Owned by a real, live Frenchman, Dominique Geulin, the much-hyped St. Honore Boulangerie (2335 N.W. Thurman St.) is more than a gimmicky yuppie cafe catering to the wannabe-European whims of affluent Northwest Portlanders. The authentic French bakery-cafe is Geulin’s antidote to his homesickness, a little piece of French countryside culture in the American West. Geulin grew up in his father’s bakery in Normandy and went on to train professionally as a traditional baker himself, winning the prestigious “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” award in 1990, cementing his position as one of the finest bakers in France.
St. Honore Boulangerie offers rustic breads, fancy pastries and hearty entrees in a relaxed, rustic setting with an open kitchen, stone floor and bouquets of dried foxtails and wildflowers. Somehow, despite the Frenchness and the upscale Northwest neighborhood, the dining room avoids coming off as pretentious and instead feels casual and comfortable. Customers can choose to sit at the long communal table, or for a more intimate dining experience take one of the little round cafe tables. The space is open and airy making the presence of other diners graciously less noticeable.
An old-fashioned wood-and-steel flourmill is a prominent design element that also serves a practical purpose: the grain for many of the breads, such as Geulin’s signature Miche Banal, is milled right here. The bakery uses sustainably grown Shepherd’s Grain flour from Spokane, Wash., as well as many other local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, to turn out beautiful pastries and loaves that are almost too charming to eat. Almost.
The best thing at a place like this is to go with a group so you can try as many different things as possible without totally losing your wallet (but be warned, the prices here do run on the steep side).
The “croque monsieur” ($6.75), which translates to “best ham and cheese sandwich of my entire life,” consisted of sliced ham, rich, creamy gruyere cheese and bechamel sauce between two light, crispy slices of eggy brioche bread, with more bechamel and gruyere melted on top. The price seemed kind of steep, but it did come with salad, as did the “vol au vent” ($6.75), which I think translates to “fly on the wind,” something you’re definitely not going to do after you eat that much butter. The entree is a sort of glorified bread bowl structure with an extra-flaky croissant crust filled with a creamy spinach and chicken mixture, topped with a cute crust hat. It made for a mindful and tactical eating experience – the kind of meal that requires a plan of attack.
The pastries ran from decent to quietly extraordinary. Unlike the whimsical decadence of the creations at Pix, the sweets here tended to be more understated and simple, with a focus on quality and consistency. The “pain au chocolat” ($2.15) was flaky and buttery, lighter than many I’ve had, with an especially creamy chocolate center. It was a nice accompaniment to the coffee, which was quite good. The merits of the mini croissant ($1.50) and mini pomme ($1.75) lay mainly in their cuteness, although both were fresh, neither was crumbly and the mini pomme had a nice pie-crust-like flavor and consistency. The Normandy apple toast ($3.25), a bread pudding topped with apple slices, was a little disappointing. It had a nice, moist consistency and wasn’t overly sweet, but the apple flavor was too subtle, and the pastry didn’t seem as fresh as some of the others.
The star was hands-down the Canelet ($2.60), a tiny cake with a sweet, crusty outside and a smooth, eggy, custardy inside that in flavor lay somewhere between a popover and creme brulee. It made me really happy to be alive.
To round things out, we took home a loaf of the onion bread ($4.75), which was remarkably tasty and subtly sweetened by little bits of caramelized onion. It was surprisingly soft and light for artisan bread, even at closing time. Good with Swiss cheese, or just plain.
I don’t know how realistic it would be for the average Portland State student to make St. Honore a regular dining destination due to the prices, but it would be a nice place to go with your parents, or the morning after a really good first date.