At Bistro Agnes, the Wild Duo behind Ox Plays French Food Straight

The downtown spot is good. But where's the spark?

By Karen Brooks May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Bistro Agnes’s lusty cheeseburger, luxuriating in a pool of Bordelaise sauce with a selection from the bar’s deep absinthe list

Portland chefs Greg and Gabi Denton are masters of the Cuisine of Muchness—big food, big flavors, and sometimes, big ideas. Yes, they have a coveted James Beard medal. And few chefs, near and wide, have better technical skills. But what makes the couple icons of the local scene is how they embrace everyday foods, then mess with our heads a little.

Ox, their acclaimed mash-up of Argentine grilling, Portland bravado, and French technique, lures diners to a land where risk, play, meaty excess, and familiarity cohabitate. Most chefs are lucky to have one defining dish. The Dentons have delivered some of Portland’s all-time food highs: the world’s first maple pork cornflakes (Feast Portland); an animalistic cheeseburger worthy of a spot on Noah’s ark (Metrovino), and a clam chowder sporting a smoked marrow bone the size of Grecian pillar (Ox).

All of which makes the duo’s latest move so surprising: downtown’s Bistro Agnes, opened in January, is French comfort cooking, by the book and straighter than an asparagus spear. Call it French Normcore. The direction could be a course correction, following the lukewarm response to the couple’s last restaurant in this space, the concept-heavy SuperBite. But according to the Dentons, tried-and-true bistro cooking speaks to their bones and training. Nothing wrong with getting back to basics, especially when so many young chefs in town like to riff on a dish before learning to make the actual dish. Already, there’s much to like: a friendly vibe, a blue-hued room that grows sexier as the night advances, a serious absinthe list, and a broad menu of Parisian hits, from sole meunière to steak au poivre.

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Greg and Gabi Denton pluck inspiration from Parisian bistro cooking, including onion soup gratinée, beef tenderloin tartare, and asparagus with oyster mushrooms, poached eggs, and béarnaise.

But after devouring nearly every dish, on multiple visits, I kept coming back to this: Ox set a high bar, showing an ability to transform and transcend the definition of “normal.” At Bistro Agnes, the food is nice. Nice! A lot of people will be very happy with nice. But I long for some point of view, a little more fun, a few signatures we wouldn’t give up even after a Mueller cross-examination—in short, Denton food

Two of the best dishes are starters. Steak tartare is beautifully executed, from lusty raw tenderloin to crunchy accessories, all ready to inhale with crackling-fresh house potato chips. Monet could have arranged the smoked salmon carpaccio, a bright, vibrant blur of smoky fish, bitter endive curls, and tangy, creamy dots. Onion soup elicits the usual bombastic pleasure, cheese-wheezing to the core. Day or night, you can indulge in chocolate-draped profiteroles or a decadent pain perdu (French toast) mingled with foie gras seared to the moon.

But a certain blankness creeps into other dishes. On three tries, the kitchen’s black pepper gougères (savory pastry puffs) were deflated, if not literally, then spiritually, without life or taste. A gratin juggles escargot and button mushroom, and, unfortunately, you can’t tell them apart (admittedly, an upgrade for the mushrooms), but the ooze of almond-parmigiano cream is surely worth mopping up. 

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Bistro Agnes’s blue-hued dining room and bar

Entrées ($16–38) are a tweak or two short of total satisfaction. In the steak-frites, the meat sings; the fries don’t. At $34, the house cassoulet is polite and efficient (and a bit dry to boot), with its good duck confit, crispy pork belly, and some meatloaf-y sausage arranged over creamy-rich white beans. At its best, cassoulet ought to be crushingly rustic, a festival of meat slowly rendered down into a rollicking mass; each bite a treasure hunt under a sea of bread crumbs.

So far, the cheeseburger is the kitchen’s biggest dare, as it plops eight ounces of wagyu-style beef, bun and all, on a lake of Bordelaise sauce. You eat it with a knife and fork, swooping up meat, a bit of grilled onion, more meat, and meat juice like a haute French dip. It’s a tasty burger; add a sharp left turn (a punch of crunch and acid, a little Dentonian krazy) and it could be the most craveable in the city.

In its short life, Bistro Agnes is already a good restaurant, with a professional hum and an eager audience that piles in nightly. That’s no small achievement. The question is, can it grow into a memorable one? The blueprint is here. What’s missing is the Muchness, s’il vous plaît.

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