Best Restaurants 2016: Pumped-Up Korean

Portland Monthly’s Rising Star Restaurant of 2016: Revelry

Seattle stars and local nightlife talent bring us pumped-up Korean and throwback hip-hop.

By Karen Brooks October 10, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Mrs. Yang's spicy Korean fried chicken dusted with peanut brittle; shishito peppers with tonnato spread

“What you think this is / Ain’t no amateurs here.”

At Revelry, the Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics hustle and flow across a restaurant-bar that feels just that bold. It’s not just a place to eat. It’s not another small-plates concept with random art on the wall. Every aspect of this high-style, vintage clubhouse reflects a determination to combine great food with a verve found in Portland design and music but often lacking in our dining scene.

The house bumps with great music, street art murals, and Asian eats from kimchi pancakes to noodles—nominally Korean, but open to global beats. Sexy lighting and painterly gray reflect off found boomboxes mounted on the wall like Warhol totems. The lovingly detailed black sesame tuna rice bowl looks straight outta Bon Appétit and tastes like a million bucks of simple flavor chill. Meanwhile, late-night DJs unleash old-school hip-hop in a valiant effort to awaken sleepy Portland. Where else, in this town, can you sample LL Cool J with seaweed noodles and sweet crab that bounce and soothe like an inside-out Chinatown seafood dumpling—at midnight?

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Seaweed noodle and jackfruit curry pancake alongside the “Kimm’s cup” cocktail

Most restaurants are lucky to get two or three things right: We love the food but hate the room. Great cocktails, confused service. In a music-loving city, all channels seem stuck on Pandora and Motown. From literally day two after opening in August, Revelry, the first Portland foray of Seattle chef-restaurateurs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, has delivered all the food groups. Everyone is having fun. Everyone in the workshop kitchen is laughing. Behind twin dining counters, a bartender with an Alfred E. Neuman grin soaks fortune cookies in Korean soju liqueur. Damn, it’s good: surprisingly balanced and poised, a synthesis of professionalism and freedom—what Portland’s food scene needs right now.

Yang and Chirchi, 2016 James Beard finalists, are renowned for Korean-spiked fusion groundbreaker Joule and street-food-riffing hot spot Revel. Meanwhile, fellow co-owners Eric and Karen Bowler, who also own Portland bars Tube and Fortune, obsess over the playlists, beamed at perfect volume through four speakers. Eric, a veteran DJ, is proudest of the geekiest sound-system move—an 18-inch subwoofer hidden in the DJ booth, assuring we feel those bass tones right in our shoulders.

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Clockwise from top left: mochi doughnuts with crackerjack and fennel candy; Revelry is part bar, part hip-hop clubhouse

Revelry shows two sibling-rival Northwest cities joining forces. Seattle’s dining scene is grown-up, well-financed, design-savvy, and hardwired to vibrant Asian culinary cultures. But Seattle menus often play it safe. Portland? We’re the bad-boy, live-to-eat, head-cheese-to-hoof city, big on joy but often lax on technique and drive. Revelry taps the best of both.

Korean, the “it” cuisine of right now, serves as a spark plug, but this place is not about Koreatown literalism. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, Revelry’s brilliance lies in accessible adventure. Unlike so many restaurants today, Revelry doesn’t demand that you assemble a meal from random parts. You come for a noodle bowl, a modern bibimbap, or a few plates to share. Boom. Where to start? Reverly’s “fish and chips.” Potato chips needed no improvement, but they achieve a new level in a crazy meld of chip, teeny Korean dried anchovies, and, yes, trail mix, glommed together with miso honey: salty, sweet, crispy, fishy, nutty, utterly addictive. Chewy rice cakes, beefy black bean sauce, and al dente broccoli stalks—a hearty Chinese-Korean riff—could be winter’s go-to dish.

But Revelry’s crowning achievement is a play on Korean fried chicken, a plate of red-orange chunks, dense, saucy, smoky, full of chiles and gochujang fumes. If General Tso’s got a promotion, it would taste like this: a glorious mess beneath a sticky haze of peanut brittle dust. No amateurs, just Stumptown gold. What happens next? We hope Revelry steps on the gas. 

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