BEAST - Portland, OR
If we're friends on Facebook, you may have noticed me COMPLETELY nerding out about attending brunch at BEAST a couple Sundays ago in Portland, OR. I often travel for work, but this most recent trip north was one of leisure that I was looking forward to. In the Portland area for several days to attend and photograph my cousin's daughter's wedding (in beautiful Oregon farm country no less), I planned several stops over the weekend before I continued ever further north to visit my sister in Seattle.
It's a tough call, spreading yourself thin with only two full days to experience bucket-list spots in Portland, and I'm grateful for the incredible experience I had at BEAST. When I leave home, it's most often with a massive list of places I should be eating at right now if I'm any kind of a foodie, but it's just not a possibility to hit them all up in my lifetime. I've come to terms with that fact. So I pick and choose places rather carefully, and for specific reasons - and it's how I ended up at BEAST for Sunday Brunch.
Portland is obsessed with good food and the most loyal foodies are constantly on the lookout for the next, best, hot new place. That's what makes BEAST so delightful. She's no "new girl" by any means, opening as long ago as 2007, but the model remains constant and even with the high price-tag, she has repeat customers. What sealed the deal for me was the fact that Naomi Pomeroy, chef-owner, is completely self-taught and is cranking out seriously fine french cuisine. As an avid fan of home cookery and wanting to take my cooking skills to a higher level, I begged and pleaded BEAST for an opportunity to speak with the Naomi - was she channeling Julia Child?
Portlanders take brunch seriously and unless you're dining at a corner cafe, reservations (yes, even for brunch!) are recommended if the place allows it. The unique service style of BEAST makes reservations mandatory. They serve a set six-course menu (which means you'll eat what's put in front of you, no substitutions) twice nightly, Wednesday through Saturday with one dinner service on Sunday. They also offer a four-course brunch twice on Sundays. I reserved a spot at one of their communal tables for the first service on Sunday morning, then returned later that afternoon before dinner to talk shop with lead cook Alex Williams. Naomi is a lot busier than she used to be, and she wasn't avaiable for my visit that Sunday.
A restaurant with such a big name is offered up in a surprisingly small package. Blink once and you just might drive by the little spot on Northeast 30th Avenue. She's in good company, though. A few streets down is Alberta Street which has lots of great eateries popping up like Bollywood Theater (featuring Indian street food), Little Big Burger and the best ice cream in Portland, Salt and Straw.
Roughly half of my brunchmates were local and half of us were transplants and/or first-timers, but everyone arrived promptly, anxious for the service to begin. With close to 30 people waiting for breakfast, the staff consisted of only five people: two servers, two cooks, and one dishwasher.
Service began with a Mary Hill Farm Cherry Clafoutis with whipped CRÉME FRAÎCHE and maple-glazed house bacon. If you're unfamiliar with clafoutis, as I was, think of the lightest bread pudding you've ever had and you're there.
I'm ashamed to say I ate the whole thing. Did I mention I was having no lunch and a late dinner?
I began chatting with the two couples closest to me; a young, newly married couple from Ohio and the other couple seasoned foodies from L.A. Smalltalk consisted of, naturally, excellent places we all hoped to try while in Portland.
Fast on the heels of the clafoutis came the Beast Hash; Lan Roc Farms braised pork belly, yellow wax beans, asparagus, oyster mushrooms, snap peas, confit new potatoes, poached duck egg and whole grain mustard hollandaise.
Luxurious, rich, and served with a lovely burgundy (if you requested the wine pairing and you know I did). The egg was perfectly poached which drove me nuts. Perfectly poached eggs do not come easily to me, and I'm sure they will probably be the death of me.
The third course was a lovely selection of artisinal cheeses accompanied by fresh greens and a vin blanc vinaigrette, followed by an insanely chocolate bite of BÊTE NOIRE (chocolate cake) and vanilla rum creme chantilly.
The most beautiful and satisfying brunch I've ever been to, but it was the intimate dining style that appealed to me most as a singleton. I often eat alone, and while I'm not afraid to dine by myself, a setting like what BEAST offers eliminates that possibility. The communal style concept invites conversation and I felt I'd made best friends before any of us had finished our first cup of coffee.
I asked Alex about the concept behind BEAST when I returned later that afternoon. Alex has been with BEAST for two years now, after first attending the Oregon Culinary Institute, "Which is a great school, and I support them," she shared with me, before quickly adding, "but I soon realized I didn't learn effectively in a classroom environment. I suppose in the back of my head I always knew that, but I thought I should go anyway." In Alex's opinion, at the end of the day, she learned the most from actually working in the kitchen, serving real product to real people.
Naomi grew up in her mother's kitchen and is completely self taught. Prior to opening BEAST in 2007 she owned her own catering company and started up a few restaurants, but it was her love of doing her underground supper club and feeding folks in her own home that she loved most and modeled BEAST after.
While the concept behind BEAST hasn't changed much since it launched, it's a model that Alex personally loves and finds challenging - and that people keep coming back to, even with all the "new hotness" that is the Portland food scene. I asked Alex her thoughts on meeting the challenges of diners looking for something that is both consistently good, yet "new and hot".
"That's one thing I think the model behind BEAST does brilliantly," Alex laughed (I was a bit harsh on Portland diners - they are a weasely bunch). We're in a higher price-range, so while we do have repeat customers, they're not coming once a week or even once a month, but when they come back, they know they're going to get the best charcuterie in Portland. We're known for it, people expect it to be the best, and we always deliver. But the menu changes weekly, so we're also creating new dishes that are going to showcase the best tasting ingredients Portland has to offer that week."
I asked if having a fixed number of dishes and a set number of "covers" took some of the pressure off the small six-man team as compared to "traditional" restaurants that offer a wider menu and are never sure how many tables they'll turn in a day.
"Yes and no!" she admitted, jumping up to turn the flame off from underneath a small pot of water on the kitchen stove. "Only because we have a set amount of time for each service - roughly two and a half hours. That's not a lot of time to produce food for 60 people (their maximum capacity for dinner during the summer). Things that are time sensitive are always going to be stressful."
While I didn't have the opportunity to speak with Naomi directly, it's clear her staff is spot on at producing the experience she desires for people who visit her restaurant. She's currently busy working on her first cookbook which will be out next fall, and when she's not involved in local charitable events, she's whizzing about the world to places like Hong Kong where she is part of a culinary diplomacy program for the U.S. States Department.
Thanks to Naomi and the team at BEAST for an awesome dining experience that still does Portland proud.