THIS MAY BE the most visits I've ever paid to a restaurant that's up for review. Typically a place gets three fair shakes; since its opening in July, I've been to Roman Candle a dozen or so times—and plenty of the food has been on my own dime. From the kouign amann, to the masterfully designed sandwich menu, to the just-released pizza bianca, I'm continually impressed by the way Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson's latest venture sets its sights on—and achieves—excellence. It feels like someone set down a big bag of money, said, "Make everything the best," and left a talented team to do its work.
The café's communal table—that polarizing dining format which makes the skin of the tired and the antisocial (and I speak as one of them) crawl with discomfort—is done well here. It is the only seating option, but the tables are massive, and allow comfortable personal space between diners. From this seating the large open kitchen and bakery is in full view, with white-shirted cooks busily sheeting, portioning, and prepping against a storybook backdrop of classic white tile and machinery that could bite your hand off.
The food is as handsome as its wood-and-marble context seems to promise. Pastries, such as the mythic kouign amann ($3) and the crackling croissants, are among their finest offerings. The kouign amann, a simplified puff pastry with a surface of deeply caramelized sugar, is given a sprinkle of sea salt that amplifies the sweet, slightly sticky crust to improbable levels of flavor. The airy croissants tend toward nutty, shattering, and light-bodied, with a toasted crunch giving way to a buttery finish—I really don't need a croissant to be better than this. A regularly changing lineup of danish pastries, cookies, tarts, and more fills the glass case near the ordering station; the classic canelé, with its thick, crisp crust and custardy center, is a reliable constant.
Sandwiches ($7-10) and sides ($4-7) are the heart of the mid-day menu. This fall, before it disappeared, the sandwich to get was the BLT: premium slices of juicy, perfectly ripe heirloom tomato, thick Neuske's (I asked) bacon, tomato brioche, and a peanut butter mayonnaise, whose painstaking evolution the cook described in proud detail. The combination was intensely good, but it's gone now, and I have to put the Sloppy Giuseppe in its spot. Take a corner of focaccia, slice it open like a pita pocket, fill it with an intense, deeply flavored beef and pork ragu with just the right amount of moisture not to breach its container, and you have an excellent article of street food. The Chrissy, an albacore tuna salad with egg and salsa verde, is light-bodied, balanced with lemon, and given good sour crunch with pickled beans.
The Booyah, a pork trotter banh mi, is of the gilded-lily variety. No small amount of work goes into making the trotter croquette, a deep-fried slab of succulent meat that is the most decadent banh mi filling I've seen. (And I've reviewed over two dozen versions in Portland.) It's served on a slightly too-large roll that has a respectable crunch and tender crumb, with a bright and refreshing set of mint, cilantro, pickled vegetables, and a pine nut dressing. The Rocky is, appropriately, a tidy little Italian-American hero, with three salumi, provolone, iceberg, and pickled peppers. The unlikely Babe, a baguette with prosciutto, peanut butter, jam, and butter, works well, with the nutty-iron depth of the meat playing off the peanut butter.
Sides are accordingly well made, with bold flavors, careful preparation, and enticing visual appeal. Top honors go to the intense Tuscan Cavalry kale salad: a ribbon-cut kale, lightly wilted in a dressing of lemon, garlic, olive oil, and chilies, and dusted with toasted breadcrumbs and crumbled SarVecchio (a premium American parmesan). A vinegary, texture-rich farro salad with squash, chanterelles, and pumpkin seeds is another healthful-sounding but surprisingly delicious offering, its earthy flavors focused with the tart, slightly sweet dressing. In the evenings, two varieties of sizable arancini are available ($3.50), and highly recommended for sharing.
It's a bit premature to review their new pizza bianca menu—available after 5 pm—but it's off to a strong start. Generous squares of focaccia-like bread ($4-7 a slice) have a respectably complex red sauce, traditional toppings, and light leopard spotting, but the bottom crust is still a bit tough.
Shelves of beautiful, rustic baguettes, ciabatta, and more line the wall behind the register, most available in two or more sizes. The gently sour sourdough is ideal for grilled sandwiches, and the ciabatta reminds me of the drum-like marvels from Nostrana's dome oven, but the rich flavor of the Sicilian sesame-crusted loaf is the must-try.
Roman Candle's food has been beautifully designed and executed by a team with an excellent palate, and it's highly recommended for a casual lunch or dinner.
Open daily 7 am-10 pm. Coffee, beer, wine, and liquor available.