DOUG ADAMS (call him Douggie, okay?) is finally starting to get some screen time.
He's on Top Chef in Boston this season, one of the first Portland chefs featured on the long-running Bravo show, along with Departure's Gregory Gourdet. Both men are ripping through the competition and doing it without acting like reality TV assholes. And right after shooting wrapped in August, Adams says the first call he got was from Vitaly Paley—offering him the chef de cuisine gig at Imperial.
Adams, 29, has served in the kitchens of Lucier, Metrovino, and Paley's Place, and has been with Imperial since it opened inside the Hotel Lucia in 2012. Now, Adams says he's in the midst of revamping the menu—with Paley's executive approval, of course. He's not shy about replacing many of the dishes by former Chef de Cuisine Ben Bettinger, who left to run Laurelhurst Market: The fried rabbit legs are gone ("I was never a fan"), and so is a lot more.
"Being on Top Chef, it forced me to find my own food," he says. "I was a sous chef, and then all of a sudden I'm alone with these ridiculously famous chefs. I took a homey, comfort, kind of borderline Southern direction. I'm trying to add more feeling to the food."
While being top chef at Imperial was a role he was dying to get, he's still quick to point out the limitations that come with working in a hotel. Namely, it's hard to get freaky with the offal when your bread and butter are tourists.
"I think we kind of struggled," Adams says. "We didn't have an identity, and none of us were into being in a hotel downtown."
Three months into your tenure, I'm picking up what you're putting down, Douggie. During a recent dinner service, Adams was a calm force on the line, despite weekend covers catapulting from about 100 a night to more than 200 since the show premiered in October, he says. Adams' voice never rises above the general busy clatter and hiss of the wood-fire grill that opens out onto the large dining room of dark wood and long-horned taxidermy.
The menu is a little wacko, but roll with it. Appreciate being able to order a scallop crudo, with shaved foie gras and green pear ($14)—a pretty platter of raw scallops made richer with a snowfall of liver and sweeter by the pear. Follow them up with crazy flavorful mushrooms roasted with bone marrow and parsley ($9), and finish with cola- and PBR-braised pork ($19).
Adams, who packed up and left Tyler, Texas at the age of 18, says he'll never go back. But his stomach still belongs to the Lone Star State: he's clearly taking Imperial toward an upscale Americana bent.
Critic humblebrag: I gave props to Adams' fried chicken on these pages before Tom Colicchio & Co. did on TV. During September's Feast, Imperial dished up bite-sized versions of the juicy, crisped-up bird, served with watermelon compressed in a chamber vacuum with jalapeño oil and pickling brine, honey from the Hotel Lucia's roof, and Texas pickles. It's now on the menu for $16. Unbeknownst to Feasties, Adams conceived of the dish on the fly in one of Top Chef's first episodes.
"When you go to BBQ spots in the South, you get a tray with pickles, white onions, and jalapeños," he says. "I think the sour pickles work so well with fried chicken, it's just so fun to eat."
Also, I'm pretty sure Imperial's the only place right now to get a crispy fried pigtail ($14): a big ole fatty hunk that chews like bacon and spreads like schmaltz. "I was like, put it on—it's not going to sell," Adams says. "It picked up traction on our happy hour menu. When you're drinking beer, who doesn't want salty, crunchy pork?"
As you apply the tail to Texas toast-like white bread, tarted up with more pickles and honey habanero hot sauce delivered in medicine droppers, you realize that you're having fun. Finish off your Negroni Flip ($10) made with a whole egg, and then order a stiff East of Eden cocktail ($10)—a blend of Cynar, rye, mezcal, Byrrh, lemon oil, and Jacobsen's sea salt. Marvel that despite the fairly high price point, Imperial isn't stuffy. After all, the dessert menu involves gussied-up apple quince pie, a warm chocolate chip cookie with house-made bourbon ice cream, and a fantastic peanut brittle sundae.
Worth skipping is the pricey $39 lamb mixed grill, a lamb T-bone, leg, shoulder, and merguez sausage served on a small tree stump. It's a wonder to behold, but the T-bone was tragically over-salted. A kale and vegetable salad ($9) featured a discordant sunflower brittle that tasted like Sugar Smacks cereal got mixed up in the grownup food. I brought this up to Adams later. He said it's a vestige of the old menu, and maybe my hatred of it will help convince Paley to get rid of it for good—after the summer Adams has had, he's ready to mix it up.
"It's been a rowdy couple of months for me, to say the least," Adams says. "It's fun being on the radar."
Dinner (reviewed): Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm, Fri-Sat 5-11 pm. Lunch, brunch, and breakfast also served.