Portland has such a knack for picking the Next Big Thing that we’ve become a city of celebrated risk takers, always challenged to generate fresh ideas that go beyond the trends and prove that our finger is squarely on the pulse of the national zeitgeist. While we certainly wouldn’t want to change this spirit of fresh creativity, especially not in the Portland food scene, the focus on the new often sidelines the folks that have been doing it right for decades.
So what’s a seasoned institution to do when the media zips from opening to opening? Bring in some fresh eyes, shake up the status quo, and embrace what appeals to the next generation (without sacrificing the spirit of tradition). We’ve seen such rebirths this year at Bluehour, with the arrival of chef Thomas Boyce, and with the countless casual restaurant projects from top chefs and restaurateurs (see: The Bent Brick, Oven and Shaker, and Sunshine Tavern). What we’re seeing is an acceptance of the New Portland among the so-called "Old Guard", and it’s resulting in truly well-crafted eateries that blend experience with an understanding of the palate of the new millennium. This shift certainly makes sense, given that these same "seasoned pros" were once the first risk-taking movers-and-shakers of Portland’s early culinary history.
Next up on the growing list of rising phoenixes? The arguable cradle of Portland’s farm-to-fork ethic, NW 21st’s Wildwood Restaurant and Bar. Founded in 1994 by James Beard Award winner Cory Schreiber, Wildwood focused on seasonal foods sourced from local farms, with a fine dining vibe that made it a destination for discerning palates. The restaurant has been in the capable hands of Executive Chef Dustin Clark for years, but the heavy shadow of Shreiber has kept his extremely creative protege from stepping fully into the spotlight of Portland top chefs. This fall, Wildwood took on Cana Flug—owner of NW 23rd’s Besaw’s—as General Manager, and she’s got plenty of experience giving a much needed injection of innovation to eateries that have lost a bit of their early sparkle. With Flug on board, Wildwood has all of the ingredients for an epic revival that’s just as fresh as the farm produce that’s been at its core for nearly two decades:
1. Fresh Eyes: Cana Flug transformed Besaw’s – a 108-year-old Portland institution – into a vibrant neighborhood hub known for its packed brunch and intimate dinner service, and she’s ready to bring that same energy and eye for necessary edits to Wildwood. Bringing an outsider’s perspective, Flug is set to tighten up some loose hinges at the restaurant and transform it into something Northwest 21st and Portland as a whole will be excited about again. She’s looking to refine Wildwood’s service style, making it comfortable and inviting to diners from 17 to 97, and balance the tradition of Wildwood with what diners want today. Changes will be implemented in early 2012, with a redesign coming within a few months.
2. Fresh menu: Chef Dustin Clark is going to be let loose to explore his passion for international cuisines while still using local ingredients. Flug is set to push Clark into the spotlight, tying the public perception of Wildwood to Clark’s fresh-from-the-garden passion for vibrant flavors and simple, beautiful food. His love of Indian, Asian, and African cuisines has been appearing on the menu more and more over the past year, pairing harissa mashed potatoes with roast chicken and curried pumpkin with pork chops, and these bold, creative combos are set to get even more intriguing.
3. Fresh approach to wine: Sommelier Savannah Ray is a native Portlander with a spark that you just can’t ignore. Wildwood features weekly “No Somm Sundays”, a night of free corkage encouraging diners to bring in their own bottles from home, and an accessible wine list that covers both happy hour and haute cuisine pairings. Ray brings the same youthful approach you often see with beer and craft spirits to the wine world, giving preference to small producers over prestige and fun over fancy.
4. Fresh approach to events: Sous chef Paul Kasten’s love of local brews has spawned several great beer dinners and brewery collaborations, hinting at a new era of Wildwood events. Flug is excited to join forces with other Northwest Portland restaurants to create a neighborhood partnership with block parties and themed menus that celebrate the fact that eating is fun, especially in Portland.
5. Fresh redesign: Flug gave us details about an upcoming redesign that will bring more intimacy, youth, and warmth to the bar area, the dining room, and the private dining areas. Think warmer lighting, more candles, and a face-lift of the bar that’s seen from the street. An updated patio could be in the works before next summer, and a rebranding from the logo to the website will launch the new Wildwood onto the scene.
Stay tuned for more information, and get ready to head back to Wildwood.