Cool Comfort

Country Cat’s chef, Adam Sappington, shares his famous Summer Succotash recipe.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the July 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

IT WAS the beef jerky that won me over in the end—actually, from the beginning. Glistening, homemade strands of it filled a tall, clear jar opposite the corner of the bar where I sat at the Country Cat, a casual dinnerhouse that opened in April on a somewhat rugged corner in the Montavilla neighborhood. Next to the jar stood an old-fashioned silver scale and sheaths of thin, white butcher paper. On a black wall next to the bar, someone had scrawled in white chalk: BEEF JERKY $10 PER POUND.{% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:250 %}

Throughout dinner I’d hungrily eyed the jerky, even though my dining partners and I were devouring several of the best dishes I’d had the pleasure to eat in Portland in quite some time. It wasn’t that the molasses- and hickory-smoked duck leg or the Carlton Farms “whole hog” served three ways represented anything particularly new in our city’s culinary larder. It was that, finally, someone had prepared them exactly right. The duck leg, glazed with savory rosemary honey and served with sweet, buttered baby onions, was perfectly crisp on the outside; inside, the meat was tender, sweet and smoky. And the “whole hog?” An elementally sublime ode to pork: succulent, rolled pork belly stuffed with herbs accompanied a mellow, brined chop and a breaded and fried croquette of pulled pork shoulder. White-corn grits and vanilla-scented, poached plums added just the right amount of flourish.

Still, I wanted some of that jerky.

Even through dessert—an individual-sized, latticed rhubarb pie whose crust was slightly disappointing—that jar at the end of the bar beckoned to me. When I shared my hankering with the bartender, he set about weighing a generous pound of meat. To distract myself from the mouthwatering sight, I surveyed the dining room.

Finally, someone prepared them right.

Nine or so wooden booths surrounded me, and beyond that half a dozen tables were full of parties of five and six, including a few families with contented children. Friendly waitresses who had served me on other nights chatted casually with customers. At the back of the bar, a glass door gave onto a walk-in cooler holding a trio of whole, cured pork legs.

“That’s prosciutto. And over there, that’s a whole hog,” said the bartender, urging me to strain my neck so I could glimpse a hulking pig that hung from the walk-in’s ceiling.

“Adam really knows what he’s doing,” he averred, handing me a paper bag full of jerky, then gesturing toward the open kitchen where the chef and owner, Adam Sappington, in overalls, busied himself at the stove.

Indeed, Sappington spent 11 years as a chef at Wildwood before opening his own restaurant, and his background brilliantly informs the cooking here. While the menu adheres closely to a certain down-home, Midwestern repertoire (he’s from Missouri), an appreciation for the Northwest’s superb ingredients guides the execution. During my other visits, bacon-wrapped trout came precisely seasoned, served with pan-braised baby turnips, peas and sweet carrots. The fried chicken, prepared in a cast-iron skillet and topped with a creamy vinaigrette spiked with Tabasco, was perfectly crisp. And after biting into a skewer of grilled wild mushrooms that sat atop a pleasant lima bean, artichoke and pearl onion salad, I wondered how fare this simple could have gone so wrong elsewhere in town.

Of course, a few things could use improvement. The onion rings were a tad soggy; the goat cheese and spring onion hand pie was encased in overworked dough, not unlike that of the rhubarb pie; and a mint julep lacked potency because it had been mixed in a blender with ice. These are small quibbles, however, and they hardly detract from a restaurant that in just a few months has shown us that the gritty, homespun Portland culinary aesthetic—one that’s increasingly moving toward diverse interpretations of comfort food—can be pulled off without sacrificing flavor.

As for the beef jerky, I managed to keep it in the bag until I got in the car. But within 10 blocks I’d devoured nearly half of it. It was moist, slightly spicy and tender—so much so that I drove straight to my brother’s house (he and his wife are also avid jerky fans) and shared the good news.