527 SW 12th Ave; 503-241-7163
Snacks and starters $3–12, mains $14–21
Portland’s DIY food movement loves to revel in recycled cool and I-dare-you-to-eat-this bravado. But legendary chef Chris Israel shrugged and went his own way with Grüner, his anti-frumpy ode to “alpine cuisine.”
Israel, of course, knows how to deliver elegant cool. His 1990s-era Zefiro gambled on serious but sexy cooking in a fern-bar city, giving style-phobic Portlanders a reason to break out the party clothes. With Grüner, he’s unveiled his riskiest trick yet: challenging our expectations of what ancient, gut-busting specialties might be. The menu free-roams across Europe’s midsection for ideas handcrafted in the kitchen, from fresh-smoked speck to tiny braids of pretzel bread with exactly the right amounts of chew and salt, sent out to tables just to say hello. Grüner makes art out of the lumpen, the uncool, and the unsung: dumplings, radishes, calves’ livers.
As much designer as chef, Israel misses no detail of the dining experience, be it the clipboard menu bound with a thick rubber band; the blond-wood tables popping against slate-colored walls; the jewel-like bar bottles backlit with a sea-green glow; the sleek, semi-private communal table. The final check is even delivered in an old German paperback from Israel’s own collection.
Israel is never about food gimmicks—he’s an old-school traditionalist whose cooking is casual but stylish, measured but not uptight, a marvel of precision. Still, you wish he’d bust out on occasion, blow up the neat and tidy approach now and then. Nevertheless, there’s so much to yodel about here: the confident, chic vibe; the taste fixations you return for over and over, like the addictive fried, smashed potatoes, the fantastic soups, and the little doughnut fritters called Berliners, fresh and warm and oozing syrupy jam. Israel is back … and his return feels like a cold slap of mountain air. —KB