We sat at B&T Oyster Bar, hunched over a flaccid hand roll leaking vermicelli, mystified. In a back room just steps away, B&T’s upscale big sister restaurant, Roe, one of Portland’s defining seafood spots, served an intimate, seven-course dinner with caviar service. Three years ago, when B&T was called Wafu, that same crab roll was a covetable blend of roasted Oregon red rock crab, top shelf Tamanishiki rice and yuzu-infused flying fish roe. Now, several reinventions later, only the name remains. And it isn’t an isolated problem. Over three recent visits, B&T revealed itself to be a failed concept: a neglected child that covers its lack of inspiration and service in heavy doses of mayonnaise and fish sauce.
Portland is in the midst of something of an oyster frenzy, with local oyster plates becoming seemingly more common on menus than Oregon pinot noir, and dedicated oyster bars representing each quadrant of the city. And at B&T, you can happily drop by for a full list of fresh Northwest oysters and a glass of wine. But the rest of the menu is a head-scratcher from concept to execution, a blend of Asian fusion, chowder-house glut, and ill-advised seafood experiments.
How did this happen? Pierce vaulted out of nowhere in 2010 with Fin, a Le Bernardin-influenced, high-concept seafood restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne. It was short lived, but it showed potential. Since 2012, Pierce has sharpened his vision at Roe, a place for innovative, multi-course aquatic odysseys. While Roe steams along as one of the top 10 dining experiences in Portland (and Pierce was just nominated as a James Beard Award 2016 semi-finalist), Block & Tackle, the front room, has never caught on.
B&T started as Wafu in 2011, jumping on the ramen bandwagon with smoked schmaltz noodles and fried chicken. Ramen was dropped for the Block and Tackle concept; out went the samurai flicks, in came the buoy lights and an incoherent chowder house approach. Almost one year ago, it became B&T Oyster Bar, a melting pot of Pierce’s previous incarnations, plus oysters. Most of it isn’t working. (Although Pierce, who changed the concept from a chowder house to its current gallimaufry for aesthetic reasons, says business has been better than ever.)
The dark, narrow space feels more like a dowdy dive bar than a casual seafood spot. Rope art and chalkboard installations hang festooned from its last incarnation, basking in the light of a neon blue “seafood” sign. Everything feels disconnected: early-aughts rock rages from the kitchen, where line cooks check their cellphones between orders and servers drift around the dark room.
Leftovers remain on the menu as well, dating back to the early Fin days. Fish in a Hot Stone Bowl ($20), a dish that six years ago shined with snapper, pork cheeks, and wild mushrooms, now headlines with what our server flatly described as “common tuna.” The whole thing is doused in heavy, acidic, chile-spiked mayonnaise.
Some dishes defy cooking common-sense. A recent salad matched Southeast Asian flavors—mint, poached calamari, and incendiary chile dressing—with woody, flavorless beets and Marcona almonds: a Northwest marriage made in hell. Low tide comes with the Dan Dan noodles, a loosely interpreted take on the Sichuan classic. It involves a “seafood ragu”—a pale mix of ground-up leftover fish, studded with searing Sichuan peppercorns and gritty, heavy pistachio butter. Multiple tastings and various palates all conjured the same item: cat food.
It’s a competitive time for restaurants in Portland. Making it right now means bolting things down: honing visions and jettisoning ones that don’t work. While Pierce claims to give equal attention to both restaurants, it’s hard to believe a chef of his caliber could turn out food on such a different level. On a street like Division, with no shortage of great restaurants, B&T’s strange brew of concepts, flavors, and execution needs a serious overhaul if the restaurant hopes to make it in the long run.
B&T Oyster Bar
3113 SE Division St