Raising the Bar 

Can Kevin Ludwig's Much-Anticipated Bar/Restaurant Beat a Dangerous Economy?

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Two dirt pits dominate the cavernous room. The walls are unfinished. A particleboard wall blocks a cold wet view of inner Southeast Portland. It's a dismal day at the beginning of February; the economy is in shambles. But here I am, standing in what will eventually become Beaker and Flask, the highly anticipated new restaurant from celebrated 39-year-old Portland bartender Kevin Ludwig. It's a mess, but Ludwig is happy: The bar has just been installed. Well, not the actual bar, but its frame—fashioned from dull silvery I-beams bisecting the dirt pits with a graceful curve.

He leads me around the space. "We're going to have booths here," he says, gesturing to the south. "We'll have a walk-in back there," he continues, pointing to an area enclosed in theoretical walls. Then he falls silent for a moment. "There were times I didn't think it was going to happen," he says finally.

But the aluminum skeleton curving through the upheaval of construction was a sign. After two long years, his dream was becoming reality. And somehow, despite the economic turmoil and pressure from an adoring and ravenous food community, he was debt free and under budget. For the moment.

•••

Six weeks pass, and I'm standing outside of Ludwig's Northeast Portland home. I've been invited to sit in on an "experimental cocktail hour," where he and his crew will work on the Beaker and Flask cocktail list. As I wait for someone to answer the door, bartender Lance Mayhew arrives with a backpack full of booze clinking softly as he walks. Close behind is chef Ben Bettinger.

Inside, we're greeted by Ludwig and bartender Tim Davey, and later, Beaker and Flask's beer guy Doug Paquin arrives. Aside from bartender Elizabeth Markham, the gang is assembled.

Ludwig's dining room and kitchen look like the workspace of some mad alchemist. A wide range of esoteric liquors clutters nearly every surface, as well as an enormous array of bar implements, including—yes—beakers and flasks.

Ludwig unpacks a box of bottles that could've come from an old-timey apothecary. They're labeled with silver Sharpie listing their contents—macerations of ginger, grapefruit, banana, etc. Ludwig places a shot glass in front of me.

"Here," he offers, "Try something if you want."

I hit the banana gin, stunned by a flavor of dried banana chips that better resembles rum than gin. I'm lost in a tropical reverie.

When he was a kid, Ludwig's mother asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. "I said I wanted to own my own restaurant," he remembers.

This dream eventually landed him behind the bars of some of Portland's best eateries, which in turn made him one of the foremost "culinary mixologists" in the United States. These experiences allowed him to assemble what is essentially a foodie version of the Super Friends. Their mission: to combine the flavor aesthetics of the kitchen—vegetables, herbs, and fruits—with the intoxicating power of the bar, creating cocktails that cross the line into cuisine.

Ludwig's style of bartending is directly linked to his experience in the city's food scene. In 1994, after arriving in Portland, Ludwig was hired as a busboy at Wildwood, one of the first restaurants in Portland to promote farm-to-table dining. They trained him to tend bar. His second week on the job, the lead bartender was fired and Ludwig was promoted.

On his first afternoon shift, someone ordered an old fashioned. "I just had no idea what it was or how to make it," he remembers. "There was this panic moment. I hate that feeling of being ignorant."

Deciding to learn all he could about classic cocktails, Ludwig turned to a bartending book written in the 1930s by Charles Barker called The Gentleman's Companion. ("Like reading Hemingway," he says.) The book's subtitle: ...Or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask.

After developing his skills at Wildwood, Ludwig worked as bartender and waiter at Paley's Place. It was there he would later meet Bettinger.

Back at the experimental cocktail hour, Bettinger, Paquin, and Davey have returned from the store with copious amounts of meat for dinner. Bettinger loves meat, especially cured meat. He plans on offering house-cured charcuterie on Beaker and Flask's "Euro-Portland" menu, which will include small plates and entrées with ingredients like rabbit, quail, and pig hearts. Tonight, he's grilling.

Ludwig brought on Bettinger in hopes of combining the best in Portland food with the best of Portland's bar scene. It's likely he was inspired by working with Scott Dolich at the highly regarded Park Kitchen. Dolich hired Ludwig to manage his front of house when he opened the Northwest Portland restaurant in 2003 in the midst of the post-9/11 recession.

"Park Kitchen was where I first developed the idea of working with the chef to create drinks by bringing the kitchen into the bar," says Ludwig. He experimented heavily at Park Kitchen creating drinks like the rum cosmopolitan. He also had the opportunity to watch Dolich develop his business model—an invaluable lesson for building Beaker and Flask.

In addition, Ludwig worked with the handsome, irascible New Englander Paquin. I catch Paquin alone in Ludwig's living room and ask him about his vision for the Beaker and Flask beer list.

"I'm not real big on the hoppy Portland beers," he says. "I'm a fan of English session beer," he continues, noting he prefers beer people can drink all night long. Still, he will have an IPA on tap. He also wants to keep the beer list fluid and constantly moving—bringing in lesser-known regional craft beers from around the US to share space with local microbrews and Belgian beers from abroad.

Everyone has a special talent; Davey's is an extensive knowledge of spirits. Ludwig met him toward the end of his tenure at Park Kitchen, when Davey was working at Uptown Liquors.

"[Davey] is so knowledgeable and such a people person," Ludwig says. "I knew he would be a natural behind the bar." But Ludwig didn't have a bar yet.

In early 2007, the national economy was shaky, but signs of recession were still far off. Local website Portland Food and Drink reported that Ludwig would be leaving Park Kitchen to open his own place—but Ludwig hadn't found a location. He'd started looking over a map, marking ideal spots in his favorite neighborhoods. Soon, he was offered a space for lease in SE Portland in the heart of the city's burgeoning distillery district. After doing an internet search, he found the property sat almost directly on top of one of the pins he'd placed on his map.

But there were problems. The building had sunk, creating a large crack in the cement floor, which would have to be repaired before Ludwig could begin work. After new concrete was laid, a drawn out permit process ensued, causing construction on Beaker and Flask to cease. Meanwhile, the economy slowly tanked and restaurants around Portland began closing almost as quickly as they'd opened. Still, the media attention surrounding Beaker and Flask increased, especially after Lance Mayhew, who was steadily gaining a reputation in the city as an edgy, experimental bartender, joined the team. The amount of talent Ludwig had assembled was impressive. But with his dream lying in stasis and having already left Park Kitchen, Ludwig was the one in need of a job. He found a gig managing the bar at Clyde Common.

"It was embarrassing in a way, because there was already so much press about it," he says. "If I could go back to when I left Park Kitchen and just leave, without saying anything until the day I opened my doors, I'd be happy with that."

Every day at Clyde Common, customers would ask about his restaurant. People began to speculate that Beaker and Flask might not open. Ludwig waited. Coincidentally, Davey had also been hired at Clyde Common. The two spent a year behind the bar working side by side. Eventually, Bettinger was also hired and the downtown Portland restaurant became a kind of Beaker and Flask staging area.

Davey tells me that after working in close quarters for so long, there will be little staff adjustment needed once Beaker and Flask opens. It's one of the upsides of waiting for permits, construction, and now an Oregon Liquor Control Commission license.

Strangely, another benefit of all the delays has been the economy. Ludwig explains that he's made good deals on kitchen equipment, and restaurant supply companies are so uptight about keeping his business they'll bend over backward to make sure everything is just right.

As they joke and laugh with each other in the backyard of Ludwig's home, it's clear that these people like each other. More than that, they enjoy collaborating. As the evening progresses, each bartender disappears into the kitchen/lab, emerging with a cocktail. Davey's first drink is the Chimney Sweep, a recipe consisting partly of blended Scotch and ouzo. Lacking ouzo, he adds absinthe. It's smoky, bright, and slightly herbal, like standing beside a fire in a country garden. The Chimney Sweep is passed around. Various judgments are made, mostly on the theme of "It's good," while Davey explains about the ouzo substitution.

This is how the evening will continue: cocktail, judgment, explanation, and apology. After each round, Ludwig writes the recipe into a large black dossier. Mayhew has brought his own muddler and a bottle of vanilla Jack Daniels that he made at home. It's mixed with blackberry jam and lemon to make a drink that, everyone concedes, "the girls will like."

At one point Ludwig can be heard juicing something in the kitchen. He emerges with a carrot margarita. It's a beautiful orange hue, and the taste of carrot blends exceptionally well with a hit of triple sec, salt, and cilantro-infused simple syrup. It tastes like summer. The drink is passed around, the consensus being, "It's a winner."

Toward the end of the evening, Ludwig and I are smoking out back when I catch him at a rare vulnerable moment. I ask if there are any jitters as he gets close to opening. He nods his head.

"I'm worried about the economy," he says. "It's getting hard to stay below budget." He tells me his restaurant will open as a work in progress.

At the end of March, I return to Beaker and Flask. It is unrecognizable from the dirt-strewn room I'd first encountered. The concrete floor is finished and polished, making it look like dark marble. The walls framing the kitchen are painted with deep black chalkboard surfacing, and the northern wall has a contrasting coat of dark pistachio green. The bar has been fleshed out, waiting to be tiled and fitted with a black concrete top. The hood for the stove has been installed, as has the walk-in. But the crowning glory is the bullet-shaped alcove, glassed in by floor-to-ceiling windows. It looks out onto SE 7th and the cityscape beyond, filling the space with light.

Ludwig's near-constant bemusement has turned to happiness. Barring any unforeseen disaster, Beaker and Flask will be open by April's end. Somehow, Ludwig has stumbled onto the perfect plan for opening a restaurant in a troubled economy. Step One: Work at the best restaurants in town. Step Two: Gather the best people you can. Step Three: Wait for a recession. Step Four: Benefit from low prices and sycophantic customer service. Step Five: Find a place that will hire you and your team for a year. Step Five: Benefit from anticipation. Step Six: Open.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt to have a killer carrot margarita.

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