James Beard Award-Winning Chefs Greg and Gabi Denton to Open Bistro Agnes in Downtown’s SuperBite Space
By Karen Brooks
Greg and Gabi Denton are flying high right now. The star cooking couple won James Beard gold in the spring for their boisterous Argentinian steakhouse Ox. Their kitchen shelf boasts a bonafide grill tome, 2016’s Around the Fire. They are talented, articulate, and ready for the next chapter. In an exclusive interview with Eat Beat, the Dentons say they are closing downtown’s two-year-old SuperBite after New Year’s Eve to launch Bistro Agnes, a Parisian bistro named for Greg Denton’s grandmother. The project is slated to open mid-January, open daily for lunch and dinner, with a weekend brunch to follow once the kitchen gets its legs.
The move seems out of nowhere. French bistro cooking, once a cornerstone of dining, has all but vanished in recent years. Among the few holdouts: Northwest Portland’s St. Jack and Gabriel Rucker’s Little Bird Bistro, although it waves its own flag. But Bistro Agnes dovetails with the Dentons’ true passion: French home-style cooking. They met as pantry cooks in the late 1990s at Terra, the highly respected Napa Valley restaurant, where Greg rose to chef de cuisine, and Gabi to sous chef under Hiro Sone, who was schooled in Japan under French legends Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros, and Joël Robuchon. In Paris, Gabi confesses, they sought out bistro cooking for their honeymoon dinner—“not the Michelin star stuff.” Their first stop moving to Portland: the once-iconic Carafe bistro.
A sneak peek at the work-in-progress menu shows a love of classic dishes, executed with small contemporary twists, not wild reinventions. Potential starters that caught my eye: onion soup sporting cave-aged Gruyère and thyme croutons; black pepper gougères sided by chicken liver mousse and plum compote; seared foie alongside pain perdu (French toast) and caramelized pear. Entrée hopefuls look like straight-up, soul-warming bistro fare: steak frites, sole meunière, beef short rib bourguignon, pan-roasted chicken-truffled macaroni-herb salad, and a Southern French cassoulet sporting duck confit, Toulouse sausage, white beans and garlic breadcrumbs. Yes, there is cheeseburger in sight: an 8-ouncer with aged cheddar, grilled onions, and truffled bordelaise sauce. And, should it come to pass, I spotted my first dessert order: malted chocolate mousse profiteroles. Meanwhile, the wine list, says managing partner Daniel Wiener, will focus on Oregon and French wines, a la the “natural” school.
Lunch will include quiche, croque madame and other dishes meant for a quick bite. But abbreviated dinner options will also be on hand. For this is the bistro experience, drop by or stretch an afternoon in the art of living, as the Europeans do.
With the Dentons on a Beard roll, the timing is right to rethink SuperBite. The two-year-old restaurant gambled big on umami-pushing bites. But even as it expanded ideas (backed by a great happy hour, a super cheeseburger, and some terrific cocktails), it forgot the Denton secret: lusty pleasures, simple to audacious. “We tried to cram a lot of ideas into a restaurant, and that confused the message,” said the Dentons in a phone interview. “It was too complicated to express in an elevator pitch. We have eight different menu options right now: veg, veg tasting, vegan tasting. It was a passion project, but we also moved away from the concept. We wanted to please everyone.”
Interestingly, Bistro Agnes—a step back into old school, tried-and-true—might prove be more radical than SuperBite. “So many places are pushing limits,” says Gabi Denton. “We just want to bring it back home.”