John Denison, St. Jack’s new chef 

Image: Karen Brooks

Last summer, La Moule laid down the perfect outdoor picnic for the times: cold rosé, hand sanitizer, and scruffy, socially distanced sidewalk tables on SE Clinton. All of it seemed weirdly normal. Except the meat loaf.

Forget ground beef and ketchup. This was the Jean-Paul Belmondo of meat loaf—outsize, jeweled with pork belly, pistachios, and prunes and bound in handsome puff pastry. That this iconic French dish, known as pâté en croûte, surfaced in Portland, midpandemic, was one more reason to survive doomsday.

Meanwhile, other dishes not typically found outside of France popped up on the restaurant's Instagram account, tagged with the handle @cultured_pig. Poached meringues. Peach melbas. Even pithiviers—elaborate filled puff pastry domes straight out of the 17th century. 

Who was this @cultured_pig, and what was he doing at La Moule, a neighborhood magnet known for mussels and frites? A ringer, a cruel joke to soon disappear when we emerged from our caves?

Turns out chef John Denison was once a line cook at La Moule's big brother, St. Jack. In 2016 a butchery class inspired him to follow a dream, working at a farmhouse cooking school in Southwest France. Later, chance led him to Verjus, an insider's gem in Paris run by an American couple highly skilled in French ways and known for unpretentious, produce-centric tasting menus.

But Verjus's reputation soared on a cult dish at its wine bar—fried chicken, pickles, and buttermilk ranch. Mon dieu. “World-class fried chicken is hiding in Paris,” wailed Food & Wine. The owners launched another spot, the casual-serious Ellsworth, in part to house it. They tapped Denison as head chef, a job he held for nearly two years until the pandemic reared its head.

With virus fears rising and his visa renewal looming, Denison hopped a flight to Portland in March 2020, sans job or prospects. His old boss, Aaron Barnett, welcomed him back. Now, as Barnett turns his attention to St Jack's new Lake Oswego branch, Denison has been cut loose to put his stamp on the menu at the Northwest Portland mother ship (1610 NW 23rd Ave).   

The upshot: At age 11, St. Jack, which relocated to Northwest Portland in 2014, suddenly feels new—a true taste of Paris in Portland. He's still relatively unknown in these parts, but make no mistake: Denison's cooking is dialed. Meats are almost shockingly juicy, vegetables taste new, and those puff pastry dishes are pretty cool. The mode is neo-bistro—rooted in classics but free of starch and rich sauces. “My personal goal,” he says, “is to stay extremely French, but keep things light, approachable, and lighthearted.” 

 With Denison behind the wheel, I can't stop talking about St. Jack. No fried chicken is coming (I asked). But here are five dishes that capture the Denison vibe.

FIVE FAB DISHES AT ST. JACK

Left: Pâté en croûte is rock-star meat loaf in pastry crust. Right: St. Jack’s pastry-clad French pithivier stuffed with duck, foie gras, and chard, with beet juice and date purée.

 

PATE EN CROUTE and PITHIVIER  Order at least one—or both if you're living dangerously. The pâté is a must for a table of meatheads. You might find a mosaic of ham, parsley, and white wine gelée or a mix of lardons, prunes, pistachios, and foie gras. But all versions contain the crucial elements: meat, aspic (think pork jello), pastry, happiness. The savory pithiviers, like many things in Portland, are limited editions—maybe five a night. Each is an elaborate dome clad in buttery, bronzed puff pastry, $45 a pop (enough for two). You've been warned.

St Jack's mushroom vol-au-vent goes modern neo-bistro, with a garden of greens shooting out of class puff pastry shells.

Image: Karen Brooks

MUSHROOM VOL-AU-VENT Old-school French: puff pastry shells laden with rich chicken or seafood sauce. New school, à la St. Jack: a garden of seasonal leaves and flowers exploding, volcano-like, out of crispy, buttery vessels. Hiding inside: delicate mushroom duxelles, sheep's cheese, and a soft-cooked egg.

Haricots verts put the splendor in green beans, arranged around triple-cream Brillat-Savarin cheese.

 

HARICOTS VERTS Visual, delicious, surprising. In short, the best green beans in memory. Denison presents them like a bird's next, with a striking pool of triple-cream Brillat-Savarin dead center, to be stirred in for an ethereal, bloomy cheese sauce. I was skeptical about the words “cherry oat granola,” but the bits of toasted oats and cherries (fresh and dried) added something sly and texturally interesting.     

Beef tartare remade as a salad crunched with fried potato crumbles and puffed wild rice.

Image: Karen Brooks

BEEF TARTARE  A fresh take on a familiar classic, literally. Denison essentially turns the tartare into a left-field salad, what he calls “somewhere between my style and neo-bistro.” Translation: a mass of rich beef crumbles, tomato, basil, fried shallots, what tastes like a thousand shards of potato chips, and the crisp-crunch of puffed wild rice. And who doesn't love scooping good food into a lettuce wrap? All in.

Chef Denison makes his own desserts, including chocolate tarts assembled to order

Image: Karen Brooks

UPSIDE DOWN CHOCOLATE TART  Denison makes his own desserts, among them a chocolate tart assembled to order on a sea of brown butter chocolate crumbles. Then comes a thick fluff of crème anglaise, spiked with cognac and coffee, and a scoop of chocolate mousse. On top: North African brik pastry, thin and shiny with a candy-like crackle, presented upside down like a monkey hat. It's the cookies and cream we need right now. 

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