Chef Kristen D. Murray's Last Stand at Måurice
Even by Portland standards, Måurice is quirky, the veritable definition of a local food gem and singular lunch spot. This is where Edith Piaf, bubbles, black pepper cheesecake, Paris-level quiche, art, and idealism come together in n a self-described “French-Scandinavian pastry luncheonette” at 921 SW Oak St. Since opening in late 2013, the all-white wonderland has doubled as an idealist food kingdom and the alter ego of owner Kristen D. Murray. Portland Monthly proclaimed Maurice the 2014 “Destination of the Year.” Bon Appetit fell under its spell. Even visiting food guru Ruth Reichl penned a love letter.
Then came the pandemic, vandalism, heartbreak, and boarded black windows. Last summer, with downtown still in disarray, Murray, a tender soul who named Måurice after her pet rabbit, found herself shoveling unmentionables from the sidewalk while fearing for the safety of her largely female staff. As struggles mounted, she cared for her mother and best friend through the last stage of dementia. Murray chronicled the journey on her Facebook feed in a raw and poetic voice.
When it went dark for an extended winter break, I wondered if we'd ever see Måurice again. Then came the word “Bonjour” scrawled on the door. Måurice is back … but in a new guise as a fine dining destination, with Murray doubling as hostess and cook alongside co-chef Palmira Obeso. A hand-written menu, posted outside, promises a seven-course menu for lunch Thursday-Sunday, or dinner Friday-Saturday. Cost is $85 plus gratuity, with optional tea or wine pairings.
No walk-ins allowed. The door is locked. Reservation holders get inside with a secret code: knock three times and yodel. Murray hasn't lost her sense of humor. Here's what's on her mind these days.
Karen Brooks: Some of the city's best restaurants—Le Pigeon, Han Oak, Coquine—have abandoned a la carte dining for fixed price, multi-course menus by reservation only. What led you to join the movement?
Kristen D. Murray: The pandemic put a stake in a la carte. We had zero foot traffic. We pivoted and acquiesced, front, center, and bottom. We built a plexiglass entryway, a beautiful patio. What did we learn? We couldn't pay the bills. We barely covered the cost of rising ingredients. There wasn't enough to pay my employees a livable wage. It was absolutely not sustainable. Or joyful.
KB: How does this model change that?
KM: It helps wipe out the unknowns. We purchase what we know we've sold; we can staff for what we need to serve—labor is one of the hardest things to manage. Essentially, the pandemic helped shine the light on how fractured and broken the culture of hospitality is, and has been.
KB: What's surprised you most since the switch?
KM: How long it took us to do it. It feels so right. My god, we should have been doing this the whole time. No wonder we were so burned out and exhausted, changing the menu every day.
KB: In parts of the city, restaurant life is in revival mode, bustling indoors and out. How do you feel about being in downtown Portland, your windows still boarded?
KM: I chose to have a restaurant in downtown Portland, and I still believe Måurice is still where it should be. Doesn't mean I don't have great grief and anxiety about the conditions surrounding the restaurant outside of these four sweet walls. The last break-in here was in October. There's still immense anxiety. Being downtown, being anywhere, really, means looking at security. I wish the city would help landlords and tenants have handsome façades that offer protections, like you see in Europe and South America. There's so many beautiful ways to protect buildings. Plywood invites graffiti.
KB: The upside of the boarded windows: Måurice now feels like a cool speakeasy, even in the daytime. Blocking out the world might not be such a bad idea.
KM: I'm figuring out alternatives. I bought sheer curtains. I'm thinking about frosted glass once we find a suitable exterior.
KB: What is the status of your big outdoor seating structure?
KM: Last year I spent over $20K year on that build-out with tables, heaters, vinyl coverings, and seats for 20. Mid-way through came rising costs and supply chain issues. (Navarre owner) John Taboada helped design and build it. It's on pause now. I'm trying to sell it as a kit.
KB: Despite everything, what draws you to fine dining now?
KM: Fine dining is where I started, as a pastry chef in New York and Boston. What I did pre-pandemic is closer to my roots with family and friends and travel. Fine dining is joyful and civilized. You get to leave it all at the door and let us take care of you.
KB: Will we ever see your amazing quiche again? The vaunted pastry case? Or the lemon souffle cake, which was good enough to be awarded France's Legion of Honor? It's that feeling when favorite TV characters are shockingly killed off. We're happy the season got renewed, but the loss is crushing.
KM: Too soon to say. I definitely miss those children I created. I've been serving the black pepper cheesecake all the way back to my days in New York. But seven-course meals, with seats for 14, is a lot of plates. Where is that extra burner and oven? That's the point of what we're doing—focusing, not getting distracted. Right now, I'm having so much fun making a carrot ice cream and angelica herb float. Some hits will may their way back, but in a different and smaller way that makes sense.
KB: Who can resist yodeling to get inside a restaurant in Portland?
KM: Yes, we have had many hearty yodels and some plate-dropping Viking knocks on the door. Before the new year, my great Aunt Crys would gather with my nana in the kitchen, drink a shot of aquavit fresh from the freezer, chase it with pickled herring on a buttered Wasa cracker and …. yodel. It always made me giggle. It felt right to bring a little of that spirit in the new era of Måurice.
KB: What does the future hold for Måurice? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
KM: Who knows, given the reality of the industry. I started in kitchens at age 14. I'm turning 50 this year. I've had to reckon with the reality that Måurice is not the end all, be all. I've loved it like a husband and child. I do believe that this is the last chapter—an idea that is bittersweet and liberating. I can't do it any other way. I'm not confident it can be done any other way, given all the circumstances involved. It's not a matter of a different location—but how do I want to spend my life? What is the trade off, sacrifice, the gift? For now, we're just embracing the reality of now, joy, fun. It's really about treasuring the fragile, fleeting moment versus going out in blazes.
Måurice, 921 SW Oak St, seatings Thursday-Sunday, $85 per person plus gratuity. Reservations at mauricepdx.com