Sunday, January 6, 2013

DIVERSION PDX: The Woodsman Tavern

To me, The Woodsman Tavern IS Portland.  The city's alternate moniker (Stumptown) perpetuates the sylvan theme that inspires the restaurant.  The Woodsman's founder is Duane Sorenson, the admirable kingpin of Stumptown Coffee, so we know it's coming from respectable roots.  The chef Jason Barwikowski, on the other hand, has perhaps a slightly more controversial reputation, but I'll leave that for bickering amongst his peers.

The entrance abuts the end of a formidable bar, displaying an array of oysters and lemons wedged into a sparkly bed of ice, and a huge bouquet of sprawling branches cast spindly shadows from their perch.  One of the lovely hostesses welcomes potential diners, either arriving with much sought-after reservations or else in hopes of procuring one of the remaining tables, half of which are reserved for just those individuals.  The flanneled, tatooed and mustachioed (gender-specific) staff is smiling as they bustle about the u-shaped space- they move briskly to keep up with the boisterous pace of the busy restaurant- but they look happy to be there... much as if they were welcoming you into their own homes.  If lumberjacks host fancy dinner parties, that is.

 And I did feel right at home here.  Except for the rickety, wobbly spinning chairs that rival a Coney Island roller-coaster in terms of stability.  Mine refused to stay centered toward the table and kept rotating my legs away from my plate, clunking awkwardly every time I shifted my weight.  The waitress said this was to keep patrons from getting too drunk and falling out of their seats, but I felt like it might be a ruse to get me to fall out of mine stone-cold sober.  At any rate, it was a mild distraction from the excellence which was beginning to arrive on our plates, and for food this good, I'll tolerate an unwieldy chaise.

I began with a Brussels sprout salad (of course I did) leafed-out, raw and roasted, and shuffled with big green Castelvetrano olives and bracing morsels of white anchovy.  Not an olive lover myself, these were mild and forgiving, while the pungent anchovies might have been a tad overpopulated, especially since they were only recognized as part of the vinaigrette on the menu, which also touted the presence of sunchokes I never detected.  But it's easy to enjoy the melange as a lump sum, even if a few tidbits of one element or

another get left behind.  Another salad was a unique conglomeration of raw cauliflorets and husky smoked barley, roasted walnuts and ruby gems of pomegranate, and lots and lots of parsley.  Parsley is not relegated to garnish here, instead shining as a worthy green in and of itself.  I predict the elevation of parsley (and perhaps other herbs?) beyond a meager sprig will be a trend in the coming year.

The Woodsman's signature dish- a trout in crazy water- seemed to grace every table at least once, and thus ours, as well.  An untraditional acqua pazza sang boldly of tarragon, anointing the moist flakes of fish with its herbal flavor, joined with robust halves of sundried tomato and more flounces of parsley.  The sizable catch with its crispy, tasty edges might be almost big enough for two, but similarly hard to share.  Be sure to request bread to put to use on the extra juices: a precious hunk of Little T's baguette makes for a fine sponge.   Another fish entree was a seared hunk of ling cod, meaty but tender, crisped to a crust of bronze and
 studded with caperberries.  To live up the rusticity of a tavern, the cod sits atop hefty planks of grilled king oyster mushroom nestled in a bed of smoky lentils in a rich yellow curry.   Made me ponder the unfortunate conflict of pairing bacon with traditional curries and why "nouvelle" Indian hasn't yet embraced smoking their dal (Floyd Cardoz, are you listening?)  Anyways, it was magnificent: a pescatarian option to satisfy a carnivore.  Not that carnivorous options are lacking: a mixed grill of lamb, a stewy beef brisket with squash and grits in gravy, and a notable chicken cassoulet round out the meatier
 options.  In fact, the only scarcity here here might be vegetables (we ordered everything they had on offer), but then again, a December's visit finds the farmer market in shorter supply... and this place is boldly local and seasonal.   We went for their sole green side plate besides salad greens: a roast of mapley glazed carrots and Brussels sprouts that might've waxed a tad too sweet paired with our entrees, but were nonetheless delicious for it themselves.

Not to miss out on the wonders of dessert, we had a tough time choosing between a spiced pumpkin bread pudding, the waitress's recommendation of the ginger cake, and our final selection, a homey, butter-crusted pear pie-lette topped with a creamy white chocolate gelato that was a decadent step up from traditional vanilla.  Plus, we needed a sweet to accompany our Chemex-brewed Stumptown, artistically prepared tableside in its wooden corsetted carafe.

In the end, I never did fall off my stool, despite its constant attempts to throw me.  But The Woodsman Tavern exudes a festive warmth that more than atones for its precarious seating.

 You can find us at 4537 Southeast Division Street, Portland Ore. We are open from 5 to 10 PM every night for dinner and Saturdays and Sundays from 9 to 2 for brunch. Call us at 971-373-8264.

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