Erik Van Kley is doing what he knows best: winging it, pure gut instincts and gambles.
Never mind the pressure. The soft-spoken chef is currently remapping the menus at Belmont’s Accanto, a space that’s hummed along since 2009—always on the verge, but never quite vaulting beyond neighborhood date spot. After quietly slipping into the kitchen in November, Van Kley is revving its ambitions. He’s also facing a group more feared than the GOP base: Accanto’s regulars. Regulars, alas, always like a place the way it is.
Never mind the hurt pride. A few years ago, Van Kley, golden-boy chef at downtown’s French-mod Little Bird Bistro, was on track to break big with Taylor Railworks, his first solo project. The Americana-meets-Asia experiment never caught fire, shuttering last October. Taylor had some bona fide hits, and Van Kley worked like a dog on the project. But assembling a meal from the menu’s abstract parts was just too much work—“like doing algebra,” as one friend put it.
Well, just never mind. Long ago, as right hand to Portland’s culinary riffer supreme, Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker, Van Kley learned his philosophy: come out swinging, stick to your guns, whatever happens happens.
And that’s how we find ourselves at Accanto, digging into a delightful hash of house pastrami, sunny-side-ups, exuberantly crusted potatoes, and swirls of tingly orange sauce (what Van Kley calls “Thousand Island meets the spicy side of Mexico”) in a nominally Italian restaurant ... for brunch. It’s just a beginning of a makeover, and it won’t be easy. But this wild bite is a promising sign from Van Kley. At 42, he’s returning to his playful, more rustic, Little Birdian/Le Pigeon-like roots, and just might turn Accanto into a gem worthy of a drive across town.
The dinner menu feels like a rough draft of Van Kley’s résumé: you know there will be chiles, goat cheese, and foie gras in the mix, plus some vegetables that taste like meat. Over three visits, I found a handful of dishes I’d happily eat again (no small feat after just 10 weeks) but also witnessed a kitchen still working out the nagging kinks of timing, temperature, and consistency, as well as its point of view. (An entrée of olive oil–packed cod, forked out of a tiny jar for $25, seemed like a surreal condiment that escaped from a nearby picnic table.) The list of small plates, pastas, and proteins incorporates some of Taylor Railworks’ interesting ideas (a daring Caesaresque salad of bitter escarole and smoked mackerel) and worst impulses (an oddball muddle of squid-ink noodles and jalapeño pesto).
Overall, I’m more drawn to Van Kley’s Little Bird side, where goat cheese gnocchi hunkers down in a rich vat of tomato sauce and roasted goat leg. Tortellini en brodo doubles the pleasure with crusty, thick-cut toast parked on the side and Parmesan shreds cascading over every inch of the bowl and plate. Order it. Also worth knowing is the new chocolate budino tart, each bite shot through with cocoa nibs.
The brunch revamp is led by a chile relleno oozing goat cheese (of course) and often crowned with a cool Van Kley touch: enough fresh mint and cilantro to embarrass a bowl of pho. That pastrami hash is a keeper. I loved the beautiful, crackling-skinned smoked trout and avocado bowl, which did not need the kitchen’s “put an egg on it” crutch. Right now, I’d come back for the true skinny sausage links (a style more endangered than truth) and Texas toast that positively rocks with Calabrian chile butter. Sitting here, sipping Happy Cup coffee, you realize Accanto’s potential as a morning space, with light galore, well-spaced tables, and—a Portland rarity—chairs that make your tush happy.
Admittedly, change is a new chef’s biggest challenge. But the truth is out there. The old Accanto menu holdovers have no heart or soul. Time to say goodbye to the fritto misto. The ancient ricotta doughnuts taste like an albatross. And if pasta is a nonnegotiable menu signature, better get the staff reading Marcella Hazan, stat.
The question going forward: which Accanto will win out? The careful old ways or a fresher, edgier point of view? Right now, the kitchen is Accanto ...starring Erik Van Kley. We’re ready for Erik Van Kley and the Accantos.