Courtney Sproule, Party Girl

At Din Din, the food is French, the music rocks, and fun is the most important ingredient in the house.

Photography by Stuart Mullenberg By Karen Brooks September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Din Din chef, owner, and chief party master Courtney Sproule

After years of creating extreme dinners in unlikely settings, 32-year-old Courtney Sproule has found a home for her elaborate Francophile parties. And with a chandelier-lit kitchen, wall-projected movies, and changing menus choreographed to tempt and amuse, the longtime acolyte of Portland’s French food godfather, the late Robert Reynolds, has reimagined what a restaurant can be. This is Din Din, a sweetly designed, picture-perfect Northeast Portland reincarnation of Sproule’s roving supper club of the same name—and a whimsical homage to her dad’s nightly chortle, “What’s for din din?” It’s as original as anything in Portland, and as close as can be to eating in a friend’s home.  

From 2007 to 2012, Sproule charmed local eaters with intricate pop-up meals on rooftops, in urban nurseries, and in church basements—without the luxury of dishwashers or, in some cases, running water. Elaborate menus only hinted at the surprises to come: skateboarding waiters, Easter brunches with hand-painted eggs, or sexy Valentine’s extravaganzas complete with pearls, foie gras, and beurre rouge. Critical praise followed, and so did a cult following. Portland is unique among cities in the way it nourishes projects like Din Din, highly personal worlds taking root from nowhere; rare flowers growing out of sidewalk cracks into local treasures.

In its brick-and-mortar home, Din Din embraces the high dive over the safety net: no easy sells or greatest food hits. In Sproule’s world, fun and high-quality ingredients rule. Daytime options are spare, but rest assured, even the garnishes get splashes of aged balsamic, fine chartreuse, or Provençal brandy. At brunch, don’t even think pancakes or, heaven forbid, chicken ’n’ waffles. Here, Sundays are for crisp-seared branzino fish and a glass of Bordeaux, delivered by a female waiter sporting shorts, a bow tie, and a nose ring while video from a Patti Smith concert, circa 1974, beams off the wall. Weekdays, who else serves a lunch of fresh-poached chicken salad, pastis-scented aioli, and soft-boiled eggs to strains of ’70s rock? If Julia Child had joined the riot grrrl movement, America’s food revolution might have looked like this.

Clockwise from top: Sproule plates a course with sidekicks Riley Henderson (left) and Willoughby Cooke; bowls of anise hyssop and halibut sashimi await tomato water; liqueurs and coffee cups, the stuff of Din Din life

On weekends, Din Din reprises the supper club’s dinner-party spirit with high deliciousness and unconventional merriment at sleek communal tables. Menu themes change monthly, and so does the space. Thursday night’s “cocktail hour” draws fashionable dudes and gals for à la carte sneak peeks at the coming weekend’s prix fixe menu. 

Handsome chopping counters, gleaming tile, and pots from the old-school Paris supply store E Dehillerin warm the wide-open corner kitchen. It’s Din Din’s nerve center, and diners are invited right into the action. Cooks in plaid shirts and camouflage pants assemble careful compositions before snooping eyes, their muscular arms tangled in a culinary ballet. Sproule directs the action in a vintage cocktail dress, short heels, and dangling earrings—her signature chef’s garb, day or night. I’d return just to watch her fire up a rich, duck-egg omelet as the French gods meant it to be: made to order, full of buttery folds, dabbed with rabbit or whatever is around and interesting, and always—always—sided by crusty chunks of great bread. Because for all her art-project quirkiness, Sproule is serious about cooking the classics, and adding just enough originality for the element of surprise. This is food lover’s food, every detail considered, and what you might expect from a girl who served as president of the “Women with Purpose” club in high school. 

Even with traveling Bunsen burners parked in unthinkable terrain, Sproule’s early gypsy kitchens could steal hearts. But the rewards of a regular space are now evident, especially at Din Din’s ambitious weekend feasts. Consistency now grows alongside an imaginative palate deployed with curious herbs, licorice-y liqueurs, unexpected juxtapositions, and a distinctly feminine hand, each dish composed with an eye for discovery and beauty.

Pain d'espices (spice bread) topped with soft cheese, ham, and rosemary

A recent “Din Din Mini” extravaganza juggled 100 ingredients—and nearly as many food puns—in 18 teeny dishes on teeny plates matched by a joyful miniature cocktail and a parade of spot-on wines, all for $85. 

The evening easily moved from speck-wrapped apricots riding oven-fresh crackers
to addictive pain d’epices (a kind of gingerbread melba toast) holding schmears of sheep’s milk cheese with rosemary and ham. Somewhere along the way, an unforgettable lamb tartare showed up snuggling alongside fans of dried fennel and red currants still clinging to the vine. I’d do black arts for another taste of “tomato water,” served with a streak of anise hyssop paste, floating onion blossoms, and halibut sashimi. Not every idea fizzed, and dessert outright fizzled. But, on balance, this ranked among the year’s best meals, as Sproule blossoms into one of Portland’s brightest talents.

A careful listen revealed that even the evening’s music connected to the night’s theme: Little Richard, “Little Deuce Coupe,” Miniature Tigers. The menu awaited us in tiny type, its petite indulgences revealed only through magnifying glasses, as Sproule reminded us to appreciate the small in a world increasingly too big.

Magnifying glasses reveal the little details at the "Din Din Mini" feast

The staff-made pointillist art on the back wall spelled out not just the night’s theme, but Din Din’s essence: “It’s the Little Things.” 

Tiny gestures pile up. Cappuccino comes with a French sugar cube and a curl of Sproule’s candied orange peel, sold “by the handful” for $1 at the all-day coffee bar. For lunch, ham and cheese arrives like a Parisian daydream, stuffed in a crackling baguette, thick with soft, ripe Camembert, and bundled in paper with a blue string. Servers are eager to engage about everything and anything—the daily specials written on windows, the happy flower arrangements, the house crush on Champagnes and rosés. 

In Sproule’s vision, every plate, every tabletop, every moment should be considered with one question: will it make guests feel special? The answer arrives with the check, each dish a handwritten memory. Scrawled at the bottom in glittering gold ink is a simple “Thanks!” It resonates.

For more photos of Din Din's sweet space, check out our slide show below.

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