Dining at several new restaurants in Portland, I noticed a sophisticated swath that permeates many restaurants as opposed to just a few darlings a few years ago. Chefs here are cooking with excitement and creativity, more so than when I last visited in 2014.
One good example is the quaint and charming Coquine, a 10-month-old neighborhood restaurant sitting at the corner by itself near the Mt. Tabor Park in the city’s Southeast area. A former café, the space was taken over by husband-and-wife team Ksandek Podbielski and Chef Katy Millard, who did pop-ups around town.
Chef Millard uses French techniques and local, seasonal ingredients in her changing menu. Her elegant style clearly reflects her time at San Francisco’s Coi, where she was a sous chef for Chef Daniel Patterson. Even though Coquine is at the farther end of Portland’s Southeast (a lot of action seems to be focused in the Buckman or Division Street areas), it has garnered much attention, including being a semi-finalist this year for the James Beard Award’s Best New Restaurant.
I dined here last Saturday with my friend Ann, and we both decided to go with the Chef’s Choice Prix Fixe menu, which is four courses for $55. (You can order ala carte if you don’t do the prix fixe.) Since it’s chef’s choice, all the courses are pre-determined except the dessert course, where you can choose from either cheese or a plated dessert offering. (Optional wine pairing with the prix fixe is available for $40.)
Before our dinner began, a couple of snacks came from the kitchen, including a fresh oyster from the Pacific Northwest served simply with a mignonette and finely diced fruits (it might have been apples, but I forgot but it was crisp and cooling), and tempura asparagus (which I skipped and left for Ann to enjoy).
Our first course was a snap pea salad with maple-mustard vinaigrette, oats and benne seed. The crunch of the snap peas gave off a freshness to the salad that really felt like spring. This course was followed by a halibut that continued the green theme with licorice and seaweed creating an emerald-color coating for the fish, which sat on top of tiny morels (a popular mushroom in the Pacific Northwest) and butter-braised turnips.
Even though we were at the end of spring as Memorial Day weekend was nipping at spring’s feet, our meat course of lamb loin was another great example of a spring dish, with the perfectly cooked loin with its pinkish but tender center having a clear lamb flavor that was balanced by the accompanying rhubarb and black olive vierge sauce, fava beans and new potatoes.
Dessert was a simple but pretty plate of fresh strawberries decorated with tiny elderflowers and served with a delicious yoghurt chiboust. Added texture came in the crunch of white chocolate-almond-rice-crispy pieces sprinkled about.
At the end of the meal, Chef Millard came out with a tray of sweets, offering us a choice of candies, from homemade marshmallows to salted caramel to strawberry-peppercorn pates de fruit. I went for the pates de fruit, which had a fresh soft texture in the gel, while Ann got a piece of caramel that she said had a lot of flavor.
The last bite
I told Chef Millard that she really created a special neighborhood restaurant because it had the charm of a neighborhood spot but the sophisticated offerings of any restaurant in a metropolitan city. In many ways, it reminds me of Frances in San Francisco, which is also headed by a female chef. While some of the diners did seem like they lived in the neighborhood, most appeared to be coming from faraway places – expanding the definition of what a neighborhood restaurant can be.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Coquine, 6839 SE Belmont St. (at 69th), Portland. PH: 503.384.2483. Café hours daily from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (it’s famous for its chocolate chip cookie); dinner, Wednesday through Sunday, from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.coquinepdx.com
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