Restaurant Review

Baker Ken Forkish Masters a New Collection of Outstanding Breads

Crusty levain loaves to butter-crackling spelt croissants, the lord of Ken’s Artisan Bakery has a new swagger at Trifecta Annex.

By Karen Brooks December 20, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Clockwise from left: Baker Ken Forkish with his reinvigorated levain round: Forkish’s new spelt, raspberry “escargot,” and maple sugar croissants; just-baked brioche buns; working the dough at Trifecta Bakery.

As soon as downtown’s high-concept food court Pine Street Market opened last spring, diners burst through doors, growling for comfort, surprise, or even gleeful disappointment. Citizen reviewers sprinted to debate Salt & Straw’s soft-serve project. Curious eaters buzzed around John Gorham’s wall of spinning chickens and Olympia Provisions’ new wave hot dogs. Most blew right past tiny pizzeria-bakery Trifecta Annex, where a white-haired dude stood defiantly, hands on hips, beneath levain loaves the size of flying saucers.

Here’s the thing: those breads are Pine Street’s buried treasure. The crusts are monuments of crag, intentionally baked to just this side of burnt: a state of brown-black-crisp nirvana normally reserved for toasted marshmallows. Cut in and taste the fantastic: flavor complexity, campfire fumes, and a heavenly chew-to-sour ratio. Yeah, we’re talking Paris-level baking.

And then there’s this: no one is buying them.

“Bread is not in the conversation,” barked baker Ken Forkish, as I walked by. “But damn it, I’m doing it anyway. I’m stubborn. This is my craft.” Talk about inspiring.

Fifteen years ago Forkish changed the game at Ken’s Artisan Bakery in Northwest. He was a tech-world refugee turned rustic bread preacher, and he pushed super-dark, crusty French breads in a town of sad, squooshy bagels. A spinoff, Ken’s Artisan Pizza, opened in 2006. His outstanding 2012 bread manifesto, Flour Water Salt Yeast, won James Beard gold. Portland’s most finicky chefs and home cooks still revere his baguettes. (True story: A friend of mine recently faced an angry cop after leaving his car idling in a crosswalk out in front of Ken’s to snag a loaf for dinner. His excuse? “Have you ever tried it?” No ticket.)

But really, when was the last time we appreciated this bread master in our midst? Well, listen up: it’s time. Quietly, Forkish is making noise again, with a remastered collection of his greatest hits—from towering boules to morning pastries. We’re catching an artist in his second wave, playing with fermentation and pushing whole-grain intensity.

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Some of Ken Forkish’s exemplary artisan loaves, including walnut bread, baguette, new whole rye and wheat Field Blend #3, and a big, three-kilo boule of 40-hour-fermented levain Country #2.

For a taste, grab a loaf or check out the Annex’s a.m. toast menu. Best options so far: rich, springy, six-flour Field Blend #3 slathered with peanut butter and brown sugar, or a brawny, big-flavored walnut bread glazed with house-made butter. It’s hard to find a good croissant these days. (Even the signature crescents at Ken’s Artisan flagged over the years.) But Forkish’s new spelt croissant isn’t just good, it’s transformative—a buttery beauty with the quiet howl of earth and nut punching through. Another spelt riff sports a deep band of maple sugar on top, provoking smiles and pancake reveries. I’m less convinced by the overly sweet honey-rye ham croissant or the double chocolate croissant. (Double or no, there’s not enough chocolate.)

Struggle seems baked into Forkish’s journey. Ken’s Artisan Bakery barely survived its first year. Vocal customers wondered: “Why do you burn your bread every day?” His 15,000-pound Italian deck oven had problems “nobody else ever had.” Glitchy machines killed entire batches of bread dough—weekly. Bakers bolted midshift; one manager had weekly crying meltdowns. Meanwhile, the anti-carb storm clouds of Atkins and South Beach diets gathered. Then came the gluten-free revolution.

“Bread ... has been a fundamental food for thousands of years, critical to the survival of people,” Forkish says. “I choose to bake it 6,000 years in, and boom!”

Four years ago, he opened Trifecta Tavern and Bakery. His plan was to create America’s first “bakery-tavern,” with new breads delivered throughout the evening and a counter for experimental, grain-forward rounds and pastries. People poured in for the tavern’s oysters and steaks instead. Inner Southeast construction quickly killed parking and the daytime bakery. Instead, a small roster of those new recipes emerged on Trifecta’s bread plate and at the downtown Annex—all of them amazing ... and, yes, often ignored.

Still, Forkish is rising yet again. Trifecta Bakery proper finally opened in August, with a gleaming counter piled with spelt croissants, whole-grain cookies, and the best new breads in town. No one’s there. Yet.

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