There’s something to be said for respecting the classics. So many young chef-talents seem to have skipped (or popped-up) over the European canon in their careers, dreaming up wild flavors and trendy fusions. Not so at Le Vieux, the month-old “Old World Mediterranean” restaurant in Northwest Portland’s former Noisette space, where the food, according to owner Annette Yang, “is nostalgic of a less hurried time.” So far, they’ve stuck to their old-school guns—from braised rabbit to cassoulet—but they’ve got a long way to go before the Proustian yum-factor brings us back for more.
Le Vieux is the product of Yang and her partner, chef Brian Leitner, who worked in some of San Francisco’s top restaurants before earning three stars from the SF Chronicle for their shellfish mecca, Nettie’s Crab Shack. Their ambitious strategy in Portland: rotate from region to region, from Western Europe to West Africa, every few weeks.
From their opening Francophile menu, a few early starters are duds. A Dungeness crab salad (a Leitner specialty) is all celery root and no crab, with disparate bites of radicchio and fried oyster, all drenched in a watery remoulade. Meanwhile, a side of roasted cabbage and parsnips is beyond bland, strewn with big, unwanted hits of juniper.
Better are the old-school Julia Child classics: Coq Au Vin, the quintessential chicken dish stewed in red wine, lardons, and mushrooms, comes with a whole half bird, draped in a thick, auburn sauce, or the bouillabaisse: a salty broth springing with plump mussels, tangles of squid, and tiny clams—though the spicy, aioli-like rouille would be better served on thick bread than floating in oily blobs on the surface. Pair your seafood stew with a white Burgundy rather than the house cocktail program at the petite, seven-seat bar, which turns out strange brews, like a Moroccan Mary with blood orange vodka, cumin, and cinnamon, and weak sippers, like the Mazel Tov, with bourbon, muddled orange, mint, honey and black tea.
Weekend brunch bridges that gap between tradition and comfort with its mash-up of European-Mediterranean influences. Fluffy omelets, holding dark trumpet mushrooms, creamy Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and leeks, are as good as you’ll find anywhere, and thick levain, smeared with creamy chickpeas and topped with tangy greens and spicy patties of Merguez sausage hits the North African craving, hard. Bonus points for Le Vieux’s breadth, which includes chocolate babka from Eastern European Jewry, and a waffle (thin and slightly wilted) with the Middle-Eastern flavors of honey, amaranth, and orange blossom.
Le Vieux’s old world ambitions are admirable, but right now, there isn’t a dish that brings you back, or makes you feel like you are tasting the classics for the first time, again. We don’t need the excitement of something new—we need the comfort and just plain deliciousness of those honored traditions to keep us coming back for more.
1937 NW 23rd Pl.
Dinner: Mon, Wed-Fri 5pm to close;
Sat - Sun 4pm to close
Brunch: Sat and Sun: 11am to 3 pm