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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.