How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Måurice

Kristen Murray's pastry magic and quirky charm earn her little restaurant a spot on our daily list of cravings.

By Karen Brooks September 2, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Dina Avila

“Fika.” The Swedish word looms over the wall menu at Måurice, and you’re forgiven if you have no idea what that means. (Is it a grain, a greeting? No one bothers to tell you.) As it turns out, fika (fee-ka) is a Scandinavian “coffee break”—a moment to meet friends over sweets, smell the roses (or the cinnamon rolls), and sip black coffee, roasted light as tea. The custom borders on national obsession in Sweden, where the average citizen soaks in four coffees daily. High-octane consumption is not the goal. Fika is a meaning-of-life issue.

In ways both strange and delightful, Kristen Murray—a trained pastry chef who curates every molecule of flavor—is Portland’s first ambassador of fika. A few years ago, Murray’s desserts wowed at Paley’s Place. Before that, she was the lone life raft of excitement on Portland’s Titanic—the doomed restaurant Lucier, which lured her away from Boston’s high-end restaurant scene in 2008. Måurice, opened last December and named after her pet bunny, is Murray’s French-Scandinavian “pastry luncheonette.” Come on in and slide down the rabbit hole. You’ll meet both Murray’s meticulous sweet-craft and her nana’s lefse, furiously rolled into four-bite potato flatbread wraps. There are odd nibbles on spelt bread, salads that embrace the bitter world, a vermouth happy hour, and evening “dessert cuisine.” The experience veers from twee to revelatory, varying by the time of day, the plate, your mood—it all depends on how comfortable you are inhabiting another person’s world. Only one thing is certain. Much like fika, Måurice is not one thing, but a series of moments that make Portland a more interesting place. Here are mine:

Clockwise from left: Fried sardine with gooseberries, lemon, and rosemary; Texas chocolate capuchin cake; raspberry sugar brioche rolls; Norwegian meatball lefse

Image: Dina Avila

First impressions: Not sure if I’ve wandered into an art exhibit or an igloo. The air feels a bit stiff, frozen. The entire landscape is white: the walls, the Shaker chairs, the long marble eating counter. Everyone looks confused about where to order and what to eat. The chicken potpie is as real as it gets, bones and all—but the rosemary-speckled currant scones, each the size of banana bread loaf, just upped the game in Portland’s baking scene, a  notion etched in sharp fruit jam.

A spring Saturday afternoon: What the menu calls polenta clafouti, I’d call one of the best brunch dishes ever—from a menu that has no other brunch dishes. It’s a marvel of fluff and chew, like a cosmic grits soufflé beneath a poached duck egg. Another find: Murray often wrinkles her nose at chocolate, but when she goes to the dark side, look out—black sesame seed cake, banana mousse, and chocolate mousse boxed in glossy chocolate walls is a stunning piece of culinary calculus. It belongs in the window at Barneys. 

Gal pal lunch date: Coffee is rarely listed on the menu. But ask and you will receive a supremely delicate brew of custom Courier roast. Otherwise, Måurice is in a state of perpetual Downton Abbey–worthy high tea. This point hits home when my friend’s child throws a Bieber-level tantrum, then pulls on Måurice’s felt-stitched curtains. I fear Carson the butler will come out and chide us. A more accessible menu would help soothe the hungry beast within. Indeed, Måurice’s salads—perhaps cumin-forward carrot curls with specks of black quinoa, or chicory leaves cloaked in anchovy dressing and amazing, mustardy, fennel-pollen croutons—are minimalist beauties that feed the mind, not the gut. There’s little comfort in an open sandwich of beet circles, a hoarder’s ration of horseradish, and a lone green strawberry. What saves the day? A dessert composed of a grand wallop of date tapioca under a rough chop of chocolate—it’s a weirdly wonderful textural surprise. Who even thinks of these combinations?   

A Saturday night in June: Ready to dive into Måurice’s nighttime all-dessert menu, but the doors closed at 7 p.m. Who eats dessert before 7 p.m.? Mind you, the shop doesn’t open until 10 a.m. Please open earlier and/or close later. Pick a horse, or a rabbit.  

Hunkered down out front: A bold expression of anise seeds pops beneath a glaze of white icing in my black plum pastry—the new bear claw. Murray comes outside to feed an injured bird. At Måurice, life and work are one. 

Another night in june: Dropped by Måurice’s “fer vermut” happy hour (4 p.m.–close), where curated vermouths spill over ice in swanky glasses ornamented with mile-long spears of olives and glorious oranges. I feel like Don Draper in a dress. Snacks are limited—hyper-salty anchovies on spelt bread, creamed chicken burrowed in a baguette. Two desserts act as a window into Murray’s “sweet-geist”: a white-chocolate objet d’art stacked with banana custard, chocolate cake, and toasted cocoa nibs, and the lemon soufflé cake, which tastes like a French family heirloom. It’s all shrieking tart intensity, rich and Old World, presented in a regal silver bowl.  

Wolfing down an apricot bostock in my car: Now making daily stops at Måurice to see what’s on the counter. I’ve stopped trying to explain it or figure it out. Today’s haul tastes like an otherworldly French toast, a thick slice of brioche coated with walnut paste and juicy poached fruit. For all its quirks, Måurice is gutsy—580 square feet of technical skill, refined palate, and tunnel-vision fervor. When I last saw Murray she was in Måurice’s open kitchen, as always. She waved, then quickly returned to stirring her Le Creuset pots and cutting leaves of pastry, fretting over the fika of tomorrow.  

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