. St. Jack’s rendition was served in a deep glass bowl–an excellent holding pen because you know how frisky frisée can get when confronted by a fork–and was spotted with savory baby-finger sized lardons of bacon, bacon fat croutons, and topped with a skillfully poached egg. We didn’t try the escargot, but everyone else in the restaurant ordered it, and the dish was impressive to look at as it continuously emerged from the kitchen–a small tureen of little black snails with country sausage and wild mushrooms, capped by a flaky golden slab of puff pastry. So keep that in mind when you go.

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The fisherman’s stew arrived next–as an ardent fan of symmetry, I completely appreciated how the three juicy mussels in their shells alternated with the three plump poached oysters, all pivoting around a fat scallop whose cracked, deep gold surface looked like a cooking guide’s illustration for seared scallop. The stew’s broth was positively decadent, and when you dipped your spoon beneath the surface, you dredged up tiny bright orange trout roe, prompting the always lyrical Michelle to compose the following impromptu poem:

Oh, hey, OH!
It’s got trout roe!

Look out, William Merwin!

We bypassed the “Charcuterie de Maison” section, because it’s full of chicken liver mousse and pork rillete and Olympic Provisions‘ Saucisson d’Alsace and Saucisson Sec and frankly we’re sick of that stuff. Just kidding, but we have enough in our larders to last a lifetime and we couldn’t spare the calories.

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Moving onwards to the “Plats Principaux,” we agonized over whether to order the whole roasted trout, mushrooms in puff pastry with tarragon and cognac, steak frites, or the Coq à la Bière–a half chicken braised in ale with pearl onions and wild mushrooms and bacon, but we opted for the trout. It stretched the length of the plate, crisp skin artfully raised to expose the tender pink fish flesh beneath, blanketing a salad of delicate French lentils, frisée and chervil in a brown butter vinaigrette. “Oh my God, you have to try the skin. Try the skin! I said, TRY THE SKIN!” howled Michelle, who was breaking her diet right and left and clearly feeling some guilt about it. “Fine,” I said, and ate some skin. Mon Dieu!

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We finished with Pastry Chef Alissa Rozos‘ Baba au Rhum, a moist yeast cake accompanied by a mandarin sorbet, and the tarte au chocolat topped with hazelnuts and glossy Chantilly cream, both extremely diet friendly. Or not, but by then, we weren’t too bothered. Well, I could tell that Michelle was slightly bothered, but that’s what she gets for dieting, which is an unnatural state of being that should be avoided if at all possible, in my humble opinion.

With that, we waddled home, humming The Price Is Right theme song and reciting “Oh, hey, OH! It’s got trout roe!” to anyone who would listen.

St. Jack * 2039 SE Clinton St. * 503.360.1281 * www.stjackpdx.com * Dinner Daily 5-10:30pm, Happy Hour 4-6pm