Levant (2448 East Burnside St.) eludes Zagat classification. Chef Scott Snyder’s vision for the cuisines of the Sephardic Jewish Diaspora (that’s Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East, FYI) is still evolving, but already it’s blazing new culinary frontiers in Portland. The conflation of cuisines presents a unique challenge for the former Wildwood cook: How do you make a restaurant work with so many different influences and flavors? Levant, it turns out, has a few answers.
• Pull off one of the greatest dining room-makeovers Portland has ever seen. The bare, fluorescent accents of the former Alder Pastry and Dessert have been replaced by 2,300 feet of warm wood detail, cool blue cabinetry, and a six-foot-wide brick hearth that radiates heat from its fiery bosom. Blown up portraits of Snyder’s fez-toting, babushka-wrapped ancestors line the walls, and a giant spider-like chandelier dangles from the five-foot stack of lumber at the door to the L-shaped bar in the opposite corner.
• Find common denominators for the Sephardic palate: olives, preserved lemons, harissa, oily fish, and dried apricots. From the menu of small bites, cold and warm starters, and entrees, you might find grilled sardines eaten off the bone over a Tunisian potato salad or an Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewry) chopped liver on grilled challah with a Manischewitz wine reduction. Don’t get attached to specific fusions; Snyder promises a new menu each month.
• Nail a few crowd-pleasers that anyone can get behind. Standouts include foie gras domes, leaning against shredded kohlrabi, cara cara oranges, and pops of flavor from freeze-dried grapes, pistachios, and pomegranate flake salt. Another find is a fist of melted oxtail and tongue wrapped in a caul-fat package (pork on a Jewish menu!) over a swathe of decadent brown butter hummus. The real test of Snyder’s custom-made hearth is the lamb three ways: roasted leg of lamb suspended over the fire and carved to order, balled up in a cumin-puffed Merguez sausage, and grilled as a rare rib chop.
• Assemble a drink team that can steep black sesame into syrup, infuse saffron into cream, and isn’t afraid to look to Israel’s Galilee Heights for a Cabernet Sauvignon. Enter bar adviser Lydia Reissmueller (Manhattan’s influential PDT bar, Portland’s Central) who developed a daring cocktail list to match Snyder’s Sephardic dreams. Middle Eastern influences are sometimes bold, like in the thick and voluptuous “Pillow Talk,” (a spice cabinet of saffron honey cream, turmeric, ginger, and cardamom), and sometimes subtle, like the reverse-engineered martini “Phaedon,” with olive oil-infused gin, vermouth, and coriander bitters for a buttery smooth finish. Of interest is the wine geek collection of far flung vintages from Oregon to Israel and Lebanon.
Opening month growing pains are to be expected: slow service, over-salted lamb bacon, very toothy white beans, and an adventurous plum brandy cocktail that borders on cough-syrup. Early hiccups aside, Levant is shaping up to be one of the year’s most exciting restaurants, with a dessert menu of Turkish coffee custard and Kanafeh cheesecake still to be explored. Stay tuned.