I CAN'T TELL you to rush to Le Vieux and try their well-spiced lamb tagine, served in a clay vessel with prunes, almonds, couscous, and cabbage ($24). I can't tell you to start with an order of succulent braised rabbit ($13), with a classic sauce of Dijon, white wine, and parsley.
I can't tell you to get these dishes—or pretty much anything else on this nearly three-month-old restaurant's menu—because they're already gone.
Annette Yang and partner/chef Brian Leitner, the duo behind the much-lauded Nettie's Crab Shack in San Francisco, opened Le Vieux (meaning "The Old One" in French) in the former Noisette space on NW 23rd Place in December. According to their website, they felt the Bay Area was "changing," so they sold the old shack and decided to move to Portland for a more "balanced" life.
After almost a year here, they debuted Le Vieux. The dining room is a nice transformation from Noisette's white linens and (IMHO) ugly abstract art. It's cleaner now, and the space reflects its history as a single-family home, with bare tables and travel books tucked into high-up nooks.
But the concept (and the execution) is both intriguing and incredibly frustrating. The idea is that Yang and Leitner flit around the Mediterranean, featuring cuisine from a new country each month. Le Vieux is racking up more frequent flier miles than Carmen Sandiego—in its short life, it has bopped from Morocco to France to Tuscany. (Next stop: Greece.) Oh, and they rotate offerings within that month, too. So if you loved the French cassoulet, order two, because it might be gone in a week.
Plenty of restaurants offer specials but keep a regular menu, because they know consistency and familiarity are the backbone of hospitality. Le Vieux has forgotten the latter, and instead is relying on a gimmick to differentiate itself.
It's an ADD-esque ticket I'd sign up for, if I knew everything was going to be perfection. However, portion size here means you'll want to split a starter and salad, and probably a side vegetable, along with your entrée. Le Vieux is solid, but for the experience, location, and price, I need more.
The Moroccan menu was a mostly successful start, particularly the Tunisian fish stew ($24), with thick but not chewy mussels, clams, and hand-formed cod "meatballs" swimming in tomato and harissa. A side of roasted mushrooms and sunchokes with cipollini onions and ginger ($6) was small but hearty with umami flavors. But a simple salad ($7) was too simple, without enough herbs or dressing to really make the dish pop, while a chickpea tortilla starter ($6) was a small, bland blend of chicken, egg, and chickpea in a cast-iron skillet.
Le Vieux's next month in France was dicier, especially in contrast with spots like St. Jack and Le Pigeon, which do excellent French with new world flair. The aforementioned braised rabbit was the best thing I had. And, perhaps showing Leitner's comfort with crab shack fare, he nailed a bouillabaisse with cod, mussels, clams, and squid ($22). But a lentil and beet salad ($6) was acidic with no salt, and fried cauliflower ($5) with aioli was oddly reminiscent of happy hour calamari.
Brunch is okay. Six dollars is a lot to ask for a single, unfluffy honey amaranth waffle with reconstituted dried prunes. It's also ballsy, I think, not to put salt and pepper on the tables, particularly when serving a woefully under-seasoned baked egg with duck confit, butternut squash, and braised greens ($12). But a simple omelet of chanterelles, chèvre, and herbs was as good as any you'll find, with light, airy eggs wrapped around a tasty filling. Omelets, it's often said, are the true test of a good cook, so there's something right going on in the mornings. A blood orange mimosa ($9) was tart, fresh-squeezed, and just what a Sunday morning demands.
However, I cannot tell you what to order on the current Tuscan menu; it just changed before this went to press. Bon voyage.
Dinner: Mon-Fri 5 pm-close (closed Tues), Sat-Sun 4 pm-close. Brunch: Sat-Sun 11 am-3 pm. Reservations accepted. Vegetarian friendly.