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French Twist

Soubise opens the door to modernist cuisine

Securing a seat at certain times was nearly a sport at chef Gabriel Gil and restaurateur Cory Stamp’s first restaurant incarnation in Eugene, the Rabbit Bistro and Bar. The space was tiny and Chef Gil’s creativity was staunched by a lack of storage space, famously leading to a “no substitutions” clause on the menu. And that “no ketchup” thing? “That truly was because I forgot to order ketchup,” Gil says, laughing.

The Rabbit was not set up to be functional for an inventive chef like Gil. “It was designed to do burritos,” he says. “We kind of inherited it. It wasn’t designed to do what we were doing.” Originally, Gil was planning on merely consulting on the Rabbit’s menu, not cheffing, but one thing led to another, and soon he took the culinary helm. With Gil steering, the Rabbit evolved, and it ended its run a far cry from the French bistro that was originally envisioned.

At Soubise, however, none of that is a concern. The space is large and comfortable, lit by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows fronting Broadway, and the kitchen alone is nearly the size of Gil’s entire former restaurant. It is housed in the renovated Broadway Commerce Center and features terrazzo floors and a bar made from Oregon white oak salvaged from the historic building. The menu’s bounty is locally sourced, and so is the art, by local metal sculptor Jud Turner, and the low tables are designed and built by Urban Lumber. “It feels modern but not cold,” Gil says. “And it speaks of where we are. Whatever we do, it’s a bit edgy; that’s just our personality.”

Gil’s arms are tattooed, and his wrists are burned; the latter is a sign of a hands-on chef. He’s inspired by his kitchen, which he designed, and is “actually a functional space,” he says. But also, the former limits of food genre are gone. “I’ve studied with my share of French chefs and that’s the cuisine I feel really comfortable with. The Rabbit was ‘modern French cuisine,’ but here I can experiment with different flavors and don’t have to keep it French. It gives me a lot more room to play around.”

Soubise is the name for a classic French sauce. Made with onions and thickened with rice, the sauce fell out of favor in the ’70s, as chefs turned to rich reductions and other sauces. But modern techniques allow soubise to be thickened without rice, through the use of “molecular” agents such as hydrocolloids. “The name made sense to me,” Gil says. “It’s the old and the new … a new technique but rooted in an old way of cooking.”

Gil builds on his former boundary-pushing cuisine with more complex flavors, a full brunch, lunch and dinner menu and molecular gastronomy tricks — everything from French cheese served with chamomile broth and roasted strawberry to sea scallops with bok choi and blackened banana, to grilled octopus with smoked pork fluid gel. Dinner, for example, might begin with a progression of farm vegetables in different textures and preparations or a beer-braised Dungeness crab with milky bubbles. “I like to experiment with different flavors and different textures and put things together that people might not normally think to put together,” he says, pausing. “But it’s not done gratuitously. I think about food logically, and things that seem logical to me don’t always seem logical to other people.” Gil laments that there is so much bounty in the valley, yet most menus offer the Northwest’s delicious ingredients done “in the same old tired way.” You won’t find tired produce at Soubise.

Between the food, the service, the craft cocktails and the wine list, which spans some 100 offerings at three different price points, Soubise is fine dining Eugene-style, an affordable luxury whether you’re in the flip-flop crowd or a card-carrying foodie.

There’s a sense of innovation and adventure on each plate, and don’t feel bad asking the server what a certain ingredient actually is. (Hen of the woods? It’s a mushroom.) Interaction with the staff is encouraged, and Gil says they are open to substitutions. “We’ll work with you,” he says. And even ketchup is A-OK, if that’s what you want.

Soubise is open 11 am to 10 pm Monday through Thursday, 11 am to midnight Friday, 5 pm to midnight Saturday, 10 am to 10 pm Sunday, at 50 W. Broadway, 485-205-8487, www.soubiserestaurant.com.

 

Pictured above: Chef Gabriel Gil puts the finishing touches on a dish. Roasted chicken breast with celery puree, bread pudding, sorrel and smoked jus. Photos by Todd Cooper.