Talk about a long, strange trip: In 2007, talented firebrand Micah Edelstein was cast as a villain on season 3 of Top Chef. Then, a chef gig in Miami soured after bosses deemed her food “too complex for the masses.” Next, she opened her own lauded Miami spot only to be hit by a massive financial setback. The experience, she says, “gutted” her. So last spring, the 41-year-old single mom trucked across the country in search of a foodie paradise “open to ideas.” She found Portland, and in August her (mostly) one-woman bistro Feisty Lamb rose on West Burnside. Even by Portland’s “anything goes” ethos, it’s a strange but fascinating study in the contrasts of talent and business reality. Edelstein makes no bones: come into her house of cooking, or don’t come at all. She makes her stand with eclectic world food, South African accents, and colossal ambition at brunch and dinner, personally mounting each dish like an art project. Let her cook for you, on her timetable (read: slower than a water torture drip), and she’ll charm you. Ask to alter a dish, and it’s a dagger to her heart. This is blood-on-plate cooking, and it’s both maddening and inspiring. Somewhere between the first and last courses, I experienced the five stages of grief. Behold:
Admit it, you’re not in Portland anymore, at least in this decade. Edelstein injects elbow grease and personal mementos into every shabby-chic nook of the Lamb—with Miami Vice colors and an Umbrellas of Cherbourg ceiling. It’s a “Courtney Love on acid” vibe—for better and worse. (The bathroom is a red lace stenciled massacre.) Yes, you’re eating a $35 plate of osso buco, paired with lovingly crafted polenta, while perched on a steamer trunk. And yet, it’s so old Portland: pre-Edison-bulb Portland, super oddball and personal, a place that could never be turned into a mini-chain. I like that.
What’s more enticing than the boom-snap of popcorn exploding in the kitchen? Edelstein goes the distance: local-farm kernels, German butter, fresh-ground Indian spices (16 of them, no less), and a spritz of smoked olive oil. Wow. That was 5:30 p.m. By the time the meal concludes at 8:45, I could have taught my cat to paint. Edelstein, flying solo as cook and waitress at dinner, has admirable passion but no battle plan. There are heroic efforts (her pasta, literally rolled to order, is a silky masterpiece), lukewarm stragglers, and missed opportunities—e.g., the good sense to feed people before they gnaw on their arms.
Farm-raised lamb is the favored meat in the house—a nice break in Porkland. The lamb burger benefits from a crown of thin, crispy, rosemaried potatoes, and what goes for “ketchup” in Edelstein’s world is a 17-ingredient tomato and pinot noir potion slow-cooked like jam. You want anything with lamb bacon: charred bits of delicious, cured in a wealth of botanicals and rose petals, then smoked over patio-grown herbs.
Edelstein makes spice blends like a voodoo priestess. Rare salts—black olive to rose petal—spur creativity. There are up to six gelatos—rooibos tea to Israeli ale. This should be one of the city’s most exciting new restaurants. Sadly, that promise is hobbled by long waits and inconsistent dishes that don’t always live up to their labor-intensive price tags.
Glimmers of new hope surface at brunch. There’s a server (!) and some wonderful finds. It’s hard not to appreciate Edelstein. Of all the flavors in the universe, love is the most potent. She’s not just dropping foie gras on a biscuit and calling it edgy. Recent revelations: intricate buttermilk-tarragon pancakes filled with caramelized pears—a pancake tarte tatin—and curry waffles sided by sticky, spicy, lacquered lamb belly evoking serious Asian pork bun juju.
When asked about the restaurant’s name, Edelstein sounds like Samuel L. Jackson declaiming a biblical verse: “I am the feisty lamb. I can be a nice lamb or a bitch…. People try to take the creative process away from you. I like freedom of expression. When we become a flock of sheep, we lose our humanity.” Micah, we’re in your corner. Just get your flock in order.