St. Jack’s –
Ask any respectable Lyonnaise citizen what makes their sleepy French city special, and you’ll likely hear more than a few of them mention their famed bouchons. These small cafés are the sort of places where the wine glass is tipped before the menu is lifted; where rich French cooking is displayed before you in such abundance and flavor you’ll be left in le food coma.
This was exactly the kind of ambiance Aaron Barnett was looking for when he opened St. Jack in a tumble-down old building in 2011. Having recently moved to the hugely popular Northwest 23rd neighborhood, St. Jack is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and Barnett couldn’t be happier.
Born in Canada, Barnett learned his initial cooking skills from his mom, who was influenced by Asian and Indian cooking, and his father who was more into classical French food. Although he went straight into college after high school, cooking was calling.
Post-culinary school, he would go on to hone his chops at such venerable places as Lumiere in Vancouver, B.C. and Gary Danko in San Francisco. “But it’s very cutthroat down there,” he somberly says of the San Francisco restaurant scene.
Eventually he and his wife would land in Portland, where he “kind of fell in love with the city.” Soon after, he began his journey with the opening of St. Jack.
St. Jack combines the sophisticated flavors of France with Portland’s hipster feel. Barnett wasn’t interested in a stuffy bourgeois vibe.
“I don’t want any pretense in here,” he says. “I’m not trying to make you talk in a funny accent. Our servers will never correct you if you say something the wrong way.”
Part of protecting that vibe includes appealing to Portland’s hipster crowd. Playing French hip hop would seem like an ace-in-the-hole for a Portlandesque French eatery. Not so, says Barnett.
“At first a lot of people didn’t like the fact that we were playing French hip hop,” he says. “Some wanted it to be a fussier French restaurant, but we’re not that. We’re a little louder and a little more aggressive.”
The assertive nature of St. Jack doesn’t just come through Barnett’s words, it’s reflected in the food, as well. “A lot of our dishes are dishes that don’t get made the way we make them,” he says. “They haven’t been made that way anywhere from thirty to one-hundred years.”
The vast timespan crossing Barnett’s food mind comes from the source of his research. “I try to do research using very old cookbooks, the most very old I can find,” he says. “I try to find turn of the century and older.”
Barnett also plumbs the annals of history to find new ways to do old things. “I get a lot of inspiration from sixties and seventies,” he explains. “That was when the classic nouvelle French cooking was emerging; a lighter version. You had both during that time frame. That juxtaposition of dark, heavy, rich French cooking and then the lighter, fresher, cleaner flavors.”
Even as Barnett extols the virtues of his casual French eatery, this food comes off as refined as they come. “My background is in high-end cooking,” he says without hesitation. “You’re never going to take that away from me. Someone once said to me this is rustic refinement. I like that because that’s basically what we are. Upscale rustic French cooking.”
The lighter influences are readily on display. And while you’ll find no heavy hand here, Barnett knows where to apply the pressure.
The evening starts out light with a creamy fishermen’s stew, which combines fresh scallops, clams, and oysters in a fumet cream with cognac, trout roe and fresh herbs. The seafood is cooked to perfection and the broth is simply second-to-none, filled with nutty notes and a whiff of fresh cut parsley. This is nouvelle French cooking at its finest.
Things get a little more serious when the Pieds de cochon is put in front of you. This dish is composed of pig’s trotters that have been deboned and stuffed with veal sweetbreads. As it turns out, Barnett uses the front legs because they carry less weight, which makes for tenderer meat.
This dish is a perfect example of Barnett’s food philosophy of marrying two eras in French cooking. The piece of meat itself is immense and visually arresting. The leg beckons with a layer of crispy fat, while inside the delicious sweetbreads provide a light, buttery, flavor and feel. Set atop a mountain of perfectly cooked white beans, panache meets presentation.
End the night with a crème fraiche bavaroisé. This delectable frozen treat is composed of strawberries, honey genoise, ginger meringue, and sorrel. It’s both creamy, yet light, with the sorrel providing a perfect amount of acidity.
Now that St. Jack has settled into its new location to a rousing welcome, Barnett is preparing for his next big opening, coming August 31st. Inspired by a concept he discovered while visiting Washington D.C., he’s about to bring a Belgian tradition to Portland: The mussel bar.
We’re not talking about the kind of muscle bar with bulging pecs and cheap beer. No, this mussel bar, complete with a dozen different Belgian beers on tap. It will be called La Moulle, which means “the mussel” in French.
“We are going to do six or seven different flavors of mussels,” he explains. “We’re also going to do a waffle that’s studded with pearl sugar. When you put it under the waffle iron, the pearls melt and caramelize. The outside ends up crunchy while the inside is light and fluffy.”
All we have to say to that is yes, please. Add in six or seven appetizers and one killer burger, and you’ve got the setup for a perfect Belgium-by-way-of-Portland style seafood pub.
As Barnett settles into his increasing fame, he reflects on what’s got him here, and why it means so much to him. “It’s huge,” he says matter-of-factly. “When I first moved up here, I always hoped I would get to a point like this.”
Ask Barnett about landing in the Oregonian’s Top 10 Best Restaurants in Portland List – and number one in the Reader’s Poll – and he demurs. “For a guy like me who just wants to feed people, to have a room that’s buzzing and full of people who are having a good time, that’s fantastic. I feel very fortunate that this is something I’ve been able to make a living doing.”
Judging by the crowds and popularity of St. Jack, Portlanders feel quite fortunate with the arrangement, as well. For an affordable trip down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées without leaving the Pacific Northwest, check out St. Jack.
St. Jack is located at 1610 NW 23rd Ave, Portland, Oregon, 97210. They are open seven days a week from 5:00pm to 10:00pm, with the bar open until 11:00pm Sunday through Thursday. For reservation or menu information, visit their website at www.stjackpdx.com or give them a call at 503.360.1821.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.