Just Opened

Braving the Elements

After a few stormy years, chef Naomi Pomeroy opens a tiny Northeast Portland restaurant on her own terms.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE a restaurant comes along that seems as though it were conceived not by a committee of multiple owners, a chef, various financiers, an architect, a designer, an interior decorator, and a public relations executive, as many restaurants are, but by one person alone. A person whose wishes are refreshingly straightforward: to have a restaurant to call his or her own, one whose menu and design are simple by nature, but whose simplicity is alluring and surprising enough that it keeps the chef inspired and the patrons loyal.
Beast, a 20-by-40-foot restaurant opened last September by chef Naomi Pomeroy, is just such a place—even if it is technically owned by the chef of neighboring Yakuza restaurant.

In the five turbulent years that preceded Beast’s debut, Pomeroy and her former husband, Michael Hebb, had opened Family Supper, Clark-lewis, and Gotham Tavern, and then watched their nationally lauded empire implode thanks to a little something called financial mismanagement. Throughout the turbulence, Pomeroy appeared poised and composed, characteristics that serve her well in Beast’s open kitchen, which she heads up with the help of sous-chef Mika Paredes. Sit down at one of two communal tables that frame the kitchen, and you’ll feel as though you’ve just arrived in Pomeroy’s home. The restaurant’s appeal is only heightened by the fact that the shimmery curtains hanging in the window were sewn by her mother, and that one of the restaurant’s walls is a chalkboard covered with handwritten quotations.

As she did with Family Supper, Pomeroy serves only five- and six-course prix-fixe dinners ($45/$52), in addition to a four-course Sunday brunch ($28)—a decision that contributes to the kitchen’s unusual calm, since they know exactly what they’ll be sending out to each customer ahead of time. While some dishes are more spectacular than others, the food here tastes utterly down-to-earth and honest. It’s meticulously prepared, and familiar without being everyday. Like the potato-leek soup. Brought to the table in a demitasse and topped with a strip of maple-glazed bacon and a swirl of grass-green chervil salsa, the soup’s presentation is characteristic of Pomeroy’s knack for subtle touches—touches I appreciated. Still, one of my dining companions thought they were too precious: It’s still “just soup,” he said. Nevertheless, I loved dipping the bacon into the “just soup” and biting into something that was at once crispy, creamy, salty, and sweet.

But then the charcuterie arrived, and I was seduced by a quintuplet of cured delights. From a rough house-made pork pâté to succulent pork rillettes, and a steak tartare served with a raw quail egg on top of a dainty square of toast, every bite was pleasurable.

In fact, the tartare was so good each night I visited that I wished it had been my entrée, if in part because on more than one occasion the entrées that followed were rather unbalanced. On one night a succulent confit of shredded rabbit was served with tender spätzle, shaved brussels sprouts, sweet and buttery carrots glacés, and a silken sauce of whole-grain mustard and crème fraîche. While the wintry combination delighted me in theory, there was a little too much salt to enjoy the dish after a few spoonfuls. During another dinner, a thin, fluffy chickpea crêpe enveloping steamed spinach and topped with braised pork cheeks, baby artichokes, and a salsa of capers, peppers, mint, and anchovy intrigued me at first, but the salsa’s saltiness overpowered the subtle flavors.

Nonetheless, at their foundation, these dishes were smartly conceived, and at each meal they were followed by a refreshing salad, a curated cheese plate, and a light dessert. Granted, these meals aren’t cheap. For the price, one should be able to rely on perfection, but my complaints were so minor, and the rewards of dining in such a tranquil space and being served by graceful professionals so much greater, that I would go again—for a special occasion.

And once I’d tried Beast’s faultless four-course Sunday brunch—which included a decadent brioche French toast topped with maple-bourbon hard sauce and a slice of candied bacon, followed by a juicy hanger steak with crispy potatoes cooked in glorious duck fat—I’d made up my mind. I’d come to think of Pomeroy as that rare chef who, despite her well-publicized failures and successes, has not yet lost track of the elemental nature of her art. And, considering the way in which ego and celebrity have a tendency to creep into the culinary world and overshadow the food on our plates, that’s no small feat.