Over in the northeast, a different transformation takes place every Monday night at Ned Ludd. Chef-owner Jason French hands over the restaurant, normally a house of wood-fired rusticity, to line cook Nicholas Ford, and the Ludd morphs into P.R.E.A.M. (“Pizza Rules Everything Around Me”). Ford was seduced by pizza at Brooklyn, New York, hot spot Roberta’s, where he worked the ovens before moving to Portland last year. The 25-year-old told French he was burning to make pies his way, to his music. Now, once a week, brassicas and smoked lardo dance over fire-kissed dough, pizza boxes stamped with “parental advisory” labels dangle from chandeliers, waiters don gold chains and goofy grins, and the sound system pumps a killer set of early dance-party rap. (The playlist arrives alongside the menu.) In one swift beat, French makes money on an off night and Ford finds a missing link in Portland’s food scene: the convergence of Wendell Berry and Wu-Tang Clan. Somebody say hoe.
So far, P.R.E.A.M.’s mini-menu is an inspired work-in-progress. Seasonal salads are a wee overdressed, and a fluff of white chocolate cremeux, pistachio crumbs, and sticky-good marmalade is, alas, a bit too cremeux for Grandmaster Flash. But Ford’s pizza is in the groove, as kale and burnt honey meet on blistered crusts tasting like smoky, chewy saltines. One night’s special looked positively forbidding, its charred greens, chewy lardons, and fontina bound in fermented chile funk. But like most things at P.R.E.A.M., it shouts and sings. One can’t help but imagine what would happen if every chef in town handed over the reins to an ambitious sidekick for one night a week. The move could cement Portland’s reputation as the ultimate culinary incubator.
Other projects are hatching at a fierce clip. As we go to press, bone marrow candles burn and anatomically correct heart-shaped cupcakes rise at the Table at Yamhill, where former Beast meat man David Crabtree-Logan and wayfaring cook Sariann Lehrer open their Southwest Portland loft to epic feasts. With Nomad.PDX, 27-year-old former Castagna sous-chef Ryan Fox, who sharpened his knife at Las Vegas’s demanding Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, serves 10-course meditations on food in every stage of life, complete with artist collaborations, guest chefs, and, yes, custom-made plates tailored to the meal.
It’s not just upstarts, either. You think you know Vitaly Paley, Portland’s white-jacketed, James Beard Award–winning, Iron Chef–crushing lord of Paley’s Place. Get ready. In June, the 50-year-old icon debuted DaNet, a portal to his Russian roots: the smoked salmon and hand-cured caviars, the forgotten zakuski (drinking foods), a way of life crushed by Soviet standardization. He’s going the distance, transforming his downtown Portland Penny Diner once a month with sit-down dinners, curated vodkas, vintage tchotchkes, and music from the Motherland. (Russian rap? Are you serious?) At a test-drive pop-up this spring, Paley was near tears, baring his soul, culinary and otherwise, to strangers. He wasn’t alone. The luxuriously creamy potato pancakes, a recipe learned at his grandmother’s side, put all others to shame. Paley’s revelatory blini could even put a smile on Putin’s face. Even as he juggles headaches from two restaurants, Paley is willing to gamble on this brave new world. “You have to question, to believe there’s something more out there, fun ideas with an emotional attachment,” as he puts it.
And if not in Portland, then where? Our food scene has always thrived on low-risk models, from food carts to microrestaurants, fueled by adventurous diners. But this new wave of unrestaurants goes a step further, fully inverting the traditional restaurant model, chiming with a larger trend toward flexible, capital-light new business models in a tech-wired society. At an unrestaurant, diners invest in a vision, rather than restaurateurs investing up front and hoping that diners show up. Five years from now, we’ll look back on these emerging visionaries and see the beginning of a whole new way of dining out.