Word of Mouth

Wild Salads to Elaborate Cocktails, Quaintrelle Is Ready for Its Close-Up

Come for the drinks. Stay for the... brussels sprouts?

By Karen Brooks April 23, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

I just hoovered a plate of brussels sprouts.

Hear me out. First came a beautiful hard-sear, each little bud nice and crispy on one side. That’s standard brussels operating procedure, I know. But it’s just the opening lob at North Portland’s Quaintrelle (3936 N Mississippi Ave, 503-200-5787). Underneath those charred heads? Puréed squash, silky with coconut milk and nearly weightless; a sweet-earthy balm with zings of spicy sambal, torn mint, Italian fish sauce, and lime. If Ava Gene’s and Le Pigeon had a vegetable love child, it might taste like this—boldly flavored and texturally exciting, with elements of surprise. I promptly ordered the rest of the evening’s vegetable section, six dishes deep.

The radicchio, red wheat, and apple salad

Then came the nuanced cocktails: pretty, super-balanced, and easy to love. All are good, but the night belonged to “Annabel Lee,” a pisco sour spin-off with righteous acidity, big floral notes, smoked salt at the finish, and thyme sprigs to boot. You don’t so much drink it as suck it down. When a decadent horchata milkshake, fluffy with whipped cream and cinnamon-intense, arrived for dessert, I did that cringe-worthy Portland thing and offered a taste to strangers seated nearby. How could I not?

Sometimes a place defies expectations. I had just dropped by Quaintrelle for a salad, and found much more: after three years of quietly humming along on Mississippi, this restaurant has evolved into a vegetable and cocktail destination, with delicious desserts to match.

What’s changed? New chef Ryley Eckersley, 36, has upped the kitchen’s game, while experiments from longtime bartender Camille Cavan have finally jelled, backed by her own vintage glassware collection and handmade everything. Cavan not only makes her own lemongrass cordial and fennel flower liqueur but, god bless her, crafts house gomme syrup—a four-day process for a bar basic that all but the insane purchase ready-made. Restaurants always claim a connection between kitchen and bar, but you rarely taste it. There’s no denying the special synergy between Quaintrelle’s dishes and drinks—right down to the white shoyu that lends umami to both the brussels dish and a lip-smacking, tiki-esque rum number.

Bar ace Camille Cavan

It would seem every Portland restaurant takes vegetables seriously. But not like this. Eckersley, who busts out as many as 10 options during the summer, swaps ingredients daily, with a true seasonal philosophy. Eclectic cooking influences include his London roots, Southern France (where his family has a home), farm connections from his former post at D.O.C., and what he calls “an obsession to create that keeps me up at night.”

Pavlova with blueberry ice cream and sorbet

Among his best ideas: mingling warm, crisp-frizzy kalettes (a kale/brussels sprouts hybrid) with excellent-quality feta, which he whips into a creamy dressing and adorns with dots of pine nut–and–green garlic salsa. In another standout, Eckersley parks house-made cashew cream beneath radicchio, carrots, and more cashews, plus a crown of toasted, puffed rice grown on Sauvie Island. I love a chef confident enough to utter the words “I love crunchies!” when delivering your dish.

It must be said: while Eckersley’s freewheeling mode works well with vegetables, too many ideas crowd his seafood and meat options. Those scallops, for one, are beautiful on their own. No need to smoke them, then douse with spicy carrot juice, and rain down sunchoke chips. Sometimes, simpler is better.

Until then, keep the brussels and crunchies coming.

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