After being under construction for what seems like years, Fenouil, pronounced Fen-wee which means Fennel, opened a few months ago on the edge of Jamison Square in Portland’s Pearl District. The 8,500 square foot interior was designed by KL Design group. Word on the street is the total cost approached five million dollars. It is going to take a lot of covers to pay off this kind of mortgage. Did they get their money’s worth?
Fenouil parallels the square, and though it makes finding the entrance a bit confusing, it more than makes up for it with the dramatic views, both from the square to the restaurant, and from the restaurant to the square. This time of year, the abundance of tiny lights in the trees only adds to the effect. The entry is dramatic, first because the air is redolent with truffles, which promises great things to come. Second, because of the ‘wood’ oven directly in front of the doors, and the sweeping curved staircase that leads to the upper levels.
There is so much going on; it is a bit difficult to come up with a good description. A large bar area with fireplace takes up the space on the left side. It is a virtual who’s who of Portland’s trendiest people. The bartenders are knowledgeable and pour a pretty good drink, though the prices are a bit higher then elsewhere in the Pearl. Two issues: the seats are a suede-like material that works almost like Velcro. Once you sit, you are stuck. Sliding out of the booths can be a bit difficult. Second, if you run a tab in the bar, you must pay before they will seat you in the dining room. This seems ridiculous for a restaurant that obviously takes itself seriously. Just transfer the tab to the table like everyone else does.
The area in front of the entry is dominated by a long kitchen. There is a large ‘wood’ oven, which is actually gas flamed with a few sticks thrown in now and then. A chef’s counter seats about 10 and would be a great place to watch the action. To the right is the main dining room which seats 120, complete with two fireplaces that provide a much needed foil to the three drafty roll up doors that will open to the square during summer months. Overall the space is elegant; the wood floors, limestone pillars, a large French tapestry, and finally a vaulted ceiling all speak to the dollars spent on the space. Hovering over it all is a large mezzanine which, because of the view, is my favorite area to dine. To one side Jamison Square shimmers; the other side looks directly down on the line cooks. Those of you who have worked in kitchens will appreciate the chance to be on the other side of the floorshow for a change. A French tin ceiling arches over the mezzanine. Everything feels very… well, corporate. It was my second visit, when I was sitting in one of the padded armchairs on wheels that make up part of the upstairs dining area, that it hit me. There really isn’t much French about this place. While they have done a beautiful job, it just doesn’t work for me. I felt like I was sitting in a French restaurant in China, or maybe Vegas, if that makes any sense. Fenouil is too big money, a bit Disneyland for my taste. When I looked up more information about the designer, I see they also designed St. Honoré Boulangerie, of which I said, “If Disney Corporation was told to design a French bakery, I would guess that St. Honoré would be pretty close to their final result. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is more the movie version American tourists expect from a French bakery, but not like any I have seen in France”. I feel the same here, and wonder if anyone at the KLM has ever been to France, or if they just stopped at Epcot.
The menu is broken into small cold plates, small hot plates, and entrees. I’ve had a pretty good sampling of everything.
A classic salad from the Alsace region of France, the cresson is made up of watercress, frisée, walnuts, lardoons, and goat cheese. One night it came with almost soapy-flavored lavender brioche, which overpowered everything else. On top of that it was wet, and well, boring. It would have benefited from a bit of walnut oil. Nothing about the preparation lifts this lackluster salad above the mundane. ($7.00)
The salad of cepes chauds is made up of butter salad, porcini, sherry vinaigrette and pumpkin oil ($8,00). This was a little better effort, the vinaigrette was balanced and the pumpkin oil gave it an earthy spin. A warm salad for a cool day still, this wasn’t something I want to rush out and tell friends about.
Foie gras ($18.00) comes in a terrine, served with lavender brioche and a bit of fleur de sel to be sprinkled over your toast. Rich, buttery, and that overused word “unctuous” really works here. If you haven’t had it before and are feeling adventurous, this is a terrific appetizer, big enough for three to share, and a good introduction to foie gras.
A tuna carpaccio is so delicate it should be the first thing you try; translucently thin slices of fresh tuna, a few bits of daikon radish, and a nice dusting of crunchy sea salt give it explosive bites of flavor. A bit of cucumber finishes the dish. Pair this with a really light wine ($10.00).
For a great starter on cold fall days try gratiné of French onion soup ($7.00). Wonderful! Two different stocks are used for the base. There is a perfect amount of finely cut roasted onions with a lovely caramel flavor. On top of it all, the traditional bread cap and a good layer of aged gruyere cheese. This is one of the better onion soups I have ever had.
The frog legs, on the other hand, seem like a waste of a good frog. They are deep-fried which mutes much of the flavor, and then come with a strong, unbalanced bagna cauda dipping sauce which covers them even more. It didn’t help that the sauce cooled very quickly – it shouldn’t since the name bagna cauda means “warm bath”. I didn’t particularly care for them. ($11.00)
Steak tartare is made from Kobe beef, raw quail egg, and brioche. It is prepared the classic way, the beef chopped (not ground!), topped with the small raw egg. I found myself comparing it to the better version at Paleys Place, and missing all the traditional accompaniments.
Black cod has been on the menu since they opened. A nice sized fillet, it comes on a bed of almost mashed potatoes, along with some braised cabbage and Serrano ham. Everything works together to give this dish terrific texture. It is perfectly cooked, the fish flavorful and moist. Manila clams scattered around the edge play a supporting role, and lend a fresh briny flavor. This is a good deal for $20.00.
Magret de canard roti et son confit (roast breast of duck with confit) is another good dish. The wood-fired duck breast has a nice, slightly smoky flavor, and a good, crisp skin. The meat is tender and moist. Armagnac is a French distillation made from wine; for this dish they soak prunes in it, and scatter the flavorful prunes across the top. Finally the dish is rounded out with flageolets, little French kidney beans ($23.00).
Steak frites ala chanterelles consists of a large Misty Isle rib eye steak that has been aged for a week, giving it a deep beef flavor. The dish is cooked just to order, surrounded by chanterelles that soak up the sauce, and comes with a cone of crisp, nearly perfect fries, and an exceptional truffle aioli ($24.00). I tasted this dish twice; the first time the steak wasn’t hot enough, the second time the fries arrived cold and had to be sent back.
Wild boar tenderloin comes with little bits of wonderful bone marrow and pommes sarladaises – potatoes sautéed in garlic and duck fat. The potatoes should be crispy and brown; these were a bit soggy, not true to form. There is plenty of boar with a rich, thick, marrow jus; it is presented French style, and medium-rare as ordered. Unfortunately, everything was put on a cold plate, and by the time we got it the meal was cold. We sent the dish back, and the boar returned cooked to medium-well. Um, no… we want it medium-rare, on a plate warm enough to keep the meat above room temperature ($29.00).
Seared sea scallops, smoked bacon, leek fondue, and verjus are simple and wonderful. The scallops clean and succulent, all the flavors working just as you would expect. One of the better dishes ($24.00).
The desserts take a unique approach for the Portland market. They are tiny little things, each literally just a few bites, and beautifully presented. Unfortunately, I have yet to find one that I thought was particularly good, most of them are your average low-end fare. However, with the tiny prices matching their size, you can try quite a few and have a good time.
A sampling of the desserts:
Chocolate soufflé $3.50
Fig tart $2.50
Glaces maison – when I had it the ice cream was malted chocolate chip – $1.50
Honey nougat $1.00
Chocolate terrine $4.00
Profiterole – $2.00
Seven different cheeses, mostly French, are available.
The chocolate soufflé and the ice cream were the best of this list. While being beautiful to look at, most suffer from poor pastry crust or other similar flaws.
Fenouil serves Umbria coffee, a strange decision considering how much good coffee is available in this town. It arrives on a really cool (as in “how cool!”) plate with an equally cool little cream pitcher. Unfortunately, Umbria is not a particularly good coffee; here it is rather bitter.
Service is always close to perfect. The waiters are knowledgeable, and there when you need them. From the moment you walk into the door, to the time you walk back out, that make you feel like you are important. I have never had a bad service experience.
There is a good selection of wines, with the markup on bottles I checked, about 130%. The wines available by the glass are nothing special, buy a bottle if you can.
Overall, the food is generally pretty good at Fenouil. Unfortunately, the issue of cold food has affected every meal. Over four dining experiences, I have gotten four entrees that came on plates that were cold. When you order a medium-rare steak, and it comes across the restaurant, up a flight of stairs, and across the mezzanine before it gets to your table, it’s not surprising the dish arrives cold. If you send something back, they just cook it to medium-well, re-plate, and send it out. That isn’t what I want. I want a medium-rare steak on a plate that has been heated enough to keep it warm. Between this issue, and the only fair desserts, I am less likely to go back to Fenouil. Simple to fix, but until it is, the overall score drops. Of more concern is how they are going to pay for the space. I wonder if they might be a bit concerned too, as the buzz is already wearing off, and they have now opened for brunch and lunch. Oh, a final thing: When you call for reservations, they should ask if you have any issues climbing the stairs before they plan to seat you on the mezzanine. Some of us have a very difficult time with stairs.
- Phone: (503) 525-2225. Reservations strongly recommended.
- Address: 900 NW 11th Ave, Portland, OR. 97209
- Hours: Mon-Thu11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-10:00pm, Sun 9am-9pm
- Website: FenouilInThePearl.com
Wheelchair accessible, but ask for downstairs seating.