|scallop, cauliflower, caper, grape|
To keep what promises to be an epic post a little shorter, I’ll just say that I did get tickets, for a Sunday night. I was ridiculously excited, and frankly felt super cool. I mean, I had scored Portland’s hottest reservation, where a couple of young-gun chefs created their Pacific-Northwest-with-a-touch-of-modernism magic for a tiny group of 14, just three evenings a week. I hoped it would be the centerpiece of our time in Portland.
We were so excited that we walked from our hotel to the venue on Sunday afternoon, just to scout it. Holdfast Dining happens at KitchenCru, a culinary prepspace and business incubator for food businesses. It’s similar to the South Valley Economic Development Center (apparently renamed the Mixing Bowl Kitchen) in Albuquerque… except I don’t think there’s a place to actually serve diners at the one here. Bummer.
Finally, 7:00 rolled around, and we arrived right on time. “Kristin, right?” I was asked (rather to my surprise), and when I indicated that I was, the bearded gentleman – who turned out to be “hotshot” chef Will Preisch, though there was nothing showy about his friendly demeanor – showed us to the seats reserved for us. I was delighted because we were at a tiny side counter all by ourselves, at a 90-degree angle to the main counter where the other 12 diners were seated. (“They gave us the introvert seats!” I commented to Arne. “How did they know?”)
|mussel, bear tooth mushroom, whey, dill|
We were presented with glasses of sparkling wine (not counted in the five pairings); as we waited for the final two groups – both of four, so I understood how the chef knew who I was – we sipped, read over the very exciting menu, and watched the chefs work. A few people were working further back in the enormous kitchen. I assumed they were prep cooks or something.
There was a little explanatory preamble – including instructions to hold onto our silverware between courses, because there wasn’t enough at KitchenCru to give everyone new silver for nine courses. That, along with the fact that we were sitting in an enormous kitchen, set a casual tone for the meal; the food, not the formalities of fine dining, would hold center stage. We also learned that the workers in the back weren’t with Holdfast at all; they were cooking batches of Pinkleton’s Curious Caramel Corn, renting the space at the same time. (The caramel corn smelled terrific.)
As we watched, the chefs put the final touches on the first course, and served us “scallop, cauliflower, caper, grape”: slices of raw scallop on a bed of cauliflower puree, topped with crisp slices of cauliflower, fried capers, caper berries, and a beautiful purple-red grape granita.
It was exquisite, with a complicated array of textures, temperatures, and flavors that fascinated and delighted us: creamy, crunchy, salty, sweet, tepid, frozen… We were grinning like idiots. This was going to be awesome.
Oh yeah, and there were wine pairings. Sorry, guys, I don’t know anything about wine, so all I’ll tell you is this: I liked all of it. Didn’t finish all of it, but then I drink maybe five glasses of wine most years. Five glasses of wine in a night? Not happening.
|Chef Will Preisch|
We watched eagerly as Will Preisch and his compatriot, Joel Stocks, put the second course together and Will told us a little about what was to come. The intimacy of the venue was really wonderful. Will told us little stories about some of the courses and explained the genesis of others. It was like no dining experience I’ve had before.
I was really excited about the next course, because it sounded odd: “mussel, bear tooth mushroom, whey, dill.” Whey? I couldn’t imagine what that was going to taste like – and in the hands of a really great chef, those surprising courses are the best ones. The bowl was placed in front of me, a gorgeous study in browns and greens: orangey-brown mussels; oddly shaped wild mushrooms with maidenhair-thin “teeth” in shades of brown; vivid green sea beans and sprigs of dill; dark jade drops of dill oil. I tasted the whey – a shallow pool at the bottom of the bowl, like broth – and was amazed. It was delicious, light yet rich, with a delicate tartness reminiscent of buttermilk. The mussels were perfect, the mushroom luscious (if a challenge to cut in the bowl). I found myself trying to coax the last couple of dribbles of whey onto my spoon; it was all I could do not to lap up the dregs like a starving dog.
|black cod, celery root, black truffle|
But I resisted, and let Joel – for the most part a silent partner, who had been sauteeing and roasting and garnishing and serving nonstop, but said very little – take away my bowl. I was rewarded shortly with a plate of black cod on a bed of celery root puree, garnished with diced celery root, celery, celery leaves, a rich truffle sauce, and three thin slices of fresh black truffle.
The cod was amazing, maybe the most perfectly cooked piece of fish I’ve ever had. The skin was crackling crisp, the flesh incredibly moist and falling apart in flakes. I don’t tend to think much of celery, but the layers of celery flavor created an incredible freshness, wonderfully offset by the richness of the truffle sauce. I must admit that the truffle slices – though they were gorgeously whorled, like tiny brains – didn’t do much for me; I’ve never found raw black truffle to have a lot of flavor. They certainly added a sense of luxury, though.
|tartar, matsutake, pine tip|
After we reluctantly let our plates be taken away, Will explained that we would now embark on three courses of duck. Arne and I grinned at each other – it was like they’d designed the menu just for him, starting with scallops (Arne’s chosen birthday dinner for years) and then highlighting duck. Arne adores duck (I love it too, just not as passionately), but can never find it cooked the way he likes it. We were quite sure that wasn’t going to be a problem here.
The dish arrived: a flat plate holding a red ball of duck tartar, flanked by slices of mushroom and topped with an adorably tiny whole mushroom in oil and (it was explained to us) a few edibly tender pine needles. (“Well, that’s one way not to overcook duck,” Arne said. “Just don’t cook it at all.”) I peered at the crumbly brown pile next to it, wondering what that was, and was delighted at the answer: a crumble of pine nuts and crispy duck skin.
Wow. The pine needles were a lot like rosemary, but (to my surprise) much less strong, adding a delicate woodsy note to the rich duck and the wonderful, crunchy, toasty crumble. We ate slowly, savoring every bite.
But the best was yet to come.
Click here for Part 2: two more courses of duck, several courses of dessert, and more!