Primal-ish in Portland Round 2: Part 1

April 3, 2013

St. Jack Blanquette de Veau

Last time I visited Portland I discovered both Ox and Le Pigeon, which set the bar quite high for future visits. The food this time around was quite good, especially St. Jack and Andina. But none of the places I visited dethroned Ox and Le Pigeon as my favourite Portland restaurants. The most memorable dish was certainly the Blanquette de Veau at St. Jack (pictured above). The most underwhelming experience was brunch at Tasty n Sons. And the rest fell somewhere in-between. Stops included: Evoe, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, St. Jack, Pearl Bakery, Podnah’s Pit BBQ, Salt & Straw, Andina, Tasty n Sons, and St. Honoré Boulangerie.

Evoe (at Pastaworks Hawthorne)

Pastaworks Evoe Endive Salad

Evoe is a small restaurant that shares space with Pastaworks. The chef, Kevin Gibson, used to work at Castagna before he opened up this informal spot. Its known for creative small plates, salads, and sandwiches.

I had a salad: Endive, Pear, Hazelnut, Roquefort, Muscatel Vinaigrette. It was light and refreshing, while packing a lot of flavour – the hazelnuts and Roquefort paired well.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the actual space. The seating was limited, and I found the experience slightly confusing – there’s no menu, you order from the board, but you do so from your table, and then you have to pay next door, but you have to return to the restaurant to hand over your tip…

The only two people there were Kevin and a sous chef – both also served food. The server was nice and the salad came in a timely fashion. I think Evoe is a cool concept. The chef gets maximum freedom to express himself and is unencumbered by a large operation of both staff and equipment. I wouldn’t mind stopping by again to sample some other dishes.

Evoe on Urbanspoon

Pearl Bakery

Pearl Bakery Raspberry Macaron

While checking out Pastaworks next door, I tried one of the raspberry macarons which was from Pearl Bakery. It was massive – a jumbo sized macaron. I honestly wasn’t expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. The raspberry flavor was very pronounced. I later tried two more of Pearl Bakery’s macarons at their stand at the farmer’s market (the farmer’s market was phenomenal by the way). They were just as big, and just as tasty.

Pearl Bakery MacaronsPearl Bakery on Urbanspoon

Nong’s Khao Man Gai    

Nong's Khao Man Gai Chicken and Rice

Nong’s Khao Man Gai may be Portland’s most popular food truck. It has received tons of mentions, awards, and various accolades. There are two trucks plus a to-go store, which is where I visited.

The name’s a bit of a mouthful, but means Nong’s (owner’s nickname) chicken and rice in Thai. Which makes it quite obvious what you should order. Actually, it’s the only thing on the menu at the food trucks (the to-go shop also has veggie and pork versions). Your only decisions are whether you’d like large or small, if you’d prefer gluten-free (sans soy sauce), and if you want to add chicken liver or skin and extra chicken, rice, and sauce.

I loved seeing this gesture of hospitality on the menu:

“Everything spicy upon request. Any thing can be served without rice. Small portion available. We want to make you happy. Please ask.”

The organic chicken is poached in chicken stock and Thai herbs. The rice is cooked in the chicken stock as well. The sauce consists of: fermented soybeans, ginger, garlic, thai chilies, vinegar, house made syrup and soy sauce. The gluten-free version comes without the soy sauce, but I’m guessing it still has the fermented soy beans since that seems to be the base (which I didn’t know when ordering). It’s garnished with cucumbers and cilantro and comes with a side of broth (not gluten-free).

The chicken was delicious – tender and flavorful. The rice was especially good, more on the moist/soft side, which I like. My favourite part, unfortunately, was the sauce, which I didn’t know contained soy (I don’t eat soy). It was so fragrant and flavorful! I wonder if they’d ever consider making a variation with just the other non-soy ingredients for those who avoid soy.

When I first started eating the dish, I was thinking that it’s good, but what’s the big deal? It’s chicken and rice. What’s with all the awards? But then my friend reminded me that the other two locations are food trucks. So for street food, it’s incredibly good. And then I had more sauce, and it all made perfect sense. This dish really is very yummy. I was impressed that the chicken is organic and that they throw in chicken livers when you order the large size (I stole some of the livers from my friend – they were tasty).

Service was friendly and efficient. Prices were reasonable. Food was high quality. Overall, I’m quite pleased with the dish – and at $7 it’s a very tasty and healthy meal option.

Nong's Khao Man Gai To Go ShopNong's Khao Man Gai on Urbanspoon

St. Jack

St. Jack is clustered with a few other restaurants in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. I’m always caught a little off guard when restaurants are tucked away in seemingly the middle of nowhere, as that’s not often the case in Vancouver – I quite like how it livens up a neighbourhood.

The restaurant was cute and welcoming, while still maintaining an air of sophistication. Service was good – questions were answered and such, but it was slightly slow at times.

St. Jack Lost Weekend Cocktail

For cocktails, my friend ordered their most popular drink, the Lost Weekend (Original: Bourbon, Amaretto, Fresh Lime, Maraschino Liqueur, Fresh Apple Gastrique). It was fabulous, and I wish I had ordered it myself.

St. Jack Deauville Cocktail St. Jack Baccarat Cocktail

Mine, the Deauville (New Orleans, 1930: Hennessy VS Cognac, Boulard VSOP Calvados, Cointreau, Fresh Lemon) was just okay. I also preferred my friend’s second cocktail to mine – the Baccarat (original: Bourbon, Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth, Aperol, Maraska Maraschino Liqueur, Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters). Other than the fact that well-made cocktails are delicious and hard to replicate at home, I mostly order them to test the restaurant’s bartending skills. Ordering a glass of wine tells me about the wine list, and possibly the restaurant’s pairing ability, but that’s where it ends, since it’s not like they make the wine themselves.

St. Jack Frogs Legs

The appetizers I was eyeing both contained gluten (tripe and frogs’ legs) because they were fried in batter. The flour could be subbed for corn starch, but that doesn’t help me (corn is a grain, and thus not paleo/primal compliant). My friend ended up ordering the frogs legs (brown butter, garlic, anchovy, lemon, capers & shaved celery), and I sampled some after removing the fried batter, of which there wasn’t much. It was my first time trying this curious French delicacy. It tasted like some sort of funky chicken. And for some reason, I wasn’t expecting bones. It’s like I ordered frogs legs but was expecting snails or something, who knows. Either way, just like with snails, I don’t feel a need to track down any more frogs legs any time soon. I’m glad I tried them, but that’s about it. But that’s not the restaurant’s fault, I’m sure they were some of the best frogs legs out there. I found the sauce quite acidic, and my friend was expecting something creamier, but did like the frogs legs.

St. Jack Steak Tartare

I ordered the steak tartare (hand cut steak, cornichon, capers, red onion, quail egg yolk and toasted baguette). I’m not sure what it is with restaurants putting miniscule quail’s eggs on steak tartare. Cute? Yes. But hardly practical. They’re so tiny that you can’t possibly get adequate “yolk coverage” with it once you break the yolk. You’re already serving raw meat, so it’s not like you’re going to scare people off with a decent sized yolk. Heck, bring on the duck eggs that are supposedly so trendy right now (which I have yet to try) – those look massive. But really, I’m over the cuteness of the quail eggs, and would be happy with a regular hen’s yolk. /rant

The tartare was tasty. But whatever they used to flavour the meat (tasted like horseradish, even though that’s not what’s listed) overpowered the flavor of the meat (and I adore horseradish!). I think in a steak tartare, the meat should sing, and I didn’t find that to be the case. But I did like the texture, and thought the size of the minced meat was spot on. So overall, it was alright, just not the best I’ve ever had.

St. Jack Blanquette de Veau

Mains like this blanquette de veau are the reason I dine out (white veal breast stew with winter vegetables, cognac, cream & fine herbs). Honestly, I ordered this dish simply because I’ve never had a “white veal breast stew” before. And so I placed my order with some trepidation. I’ve ordered and made countless stews, so how good could this one possibly be? To say this stew exceeded my expectations would be a gross understatement. Quite frankly, it blew me away. It was the best thing I ate in Portland all weekend. First of all, I couldn’t get over the sauce. I marveled at how thick and creamy it was. I knew it was gluten-free, but I figured they must be using corn starch or some sort of thickener. The server assured me that it was just cream that had been reduced. I’m still baffled by it. And it was so flavorful with all those herbs! A little on the peppery side, but not in a bad way. And the veal… The pieces were all very uniform, and they all had a gorgeous layer of fatty goodness. They practically dissolved in my mouth. Seriously, I couldn’t shut up about this stew.

St. Jack Onglet Steak Frites

My friend’s onglet steak frites was also fantastic (with shallot, red wine demi glace & pommes frites with béarnaise). Onglet is simply French for hanger. The steak was a perfect medium rare, with a nice char on the outside, and very flavorful. The meat was slightly chewy, but not tough, which is great for a hanger steak. The fries were very salty and flavorful, so much so that I could’ve sworn they were fried in some sort of animal fat. But alas, I was disappointed to hear it was only canola oil. I’d love to know what seasoning they used. But the true star of the plate was the béarnaise sauce. OMG. I kept stealing fries to dip into that luscious, flavorful sauce.

The stew alone was worth the visit. And my friend’s entrée was awesome as well. The appetizers were okay. Usually it’s the other way around for me, so I’d much rather be raving about the mains than the appetizers. I’m really surprised (and disappointed) that considering they have so many gluten-free entrees, they didn’t have any gluten-free desserts other than ice cream (which is why we passed on dessert). Drinks were tasty. Service was pretty good. I loved the charming ambiance. Overall, I’m quite happy with my experience at St. Jack, and would definitely recommend it.

Patisserie St. Jack on Urbanspoon

Stay tuned for Part 2: Podnah’s Pit BBQ, Salt & Straw, Andina, Tasty n Sons, and St. Honoré Boulangerie.

Have you been to these restaurants? What did you think? Any recommendations for next time?

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