THE WOODSMAN TAVERN, Stumptown Coffee's Duane Sorenson's debut effort as a full-on restaurateur, embodies a lot of the stereotypes that have come to define our city; you're about as likely to find the plaided-and-flannelled wait staff roughing it in the woods, as you are to find a real lumberjack in one of those $1,000 Open Ceremony/Pendleton coats. But feigning surprise at such design, at this point, is equally dishonest.
Located next door to the original Stumptown on SE Division (and now the new adjoining Woodsman Market, which curates—adeptly—a variety of artisanal foods and beverages), the Woodsman Tavern hasn't tried to redefine the rustic-chic aesthetic that's dominated Portland design for the last few years, but it may be the crown jewel of it. The space is beautiful. Dark wood and muted tones, a carefully cluttered wall of oil landscape paintings, antique light fixtures—it's understated, tasteful, and about as pleasant a room as exists in this city. (One caveat: It's loud. Given, my date has poor hearing and I'm prone to mumbling, but the space really doesn't soak up much of the sound.)
Walk in and you're greeted with a bar-top display case of seafood on ice. Take this as a sign of how to begin your meal. I'd like nothing more than to begin every meal with Shigoku, Newport Bay, and Netarts oysters (and if life was fair, I would). The Woodsman typically has four varieties to choose from ($16 for a half dozen), served on the half shell with all the lemony, vinegary, and horseradishy accoutrements you'll need. If you really want to splurge, opt for the grand seafood platter ($75), which lets you sample all the Dungeness crab, prawns, scallops, and oysters that might have teased you when you first came through the door.
The next course—in that perfect world—should include the nightly selection of artisan ham. I've never been particularly partial to ham, but La Quercia has made me a believer. The texture is like prosciutto, but the flavor isn't as salty—it is, without a doubt, good ol' American ham. I could have used more in the way of pickle accompaniments, but the server was happy to bring more bread when mine ran short. You can sample one of the rotating options for $8, or all three for $18.
You can also opt for some cheaper drinking snacks or sides (fries $4, deviled eggs $2, pork rinds $4), but more impressive are a couple of the small plates. I particularly enjoyed the grilled octopus ($11). It had a nice char, a consistent texture, and came with a great salsa verde. The brussels sprouts are fried almost beyond recognition, but damn if they're not delicious. They're served with sunchokes, whole picholine olives, and an anchovy Dijon dressing. We also had a nice winter salad of faro, cauliflower, pomegranate, and walnuts ($9).
On the entrée side, whatever chef Jason Barwikowski is doing with his new toy, a rare charcoal-fire Josper oven, it's working. Everything has a hint of smokiness; the menu seems built around such flavor profiles. You can't do better than the whole roasted trout ($20), cooked with "crazy water" (a really fun term for a light herb broth made with saltwater) and cherry tomatoes. The skin was crisp, but the inside was delicate and buttery with well-balanced flavors of onion and herbs.
The confit turkey leg ($26) wasn't too far behind. The turkey was moist, and—unlike your Thanksgiving bird—the meat had even salty and fatty flavors throughout. It's served with Treviso (similar to an endive), cara cara orange, fennel, and olives.
For dessert we opted for the pumpkin bread pudding, which looked like Frank Gehry could have designed it. For a not-so-sweet tooth like myself, it was wonderful—not overly rich or sugary—but those with more decadent tastes might look toward the brownie.
The wine menu isn't as Northwest centric as I anticipated, but it features a lot of interesting bottles for the price. Barkeep Evan Zimmerman has a reputation for some of the best cocktails in town, and the Woodsman's don't disappoint. (My favorite so far is the Harvest Old Fashioned, made with applejack, rye, Peychaud's, and cherry bitters.)
I've heard grumblings about the service—and I hardly doubt the occasional snobbery—but I have to say, my service was uncommonly good. On a busy Friday evening, I showed up a few minutes before my reservation. We were immediately offered drinks, and when our table took several minutes longer to become available, our round was quickly comped. Our waiter was knowledgeable and helpful without hovering, and our courses came out just how we hoped. I've really only had great experiences thus far, and I can't wait to return for brunch.
So long as you're not expecting the signifiers "Woodsman" or "Tavern" to have anything to do with the signified, you're in for a treat.