I HAVE the same feelings about Pono Farm Soul Kitchen as I do about Bradley Cooper: All the elements for a hot time are there, and for that reason I can objectively appreciate both the Hollywood District's newest restaurant and People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive for 2011. And yet, despite careful crafting, both leave me a little cold.
It's mystifying, really. Pono Farm—a heritage ranch in Central Oregon with a butcher and sandwich shop in Bend—opened their flagship restaurant in the new apartment complex next to the Hollywood Theatre. With its finer-dining Japanese-influenced menu, it's just what that neighborhood was screaming for. Their beef is Wagyu and Red Angus. The pork is Red Wattle and Berkshire. They're sourcing seriously good ingredients here, and you can taste that.
Yet I don't see myself returning to Pono all that often. Probably for a drink and a few plates before I catch a show at the city's best theater, where I will fill up on popcorn. Maybe for happy hour. Probably because I can get the same style of cooking done just as well for way less money at too many other restaurants in Portland.
Don't get me wrong, like Mr. Cooper (and his gorgeous perm) in American Hustle, Pono also has some stunning performances. To start, a salad of grilled king trumpet mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and peas with a bacon vinaigrette ($9) did the seasonal ingredients total justice, even if the chervil microgreens on top were wilted from the heat of the dressing. I'll also take a moment to say you should just order their bacon next door in the retail butcher shop, take it home, and cuddle it like Gollum.
The steak tartare ($14) was lush and given a welcome Japanese touch with ponzu sauce and yuzu kosho paste, topped with an egg yolk from the farm and fried lotus root—which was a great alternative to bread for scooping up the raw meat. A black cod dish—de rigueur on Japanese menus these days—was braised in soy, with a warm tomato and grape salad. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the umami, acid, and sweetness levels were sublime... but it was about four bites. For $17.
Pono is very slick, with plenty of stainless steel and wood-paneled walls, allowing noise levels to ratchet up quickly. It's a huge, largely undivided space, with an open kitchen and plate-glass windows looking out onto NE Sandy. It doesn't inspire lingering. The cocktail list includes unsurprising Asian additions, like shochu in a cosmopolitan ($8). The staff was friendly, but most were unable to answer basic questions about ingredients, rushing off like rabbits to pull the ear of someone who did know what was in our meal.
On our first visit, they brought around a raw meat tray, which is way better than a dessert tray. We sprung for a rare eight-ounce ribeye ($34) with a ginger scallion chimichurri. This was fantastic, except it was served on a hot cast-iron plate in the fashion of fajitas, overcooking the tasty rare pieces that weren't devoured immediately. That plate has to go. (My fiancé and our grill at home can attest to how I get when I drop dollars on steak and it's overcooked. CRITIC SMASH!)
The pork gyoza tasted great, but were served over an incongruous Italian-style tomato sauce. We weren't given a spoon, meaning that barely any of the (unnecessary) sauce made it into our mouths with chopsticks. Again, $9 is a lot to ask of the humble dumpling. Desserts are outsourced to Mio Asaka, and are not worth the gas used to drive them over. A matcha custard ($7) was grainy, not creamy, and had more gelatin in it than Bill Cosby. A lemon meringue tart was better, but not worth the $9.50 when compared with most decent pastry shops.
The lunch menu is great if you're on an expense account. An order of beef chuck curry rice ($9), was a modest portion of the mild brown Japanese-style comfort dish. A smoked beef brisket sandwich with caramelized onions, provolone, and barbeque sauce ran $12, but happily it was the size of my face and had all of the right cheese and meat notes. The side of green beans I ordered—again with that bacon—was a gourmet replica of one of my favorite childhood foods. I could eat a tub of those.
You may love Bradley Cooper. You may love Pono Farm Soul Kitchen. They both just ultimately don't do it for me.
Tues–Sat 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 5-10 pm. Happy hour Tues-Sat 5-6 pm, 9-10 pm. Full bar. Retail butcher shop located next door.