A Belgian-styled mussels and frites bar with good beer and great cocktails? And it’s created by Aaron Barnett and Tommy Klus? Sign me up!
Chef Aaron Barnett worked with ChefsTable Group to open the original St. Jack on Clinton in 2010 (it subsequently moved to a larger space in the Northwest District). St. Jack was Barnett’s dream of a Lyonnaise bistro, complete with the zinc topped cocktail bar, some standard bistro dishes with “Portlandized” touches (the baked mac and cheese), and freshly made madeleines in the bakery so hot you had to toss them from hand to hand so your fingers wouldn’t burn.
When you say Lyonnaise, you mean lots…and lots…and lots of organ meats, intestinal tracts and bits and pieces (usually by way of sausages), and St. Jack’s did Lyonnaise to perfection. It was one of the few places you could get grilled beef heart or cow’s tongue or andouillettes in the city (alongside lovingly made dishes that were a bit more standard fare).
But Barnett’s dreams were not fully satisfied. He always recalled the Belgian mussels & frites places he frequented during his European travels, and decided to recreate that food and ambiance as well—less Lyonnaise and more Parisian brasserie, as it were. Harking back to the St. Jack days, Barnett worked with another alumnus, Bartender Tommy Klus, to execute the concept.
Introducing La Moule:
La Moule is, to borrow a Hemingway phrase and short story title, a clean, well lighted place, a faithful adaptation of a casual Belgian beer/mussels/frites joint, what the French might call a boite, a small place, cozy and comfortable, a place where friends can gather and drink and nosh.
It is casual, low key, with the maddening aroma of shellfish and garlic and butter wafting through the air, creative cocktails at hand, good Belgian and Oregon beer available, and a polished staff quietly going about the business of hospitality.
And the truly amazing thing? The thing that is getting incredibly hard to find these days? Simple: you can actually have a conversation…a conversation in a regular voice, like a regular person. You can hear and be heard without screaming. That alone is worth the price of admission. Well, there’s no admission but you should buy a drink and some food just to be polite. You’ll love the food and drink anyway, and it will enhance the delightful art of conversation.
In these days of jammed-together tables and cacophonous surroundings, La Moule is a standout before you eat the first bite.
And that first bite? Although it’s a full service restaurant and there are plenty of other things on the menu you should check out (I recommend the crab and shrimp salad served on a sheet of crispbread rather than a bowl or plate; also, I’m a sucker for the Stoemp Croquettes with potato, celery root, onion, gruyere cheese and an aioli of espalette peppers), let’s face it: the mussels and frites are the main draw.
And the mussels are excellent!. Succulent, juicy, plump, immaculately steamed, bathed in delicious broth, glistening and gleaming with garlic and butter and flecks of green herbs, accompanied by a long slice of fresh baguette to sop up the broth—and you will sop, I guarantee it. Impossible not to do so.
There are six versions, each a heaping large bowl of juicy mussels with a different sauce or accompaniment: Classique, with white wine, butter and garlic. Mariniere, adding capers and chili flakes—my favorite (pictured above). Marocaine, with merguez, white wine, mint and garlic. Thai, with curry, basil, lime, coconut milk, and wine. Diavolo, and Italianate version with tomato, chiles, salami, garlic, basic, white wine and butter. And finally, Chicago Style, with smoked kielbasa, celery seed, sport peppers, and ale.
On the Bar side you can belly up to the copper-topped bar or lounge in one of the banquettes along the wall. There is an excellent beer selection, a short list of aperitif drinks, another of wines, and a list of specialty cocktails that manages to cover most of the bases in style.
Here are two:
The Backward Bicycle (pictured, above left)
A nicely balanced blend of Heaven Hill 6yr Bourbon, Combier Pamplemousse Rosé Liqueur, lemon and orange bitters, served on the rocks in an old fashioned glass. One of the most popular on the specialty list, the Backward Bicycle was designed by Mark Macminn, veteran bartender (you also might have sampled his craft at Tasty ‘n’ Sons). This is a variation on a whiskey sour, with a delightful twist of grapefruit (the Pamplemousse) that gently twists it into an entirely new direction.
Sunday Morning (pictured, above right)
Another Mark Macminn creation! Pretty in pinkish-orange, with locally-made Aria Gin, Aperol, Dolin Dry Vermouth, and Maraschino Liqueur, served up in a coupe glass with a curl of lemon twist. A charming take on a gentrified Negroni, with a whimsical touch of cherry, this was whipped up by the lovely Rebekah (who can also be found at the Multnomah Whiskey Library).
At the end of the evening, if you fancy dessert you have one choice, but that choice is outstanding: Belgian Liège Waffles smothered in powdered sugar, chocolate and crème Chantilly. When you think about it, why would you need any other choices?
Lively conversation, excellent food, great beer, wine and cocktails, and hospitable folks in a casual atmosphere in a quiet neighborhood. La Moule has it all.