PART OF THE JOY/pain/burden/responsibility of being a food critic is fielding the unending questions from friends/family/acquaintances/Twitter about where the best fried chicken/burger/pho/brunch is in Portland.
Usually, my answer requires more information, such as price range/desired atmosphere/preferred part of town. But right now, my unqualified answer to the best brunch in Portland is Expatriate.
Until a few months ago, Expatriate was solely an evening stop: dim lighting, Asian-inflected plates, and cocktails that deserve a spot on any top five list. As of March, co-owners Naomi Pomeroy of Beast and her husband Kyle Webster turned their attentions to mid-morning. Pomeroy's handling the food; Webster's got the drinks. (Pomeroy's also tweaked brunch and dinner at Beast; more on that below.)
Like the evening menu, Expatriate's brunch invokes the soul of Southeast Asia—funky and fishy and without pretense. The hash browns ($13), for example, are a centaur of a dish. They've got an American body of breakfast potatoes with a "pho" topping of thin-sliced round steak, pho sour cream, Thai chilies, sharp cheddar, hoisin-tamarind sauce, and fried shallots. They're sloppy and packed with flavor—plus all the creamy dairy fat regular pho doesn't normally supply. They're perfect to share.
"It fucking kicks ass, right?" Pomeroy said after I told her I loved the meal. "It's so fun for me to mess around and think of things I want to eat."
I want to eat the Expatriate congee ($8) every morning. It's a savory bowl of rice porridge straight off a flight from Taipei, with all the trappings—dashi, Chinese celery, fried garlic and shallots, fish sauce ponzu, and an oversize poached duck egg.
The coveted late-night wonton nachos ($13) make an appearance at brunch, as does a pork katsu open-faced sandwich ($15) with a fried egg oozing over the Lan-Roc Farms fried loin.
While all the brunch cocktails we tried were great, this discussion will go no further without mentioning the David Howitt ($13). I've never had anything quite like it—a frothy blend of bourbon, a whole egg, crème de cacao, cinnamon syrup, Averna, whole milk, and Extracto cold brew. This could be cloying, or coat your throat, but instead it slips down easily, belying its lengthy ingredient list.
So far, there's not a huge crowd, and daylight does the space well, illuminating tchotchkes hidden during nocturnal hours and revealing a warm vibe. Webster spun the Beatles on vinyl, and as it's a 21-and-over space, there's not a sticky-faced toddler in sight.
Pomeroy is also tweaking the format at Beast, both at brunch and dinner. (For more on dinner and the complete interview with Pomeroy, visit portlandmercury.com.)
Brunch—a more refined presentation than at Expatriate across the street, with the usual Beast-y French flair—has lost a heavy chocolate cake course and lopped the price to $35, including tip.
"We do acknowledge that [brunch] is a lot of people's entry into the restaurant," Pomeroy says. "People want to check it out, but maybe they don't want to spend $150, but they want to come. After getting a lot of feedback from servers, we realized people couldn't eat all of it."
Instead, servers send diners away with a small golden box of petit fours: tiny macarons and other confections to savor later. "We felt like it would be cooler to give away little boxes and just make the price a little more accessible, and we shortened it to get a third turn [of service] in," she explains.
The remaining courses are tried and true. There's an ever-changing clafoutis, which rises like an eggy pancake soufflé out of a ramekin, mixed with cherries and crowned with maple-glazed house bacon. There's a spare but beautifully plated smoked spring salmon with vibrant green spring herb sauce verte, house ricotta, and rye crisps. The Beast hash—duck egg over braised wagyu short rib, with nibs of veggies and confit potatoes—had a beautifully executed buttery sauce béarnaise, but also featured a slightly sweet tinge that edged on unpleasant.
Pomeroy was most excited about the total transformation of the dinner format, which does away with the famed charcuterie plate shaped like a clock with a foie gras bonbon, but adds courses that include pasta and fish. There's also a welcome splash of champagne with an amuse bouche. (Hope for that bonbon there.) It's still six courses and it's $102, including gratuity.
"It was kind of a habit to stick with the formula, and there became this belief if anyone came in and the charcuterie plate wasn't there, there'd be some kind of freakout," she says. "What's really changed is we took this sort of approach to figure out how to make this feel fresh."
As of press time, I haven't had a chance to try the new twist on Beast's new prix fixe dinner after nine years in service—and Pomeroy isn't as visible in the kitchen of her flagship restaurant as she once was. (Chef de cuisine Jake Stevens has a large role these days.) But if her brunch at Expatriate is any sign, there's still plenty more to come from that magic corner of NE 30th and Killingsworth.
5424 NE 30th
Brunch: Sat-Sun 10 am-2 pm
5425 NE 30th
Brunch: Sun 10 am, 11:30 am, and 1 pm