Word of Mouth

Portland's Real-Deal Farm-to-Table Cooking Isn't Where You'd Expect

Namely in a downtown wine shop.

By Karen Brooks June 19, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Karl (left) and Alex Holl pluck the day’s menu on Sauvie Island.

Image: Karen Brooks

Question: “What kind of radishes are these?”

Answer: “Um ... whatever I dug up in the field this morning?”

Farm radishes and smoked butter

Image: Karen Brooks

And with that, one evening this spring, Karl Holl—a mushroom-hunting, pig-raising, beehive-communing, vegetable-powder-experimenting, pasta-rolling farmer, and the best chef you’ve never heard of—gave fresh meaning to the term “farm-to-table.” What arrived on that plate: cherry-bomb radishes arranged like a Barney’s charm bracelet over fresh whipped butter—cultured three days and cold-smoked to boot—and garnished, lavishly, with the sine qua non of chef-y chef ingredients, fennel pollen. Holl can afford to be generous. While others buy this garden gold dust, Holl goes straight to the source. He harvests the flowers from the shared Sauvie Island plot he farms with younger brother Alex, his business partner and field sergeant. This cat walks the talk, without a crumb of attitude.

Here’s what else I stumbled on that night. First, flowering raab leaves, bigger than your hands, fizzed with Topo Chico mineral water, then tempura-fried to a startling crispness with shakes of “fermented chili powder.” (This is but one of 30-odd seasonings Holl makes, from sunchoke ash to smoked potato skin powder.) Then, a beauty: ricotta-oozing fava leaf (leaf!) ravioli frolicking with charred spring onions, chive butter, and a stash of Hood River morels, plus a small garden of flowers and leaves ... for a mere $16. It’s not mind-blowing food, just really good food. No—make that special food, so lovingly thoughtful you can’t believe your luck. And I haven’t even mentioned the baked-to-order chocolate cookies, sporting the Holls’ vanilla-scented leaf lard and cacao-forward Woodblock Chocolate, all knocked back with sweet, silky jersey milk from Garry’s Meadow Fresh in Molino.

Of course, there’s a catch. The setting is a slightly awkward, charm-challenged corner near the door of downtown’s sprawling Park Avenue Fine Wines (the former Brasserie Montmartre). But we could do worse than sitting in a well-stocked wine shop: grab any quality bottle with your meal, for a $10 corkage fee. Cheers. Meanwhile, advanced sommelier Stacy Gibson, who curates the house wine-bar list, aims to make rare bottles accessible through two-ounce pours. For $38, you can sip a Lafite Rothchild and feel like Rihanna.

Holl’s wine-friendly menu revolves around a dozen ever-changing snacks, salads, and pastas ($7–19). I’d come back just for the smoked trout cakes paired with sweet pickled beets, salty pops of house-cured trout roe, an herb “salad,” and smoky aioli whisked, of course, with Holl’s own smoked trout oil. Nightly pasta options might include the “100 Layer Lasagna” (literally, 100-plus layers of pasta, wild mushroom paste, and cheese sauce) or terrific leek-top cavatelli mingled with confit lamb belly and funked up with a little aged taleggio. For all this, a reality check is helpful: like most menus, all nights and all dishes are not created equal.

Leek-top cavatelli and foraged morels

Image: Karen Brooks

How is this place tragically empty at night? Menu and wine bar hours were recently clipped back to match the wine shop’s schedule. Plan to eat and drink during AARP hours: noon to 8 p.m.* (Portland, this is on you.)

The only people not sad about the new hours? Karl and Alex Holl. Park Avenue is just the Holls’ side gig, a public face for their in-demand catering company, Spatzle & Speck. The last thing they want is lines out the door. At 32, Karl identifies with a young generation of Portland chefs building their own models far away from the restaurant world’s burnout highway. He flashes back to age 19, cooking at Napa Valley’s Michelin-starred Martini House, and later, when he cranked out 450 covers a day as chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Perbacco Ristorante.

“I worked all day, then drank, then got up and started again,” he says, wincing. “That’s exactly what I don’t want to do now.” The Vermont-born brothers moved to Oregon in 2013, with a dream to grow their own cuisine.

Holl pushes back when diners inevitably ask: “When are you opening your own brick-and-mortar?” Answer: No time soon. “I’m a farmer first,” he says. “I’m life first.” Respect.

*Editor’s Note: As of July, Park Avenue’s wine bar menu is only available 3–9 p.m. Monday–Saturday.

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