In every way June is the quintessential Portland restaurant–overstated understated. It boasts of having no sign in front, except for its obscurely etched name on an exterior piece of wood, looking like something a beaver might have carved if beavers lived on Burnside; only squinty-eyed pedestrians with 20-20 will spot it. What’s going on here? Reverse snobbism and self-satisfied assurance that those who care will find it out? Was legible signage the first over-budget item to go? June’s website isn’t up yet, though the restaurant has been open for almost two months—who needs vulgar self-promotion? Like the field of dreams, the restaurant was built, and undeniably they will come, in droves.
And you know what? They have. And why not, given the superb pedigree that includes a kitchen headed by Gregory Perrault from DOC and Daniel Mondok from Sel Gris. When Mondok is your sous chef you know you’ve got bench strength to burn, and a guarantee that nothing will be burned. The food that issues from the stoves, combined with June’s modest ambiance, is another mark of pure Portland: a casual neighborhood spot with garage doors, little art on the walls, industrial beams, much wood, and a simple area for waiting; and a food-savvy attitude that combines seasonal intelligence with a commitment to dishes that are, as the Italians say, “jumped,” or elevated above the conventional and the expected to a level which, if not astonishing or sublime, is hugely satisfying and the result of skillful and practiced attention.
I don’t mean to sound clairvoyant but on all my visits it appeared that the diners were seriously knowledgeable about food, as interested in their plates as their dates. The clientele is predictably young, which signals there’s an upcoming culture devoted to fine cooking, perceptive about who is doing good work in local restaurant kitchens. June also represents a new generation of major culinary actors on the city’s stage: its cuisine, neither flashy nor predictable, results from the twin tower chefs’ ability to tease out interesting and workable pairings and to trope, though never extravagantly, on the commonplace.
The restaurant falls into that notoriously broad category known as modern American, or bistro modern. While the wine list is abundant in its French choices, the menu is hardly Francophone, rather more reliably locavore though with preparations inflected here and there from here and there.
It’s a relatively small menu, with eight or nine starters and a mere handful of entrées. I began one meal with an elegant version of a simple chilled cauliflower soup, creamy and pungent, topped with a startling dollop of trout roe, eye-popping as well as tongue popping, the little eggs bursting sensually on the palate: a mid-brow vegetable raised to an upper crust potage. A plate of smoked salmon produced neither the belly lox I imagined (I should have known since this was dinner, not brunch), nor the often tough-as-leather Oregon variety; rather the fish, hot smoked and seemingly straight from the smokehouse, was a beautifully tender slab of salmon–warm, soft, and oaky (a match made in Chardonnay heaven). Paired with tart yellow beets, dressed with rice wine vinaigrette and spiked with star anise, it’s a winner.
Equally succulent, a piece of braised pork belly arrived laced with chipotle and tomato jam, a meaty pleasure with just the right layering of fat nicely cut by the bracing acidity of the tomato and the edgy heat of the pepper. Perrault as always enjoys playful surprises, and one such combination arrived on cue: melon chunks and pork cracklings, a turn on prosciutto and cantaloupe; this beguilement benefited from a smattering of watercress, the colors of the ensemble almost echoing the Italian flag.
It’s been a tough year for home growers of tomatoes, and as if to comfort the cooks in the audience who have been forced compulsively to fry their green tomatoes, Perrault sends out a plate of them that announce implicitly, “Here’s the way to make a triumph out of necessity.” He douses his tomatoes in truffle vinegar, and rings the crisply fried fruit with crunchy chanterelles. It’s a cook’s joke that says though the mushrooms announce autumn, we’re still stuck with tomatoes that by early fall ought to be bursting with redness, but couldn’t manage it. Perrault has taken the rainy results in the garden as a serious challenge, and he is certainly up to it.
Two appetizers, however, struck me as not quite up to snuff. An order of fresh sardines were inexcusably mushy, and worse, they were too fishy and over the hill. I did however appreciate the whimsical way a pair of nestling green onions came tied like a ribbon. Another promising but slightly dubious item included matsutake mushrooms sliced in thin strips accompanied by similarly cut pieces of pear, then scattered with a few grains of wild rice for dusky color and crunch. It’s a kind of offbeat salad, but somehow it never came together, and though matsutakes are wonderfully earthy things, the whole seemed more interesting as an idea than in the consumption.
I frequently hear, whether in a complaining voice or not, that the appetizers at some restaurants trump the main dishes for enjoyment. I think this is frequently true, but June maintains a happy balance between the categories. One of the best lamb dishes in my recent experience, certainly a great value at $22, is June’s leg of lamb, again with just the right edging of fat and enough flavor to tempt the most hardened meataphobe. As if the lamb were not sufficiently moist, the accompanying eggplant lent even more liquidity and a jolt of richness, the flakes of corn scattered about making for a colorful palette.
The kitchen often does better with meat than with fish: while the albacore tuna was flavorful, it was a bit overcooked and a tad dry. I thought the same with a piece of halibut, although the addition of spicy salami gave an unexpected jolt and a prod of excitement, just what that bland fish needs. More welcome with the halibut was a sizeable portion of Tarbaise beans, nutty and buttery legumes from southwest France often used in cassoulets. They’re planted at the same time as corn, and since they use the corn as a pole for the runners to climb, when ripe they’re harvested by hand and extracted one pod at a time, making for a labor-intensive process and a very costly product. These Platonic beans were almost worth the price of the entire dish.
Mondok was one of the hands behind Foster Burger, so it’s no surprise his version of the burger at June is well worth a try; a layer of cheese the menu labels as “fondue” tops the beef, and even more interestingly, a thin strip of ham, almost like a slice of bacon, gives the burger an addition of briny meat. On the other side of the spectrum, I enjoyed the restaurant’s sole nod to vegetarians: a layering of paper-thin summer squash in a light broth that bathed a goodly number of lobster mushrooms (another joke featuring ostensible sea creatures that are not, just as they are supposed mushrooms that are not, but parasitic fungi whose orange-red color gives them the look of lobsters cooked in boiling water).
One more jest shows up in the dessert list, a drollery that bids to make transcendent that horror, the Hostess Ding Dong. Gerald Shorey, the pastry chef, has taken the basic structure of the packaged best seller and transformed it into a lovely dessert of chocolate ganache and a luscious interior of mazetta or marshmallow cream. This sweet is Shorey’s Ding Dong defense, and unlike the Hostess Twinkie-gorging slayer of Harvey Milk, Shorey does not need a crime to make his case. He also does a mean retro offering of an ambrosial butterscotch pudding, and a curious authenticity-be-damned version of a Napoleon with poached pears. This classic French dessert is normally made with puff pastry and a cream filling, but June puts fruit between layers of buttery cookies—not bad but no cigar in my book. Redemption comes in the form of an immensely satisfying cobbler making splendid use of the last of seasonal peaches and huckleberries.
June should be right up there with all but the very top tier places in town. I want to keep a weather eye on how things develop over the next few months of fall and winter dishes, but if the late summer creations are any indication, I’m very optimistic about its present and its future. “Honey moon, keep a shinin’ on June . . . .”
Food: B plus
Service: A minus
- Address: 2215 E. Burnside St., Portland OR.
- Phone: 503-477-4655
- Website: JunePDX.com
- Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-10:30, Friday-Saturday 5:30-11:00
Credit cards; reservations.
Appetizers $8-$12; entrees $17-$22.
Noise level: The right kind of buzz.
Wine list: Excellent list, mostly French with some German and Northwest bottles.
Cocktails: a short but fine selection of innovative drinks.
Chilled Cauliflower Soup
Braised Pork Belly
Fried Green Tomatoes
Leg of Lamb
Summer Squash Ribbons and Lobster Mushrooms
Peach Huckleberry Cobbler
Photos provided by June