EAT HERE NOW
Test Driving Roman Candle’s New Lunch Menu
Inspired vegetables, strong salads, and pizza bianca sandwiches give Ava Gene’s baby sister an afternoon glow.
Duane Sorenson’s love letter to pizza bianca, all things Division Street, and, not least, Stumptown Coffee, is finally getting some lunch love.
Since its slow roll-out last summer, Roman Candle Baking Co.—housed in Sorenson’s former roasting annex at 3377 SE Division Street—has excelled at civilized style. In a city where rickety chairs and bus-your-own tables are the norm, it offers comfy modern seats, handsome tableware, and bussers that whisk crumb-strewn plates off the commanding communal tables without missing a beat.
But Roman Candle’s separate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus have searched for a consistent identity in line with its striking room; let alone to match the fun, vegetable acuity and self-possession of Sorenson’s neighboring casual fine dining spot Ava Gene’s (our 2013 Restaurant of the Year).
Mornings have dished out the strongest statement yet. In contrast to Portland’s gut-busting breakfast fantasies, chef Joshua McFadden (who oversees both kitchens) celebrates the healthy—from seed-laden cereals to toast concepts on the bakery’s grain bread. Meanwhile, breakfast pastries have never lived up to expectation.
Now, lunch has new fire, beyond its original, limited (but worthy) sandwich focus. The revamped menu, which debuted Monday, adds broad appeal, seasonal connections, an uplifted Italian cookie plate, and most importantly, an excitement of McFadden’s salads ($11-$12) and innovative vegetable compositions ($8)—often the high point of Ava Gene’s.
Among recent options: the surprise of earthy nettles, tasting like spinach from the deep, slashing through chunked-up beets nestled in fresh sheep’s cheese, with crackling sesame bread crumbs for contrast. In classic McFadden form, texture matters. The kale salad, pounded into submission with garlic, lemon and chiles, is among the best, anywhere (which isn't surprising, as McFadden helped pioneer the kale salad trend as a chef at Franny’s in New York).
But McFadden’s new farro salad may be the find of the year, its chewy grains dancing with dates, salty pistachios, and faint heat over a welcome mat of fresh ricotta, beat light as whipped cream. Crumbled ricotta salata rides on top, with whole parsley leaves adding a green, earthy punch. I ordered it for lunch, then got another to go for dinner. Yeah, it’s that good.
Another change: four of the night menu’s pizza biancas—wood-fired and sold by the square —have joined the lunch lineup, including pomodoro, margherita, and a white blanca tingling with pickled peppers and shrouded with good prosciutto for an extra $2. Sadly, the potato bianca, my favorite of the evening options, was not among them, but I’d happily return for pepperoni, mottled with high-quality, all-pork Olli Salumeria meat.
More happy news: sandwiches have a new strut, squooshed between crispy, flaky sheets of pizza Bianca or stuffed into trapizzino bread, vast triangular pockets that are olive-oil-glazed and bronzed in cast-iron pans, then stuffed with different fillings. I’m a sucker for the Cheese Toastie on pizza Bianca. Imagine a revamped grilled cheese, all crackle and chew and cheddar-fontina melt, with puckery Mama Lil’s peppers hidden inside. On the side? Tomato soup upgraded with a field of fresh arugula on top.
Meanwhile, the Sloppy Giuseppe on trapizzino, swollen with a grandmother’s vision of meat-pebbled tomato sauce, remains one of Portland’s defining sandwiches—read about it, and 24 other life-changing sandos, in our recent best sandwiches feature.
But I’m still dreaming of that farro salad. It’s reason alone to make Roman Candle a daytime destination.
3377 SE Division St.
Open daily, 7 am-9 pm
Lunch, 11:30 am-4 pm