To glimpse the next phase of Portland dining, pull the handle of a wall-mounted meat grinder.
It’s hidden at the end of a dim hallway, in the back of bustling east-side spot PaaDee. One yank, and a nondescript bookcase moves sideways, revealing Langbaan, an intimate Thai speakeasy holding court three nights a week.
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The cozy, cramped kitchen looks like a foodie’s vision of a Bangkok night market, with herbs everywhere, soup vapors billowing, and moody shadows creeping from table lamps. It only hints at what’s to come: a two-hour tasting menu of traditional snacks, coconut-chunked soups, raw dishes, chile relishes, grilled pig parts, and some shockingly delightful desserts buried in salty coconut cream or infused with Thai candle smoke. No choices. No substitutions. Plunk down $40, settle in, and let the kitchen do the work. At least so far, this is the food of the year.
At Langbaan, opened in February, PaaDee owner and Bangkok native Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom reconsiders Thai food for a new generation of Portland diners. For these savvy thrill-seekers, the aggressive, straight-from-Chiang Mai flavors of Andy Ricker’s nationally celebrated Pok Pok are now the norm. At Langbaan, choreographed evenings thrash with herbs, refinement, and a new sense of excitement: “seriously old-school Thai cooking,” as Ninsom calls it, replete with tastes rarely seen stateside. A night in this back room moves from dried baby snakehead fish, crushed with fried shallots over coconut rice, to an epiphanic treat born in Bangkok’s Chinatown: black sesame dumplings in a sweet-hot ginger broth that zings straight to the brain.
While the food is unlike anything else in town, Langbaan is not alone in its inversion of the traditional tropes and structure of a restaurant. Curious, ambitious, boundary-pushing tasting menus and dinner series are suddenly everywhere, except where you might expect them: traditional upscale restaurants. Young chefs, some armed with techniques gleaned at distant Michelin-starred temples, are reworking Portland’s food culture into surprising, seductive evenings. They’re reclaiming forgotten storerooms and squatting in other chefs’ restaurants and—judging by the number of customers marking birthdays and other special occasions in these spaces—maybe even mapping a new route to fine dining in a city that has willfully rejected it.
I call them the unrestaurants: a hybrid of pop-up dinners and brick-and-mortar dining rooms that serve one-of-a-kind meals with an air of professionalism on a limited, but ongoing, basis. Some of them are raising the roof on flavors; others are fascinating but exhausting, like a Lars von Trier movie. The beauty is how they’re cracking open doors to new models of eating.
The unofficial center of the unrestaurant movement is KitchenCru, the gleaming commissary kitchen and chef’s counter that rents hourly on the North Park Blocks. That model allows chefs who have great ideas to test them out, one night at a time, without ponying up the capital required to start an actual restaurant. The result is a constant, night-by-night rotation through wildly different concepts, the dining equivalent of a down-and-dirty rock club, hosting the experimental garage bands of local cooking: a culinary CBGB that could hatch a future Noma. Recent months have showcased the vegetable savvy of Coquine, courtesy of Katy Millard, who stood apron-to-apron with lauded chef Daniel Patterson at San Francisco’s Coi. Cru honcho Michael Madigan and kitchen manager Jeff McCarthy moonlight as their own occasional series, TenTop: two dudes doing molecular gastronomy while cross-talking with the diners who watch their descent into cooking madness. A recent TenTop “breakfast for dinner” screeched from a miso-soy-ginger bagel smeared with kimchi cream cheese and a truckload of bulgolgi to waffles and fried-chicken ice cream lashed with foie gras butter. TenTop may not win any Michelin stars, but the takeaway is universal: fried-chicken-skin caramel really does belong on everything.
The Cru is also home to Holdfast Dining, where Will Preisch started cooking up a fresh vision of fine dining last July: intensely creative, tweezered on the spot, then handed across the counter to diners. Almost overnight, Holdfast vaulted into the top tier of Portland dining, and Preisch earned Portland Monthly’s tag as Rising Star Chef 2013. Now, three nights a week, the bearded wonder and co-chef Joel Stocks belt out personal food operas at the crossroads of Europe’s new-wave school and low-key Portland. Industry folks worship on off nights, diners shout out recipe requests, and a customer at the next stool felt at home enough to steal a bite of my dehydrated chocolate mousse.
At first, Preisch says, he wondered if Portland would embrace his concept. He got his answer: when Holdfast’s online reservation system goes live each month, seats vanish in 10 minutes or less. A restaurant that doesn’t exactly exist in the conventional sense seems to be the hottest reservation in town.