Finally went to Fenouil the other night for my anniversary. I had held off because so many people had mentioned how expensive it was and the reviews were inconsistent. I had never looked at a menu and was surprised to see that the prices were cheaper than most restaurants of its kind in Portland. The average entree was probably $24 with a couple dishes under $20, such as the gnocchi and the salmon, and a couple dishes approaching or exceeding $30, such as the rack of lamb and the kobe. But in general, Fenouil is no more expensive, possibly cheaper, than Wildwood, Bluehour, Olea, Paley's, Carlyle, etc -- and definitely cheaper than Hurley's. I was prepared to spend much more, so that was a pleasant discovery as we sat down.
The interior is gorgeous and capacious. I imagine they'll need to seat a lot of people to pay for the place. The south side of the restaurant is all two-story windows looking out over Jamison Square. There's a fireplace and large waiting area as soon as you walk through the door. (Outside there is a nice patio.) We sat upstairs overlooking the lengthy open kitchen. Some will be happy to know, too, that they actually have comfortable chairs -- perhaps some of the most comfortable in town. btw, you know the designers had a lot of bank when even the ceiling (a false ceiling, arched and covering only the balcony) is decorated with patterned tin tiles.
Since it was our first time, we went overboard with the food. We ordered three appetizers -- the tuna carpaccio ($11), the onion soup ($8), and the truffle oil french fries ($5.50) --, two entrees -- duck ($24) and the grilled salmon ($19) --, a side -- the grilled asparagus ($4) --, and three desserts -- the banana truffle tart ($4), the chocolate souffle ($4), and the raspberry tartlet ($3.50).
They started us with an amuse, just a small, slightly sweet cracker topped with smoked salmon and fennel fronds. It was fine, but too fishy for both of our palates. It reminded me of the fishy Japanese snacks.
The tuna carpaccio came as several paper-thin slices of tuna topped by diced cucumber, shavings of red onion, and daikon sprouts. There was a drizzling of olive oil, I believe, along with a sprinkling of salt and pepper on the fish, as well, and a wedge of lime on the side to add some tartness. This is one of those dishes that the restaurant relies on to pay its employees and its (assumedly) giant mortgage. While it was tasty, this isn't one of the best values. However, it was good. The tuna had little fishiness and all the components balanced well, the cucumber adding a cooling crunchiness while the sprouts added bitterness, the onion and lime adding a sharpness, and the oil adding richness. There was perhaps too much onion, but that was easily regulated by the diner.
The onion soup is one of the best I've had. My biggest complaint about onion soups is that they are too thin. This one is intense and rich and the onions have obviously been fully caramelized. If it's possible, the soup has too much cheese, although I really enjoyed its sharp flavor. The cheese was wonderfully browned and bubbly on top of the soup. I scraped all the crispy bits off the side of the bowl. The only room for improvement might be a touch of something tart to finish the soup, perhaps a dash of vinegar. It's so rich.
The truffle fries were also quite good. I could smell them coming up the stairs. The fries were crisp, though not quite as crisp as I like. But I think my taste is beyond the norm. They were a little "brown" tasting for me, too. Not burnt, just overly browned for my palate. But I dug out every last fry from the bottom of the glass they came in. Many of those last fries were extra truffly (and still crisp despite being under all the others).
My wife's grilled salmon, a very hefty portion, came atop several spears of asparagus coated in fennel butter. The salmon itself was topped with fennel shavings and grapefruit segments. The salmon was perhaps a little overcooked. I tend to think salmon should be on the medium rare side and while the thicker portion of the fillet was perfectly cooked, the thinner portion was a bit mushy. However, it tasted great and had nice char marks. The fennel butter against the grapefruit was a good, subtle combination. Given salmon's assertiveness, I think both flavors could have been more intense.
My duck also came with a hefty portion of food. The crispy leg/thigh confit and several slices of rare duck breast stretched out along a rectangular plate, a bed of beans sitting underneath. Two armagnac prunes were perched on top of the breast slices. The prunes were soft and subtly flavored, suggesting they had been stewed. The alcohol flavor, which can normally bother me, wasn't overwhelming. The duck breast pieces were sometimes a little chewy. A couple of the slices were too thick, I think, and not enough of the fat had been rendered. They tasted great, but I had asked for them rare and gotten them rare and perhaps the kitchen didn't adjust to take into account how that would affect the skin/fat. The confit was tender, yet crispy -- just right. What made the dish, though, were the beans underneath. They were cooked perfectly floating in a rich jus along with some sort of herb oil. Meaty flavors encompassing beans, it's hard to get much better than that. After finishing everything else, I sopped up every last bit of beans and sauce with extra bread.
The side of asparagus was a good addition given the relative lack of veggies in the dinner. Fenouil follows the trend in restaurants nowadays of giving either a starch or a veggie, but not both, for most of its entrees. We both liked these asparagus more than the ones that came with her salmon, which were just boiled or steamed. Besides being grilled, they were drizzled with a blood orange oil.
Fenouil has a large dessert menu. (They also have a relatively large cheese menu with eight different choices at $5 a slice, but I rarely get cheese in a restaurant.) They separate the cheeses into three categories: chocolate, fruits, cremes. There are four choices under each. Desserts are smaller than average, but also cheaper, at about $4 each. They have sampler platters, too: one from each category for $12; all four chocolate desserts for $17; the tarte tatin, eclair, creme brulee, cookie, and chocolate truffle for $13; and the tarte au citron, souffle au chocolat, profiteroles, tarte a la fromboise, chocolate truffle, tarte tatin, cookie for $21. The odd thing, though, is that these don't save you any money. In fact, on the night I was there, La Chocolaterie, the chocolate sampler for $17, was $1.50 more than the price of all four chocolate desserts. Perhaps there's a premium for not making you have to choose?
All three of the ones we ordered were excellent. I'd heard that the desserts were just so-so, but that wasn't my experience at all. The desserts might have been the most perfect part of the meal. The chocolate souffle was ultra-chocolatey, a dark, complex chocolate flavor, yet the texture of the souffle was light. A chocolate sauce came in a mini-vase on the side, infused with raspberry liqueur, I believe. It both instensified the chocolate flavors and balanced the darkness. My wife and I were practically fighting over the last scraps of this.
The raspberries for the tart were fresh, firm, sweet and tart. Ideally ripe. They sat atop a cheese pastry cream which took my wife by surprise, but once she got over the shock she really enjoyed. The cheese flavor was subtle, but noticeable. The raspberries were still the star of the dessert. Drops of balsamic reduction surrounded the tartlet, which had a crunchy shell. The balsamic, if you could get it on the tart, was a good accent, but the little droplets weren't very user-friendly, more form than function.
Ah, then the banana tart, a perfect match for my palate. Hazelnut crust, caramelized bananas, chocolate, all drizzled with more caramel. Perhaps too sweet for some, but a good balance against the other two desserts. The layers of sweetness, though, kept it from being cloying. The individual tartlet, perhaps three inches across, had that nutty crust filled with chocolate ganache and the topped by slices of banana each individually browned. Then a thin layer of caramel. Yum.
Service was very good throughout, from little things like taking my wife's coat and umbrella, to more important things (to me) like keeping my water full. The balcony (or whatever you want to call it, it's not really a whole floor) had its own service crew that was always ready to clear dishes or lend assistance.
A very good meal. Based on my one outing, I'd say so far this would be in the top 10 restaurants in Portland. More proof, imo, that the Pearl District is creating higher standards for the overall dining experience in Portland.