Bars

First Look: Basquiat and Pink Velour in Kann’s Basement

Sousòl, the subterranean sibling bar of Gregory Gourdet’s ode to Haiti, is a pan-Caribbean party.

By Matthew Trueherz September 29, 2022

Image: Zach Lewis

After several preview parties and a quietly announced public soft opening last week, Sousòl, the moody Caribbean bar under the buzziest restaurant Portland has seen in recent memory, is open.  

Chef, owner, Good Morning America regular, and Top Chef finalist Gregory Gourdet says he wants continuity between the two spaces, but also for Sousòl to be its own beast. Kann is an extremely personal project for Gourdet: He’s created an emblem of Haitian cuisine, giving Portland a touchstone of his culture. With Sousòl, he's widened the scope.  

“You can’t really talk about Haiti without talking about the broader Caribbean and West Africa,” says Gourdet. Thus, pan-Caribbean food and drinks, inspired by everywhere from Haiti to Cuba to the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, and more are on the menu. 

Image: Zach Lewis

As you walk south on SE Sixth Avenue, a security guard standing outside checking IDs is the only tell that something’s happening under Kann. Sousòl is hip in the sense that it’s a halfway hidden, underground bar (the historic building prevents the installation of a sign), but the scene runs the gamut from dads in polo shirts to 20-somethings in snakeskin boots with flowy button-up dress shirts, and everyone in between. Even Oregon Supreme Court Justice Adrienne Nelson made it to the opening.  

Upstairs, Kann is bright and airy, lined with blond wood, gold accents, and a decadent, gold-foiled ceiling. It’s almost angelic. Below, Sousòl isn’t quite the upside down, but it is an inversion of sorts. Andrew Embry, Sousòl’s beverage director, calls the basement bar night to Kann’s day. The walls are almost black, wrapped in a moody wallpaper of trees that glow from (yes) gold wall sconces, setting up the pink velour banquettes to pop even more than pink velour banquettes pop on their own—if that’s possible. 

Image: Zach Lewis

In the bar’s back corner, hung above cane-backed chairs and a black tufted-leather sofa, is the lone artwork in the space: a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The photo was shot by friend and Kann regular Paige Powell, the once-publisher of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine who dated the lauded Haitian American artist. 

The wallpaper forest wraps over side doors, from which swarms of staff appeared at the opening carrying dishes: Trini-Chinese chicken wings, crispy and sauced in a tangy and warm-spiced glaze, held by a single dainty bone like a lollipop; doubles, the chewy, fried flatbreads born from the influence of Trinidad's Indian population, served with gold ramekins of tamarind chutney, cucumbers, and curried chickpeas to be wrapped therein. Like Kann, everything on Sousòl’s menu is gluten- and dairy-free. But the restrictions don’t put an asterisk on the dishes. “It’s not for a gluten-free clientele” says Gourdet. “We’re cooking gluten- and dairy-free for the masses.” 

Bwè Anmè, a negroni-like cocktail aged in whole coconuts

Sousòl is tropical, but this is no tiki bar. Fresh, vegetal ingredients like beets and cucumbers show up several times in the drinks, accented with savory notes like Tellicherry black pepper and the hard-to-find Haitian black mushrooms djon djon. (“My mom’s friend mailed us the last batch from Queens,” says Gourdet.) If you’ve made it into Kann, chances are you’ve had the signature black rice; downstairs, an infusion of the mushrooms rounds out the djon djon djin, a punchy apple brandy–spiked cocktail.  

Gourdet has been sober for years, which prompts the question: How do you run a business based around a product you can’t sample? One answer is nonalcoholic drinks, of which Sousòl boasts a well-crafted list. But it’s not an alcohol-free bar. “As cooks and chefs, we taste everything, so it’s weird not be able to taste the drinks,” says Gourdet. “It’s complicated, but at the same time, I’m not the only sober owner who has to trust their bar program.” 

 The zero-proof cocktail konkonm, Haitian Creole for cucumber 

That trust has been placed in Embry. Before stints at both Renata and Kex, Embry served as a beverage director for Chicago’s famed Boka restaurant group. His experience shines in Sousòl’s inventive approach to pan-Caribbean flavors. Bwè Anmè, a play on a Haitian drink Embry compares to a negroni, is funky and oxidized, aged in batches inside whole coconuts for two weeks. The technique is called fat washing, which gives the drink a rounded, coconut edge, without including any actual coconut. The Bookman’s Drink, named for Dutty Boukman, an early leader in the 18th-century Haitian revolution, is layered with a house-made cashew orgeat—a reinterpretation of the almond and rose water syrup that makes a mai tai.  

Sousòl operates through a wider lens than Kann, but it’s equally in focus. Everything from the spare, polished concrete floors to the hefty menus and check presenters is considered. It’s sexy enough to be the high point of your Saturday night, and relaxed enough to grab a snack and virgin cocktail on a rainy afternoon.  

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