Chef et al.
408 Forest Ave., Portland
My hopes took a nosedive when we drove into the parking lot of a rather nondescript, yellow stucco building on Forest Avenue earlier this summer. It wasn’t that the food didn’t hold promise — my wife and I’d checked out Chef et al.’s menu online, and it looked great. It was the fact there wasn’t a single car in the lot. Not one. And there weren’t any customers inside, either. At noon. On a Sunday.
When searching for a new restaurant to try, you usually look for a crowd, right? Well, in this case the crowd was a few doors down, at the Brea Lu Cafe.
Reader, let me offer this nugget of advice: quit following the crowd, or you’ll miss out on one outstanding meal.
We obviously didn’t have to wait for a table. When our server arrived, my wife attempted to order the wild hazelnut latte, but, thwarted by an espresso machine on the fritz, had to settle for Frangelico and coffee ($8). Our 4-year-old daughter requested grapefruit juice ($3), which arrived in a funky straw-cup contraption. I had a glass of organic o.j. ($3) and coffee ($3). I suspect the pot had been sitting for a while, because the first cup was disappointingly bitter but subsequent ones tasted much better.
The menus in front of us were similar to the menu online, but not all the items were the same. The server explained that Chef Tom Johnson sources his ingredients locally whenever possible, so the menu changes depending on what’s available. Good answer — I don’t want crappy, out-of-season asparagus if there’s something better to be had. (Luckily, the asparagus was neither crappy nor out-of-season. But more about the food in a minute.)
Orders placed, we turned our attention to the entertainment. The Web site advertises “live acoustic jazz,” but that’s another discrepancy. No matter. The solo guitarist in the corner had a pleasant voice and a decent repertoire of folk tunes. The music was just right for brunch: unobtrusive, relaxing and, at times, downright smooth.
The food arrived after a short wait. Even before the first bite, I could see we were in for a treat — simple, elegant dishes lovingly presented and sparingly garnished.
I’d ordered the chef’s choice omelet ($12), an inspired combination of diced, grilled asparagus, gruyere cheese and tiny, crisp chunks of pancetta. On the side were some lightly dressed field greens and a modest pile of delicately seasoned “fingerling home fries.” I ate every bite and barely suppressed the urge to stand and applaud. My side order of rosemary maple sausage ($6), made on-site using all-natural meat from Wolfe’s Neck Farm, was mildly sweet and fully delicious. What I didn’t eat of it was enthusiastically gobbled up by my 4-year-old.
Although disappointed the “lemon blueberry brown sugar pancakes” listed online were not available (“sorry, no blueberries today”), my daughter nonetheless enjoyed her half order of Vanilla and Cinnamon Raison (sic) French Toast ($5, full order $8). Moist, custardy, thickly sliced and perfectly spiced, it was made even better by a splash of real maple syrup. (You know, the stuff that comes from those trees growing in your backyard, yet is mysteriously absent from so many local eateries? Yeah, that’s the stuff.) Chef et al. is a serious contender for the Best French Toast in Portland title, currently held by Artemisia Café, on Pleasant Street.
My wife’s original choice, an intriguing dish involving eggs, braised purple cabbage and hollandaise sauce, was off the menu this week, so she decided to explore the lunch end of the brunch spectrum. In her spinach, strawberry and goat cheese salad ($6), the simple pleasure of in-season produce was enhanced, not overshadowed, by a light, tasty vinaigrette.
An order of thick, beer-battered onion rings ($6) arrived playfully stacked around an upright sprig of rosemary, with a ramekin of homemade rosemary ketchup that elevated this standard tavern fare to haute cuisine. But the most impressive dish of all was possibly the simplest: a bowl of carrot-apple bisque ($6) made with coconut milk. Nearing the bottom, my wife turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s bad form to lick the bowl?”
By the time we left, a few more tables were occupied, so it’s possible the empty house we first encountered was a fluke. I hope so. If Chef et al. falters, ignored by the crowd, it would be a crime against breakfast itself.
— Dan Zarin
Chef et al. serves brunch Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.—3 p.m. For lunch and dinner hours and menus, visit their Web site.
Best One-Handed Breakfast
In a future installment of The Breakfast Serial, I’ll be sizing up contenders for the title of Best One-Handed Breakfast in Portland — sandwiches, small burritos, stuffed pastries… whatever makes your morning without requiring you to put down your issue of The Bollard. You are encouraged to send me your suggestions this month via e-mail to email@example.com.