“Is it beating?” deadpans a raven-haired gal, pondering a dish beneath the gaze of a taxidermied fox clamping down on a pheasant. “I’ll eat it as long as it’s not fibrillating!” fires back her friend. With this, two food adventurers giggle, squirm, and ravish something called “fallow deer heart tartare with his marrow.” Riding out on a wood board like a surreal still life, it’s the opening shot at Portland’s first game-centric restaurant. A manicured hill of raw heart meat rises next to wild greens, pickled shallots, and a garlic clove, cooked soft and sweet in its papery skin. Nearby, a marrow bone stands at attention, with roasty hues and a core of fatty white jelly. Your job is to mix, scrape, spread, and heap it all onto wholesome bread. Eating it is disquieting and exciting in equal measure. The real surprise may be how much you like it.
If the first course is strangely exhilarating, the last is merely strange. A savory “rabbit blood pancake” tosses out any preconceptions about dessert as a guilty pleasure, tasting like something your little brother made out of buckwheat and cough syrup. It made me want to dress like a goth.
If you’re looking for a nice fillet of salmon for your mother, you’re at the wrong place. But for a night of entertaining provocation from a hard-core locavore kitchen crossed with a hunting lodge, serenaded by indie music from an unlikely storefront on SE César E. Chávez Boulevard, step right in to the Kingdom of Roosevelt.
Chef-owner Eric Bechard was born to push boundaries. In 2005 he conjured unholy alliances of seafood and offal at the Alberta Street Oyster Bar & Grill, whiplashing the surf-and-turf genre on Portland’s rising east side. Four years later, with Thistle, he brought a DIY vibe and an evangelical eat-local mind-set to quiet McMinnville, butchering meat in the front window and hogging the national spotlight while inspiring (and ruffling) the wine country’s locals. But Bechard is best known as the chef who infamously came to blows with a dude over the exclusion of local pigs from a pork smackdown touring in Portland. (Yes, he’s that guy.)
At Roosevelt, opened in February with Thistle partner Emily Howard, Bechard is messing with our heads again. Game hunting runs deep in Oregon’s DNA, but Bechard is the first chef to truly take aim at farm-raised versions of the meat as a raison d’être. (Wild animals are off the table, per government regulations.) At most serious Portland restaurants, game is an occasional party guest courtesy of respected local distributor Nicky USA. Bechard’s vision goes beyond the delivery truck. He’s doing the hard work of meadow-to-table himself, sourcing everything from small Oregon ranchers and heritage conservationists. He’s tapping a little-known network, encouraging a new market, and putting the question “what is local?” on the plate.
Serious intentions loom, but quirkiness rules. Bechard’s muse is the Roosevelt elk, a species native to the Northwest, and what it might encounter on a nature walk. The menu reads like a pit stop in Game of Thrones—paleo-forward and barely a carb in the house. Cryptic categories like “Raw and Cured,” “Fruits of the Forest and Field,” and “On the Bone” yield a procession of deer saddles, duck-fat pies, wild plants, and lost grains, all formally composed on plates you might find in Grandma’s kitchen. When Bechard lays down a stew of elk meat balls, rabbit legs, and elk-bone gravy, he puts a bird head on it ... confit, pan-fried, and staring right at you.
The staff discourages single-dish grazing. Best advice? Surrender. Mix and match. If it sounds interesting, just order it. If you’ve made it this far, you’re here for an experience—or least to parse the kitchen’s meaning of “bobwhite quail with alliums and her fried egg.”
The kitchen’s best moves taunt us with skill and mysterious beauty. Bechard’s strength is deploying in-your-face ideas with a refined precision. Four and twenty blackbirds don’t fly out of his double-crusted pie, but buttery pigeon meat and claws dance provocatively on top. Like many things here, it makes you laugh, debate, and revel in the unexpected pleasure of it all. Rye berry porridge emerges like a risotto from the yurt: all ancient chew, mulchy greens, and shreds of funky aged cheese. Wood-pigeon liver custard comes on like a naughty crème brûlée, tucked in a mini mason jar beneath elderflower gelée, pickled huckleberries, and long-stemmed wood sorrel.
EAT THIS NOW
- Fallow deer heart tartare with his marrow
- Wood-pigeon liver custard
- Rye porridge with stinging nettles
- Wood-pigeon and root vegetable pie
Roosevelt is just getting its legs, and so far, every precision shot is matched by a half-baked idea and a wild misfire. Concepts can cloud flavors, techniques teeter, subjects disappear, sauces muddle into one-dimensional pools. “Forager’s Pie” unearths only a preponderance of lentils. Duck breast carpaccio wads up like chewing gum. Acorn dumplings arrive as sad lumps, and unless you’re toting a musket, a crock of bland potatoes and duck fat is not the optimum bread spread. There’s a meal to blow your mind with the right combinations here, but overall Roosevelt needs better execution of ideas and, most of all, more deliciousness.
But there’s no shortage of passion. Roosevelt is Bechard’s stage. He’s a performer, giving his all in this courageous show. He scripted every inch of this room, the charming lost-in-the-woods vibe, the hard-to-find Oregon farmhouse beers, the staunchly local ciders and wines. He’s not pitching to the familiar or accommodating everyone. There’s no burger or happy hour. No one’s going to be blowing out birthday candles over those rabbit blood pancakes. The air here flows with unpredictability, as Bechard challenges the status quo of “local” and even what a night on the town can be. Will his game-to-table gamble be the next step in sourcing, a cult food destination, or a fast flameout? One thing is certain: a night at the Kingdom of Roosevelt won’t be easily forgotten.