THE BRAINCHILD of Dana Frank and Jane Smith, Dame offers a version of that Portland favorite: seasonal, European-influenced, Pacific Northwest cooking. If that brings on a yawn and mutterings of “Oh, not another one,” check your ennui, as this is a restaurant put together with deep care and consideration.
The pre-opening buzz focused on the fact that, impressively, all the wines are natural. Frank, who has won national awards as a sommelier, has long championed these wines—basically, they’re made with as few additives and as little intervention as possible. There’s a long-running debate as to their real merits, which is as intense and useful as a medieval dispute about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Yes, some natural wines can be horrible, but at their best they’re as exciting and intriguing as anything around.
There’s plenty on Dame’s list to get wine geeks excited, with selections of Radikon and Texier to pick over, but the rest of us should just get recommendations from Frank. When I asked for a wine she was currently into, she didn’t pick something fashionably obscure from Macedonia, but a red from Broc Cellars in California. And a Carignan at that—a grape renowned for producing tough ’n’ cheap wines from southern France. It didn’t sound like a winning combo (really, of all the options?), but she explained that though she’s not normally enthused by Californian wines, this was something special. (And at $46, I was hoping it would be.) I wasn’t disappointed—bright and juicy, with black cherry flavors and a curious minerality (an iron, bloodlike finish), it’s ideal for blustery days and landscapes of ocher and rusty reds. It must be the most un-Californian Californian wine I’ve had.
By the glass, wines range in price from $9 to $18 and feature rarefied regions such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Canary Islands. I tasted most of them, and they were all similar in being composed wines that don’t give up their pleasures in one go—think Arrested Development rather than Friends.
This stately aspect comes across in the menu created by chef Eli Dahlen as well. These are dishes that speak softly but have plenty to say. On first impression, a starter of beef tartare ($11) was nicely fresh and vivid—and then I realized there was more, an undercurrent of anchovy and shaved celeriac gently intertwining like a counterpoint melody. The same slow but measured unfolding was there in a dish of smoked trout ($9), which, along with tender zucchini, bullet beans, and dill, was all textual contrasts.
Execution was generally flawless. A main of poached halibut ($19) was perfectly cooked, with tomatoes, carrots, and figs adding snippets of flavor, while the coconut and turmeric sauce added a pretty but not overwhelming sweetness. (Many of the dishes had sauces and juices that cried out for bread for mopping up.) Poised and graceful cooking, indeed, but perhaps not to everyone’s taste: A co-diner was hoping for something more direct, or at least to grab some seasonal flavors. Most of the ingredients are of their time and place, but she was thrown off by so many of the dishes having a light, springlike feel. While there are nods to Eastern Europe on the menu, it did bring to mind the bright azure of the Mediterranean rather than the homely forests and mountains of the Danube.
There were more robust moments. A dish of salt cod dumplings (themselves luxurious and creamy) was wrapped in fall flavors provided by Brussels sprouts, shiitakes, and pumpkin broth ($16), while a spot-on cut of flatiron steak ($22) was sturdy enough for the paleo in your life, yet even this was pepped up by a splash of salsa verde.
Desserts were deceptively simple. A fat chunk of Ecuadorian-Peruvian chocolate ($6) was a pure flash of decadence worthy of a sultan—but was softer, fresher, and crumblier than your usual chocolate bar. Again, a dish of plums and cream appeared straightforward, except they were concentrated mini-flavor bombs more akin to prunes. We were told they’d been slow roasted for 12 hours while brushed with wine.
The only bum note after working through much of the menu over a couple of visits was a dish of chanterelles with toast and poached egg ($13)—the mushrooms were chewy and lacked flavor. The juice, though—once more, a thing to dive into, or at least wipe clean with bread.
The service was Portland casual, friendly, and efficient. Given the portion sizes and lightness of most of the dishes, it’s at least a two-course dinner; with wine, that’s $50-plus, which isn’t unreasonable for the quality. To really get your money’s worth, though, just be prepared to give the food as much thought and attention that has gone into creating it.