Best New Restaurants 2019

Berlu Serves the Most Unpretentious Pretentious Tasting Menu in Town

Chef Vince Nguyen’s Zen-modernist menus find beauty in everyday things.

By Karen Brooks October 18, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Chef Vince Nguyen

Four nights a week, in a five-table, Zen-white chamber of calm and quietude, chef Vince Nguyen unfurls a procession of dishes from Planet Minimalism. You come here not to gnaw a fresh corn cob like a hyena, but to encounter fresh kernels “individually shucked out of their skins” and mixed with corn tea before their journey to the center of a giant white plate. One course might be a vast, amorphous rice cracker, thin as a butterfly wing, presented in a wood box—an exercise in ethereal crunch. The night will undoubtedly include something in a test tube, natural wines you’ve never heard of, and desserts that challenge the notion of “sweet.”

In the wrong hands, it could be unbearable. But Berlu is an earnest, eccentric gem. Call it the most unpretentious pretentious tasting menu around, from a chef hell-bent on showing us who he is through food. So look closer: that sea of pink spotlights the sweet luxury of humble Oregon bay shrimp, with help from charcoal oil and grilled prawn tea. And who thought mundane zucchini could be the linchpin for a striking mosaic of pickled bone marrow and toasted lavender? Turns out, Berlu’s food is like Nguyen himself: modest but serious, determined to find the beauty in everyday things, and clever without ever shouting, “Look at me!” At $80, it’s a deal.

Chef Nguyen's highly personal take on fine dining is soft and beautiful—ethereal crackers to pour-your-own sauces from table-side test tubes

Opened in June, Berlu is the 33-year-old’s first brick-and-mortar, after four years as the devoted modernist behind pop-up JolieLaide. This is Nguyen’s most elegant, mature cooking yet, more grounded and less abstract, from a committed artist in bloom. Expect some bumps, some inventive approaches (perhaps a course of organic chicken served four ways, each showcasing a different part of the bird), a few exceptional bites, and, as the shy Nguyen takes to the center of the room, a story for every dish. 605 SE Belmont St

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