On a quiet corner of an otherwise busy Portland street, a small, simple restaurant serves up dishes that taste like humility and aggravation.
Here in town, just across the river, there’s a restaurant where my wife and I had dinner a few weeks back. It’s well-known and receives countless awards. Modern and experimental, the head chef serves only a “tasting menu”: fifteen-to-twenty dishes which vary depending upon the season. One pays a set price and gets no say in what’s served. That sorta place. The meal is really more art than it is sustenance, which—depending on one’s inclinations—is either a worthwhile experience or an exercise in pretentious frustration. Don’t misunderstand me, though; it’s awesome.
Immediately next door, however, on the other side of a common wall, sits another—much smaller—restaurant. The two spots share the same head chef but the vibes, food, and experiences are completely different. There’s never a crowd; the bar is always empty. It holds twelve-or-so tables, spaced generously apart. Familiar music plays quietly overhead. They call it the “Cafe”—the larger restaurant’s little brother.
The big restaurant has a reservation waiting-list of several weeks. It’s a once-a-year kind of place, if that. The smaller restaurant next door, however, never requires a reservation. As such, my wife and I have eaten at the Cafe multiple times. Each time we do I note to her how simple and approachable the menu is. Actually, when compared to the big restaurant next door, the menu is almost offensively simple. There’s a caesar salad. Steak with fries. A burger. Mussels. A few appetizers. Five or six cocktails and a couple of beer choices. And that's about it, really, give or take a nightly entree or two.
If a passerby didn’t realize who the head chef was or what was coming out of the kitchen next door, he or she might walk by, glance at the menu posted beside the door, and be totally unimpressed. He might think the place was... boring… or… maybe bland—even worse.
But here’s the thing. That caesar salad? It’s the best caesar salad I’ve ever eaten. And those fries? They’re aggravatingly delicious. Everything on the menu is basic but annoyingly perfect.
More importantly, I guarantee that the chef knows it.
I use words like offensive, aggravating, and annoying to describe the Cafe for one, (admittedly terrible) reason. I’ve always taken pride in my cooking. Before I started hacking together metal tubes to form small, two-wheeled vehicles, cooking was my hands-on reprieve. After sitting in a class or at a desk all day, mincing garlic—for instance—was always an appreciated change. So, when I visit the Cafe I look at its menu—the ingredients and simplicity—and think, “I could do that.”
But man… I can’t do that. Not a chance. When I taste the food at the Cafe I’m forced to wash down each bite with a big swallow of humility. There’s just no way. No matter what I do—how much I practice at home or how many tools I aquire—I’ll never make mussels that good.
The Cafe is a James Beard award-winning chef reminding all of us home-cooks that he’s better at this than we are, no matter the medium. Prix fixe or fried potatoes: he wins. It's maddening.
I think the Cafe is my favorite restaurant in this city.