The Pandemic Crushed Restaurants. But Bar King Had Two Aces up Their Sleeve.
Can Shaun King, a top chef from David Chang’s Momofuku empire, a guy attuned to the competitive juice and theatrics of Las Vegas’s star-powered corporate food world, find a groove in Portland, a city that willfully rejects such things? Can Katherine Benvenuti, a mom and pedigreed LA pastry chef, driven to remake everyday baked goods with earthy intensity and Japanese influences, pull off a high-flying bakery in the midst of a pandemic? And did these two business partners just recruit renegade bread baker Adam Kennedy to their cause, Bar King, a restaurant and bakery on SE Sixth? ICYMI: Kennedy puts a near-violent crust on a ciabatta and his breads strive, at all times, to “honor the spectra across the crumb ratio.”
What brings them together may be little more than a shared quest to unite the simple and the sublime. And hope. While COVID-19 has planted its broccoli-like stakes in the heart of restaurant ambition, these three people are counting on a comeback.
King was searching for a better life in Portland’s Promised Land, armed with Momofuku-tested dry-aged ducks and a certificate as a “Japanese wagyu beef specialist.” Bar King, a project with his bartender wife, Jamie, opened March 9 under the auspices of the ChefStable group. Then the pandemic shutdown came down like a cast-iron skillet on a blob of existential whipped cream. Suddenly, King became known mostly as “that guy who was only open six days.” Still, he held down the kitchen fort, filling take-out cartons with smoked beef rib soup and slow-roasted lamb saddles stuffed with Sichuan-peppered ’nduja sausage. Bar King’s Instagram feed sizzled like a sexy food-world Survivor, with enough live fire flames to summon a Supertanker. For all this, one commenter’s desperate plea: “Please bring back the fried chicken pocket—it was amazing!!” Portland will be Portland. King worked himself into exhaustion, taking off July and August to regroup, with plans to reboot as an operating restaurant at month’s end.
Meanwhile, Benvenuti built a reputation the old-school way: word of mouth. The shutdown had arrived before the doors on her end of this project opened. No one even knew its name, the Bakery at Bar King. But there’s no question that Benvenuti is, and has always been driven; she held the pastry chef title at San Francisco’s famed Zuni Café at age 19. Benvenuti, now 30, spent a few weeks hunkering down and test-driving ideas in the Bakery at Bar King’s kitchen. Soon, on weekends only, people darted out of an unmarked door carrying mysterious “brunch boxes.” Inside: the kind of “brunch” you wish Mom had assembled—no effort at a balanced meal, just pure, carb-rippling happiness, miso walnut sticky buns alongside cornmeal-boisterous cake roofed in sweet-tart lemon wheels, candied rind and all.
By August, the bakery was legit—full-on pastry case, coffee drinks to order, and the ever-present line—proof of a pent-up demand for something surprising, unfussy, and confident. Turns out, Benvenuti is in the right place, albeit at a less-than-optimal time.
Your first move? Benvenuti’s spin on the classic, tart-dough-clad gâteau Basque, best described as a Hostess cupcake from the forest, complete with green tea almond cake and a hidden center of passion fruit curd. Don’t eat it while driving. Seasonal fruit crostatas are beautiful, crackly in the right places, not too sweet, willing to let good fruit speak for itself. The croque monsieur is terrific, its top coat of gruyère and miso béchamel crisped on the edges like French onion soup. But the browned butter rice cake captures the essence here, what I call, “the Benvenuti linger”—not a wow at first bite, but an integrity, a taste of good butter, a cozy toastiness that stays with you long after the last bite. That said, as the kitchen scales up, some textures could be moister, flavors a little bolder.
The sleeper hit, of course: Kennedy’s breads. The sesame baguette is a beaut—just smell this sucker, the perfume, that snort of yeast and funk. I can’t wait to try his shokupan (Japanese milk bread), softly clamped around King’s upcoming shrimp katsu sando, which promises a load of spicy mayo, pickles, and iceberg. In these times, it sounds royal; food fit for a king. 726 SE Sixth Ave, barkingpdx.com