You could get whiplash trying to keep up with Peter Cho’s ever-morphing food projects this past year or two: the Eugene-born chef, best known as April Bloomfield’s former right hand man at the Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York, first charmed locals with Stray Dogs, his fancy-trash hot dog pop-up restaurant with chef Johnny Leach. The nomadic twosome hosted dinners at high end spots from Expatriate to Ava Genes, then shifted their focus to Stray Birds, toting Korean fried chicken among other Asian-inspired dishes to their temporary kitchens. Next, the duo announced that Stray Birds would become a brick-and-mortar operation housed in a curiously charming dining room and courtyard tucked behind the Ocean micro-restaurant cluster off Northeast Sandy Boulevard. While the dinner format, dishes, and addresses kept changing, Cho (and Leach’s) quality cooking and bold flavors remained a constant.
Now, Cho tells Eat Beat, Stray Birds has been shelved for the foreseeable future. The Ocean-side space will instead become Han Oak: a reservations-only cook space, private event space, and culinary incubator home to Cho’s weekend-only Han Oak Korean BBQ dinners, as well as guest chef dinner series—from family-style vegetable bacchanals courtesy of chef Sam Smith (Ava Gene’s, Zahav) to themed feasts from PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2015 Nodoguru. Leach will focus on his own food projects for now, although Cho hopes to collaborate with him at Han Oak in the coming months.
“There’s a lot going on—we’re trying to do a lot of things in one space and I’m hoping it starts to make sense,” says Cho with a laugh. “I want to be a hub for something really cool every day of the week, whether it’s a residency or a one-off dinner. I’m dying to get April [Bloomfield] to come out for a dinner, as well as a bunch of other chef friends from New York and LA.”
Han Oak Korean BBQ has dibs on the space every Saturday and Sunday night starting February 13 for 7- to 9-dish prix fixe dinners focused on Korean classics re-tooled with Northwest ingredients, often smoked or grilled out in the courtyard. The inaugural menu includes pork belly baked in koji salt, blood cake with duck fat fried quail egg, and Korean fried chicken of the woods mushroom with spicy gochujang and tamarind glaze. Seats are $55 a pop.
Smith’s LaMama dinners hold down most Friday nights through the beginning of March while Nodoguru claims Wednesdays and Thursdays (Nodoguru’s already sold out through February, of course). The balance of days belong to private events rentals, with menus cooked by Cho himself.
Along with other open-format spots like prep kitchen turned culinary incubator KitchenCru and John Gorham’s “gastronomic society” Plaza Del Toro, Han Oak, named for Korea's traditional homes, could become a flexible, vital base for a subset of local chefs committed to experimentation as much as climbing the rungs of an established kitchen.
Up next? Brunch. Cho hopes to launch weekend brunch by March, focusing on “Japanese breakfast with a Korean accent”—for instance, a tray loaded with soup, rice, and a piece of roasted meat or fish, with an assortment of Korean banchan side dishes. Korean “hangover cure” eats like hot, spicy stews may also be in the mix.