The transformed dining room at Cocotte, former home of Fats.

“Have you heard of that new French place??” friends ask me. “Cumquat? Culotte’s?” “You must be thinking of Cocotte…” I rack my brain for it’s long-lost Francophile appendix. As it turns out, cocotte has myriad definitions: a hen, a simple casserole plate, and a lady of the night. But hey, what’s in a name? Cocotte, situated on NE Killingsworth Avenue between the well-established pillars of Beast and DOC, may be having an ‘ooh la la’ moment in the blogosphere, but French is only a whisper here.

Kat Liebman (owner-chef) and her sous, Zoe Hackett, run this just-opened operation from behind a curtained kitchen window while Hackett’s husband, Levi, mixes strong drinks from across the bar. The chefs met during overlapping stints in the kitchen at Lucy’s Table in Northwest Portland, and in the entrepreneurial spirit of Portlandia, where passion trumps experience, they decided to open their own place in the former digs of Fats, Micah Camden’s short-lived gastropub. The transformation is impressive, with its farmhouse-chic décor, handmade vertical garden, and beautiful French doors.

Cocotte arrives as Portland’s crush on French cooking grows and new restaurants like Little Bird and St. Jack are kicking ass and taking names. And given a menu heavy with roqueforts and Sauce Robert, one might count this as another disciple of Escoffier. But just how French is Cocotte? Not very. “We sort of got grouped into the new wave French thing.” Liebman says. “It’s more contemporary Pacific Northwest.” And true to her word, dishes like “buffalo with potato pavé” cross over the Rockies into familiar territory.

Speaking of buffalo, it comes at $25 a pop. And grown-up prices, especially in thrifty Portland, demand more than Parisian vibes and embroidered cushions. The signature poulet en cocotte, the classic "chicken in a pot," delivers—a bronzed and succulent bird over a mound of bright, earthy root vegetables with a quivering poached egg on top, begging to be broken. Likewise, the cauliflower soup, flavored subtly with chestnuts and pistou (garlic, basil, and olive oil) held its nutty flavor and bits of crunchy texture.

But Cocotte, still in its infancy, has a ways to go before it can compete in the heavyweight division of P-town’s restaurant scene—especially at this price-point. Like the name’s manifold definitions, Cocotte’s food teeters between genres and flavors with less-than-amusing-bouches and off-kilter seasonings. An overdressed watercress salad came wilted under a heavy-handed drift of manchego, garnished with droopy bay shrimp. The sweetbreads promised the world but failed to deliver, bland and oddly paired with an overly fatty piece of pork-belly.

Newcomer hiccups recently extended to ill-timed wine pairings. And for all the rustic-refined ambiance, a lazy Pandora playlist (a Portland epidemic) had my companions grinding their teeth by dessert.

Right now, Cocotte has a great space—svelte, sleek, and sexy—and appealing bar. We’ll be back for an expertly made Sazerac (Russell’s Reserve Rye, Paci?que bitters), and especially in the summer, when those beautiful French doors swing wide open. Weekend brunch is also an option at Cocotte, and plans for a takeout window with select wines and picnic items could be a real draw.

Cocotte is open for dinner Wed–Sun, 5–10 and for brunch Sat–Sun, 10:30–1:30.

Cocotte
2930 NE Killingsworth St
503-227-2669
cocottepdx.com