Home at Last, Holdfast Blends Comfort and Avant Cuisine

The brick-and-mortar restaurant from former pop-up king Will Preisch plays the perfect stage for his modernist experiments.

By Karen Brooks April 27, 2015 Published in the May 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Holdfast’s chocolate cake riffs on the mysterious components of Chartreuse liqueur, with seven herbs.

"Hi, I’m Joel; that’s Will. This is dinner no. 208. We are home at last,” says the young chef standing behind a vast wooden counter, to his 16 eager diners. “The bathrooms are down the hall. Jiggle the key, I swear it works.” 

That brief, strange introduction is shorthand for the story of two guys doing fine dining on their own terms, four nights a week, tasting menus only. The mode is somewhere between high-tech Europe and low-key Portland. Plates are pretty but not precious, flavored with oddball sea plants scavenged on Oregon’s coast, and delivered by chefs who double as your waiters, bartenders, food coaches, and recipe-
sharing buddies.

Two years ago, Will Preisch’s pop-up, Holdfast, bolted out of nowhere at the utilitarian food incubator KitchenCru. Almost overnight, his naturalist Nordic-Oregon menus vaulted into the top tier of Portland dining; diners scrambled for seats, and this magazine named Preisch 2013’s Rising Star Chef. Eighteen months and 200-plus dinners later, Preisch and copilot Joel Stocks have taken an important step forward: they’ve secured a charmingly romantic space to match their personal approach and ambitious cooking.   

LEFT: Holdfast founder Will Preisch carefully plates his dish of cod, broccoli, and pepper with black olive. RIGHT: A tasting-menu bite of prawns with green garlic and spring onion.

Holdfast now occupies the front room of Fausse Piste, an urban winery on SE Ash Street, where one dines among the barrels as electropop wafts from vintage speakers. With its people-doing-things aesthetic, the space is an extraction of the modern Portland man. The air smells of winemaking. Chefs sport custom-made aprons with leather belts, and plates are exactingly composed in an open kitchen backlit like a film noir flick. 

At its rousing best, Holdfast repurposes food memories and classic dishes into mysteriously elegant bundles on its ever-changing menus. Tuna and rye crisps find new life in paper-thin sheets of pickled celery root, propped up like secret food tents that hide smoky sturgeon and rye crumbles inside. Serious sweetbreads arrived one night like Michelin-star-quality McNuggets, part salty crackle and part creamy spectacle supported by the umami highs of black garlic paste, fried shallots, and nippy herbs. And kudos to the kitchen for saving panna cotta from the clutches of boredom, courtesy of puffed rice crunching throughout amid zings of strawberry leather—however weird that all sounds. 

Perhaps most important, Holdfast 2.0 remembered to pack Preisch’s original wonder bread—a super-moist,  molasses-sweet, oven-steamed rye/pumpernickel. It comes with every meal and may be worth the price of admission.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Silky cod is sandwiched between a cod-skin chip and a nest of brown-butter cauliflower and caper purée; co-chef Joel Stocks tweezes herbs onto a chocolate-Chartreuse dessert; Holdfast’s new space puts the kitchen center-stage.

Still, Holdfast’s biggest challenge is avoiding the very thing it set out to destroy: predictability. The dynamic pace of Preisch’s early pop-up, which careened from modern, one-bite snacks to primitive, char-edged entrées, has settled into a more familiar routine. Nearly every dish now features the same approach—one or two key ingredients deployed in various guises, in pretty configurations. If they’re not careful, Holdfast’s creation could morph from an HBO upstart to a CBS procedural drama.   

New elements include a variety of little touches that can make a night here feel truly special: a reviving, end-of-meal hot towel; a personalized coffee tray bearing homemade candies and a passionate shout-out to local Heart Coffee Roaster. Thursday nights now include the tightly orchestrated “bargain” meal of six courses with beverages for $65. (Weekends expand to nine courses, $90.) Meanwhile, the beverage mix is livelier. A recent night’s haul included biodynamic wines, a cider heavy with farmhouse funk, and a complex craft beer. 

House-made juice pairings are also now available, giving Portland its first foothold in a growing national movement. Sips arrive, thoughtfully, in the same wine glasses everyone else is swirling. But to make a real splash, the chefs need to toss a few more adventurous ingredients into the Vitamix. The bright, earthy cry of Granny Smith apples juiced with young pine tips shows where it might go. 

A holdover from the original Holdfast: there’s no budget for extra silverware, so the fork you just raked through a beefy bone-marrow pudding will skip directly into a chocolate cake clad in a wild riot of pickled fennel stems, Chartreuse gel, and garden herbs. Holdfast lives by its own rules, and for the most part, it’s fun, dramatic, and real. It’s the new date night in Portland, and it’s now a bona fide food destination—as could only be imagined by two avant bros.  

537 SE Ash St, #102


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