Portlandia: Chris Israel’s Grüner

by Chris on June 29, 2011

A visit to Grüner, an Alpine-themed restaurant from veteran chef Chris Israel in Portland.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Where: Grüner, 527 SW 12th St., Portland. 503-241-7163

Why we went: After our amazing meal at Pok Pok, we thought we’d spend our last night in Portland eating at food trucks downtown. But many of them were closed and others were packed, in anticipation of the Rose Festival parade that was going on that night.

Then I remembered reading about Grüner, a German restaurant by Chris Israel. Israel made his name in Portland as a chef making Mediterranean food, then pan-Asian (fun fact – he left cooking for a short stint as an art director at Vanity Fair). When he announced in 2009 that he would switch to Alpine cooking, many fans wondered what the hell he was doing.

But Israel somehow knew that Pacific Northwest ingredients would lend themselves to dishes from Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. (It didn’t hurt that the restaurant opened just when the charcuterie craze took off). He was nominated for a James Beard award for best chef in the Pacific Northwest this year.

Who’s there: In a town where even the top restaurants appear a little ramshackle and counter-culture, the Grüner crowd looks surprisingly grown up (with dinner entrees in the $20-$30 range, patrons need to be earning some money). The decor is blond wood modern and there’s great natural light coming in.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Chowing down: Soon after we sat down, the bartender put a plate of pretzel bread in front of us. The chewy, salty dough made us realize that we made the right decision. We started with a charctuerie plate that included samples of speck, spicy coppa, soppressata, house made mortadella, liverwurst canapés and country pâté.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

From there, we moved on to a Belgian endive salad served with gala apples, fourme d’ambert, toasted hazelnuts & hazelnut vinaigrette, and the restaurant’s spätzle special. We finished with a plate of alpine cheese and fruit for dessert.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Libations: Craft cocktails have gone from being exciting to being ubiquitous. That being said, I loved how the drinks on the menu reflected the alpine theme. I started with an Alpina – a cocktail made of sparkling wine, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and rose water.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Don was drinking beer until we noticed the bartender, Drew Putterman, studying a book of vintage cocktails with another bar patron. Turns out that Drew is always looking for inspiration for his new concoctions, and he loves nothing better than to come up with a new version of a classic.

With that in mind, I asked him to put his stamp on my favorite champagne cocktail, a kir royal. He used the typical  creme de cassis, but then switched it up by adding Italian vermouth, wild peach liqueur and a splash of apple bitters. Delicious.

Don asked Drew to making him something reminiscent of the islands. Drew immediately rinsed glass with rum, and then filled it with brandy, topping it with an egg white foam and nutmeg.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Order this: We ordered the spätzle at Drew’s recommendation, even though I had been eying the hasenpfeffer (rabbit). And I’m glad we did, as the earthy chicken, mushrooms and dumplings were lightened by fava beans, tarragon, crème fraîche and a splash of riesling.

Chris Israel, Gruner Portland

Meh: Looking back, I’m not sure why we ordered cheese for dessert when we could have tried the milk and dark chocolate parfait, or the poppy seed shortcake that comes with lemon curd. I blame it on the cocktails.

The damage: $135 including tip and tax. The bill came in a cute German translation of Pablo Neruda

Go back: While the food was good (I’m a little amazed we didn’t try the house-made sausages), I’d go back to try more of Drew’s cocktail concoctions. This time, I’d bring a recipe to stump him.

Deets: Open for lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner, Monday through Saturday. Happy Hour in the bar weekdays from 4:30-6 pm. Reservations recommended.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kent @ NVR June 29, 2011 at 7:02 am

You 2 hit ALL the cool places in town. This is on our list for our next visit to Portland. The “island inspired” cocktail sounds wonderful.

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Don Faust June 29, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Kent – the bartender at Grüner was so good that he could improvise based on what you would suggest to him. So, I just asked him to make me something that reminded me of the islands with some nutmeg on top. What was surprising was that he used very little rum – most of it was brandy and other concoctions he made up, and it was an amazingly true interpretation.

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Sherry June 29, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Alpine cooking with Pacific Northwest ingredients – such genius! Another great culinary stop on my next trip to PDX, (along with Pok Pok). BTW, glad you both tried the spätzle; I found, its always a good choice. I’m itching to taste a cocktail that has egg foam on it – yummy!

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Don Faust June 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Sherry – I wasn’t as excited to try this restaurant as much as Pok Pok, but being that it was a James Beard nominee I had to try it. German food just doesn’t excite me the way foods with more kick have, like Thai or Italian, Mexican, Cajun, etc.
I was totally surprised! I couldn’t stop talking about the spätzle – it was that good… actually much better than what I tried in Germany.

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Angela June 29, 2011 at 6:07 pm

These look delicious, I would have ordered cheese for dessert too, in my hometown (Sardinia) cheese is a must after meal :)

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Don Faust June 29, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Angela – I love cheese! In fact, I am eating some now. My favorite dry cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano – the king of cheese. For soft cheese, I love a great blue, brie or a really stinky French cheese, like Epoisses. The latter is so stinky, I understand it is banned from public transportation all over France.

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Nancy & Shawn Power July 7, 2011 at 11:55 am

Great looking meal… especially the Belgian endive salad with apples and hazelnuts… yummy!

Thanks for sharing!

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