Inn Style

For food-weary Portlanders, this downtown culinary refuge offers good company, warmth and sustenance.

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

During a frenzied work trip to Hungary a few years ago, I sought refuge for a night in Pécs, a cultured college town a few hours south of Budapest. I’d been eating what amounted to four, sometimes five multicourse meals a day for nearly 10 days (“story research” in food writer terms), and all I wanted for dinner was a glass of beer, maybe a simple piece of fish at most. {% display:image for:article image:1 align:left width:300 %}

Setting out from my modest hostel on a dirt road bordered by sweet-smelling grass, I came upon a shake-roofed cottage from which glowing light and belly laughter emanated. Inside, a waitress with sparkling eyes beckoned for me to sit at a long, rough-hewn table, where I chatted with all manner of rambunctious travelers. As it turned out, the only offering on the menu was whole trout, caught in a nearby stream and baked in a sauce of white wine and cream, a dish I devoured, pausing between bites only to take healthy gulps of beer.

My editor back in New York City called such places “inns at the end of the road,” out-of-the-way destinations that “await us with food and light and warmth,” as he once wrote. But such inns don’t exist exclusively at the end of country lanes. In fact, downtown Portland has its own urbanized version: Clyde Common. Recently opened in May at the base of the new Ace Hotel on SW Stark St, just south of Powell’s, Clyde Common’s dining room is framed by walls of windows, a half-dozen spare communal tables, a long bar and a dimly lit mezzanine with leather settees. Between the clanging of the kitchen and the buzzing conversations unfolding between diners—including many guests of the Ace Hotel—it’s an undeniably noisy joint. Nonetheless, it’s hard to resist the youthful energy of the place (not to mention the exceptionally beautiful staff).

Of course, I did have to nearly yell over my roasted chicken one night, attempting to tell my neighbors how delicious my meal had been. Apparently they heard me, because all three—young TV producers on vacation from Chicago—ordered the roasted chicken too. We all agreed it was the best we’d ever had, perfectly salted and tender inside, pleasantly crispy on the outside. It’s my guess that the accompanying braised leeks weren’t quite up to par because they’d been harvested too late, not due to a lack of cooking competence.

On the contrary, chef Jason Barwikowski and his team are quite talented, cranking out all manner of “domestic & foreign cooking,” as the modest menu suggests. There’s certainly something for everyone at Clyde Common—from a refreshing grilled corn salad served over slices of sweet, ripe peaches and puntarelle (a bitter green) to decadent chicken-fried chicken livers with a bright, crunchy cucumber salad. Even the odd-sounding fennel sausage with fried potatoes and squid (including its ink) was pleasing—I admired the kitchen’s ability to bring together earth and sea so seamlessly.

I’ve often found myself drawn to the restaurant’s small plates rather than the entrées, but there are still main dishes worth ordering. I can’t seem to get enough of the roasted chicken, and the chitarra (long, thin pasta) with clams and tomato in a light Lillet and garlic sauce is equally satisfying. The charred hanger steak comes smothered in piquant and spicy harissa, which is a pleasant change from the usual hotel restaurant staple: the wine reduction. While all the entrées I’ve ordered have been brought out in a timely manner, other people I know, dining on the same nights as I, have complained that the service was spotty at best.

Service at the bar is somewhat more informal but often more efficient, and it’s there that I’m most content, simply snacking and drinking, talking to whoever happens to sit next to me. Bartenders pour a flawless negroni, not to mention a mellow, mint-spiked gin-and-house-made-tonic—impressive foils for bar treats like fried, bleu-cheese-stuffed olives or toothsome, grilled piquillo peppers stuffed with grana padano cheese.

Still, it’s the fish board that lends a night here an appealing, hostelesque air, composed as it is of velvety cold-smoked salmon, tiny blinis, a generous spoonful of crème fraîche, salt-soaked capers and a smooth shot of Krogstad aquavit that’s slightly peppery with just a hint of caraway. Simple, executed with care and packed with dramatic flavors: For this food-worn, travel-weary Portlander, Clyde Common is a refuge.