I'm one of those annoying picky eaters (I'm like a vegan, except I eat seafood, and I'll eat eggs if they're from chickens raised by my friends, and while I don't eat dairy, I'll eat butter every once in a while, but only if there's marijuana in it, etc.), but I like a good glass of wine and scene-ing around Portland's various culinary hot spots, so I was quite thrilled to hear that a new, talked-about French restaurant was opening in my 'hood: St Jack, at the northwest corner of SE 21st and Clinton, has already gotten some excited murmurs from the Portland food gossipers, since collectively its founders' resumes include involvement in boldface destinations like Ping, Grüner, 23Hoyt, Foster Burger, Teardrop Lounge, and Bluehour. Kurt Huffman of ChefStable (St Jack is his company's fifth restaurant venture) took a moment to answer some questions from a friendly neighbor about what he and Chef Aaron Barnett have up their sleeves.
MERCURY: What is the projected date of your opening?
KURT HUFFMAN: We are opening the restaurant on December 27th. We start taking reservations online at stjackpdx.com beginning this Monday the 20th.
My impression is that the space will be able to transition over the course of the day, as a brasserie/coffee shop in the morning, then a restaurant, then a later-night bar. Is that about right? Will you be serving lunch in addition to dinner? How extensive will the bar menu be, and do you plan on being a full-on bar, open to 2:30?
That's exactly right. We'll have both lunch and dinner. The bar menu is being overseen by Kyle Webster (House Spirits) and Tommy Klus (Teardrop). We've given these guys full reign to put together a bar menu that fits the concept and Aaron and I are super excited with the results. We will have a full bar, however we're only planning to stay open until 11 pm unless there's important demand to stay open longer. (We want to be loved by our neighbors—you know.)
The menu was described to me as "rustic French country," particularly influenced by the regional cuisine of Lyon. What characterizes this type of food? Can you give me a few exemplary dishes you are considering for the St. Jack menu?
Bouchons are super old-school Lyon restaurants—typically very casual, rustic, and cramped. Because Lyon was the railway hub for all of France, it became the center of French slaughter-houses, and these local restaurants ended up building most of their menu from the less popular cuts of meat and offal. You'll find fried pork skin, blood sausages, and tons of charcuterie along with more accessible cuts of beef like bavette and onglet. Three of the omnipresent dishes in Lyon are the Lyonnais Salad (frisee, poached egg, lardons, bacon fat fried croutons, and vinaigrette), the Tarte Tatin, which is an upside down apple tart, and a Bavette Frites, which is good ol' steak and fries. We'll have all of these and many others on our menu.
Where did the idea to focus on this type of cuisine come from? Do either of you have a personal connection to the region? Do you perceive that it will fill a void in Portland's culinary scene? To what extent will you adapt it to "make it Portland" either via emphasis on the strengths of regional meat/seafood/produce or by some other method? Will you acknowledge alternative diets like vegetarian/vegan/gluten free/etc?
Aaron's background and training was in traditional French cuisine on both ends of the spectrum: haute to rustic. When he first approached me with the idea about a year and a half ago—I loved it mostly because I had lived in Lyon for 10 years where I owned and ran a group of restaurants, and I knew all about these kinds of restaurants. I fell in love with bouchons because they were so French—in all the best ways. The recipes were a hundred years old, the prices were accessible, the barrel wine was great, and tarte tatin with crème fraîche was the best dessert I had ever eaten. Our pastry chef Alissa Rozos makes a tarte tatin that is so good you'll spontaneously start speaking perfect Français. We don't feel like bouchons need to be adapted to Portland—this kind of tradition is a natural fit. For example: Bouchons have been using local and sustainable products since before the State of Oregon was founded. Bouchon food is defined by the idea of terroir, which fits in naturally with what the Portland food scene is all about: good local food. As far as alternative diets, Bouchons are by nature some of the least vegan friendly restaurants ever created—which we will have to adapt for our vegan/veggie/celiac buddies. Given the amount of butter and animal fat in this kind of cooking, we don't plan on being a destination for vegans—but we'll do what we can while staying true to the concept. Maybe we'll offer card-carrying vegans a discount at the bar in order to make up for it?
To what degree is wine an emphasis? Eric [our mutual landlord] mentioned "wine to go," though I'm not sure what he meant by that; it seems you would need to take the proximity of New Seasons into account.
We'll be bringing in a "wine by the barrel" system exactly like what the bouchons have. I am shipping a pallet of "Pots Lyonnais" to Portland, so we'll be serving all of the barrel wine out of these 46cl bottles that have been the standard carafe at bouchons since 1843. We'll have a liquor license that will allow people to buy a pot and get it "to go", kind of like a wine growler. We'll cork the things right at the bar. In addition we'll have a bottle wine list.
I've been watching the progress on the outside of the building, but what is the look you are going for overall in the decor? Are you changing the interior significantly from the Charlie's/Clinton Corner Café layout?
The decor will be completely changed. You'll be invited down for a glass of wine once we are ready.