Guerre de Brunch

The Great French Brunch Smackdown: St. Jack vs. Bistro Agnes

From pain perdu to croque madame, we test two Portland French restaurants’ morning mettle. Who will come out on top?

By Karen Brooks November 26, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Above: St. Jack’s fried chicken croque madame is all spice, crunch, and creamy richness. Photo courtesy Kari Young

Talk about a brunch battle for the ages. This past spring, two French bistros run by big-gun Portland chefs launched weekend-only brunch menus, new territory for both eateries. On the field: Bistro Agnes, defender of old-school Parisian comfort food in the heart of downtown, from James Beard–winning chef couple Greg and Gabi Denton. Its big competition? NW 23rd Avenue flavor bunker St. Jack, flaunting the edgier fare of France’s Lyon region, under respected Montreal-born chef Aaron Barnett.

Who boasts an omelette magnifique? Which kitchen conquers pain perdu? And how does Portland like its croque madame—straight up or slammed with hot-honeyed fried chicken? Since one small stomach could not possibly conquer these queries, I conscripted
Instagram gastronome Gary the Foodie in my campaign to pit like-minded dishes from each menu in heated, head-to-head battles. Here’s how they measure up.


BISTRO AGNES: Stumptown Coffee Roasters A giant cup of bitterness via the famed, Portland-born “third wave” chain. Stumptown surely has fans. To me, it often tastes like angry noise. Took roughly 500 calories worth of cream to mellow it out. Quelle horreur!

ST. JACK: Sterling Coffee Roasters Good move for St. Jack to tap a popular neighborhood roaster for seemingly endless cups topped off by friendly servers. Sterling coffee always delivers: smooth, nutty, and just rich enough.

Winner: St. Jack

TOP: St. Jack’s tripes à la mode de Caen and omelette classique
BOTTOM: Bistro Agnes’s French omelette and croque madame


BISTRO AGNES: French Omelette There are two ways to make a French omelette—the right way and the wrong way. It’s all about the deets, and Agnes nails them: the smooth-as-silk exterior (nary a crease or a ruffle to be found) and a creamy, soft-scrambled, tender interior, with a slight runniness. Somewhere, Julia Child is smiling. 

ST. JACK: Omelette Classique Points to the server asking if you’d “like your omelette runny,” because, clearly, Portlanders need to be schooled. Bonus points for serving a gratis side of well-dressed salad greens. But alas, this “classic” is too salty and not tender enough, with visible rumples on the exterior. Close, but no cigare.

Winner: Bistro Agnes

Croque Madame

BISTRO AGNES: Croque Madame France’s gut-busting grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich gets the full treatment here: good brioche bread, tasty ham, a perfect fried egg, and a thorough dousing of gruyère-laced Mornay sauce. Pretty darn delicious, even as it makes your arteries wince.

ST. JACK: Fried Chicken Croque Madame Does Portland need more buttermilk-fried chicken? Apparently, Gary and I do. Especially if it’s moist, crusty, dressed in hot sauce and honey, and smashed right into the rich heart of a Mornay-draped madame on bread sliced as thick as Texas toast. Killer.

Winner: St. Jack, by a feather

Bistro Agnes's Pain Perdu (left) and St. Jack's Crêpes Suzette

Something Sweet

BISTRO AGNES: Pain Perdu French toast: floppy sandwich bread, eggs, and milk. Pain perdu, a.k.a. the better French toast: crusty French bread, eggs, and luxe cream. Which would you pick? Agnes busts out a beauty—superb Little T baguette slices, long-soaked in vanilla custard, baked to order, then lavished with seasonal fruit toppings. On the side: a boat of Chantilly cream. This is my brunch war MVP.

ST. JACK: Crêpes Suzette Who doesn’t love to kick off a Sunday with a little flaming dessert, complete with Grand Marnier sauce? St. Jack has the right idea but the wrong crêpe formula. It’s a bit rubbery and thick in all the wrong places. Perfecting crêpes is like nailing free throws: practice, practice, practice. We’ll check back in after 10,000 hours.

Winner: Bistro Agnes. It's a TKO.

"Everything Things"

St Jack's Paris-Brest with everything-seasoned pâte a choux 

Image: Kari Young

BISTRO AGNES: Warm gougères with everything seasoning Kudos to the kitchen for making the crispy, savory French cheese puffs, a Portland rarity. Sadly, the intriguing “everything” twist misfires. We got three bland, blank rounds, served on a board. Sometimes “everything” is nothing.

ST. JACK: Savory Paris-Brest with everything-seasoned pâte a choux Fun idea: recast the “everything” bagel and lox with seed-covered French pastry and hunks of house-smoked salmon. Not so fun: the realization that it flunks on every level. Flat outside, mushy within.

Winner: No winner. No go.




Wild Card Dish

Bistro Agnes's potato rosti with salmon carpaccio

Image: Karen Brooks

BISTRO AGNES: Potato Rosti with salmon carpaccio An artful reimaging of Swiss hash browns and eggs Benedict on one gorgeous plate, built with savvy French technique. A poached egg, draped with chive-topped béarnaise, huddles in a crispy “nest” of shoestring-y potatoes. Ringing the edges: house-smoked salmon, juicy-salty orange roe bubbles, and grated horseradish. Pro tip: ask for the off-menu “Chef Gabi’s Hot Sauce.”

ST. JACK: Tripes à la Mode de Caen Homey, nourishing, and ecstatically brimming with chewy-tender tripe, this classic Normandy stew is a spiritual cousin to Vietnamese pho and Mexican menudo, but surges with the flavor of good French apple brandy. The secret ingredient is straight from Chef Barnett’s Canadian spice cabinet, what he calls “a healthy amount of house-made Montreal steak seasoning.” For Gary, this is the brunch war MVP.

Winner: A pair of champs!


BISTRO AGNES: Potatoes Lyonnaise These “potatoes of Lyon” are pretty straight-up, pan-sautéed with onions and parsley. I prefer sliced potatoes to Agnes’s cubes—the wider surface is prettier and attracts more pan flavors—but this version’s deeply caramelized onions really jump. It’s not gauche to ask for ketchup here, quite the opposite. The kitchen’s house-made version is splendid.

ST. JACK: Hash Browns The kitchen pushes France aside for a McDonald’s homage: two hash brown patties, fried à la Golden Arches in beef tallow, and tucked into a paper sheath. The difference: Mickey D’s are $1.19 and, well, really good. St Jack’s are too greasy, too salty, and cost $8 for two. Plus, no ketchup in the house! Observed Gary: They don’t mind grease and salt ... but they ban ketchup? We’re not loving it. 

Winner: Bistro Agnes

Bistro Agnes's Nouvelle Spritz

Image: Karen Brooks


BISTRO AGNES: Nouvelle Spritz Some mornings demand something light, refreshing, and chic—the opposite of a hair-of-the-dog hangover buster. This is it: delicate shades of grapefruit, orange, elderberry liqueur, and sparkling rosé in a tall glass bursting with flowering wild mint.

ST. JACK: Up & Atom It’s as if an Orange Julius seduced a Portland bartender. That’s my best shot at describing this creamy, egg-foam-rich, Aperol-charged, fancy OJ cocktail. It’s super-delicious. Gary swooned. Order two.

Winner: A toast to both


Both restaurants are good additions to Portland’s competitive brunch scene. St. Jack has a cozy neighborhood vibe, a strong coffee-and-cocktail game, and playful Portland energy. A note at the bottom of the menu comes on like a dare: “Add seared foie gras to any menu item. (Yes, we mean anything.)” Still, St. Jack’s brunch feels a bit like an afterthought, lacking attention to acute flavors and dialed techniques. Get every dish up to the level of that tripe stew and fried chicken croque, and St. Jack will be a force. For now, Bistro Agnes is the winner, backed by a big, confident menu, strong execution, and generous flavors, served in a grown-up, urbane atmosphere. This is more than a battle won: it’s the emergence of one of the city’s best brunches, period.

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