BY MY COUNT, no fewer than nine restaurants cluster the intersection at Boston Street & Queen Anne Avenue, and on any given evening they’re thrumming with the buzz of families and takeout orders and neighborly revelry.
Now zoom in on one of them, midway up the block on the northwestern side, and see action of another sort. See wine glasses softly clinking, fond toasts quietly raised, cashmere sweaters delicately draped over chairs. The diners in this room have hedge funds and advanced degrees and Gourmet Magazine subscriptions, or at least resemble people who do. The air of cultivation they exude matches the room around them, which is the color of French butter and, at nine tables and three bar stools, likely smaller than the foyers of many of their homes.
This is Portage, the latest addition to Queen Anne’s restaurant row, which brings to the top of the hill a mood it hasn’t had in years: formality. Not the kind of formality that compels you to acquire fork etiquette or dress up, although guests would certainly not feel out of place here in their party clothes.
No, the formality at Portage is the kind that loads a menu with dishes like potato-escargot-mushroom terrine and Roquefort Coulet clafouti. Chef Vuong Loc and his wife Tricia, the owners, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and between them apprenticed at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, Pinot Brasserie and Le Cirque in Las Vegas, and La Folie in San Francisco. Given that trajectory, it’s no surprise they wound up writing a menu that puts quail in the Caesar salad and 25-year-old double solera sherry vinegar on a plate of tomatoes.
Still, it’s a shock to Seattle’s system, as food this unabashedly Continental is rare as rapid transit in this town. Make no mistake, the Michigan-born chef Loc (Portage is his hometown) is obviously swept away by Pacific Northwest bounty; he just applies that bounty to dishes French people invented. His Billi-Bi soup is a good example: a creamy golden puree of mussels and saffron, flecked with chives and garnished with three perfect plump mussels, relieved of their shells, with a jaunty puff pastry rising out of the center of the shallow bowl. Vivid flavor, velvet-napped texture—it was a fine preparation, undone only somewhat by the fact that pastry set adrift in soup gets gummy, and owing more to chef Louis Barthe at Maxim’s in 1925 than to chef Vuong Loc at Portage in 2006.
In a city bubbling over with chefs Expressing Themselves, I found Loc’s classical gestures refreshing, and amply adventurous. The clafouti, a flan dessert typically made with fruit, was crafted here of the buttery Roquefort called Coulet, then drizzled with a sweet-sour Balsamic demi-glace saccharine as caramel. The sweetness won the day, even over the pungent cheese, then crept into the realm of oversweet in an unexpected and not entirely unwelcome way. A cassoulet—here, a loosely bound mélange of flageolet beans, braised rabbit, and two kinds of sausage—was soundly wrought. If the moist rabbit was a slacker in delivering flavor, the beans, entirely suffused with pork, were working overtime.