Portland restaurants pivot to survive COVID pandemic
A unique miasma of pandemic struggles, social media math and unexpected business churn has left Portland’s food landscape decidedly altered. The restaurant empires of Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) and John Gorham (Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons) are gone, though two former Tasty employees have reinvented Gorham’s menus on the outskirts of Lake Oswego. The ambitious Ryan and Elena Roadhouse is also gone Japanese restaurant by appointment only, Nodoguro, as well as its more casual neighboring lounge, Tonari, whose opening momentum has been dashed by the closures. Chef Vitaly Paley has closed several spaces over the past year, including Imperial and Headwaters hotel and restaurants, but his flagship Paley’s Place is open for full service under the direction of chef Luis Cabanas.
On the flip side, it’s easier to dine at some of Portland’s most sought-after reservation kitchens, where menus have been changed and made more accessible.. The list includes Akkapong’s intimate Langbaan “Earl” Ninsom restaurant with a Thai tasting menu, which has been reimagined as a no-elevator patio experience, as well as Peter Cho and Sun Young Park’s modern Korean restaurant, Han Oak, now across town in casual form as Toki, specializing in bao bun burgers and brunch specialties.
Some Portland mainstays are still open, including the Coquine Culinary Steroid Neighborhood Bistro, which is home to one of the city’s top wine programs; Le Pigeon et Canard, chef Gabriel Rucker’s top-down punch, which continues to attract travelers from all over the world; Chef Gregory Gourdet’s new Haitian concept, Kann, which debuted as Kann Winter Village at the end of 2020 and is expected to reopen later this year; and Khao Man Gai by Nong Poonsukwattana, which for a decade has been home to a perfect rendition of Hainan chicken and rice.
Perhaps no chef / restaurateur has pivoted more dramatically than Vince Nguyen, whose minimalist Berlu tasting menu opened in the summer of 2019, drawing on Nguyen’s experience in the kitchen to Michelin-starred restaurants, including Providence and Noma. “Before the coronavirus, I never cooked Vietnamese food,” said Nguyen, who grew up in Orange County. “My dad had two jobs and we mostly ate fast food and TV dinners. ”
But the pandemic has led Nguyen to reconnect with his heritage, discovering Vietnamese cooking and baking traditions by watching chefs on YouTube (“This is the modern cookbook”) and guiding Berlu through a range. permutations: a weekend bakery serving bánh bò and moon cakes; elaborate take-out dinners accompanied by instructional videos featuring the chef; rotating weekly specials exploring Vietnam’s lesser-known soups (“We avoided the phos and the obvious ones”); and night market pop-ups serving traditional Vietnamese dishes like bánh tráng nuong, a grilled rice cracker topped with eggs, pork belly and shrimp.
“We have now been open for longer as a pandemic hub than we were as a tasting menu,” Nguyen said. “It was an opportunity for me to grow not only as a chef, but as a person and to reflect on my experiences as a cook as well as my own heritage. ”
Berlu plans to reopen with a tasting menu in the fall, if the Delta variant allows. When it does, it will be a distinctly different experience, focusing specifically on the Vietnamese food that Nguyen fell in love with during the shutdown.
“I’m drawn to challenges,” said the chef, “and that’s what drove me to cook in the first place. Running a restaurant during the pandemic has been a huge challenge, but it also inspires creativity. Thanks to these pivots, I was able to express myself and challenge myself not only myself but also the guests, thus representing Vietnamese cuisine. It was difficult but also stimulating. “