Monday, December 29, 2014


Joanna Ware makes herself an easy chef to follow, since her name is in restaurant's, and it's located on a bumping, must-eat stretch of SE Division.  It's bright little storefront casts a bright aura out onto the gray, rain-slicked sidewalk on a particularly (if not typical) Portland evening.  Quirky, alluring restaurants like Smallwares make
Portland's hallmark rainy climate totally bearable, if not even desirable.  The cool, damp sog from an incessant six hour rain looks almost magical when tucked into such a cheerful, shiny-painted little den such a Smallwares.  Not named only after its talented chef, Joanna Ware, nor its small plate format, Smallwares is a very small restaurant.  It seats but forty or so eaters, the kitchen and bar seem to take of the majority of the real estate, but it justifies its primacy.  Ware cooked with David Chang at Momofuku Ssam, and the influence shows in her "inauthentic Asian" creativity.

Our waiter welcomed us, donning menus quickly- although that was the last time I'll use that adverb in this review.  Despite the sparsely populated room, waits for plates bordered on painful, especially since there was hardly anyone competing with our orders, and each small plate arrived singularly.  What amounts to a small appetizer doesn't take long to consume ...especially when divided by two people, and when the food is this tasty.  My guess is that they were hoping passersby might positively acknowledge a filled table, but there was negligible foot traffic on such a murky evening.

At least our drinks came out swiftly, and we benefitted two-fold from our early reservation time: happy hour from 4-7pm was still in full swing, and additionally, they had serendipitously run out of their $6 house white, so we lucked into a scintillating Verdicchio in lieu of it, ripe with fragrant nectarine and honey- seriously, almost too drinkable.  This helped placate the lapse before our first plate arrived, a gorgeous little composition of tender golden beets and cardinal radicchio leaves (I've been watching too much Standford football), showered in a sesame granola.  There was a distinct hint of aniseed, probably baked into  the granola,
and a noticeable hit of cayenne, which provided a tantalizing sweet-spicy tango that was expertly tamped by a luscious swath of thick yogurt.  Matsutake mushroom was sliced like steak over a rich, zesty walnut puree spritzed with lime and cardamom for an exotic spin.  The flavors are so intense they almost fight each other, dish to dsih, but they are immensely enjoyable, and with the extended waits between arrival times, your appetite (and palate) rebounds easily enough to be able to countenance the barrage of intensity.

At the Happy Hour price (paired with the knowledge of getting a double-bargain of the much more valuable Verdicchio), another glass babysat us through the extended pause endured until our third plate arrived, a worth-waiting-for roast of cauliflower spiked with smoky heat from a furikake spiced tahini.  The Asian inauthenticity is fueled by a recurring spicy/nutty theme here, featured in all of the vegetable dishes and frankly most of the plate across the board.  It doesn't get boring; the flavor profiles ebb and wax with enough variety to keep you on the edge of your seat.  Past the vegetables, though, the menu listings weren't quite as illustrative of the dishes themselves, and the element of surprise was continued
 in a somewhat unsettling manner with some of the items that arrived in front of us.  Chicken lollipops were exactly that, but I wasn't expecting the industrial coat of crunch that enveloped each "pop", let alone the rather all-inclusive hodgepodge of meaty bits within, which sometimes presented mastication difficulties due to knobby bits of gristly fat and skin.  Right alongside within them were supremely juicy and flavorful morsels of bird, so these are not a miss- they just require some artful strategy.   And not that they needed any more charisma, but a pot of sriracha mayo accompanies to dip, a temperature-cooling plunge that rebounded instantaneously as soon as the heat of the chilis kicked in.  

Our final dish was a full-size bowl of chowder, although it wasn't a chowder at all but simply steamed clams in a fragrant coconut milk perfumed with lemongrass and chives.  Never to be shorted out from the ubiquitous spice alliance, clandestine rounds of fiery chiles fulfilled the spiciness quotient, emerging sporadically to pleasantly accost the back of your throat.  My understanding of chowder is a much heartier, chunkier stew, but this relatively lighter version at
least worked to our advantage, leaving just enough room to sample a dessert.  Only two were on offer: a chocolate pot de creme fancified with miso butterscotch and black cardamom, and the one with which we went:  a carrot sticky pudding.  I don't, however, recommend it.  Super-dense and thick as fudge, the pasty mass was topped with an ever-richer squiggle of sugary cream cheese icing.  Three bites was pushing my limit, although a cup of Stumptown, brewed strong, could've helped
it down- had I room for even a drop more.  The sheer heft of it was excessive after the parade of hyper-flavorful delicacies that we enjoyed.  And enjoy, we did.  Smallwares = big flavor- but be prepared to leave yourself a little bigger chunk of time than you might imagine would warrant such a very big little meal.

4605 ne fremont street portland, or 97213
phone: 971.229.0995

Friday, December 12, 2014


I wanted to love King Bee... I mean REALLY wanted to love it, but despite a few low-volume buzz-worthy components, overall I think there's still a lot of work to do on the hive.  (And that will be the last apian reference I will make, I promise.)  The restaurant itself is pleasant: subterranean and cozy, minimally decorated but in a simple, pure sense.  This same aesthetic is reflected in the food, as well, and frankly I wouldn't mind a bit (even quite a bit) more embellishment.  Prominently featured is a painting by Steve Keene, commissioned to create a King Bee mural that stretches across the eastern wall, again modernist and minimalist, so in terms of keeping with a theme, they are certainly true to their motif.

We visited very early on a Friday evening, so it wasn't surprising the room was virtually empty at this blue-hair dining hour.  As well, the temps outside were plummeting, and may have been somewhat of a deterrent to those who were not locals, since King Bee is pretty far over towards Alphabet City, located on a relatively desolate stretch of 9th street.   This restaurant will be a cornerstone to the block.....if it manages to take hold.  We will see.  It certainly has some spiffing up to do in the meantime.

 The menu is fairly limited, broken down into hors d'oeuvres, appetizer and entrees, and later, desserts.  The inspiration purportedly Acadian, and thus elements of French Canadian and hints of  bayou Louisiana freckle the menu, but not really definitively enough.   I wonder, however, if we weren't adventurous enough in our ordering.  But it is tricky to be too ambitous: like I said, the menu's succinct, and some things might be delicious, but they come across a little... particular.  Some are potentially delicious oddities, others poor renditions of standards.

 The Upstate Raw Salad was a brightly hued pile of leaves and shaved cauliflower, obviously utilizing some prime produce.  And kudos for that, but a thin, flimsy dressing, slightly saccharine, merely lubricated the greens, and no
matter how good your lettuce is, a simple pile of it isn't going to bring a lot of repeat customers.   There really wasn't a lot more going on this salad than just that.  Similarly, a stark plate of pink country ham came furled with paper-thin slices of autumn squash and a tasty smear of creamy mustard creme fraiche studded with crunchy seeds- but it still presented as ham slices on a plate with some token veg for color.    But I think the most disappointing dish was the
Gumbo z'Herbes, a thin brothy puddle tasting mostly of dusty dried herbs, yes, but there wasn't really
anything gumbo-y about it.  A scoop of jasmine rice huddled beneath the surface, which is typical of gumbo, but that didn't make up for the lack of any deep, hearty roux, the absence of any seafood or protein element at all, or any of the rib-stinking punch that I would associate with gumbo.  It was a soupy green murk of dried herbs, like an attempt to use up that old McCormick's bottle of fines herbes you couldn't remember why you purchased in the first place.  Pretty rounds of sliced radish masqueraded as ham, adding a nice punch of pink but little else: maybe actual ham would've helped.

Entrees are hearty, for the most part, from a buckwheat cooked risotto-style with mushrooms, pea shoots and egg, to poutine rapee, a racy-sounding dish of starchy, meaty dumplings plumped with lamb and turnips.  Along with a duck fricot - which turned out to be a ducky turn on chicken and dumplings- I was learning some new, Acadian culinary terms along with an explanation for the obesity rates in Lousiana.  I may have wimped out choosing the lightest sounding option, but it was the most pleasant dish of the night.  Roasted cod, however, seemed more steamed than roasted, and it was actually black cod rather than true, which is normally the default cod.  It was served in a buttery broth, quite luscious, and accompanied with a few cockles and mussels to fill out the dish, since the token quantity of kale
registered more as an aromatic than a vegetable, silky and tender though the few leaves of it was.  There are no sides dishes on offer, so unless the chef would be amenable to an off-the-menu request, get your greens elsewhere.

King Bee features an ample beverage selection, true to its East Village address.  A unique Schonramer Pils was golden and smooth, perhaps one of the more memorable components of the meal.  It was light enough to warrant a second bottle, but had enough body to hold up as we made our way to dessert with a simple bosc pear crostata.   It was a nice, rustic sweet,
 the fruit could have been syrupier, the crust flakier and butterier.  No complaints about the intensely flavored little scoop of vanilla except for that there could've been a smidge more.  King Bee, in fact, left me wanting a little more of everything, a little more flavor, more options (or maybe just more description to convince me of getting some of the less familiar things on the menu without so much risk), definitely more vegetation, more smiles from the waitstaff.   But maybe it'll come around: I hear the bee colonies are rebounding spectacularly.

tel. (646) 755-8088