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Headwaters's Ligurian-style stuffed mussels with mortadella and crushed tomatoes.

Image: Kelly Clarke

“I imagine visitors' first impression will be people slurping oysters over there at the raw bar,” says Vitaly Paley, standing in the wide foyer of Headwaters, the chef’s herculean revamp of the Heathman Hotel’s historic restaurant and bar space. “Some of our dishes are throwbacks. But also modern,” he says with a laugh. “Headwaters has to be modern. We need to usher in a new generation to adore this place and make it their own.”

Indeed, after a six-month renovation of the nearly century-old dining room and bar, and the formation of a huge, ambitious, seafood-obsessed menu overseen by a cadre of kitchen veterans led by Paley (Paley’s Place, Imperial) and executive chef Ken Norris, Headwaters is thoroughly modern. When the restaurant's doors open this Friday, October 14, expect a fresh take on hotel dining, complete with whole roasted fish and octopus carpaccio, updated French classics served tableside, cheeky modernist desserts, and an expanded, refreshed bar. It’s a grandly laid-back (aka Portland-style) fine dining spot that aims to delight both intrepid seafood adventurers and more conventional eaters morning, noon, and night. And actually has a shot at that goal.  

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The Headwaters dining room's wave-crashing wall art.

Image: Kelly Clarke

But at the moment, three days before it officially opens, Headwaters is less a restaurant and more a madhouse. The long, sleek dining room, updated with moss green banquettes, stripped-down concrete pillars, and undulating wood panels that mimic ocean waves, is packed with workers in hardhats and carts piled high with cords and equipment. Painters crowd the front entrance, inches away from the new Headwaters awning, while Paley's longtime business partners Kimberly Paley and Garrett Peck buzz from one contractor to another, checking off details, exhausted smiles etching their faces. An hour ago an inspector punched a hole through the brand-new white tile lining the back wall of that raw bar Paley loves so much in search of a valve. “I don’t even have light bulbs over there yet,” says executive chef Norris, motioning to another area of the kitchen. “But we’ll make it work. Cooking is the easy part.”

At least, it’s the part this team is most confident about: The dinner menu, so far, teems with oceanic treasures prepared with the Paley clan's signature mix of French technique and fresh Northwest ingredients. Of the bites we snuck off the line while the staff tested menus, there was King salmon, seared until the skin crackles in the kitchen’s big hearth oven, and paired with tender rings of squid “carbonara,” as well as craggy baked oysters smothered in zesty tomato butter—pizza oysters, basically—on a bed of rock salt and aromatic charred wine barrel shavings. An update of a 1970s-era dish “Clams Casino Royale” is pure comfort—sweet chopped clams and hunks of bacon buried under crunchy bread crumbs spiked with piment d'Espelette.

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Vitaly Paley and Ken Norris test out their updated riff of French bonne femme sole with sea urchin sauce.

Image: Kelly Clarke

Norris is fond of a delicate yet hearty cassoulet packed with prawns and house seafood sausage, while Paley excitedly explains the house’s new takes on a handful of dishes dubbed "Seafood According to the French," including the “usually boring” French classic bonne femme sole. In his collaboration with Norris, the petrale sole is surrounded by a sweet, creamy pool of sea urchin beurre fondue; the fish’s crisp spine sticking straight up out of its tender flesh like the mast of a pirate ghost ship.

The seaside odyssey is smart direction given Norris’s background—he was the chef of the well-regarded but short-lived “catch-inspired” sustainable seafood spot Riffle NW, a project that aimed to become Portland's standby seafood eatery. Now the chef and avid fisherman has come full circle, proudly talking about Headwaters's fish scaling station and bonding with local seafood suppliers with the same care other men would reserve for their children.

As appropriate for a hotel restaurant, there’s a full cohort of meatier and veggie-centric options, from a half chicken, burger, and New York strip steak to meltingly tender braised leeks, a hazelnut-happy shaved brussels sprouts salad, and intense, vertical spit-roasted cauliflower paired with vadouvan curry and a Georgian broccoli pesto. But more than half of the massive menu belongs to the sea.

Nowhere is that more apparent than Headwaters’s extensive raw bar, stocked with local oysters and a planned lineup of wild seafood crudos, ceviches, and tartares (Polynesian-style kingfish to diver scallop with shaved foie gras and sea urchin-tomato water shots) as well as caviar buterbrodi and a bounty of house-smoked fish and mustard kippered salmon—a dual obsession for Paley and Norris.

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Headwaters pastry chef Jeff McCarthy's pumpkin semifreddo with spiced meringue.

Image: Kelly Clarke

The only thing that pulls focus from seafood is the house’s roundup of very smart, deceptively accessible desserts from pastry chef Jeff McCarthy (Ten01, Tabla). “We’re riding the wave of the pumpkin spice latte,” he jokes as he sets down a criminally rich plate of bittersweet espresso cake topped with pumpkin semifreddo and spiced meringue. There’s springy gingerbread baba paired with rum-glazed pear and a chocolate-glazed tower of Devil’s Food cake and vivid passionfruit adorned with hazelnut Butterfinger-y bits that McCarthy nicknamed “Sexual Chocolate” as a joke. (It now threatens to be printed on the public menu.)

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Headwaters's vertical spit-roasted cauliflower with vadouvan curry.

Image: Kelly Clarke

Next week, Headwaters will begin lunch service too. So far, it’s an abbreviated list of those dinner eats, including Norris's hearty Dockside chowder and a great albacore and green bean salad, as well as a quartet of “Flatbreads According to the French,” topped with everything from clams and bacon to rotisserie chicken, fries, and cucumber yogurt.

The restaurant’s weekend brunch service debuts Saturday, October 22. The lineup is a work in progress, but beyond the classic Benedicts and waffles, the crew is working on an apple skillet cake, a riff on crab fried rice made with fideos noodles, and a welcome hint of Vitaly Paley’s Russian roots—oozy, egg-topped Georgian khachapuri cheese bread. 

And don't forget, there's also a bar, though it's no longer the sunken gaggle of chairs and booths that once crowded the space. Instead, the floor has been raised to meet the dining room while the bartop itself has pivoted to fill the long west wall, flanked by tall, leather chairs that Paley says echo the design of seating found in the Heathman bar in decades past. The drinks menu promises a pair of cocktails on tap, as well as a “Heathman Sour” incorporating pisco, fino sherry, and blood orange, and a Russian "bread wine" K’vass Punch that’s the house’s “nod to the Aloha Room.” Above the bar, a big, oddly shaped shelf of brick juts out of the ceiling. “We hit that when we were doing demo to expand the bar. We thought it was an air duct or something. Turns out, it’s the bottom of the hotel’s grand staircase,” says Paley. “So, we built around it.”

As Eat Beat previously reported, the Heathman Hotel’s historic Tea Court Lounge will serve chilly weather wares with a distinctly Russian accent starting in late November when Paley unveils his Russian Tea service, replete with towers of traditional pierogi, Kiev tortes, and fragrant tea served in heirloom samovars

Until then, the kitchen has plenty to keep it busy. “This is what I’m here for,” says Paley, visibly delighted by his new, mostly modern, kingdom. “In the mornings. I run. I don’t walk here. I run.”

Headwaters
1001 SW Broadway
503-790-7752
www.headwaterspdx.com
Opening for dinner starting Friday, Oct 14

Lunch and brunch hours starting the week of Monday, Oct 17
Lunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Friday; 
Dinner 5–10 p.m. Sunday–Thursday and 5–11 p.m. Friday–Saturday;
Brunch 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Saturday–Sunday

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