IT FEELS FUNNY to say something as timeless as the French bistro is having a moment, but that appears to be the case. Since December, to the delight of Portland Francophiles, three such restaurants have opened up their doors—Little Bird, Cocotte, and St. Jack. The latter might not have come out of the gates with Gabriel Rucker-level hype, but considering how tough it is to get a table on the weekend, St. Jack is making a name for itself.
Aaron Barnett (formerly of 23Hoyt and Olea) has given the old Clinton Corner space quite the facelift. The main dining room is warm and intimate. There's a nice mingling of light and dark wood surfaces, complemented by a long zinc bar and a red-brick perimeter around the floor. Plenty of chalkboards and chandelier light add to that bouchon ambiance. To stage left is the pâtisserie area of the restaurant. White tile and natural light give the room more of a café feel (while it looks lovely during the day, it feels a little bit like overflow seating if you're there for dinner... try not to get stuck at the kids' table).
The menu is focused around Lyonnais fare, but not dogmatically so; Barnett doesn't pass up any opportunity to make a dish his own just for tradition's sake. It's a heavy menu, not particularly friendly to anyone saving up Weight Watchers points, with about as many offal items as vegetarian ones.
We started with a salad of butter lettuce, fines herbes, radish, avocado, and croutons ($8)—simple but pungent vinaigrette made it something more than the sum of its parts. But it was the frog legs ($11) that hinted at why I'd been having a hard time getting a reservation. At first glance they looked like chicken wings—larger and juicier than any frog I can remember seeing, like zoo or cartoon frogs. Sautéed in white wine, garlic, and a little bit of butter, these succulent little legs are finished with lemon and parsley. You'll find yourself picking at the bone for more of their moist, citrusy meat.
My first entrée was a perfect example of a French staple that Barnett has taken in his own direction, and successfully. Forgoing the more traditional coq a vin, St. Jack serves coq a la biere ($22). Now I realize that switching your sauce from wine to beer isn't exactly storming-the-Bastille revolutionary—it's done all the time—but Barnett is braising the bird with an Upright Brewing farmhouse ale that brings a big, bright flavor to the chicken without drowning its natural tastes. I make no secret that Upright is currently my favorite brewery in town, but I wouldn't have imagined how well it would serve cooking. There's a slight spice that's particular to farmhouse beers, and combined with pearl onions, wild mushrooms, and bacon, the Upright sauce blew most of its oenophilist cousins out of the water. The potential of this dish has no ceiling, but I have to admit the chicken itself came out slightly drier than the recipe deserves. It was still giggle-you've-got-to-try-this delicious, but it could be transcendent.
As I mentioned, there aren't an abundance of vegetarian options on the menu, but you can't do much better than the Lyonnaise onion tart ($16). It's nice to see a place on the dinner menu that gives the bakery a chance to shine. A perfect puff pastry is framed by a bed of sautéed kale, and loaded with caramelized onions and leeks. Goat cheese and a poached egg push this tart across the line from rich to decadent. It's one of those dishes that, when you offer your companion a bite, you're careful to make sure each element is represented. It says a lot about the way Barnett builds flavor profiles.
I don't think you can miss on the dessert menu—rich chocolate mousse, baked custard pear tart, house-made salted caramel ice cream—but do your table a favor and order the madeleines ($7). Baked fresh to order, these pillowy bite-sized cookies provide me with no Proustian nostalgia, because every memory of them pales in comparison.
When I land a hot date I'll be back in a moment, but I don't foresee St. Jack becoming a go-to lunch spot. The pâtisserie is a bit cramped, on the pricey side, and the execution doesn't quite live up to dinner service. While the croque monsieur ($9) was delicious—they use a nice brioche and the ham has a great dijon kick—it was also soggy, definitely a knife-and-fork job. Still, if you're in the neighborhood for éclairs, macarons, and coffee, you won't go wrong.
There may be a couple kinks to work out, but they're minor. Considering the upsides—cocktails alone are worth a trip, the selection of wine, cognac, and eau de vie is stellar, and the servers are knowledgeable pros (even with a packed house they remained friendly and attentive)—St. Jack is only going to get better. If our French-bistro revolution ends, St. Jack won't be a casualty.