I'D THINK opening up a high-end restaurant on the corner of NE 30th and Killingsworth would give you pause—like opening a bookstore on the corner of 10th and W Burnside. Micah Camden's little triumvirate of restaurants—Beast, DOC, and Yakuza—seem like enough to satiate the neighborhood's gourmands, and then some. When his fourth place, Fats, went out of business, there was briefly some talk that he'd keep the space for Little Big Burger. But that was for naught. Maybe Camden couldn't even compete with himself.
And judging from early reports, it didn't look like Cocotte would either. Everyone seemed to agree that Kat Liebman and Zoe Hackett—veterans of Lucy's Table—had a good concept in their French bistro-cum-Northwest menu, but that the execution wasn't quite there.
But sometimes we need a bit of a gestation period, a few months to get the kinks out. I'm pleased to say that Cocotte solidifies an already over-privileged little intersection into arguably the best culinary corner in the state.
It helps that Cocotte is adorable. From the dark wood floors to the champagne flute flower vases, everything looks nice in the early evening light flooding in from floor-to-ceiling windows. They nail that rustic farmhouse-chic thing without looking like a Real Simple photo spread. A large window on the back wall frames Liebman and Hackett, dolled up in aprons that would feel at home in such a magazine.
A proper meal at Cocotte begins with baguette and two varieties of compound butter (normally I'd gloss over this part of the meal, but trust me, it warrants mention); one is a salted sweet cream butter, the other, darker in color and speckled with herbs, has a strong truffle-oil flavor. Do not skip the bread course.
I hadn't heard anything, good or bad, about Cocotte's bar, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I ordered the La Nella Moda (rye, Dolin Rouge, Amaro Ramazzotti, and bitters), the kind of drink that, in the wrong hands, could go pretty foul. But the vermouth and Amaro were understated, and let the whiskey sit front and center. It was on par with the better cocktail bars in town.
The clams were prepared in a simple garlicky white wine sauce loaded with enough fines herbs to tint the broth a rich green color. The portions—especially for the price—were generous; none were overdone, none were undercooked.
Next we tried the chicken liver mousse ($7)—rich, creamy, and perfect on their housemade brioche. Pickled carrots, onions, thinly sliced radishes, and spicy mustard came on the side.
Rarely will chicken win out as my favorite entrée, but their signature poulet en cocotte ($25) managed to take that honor. The bronzed bird is incredibly succulent on its own—served in jus over a toasted faro risotto, radish and green garlic—but a poached egg takes it to another level entirely; the saltiness of the chicken is cut nicely by the runny egg yolk. It's one of those dishes that has you sculpting each bite to balance your flavors and textures.
Cocotte, I should mention, probably isn't for those with high blood pressure. Salt isn't used sparingly, but it is used deliberately.
The Quinalt sockeye ($20), for instance, certainly used a salt-based rub, but only enhanced the pistou dressing (garlic, basil, and olive oil). It's served with excellent fava bean dumplings, chopped leeks, and sugar snap peas.
Vegetarians get a fair shake at dinner as well. Recent entrées included a sweet onion risotto with mushrooms, leeks, pistou, and chevre ($15), and truffled pommes de terre with French lentils, egg, and caramelized onions ($17).
Dessert—though not at all bad—was probably the weakest part of the meal. Their take on strawberry shortcake was an old-fashioned biscuit, strawberry rhubarb compote, and crème fraîche. The compote was a little bit lacking; I would have liked a little more tartness from the rhubarb. Next time I may stick with cheese, fruit, and shortbread.
The weekend brunch menu is simple, restrained. It's not at all decadent, as seems to be the direction many restaurants are going: a brie omelet with fines herbs ($9); oyster mushroom quiche ($7); sweet-cheese crêpes with blueberry jam and pistachios ($8). The best dish at our table (which I was wise enough to order) was the pork sausage hash ($10). Roasted potatoes, poached egg, and hollandaise are enough for me, but the really inspired touch is the way they dress it with a light spicy dijon.
And for the deal makers: the Bloody Marys are spicy, garnished with bacon, and packed with pickled asparagus and fennel; the coffee is French-pressed Stumptown.
I'm not ready to say that Cocotte is on par with St. Jack or the better of my experiences at Little Bird, but Liebman and Hackett are doing their own thing, and they're doing it well. Cocotte grew up fast, and I think they'll just keep growing.