There’s nothing innovative or hip about C’est Si Bon, a small restaurant off Burnside, tucked behind Burnside Brewing. Heck, it’s not even new. But there’s a reason why you should know about it: They’ve cracked the French bistro thing.
Having started out as a crêpe and wine place, building on their business at various farmer’s markets around town, they’ve recently switched things up with a new chef to offer full dinner menus. Whereas downtown’s Little Bird, say, is a bustling metropolitan brasserie, C’est Si Bon is a cozy, family-run backstreet restaurant—and dare I say, romantic? It’s not a place to send friends from out of town who want the sparkly creations of the latest hyped chef du jour, it’s where you go for sophisticated comfort food to soothe the soul.
The new chef, Sophia Timchenko, is Russian—but if you’re an authenticity freak, don’t worry. One of the husband-wife team of owners is French, while the other is a genuine Francophile. Frankly, I couldn’t care less where she comes from as long she knows how to put together bistro dishes that in less supple hands (and, God, have I tasted things made by those hands) end up a mess. It’s like comparing one of those Lego replicas of the Eiffel Tower with what a three-year-old puts together with a pile of bricks.
It’s not fussy cooking, but the details are right. Take the smoked salmon roll starter ($12). Each one was wrapped in a small crêpe (the crêpe griddle is still put to good use), which is light but adds a firm richness. There’s also a delicate dollop of crème fraîche in there. It’s offset by a slice of crisp cucumber, which is essential for the texture. If you’re thinking “no big deal,” you’re probably right. But come back and chat after you’ve popped one in your mouth.
The feuillete ($9) gets similar treatment. The wild mushrooms are the star of the show—surrounded by pastry with the consistency of a crispy croissant, it makes for a mad rich-and-savory meld. The whole thing rests on a bed of arugula coated with vinaigrette that acts as a foil, cutting through with spiciness from the leaves and acid from the dressing. The salad’s texture also stops the whole thing from getting too mushy. Someone’s thought this through.
It’s the kind of food that clears off the plate in minutes. Maybe it’s not such a good place for a date or friendly catch-up session—my fellow diners went immediately silent after the first course arrived so they could get on with the business of eating.
Of the entrees, only the ratatouille ($14) didn’t receive a round of superlatives—it was bell pepper heavy and the texture was a little one note—but the plate was still wiped clean. The other dishes had the benefit of bold proteins and sauces. This is classic French cooking so sauces are as obligatory as Breton shirts and berets, if I can revert to cheap national stereotypes for a moment. They are crucial in underpinning the dishes. So, the beef in the boeuf bourguignon ($17) was aced—wonderfully cooked so it came apart with the touch of a fork—and matched with creamy potatoes, the dish was already pure opulence. But then, sitting in a red wine sauce made with the meat’s juices, the whole thing was kicked up a giddy notch. The superlatives were flying again—“flavor through the roof” probably sums it up.
One thing missing was a pile of bread to mop it all up. The wild sockeye salmon ($18) came with a single toasted piece that was never going to be enough, given the mussel sauce. The addition of tomatoes made sure this was rich but not cloying, a kind of tomato-seafood-cream stew. The salmon was the right side of firm, and (once again) beans and fennel created a counterpoint to all the soft, juicy textures.
I’ll mention the duck leg confit ($19), at the risk of repeating myself: more richness in the form of the duck, a spot on potato gratin, and a port wine reduction forming the foundation. No curveballs, no fireworks to claim restaurant of the year award, it was just damned good.
They have kept a lemon crêpe ($7) on the dessert menu, but the peach gateau with raspberry sorbet ($8) stole my taste buds with its peppy flavors. The wine list has French favorites but wanders promiscuously—it’s one of my favorites in town for finding curiosities. And the place gets busy. Presumably customers return for the consistency of cooking (a quality missing from a lot of Portland restaurants) and a touch of French chicness, courtesy of Russia via Kerns.