THERE'S A DANGER in recommending, too loudly or too often, that place you like near your house. What if it gets too crowded? What if brunch lines reach Screen Door levels? What if, when other dinner plans fall through, you can't stroll right in and get a table? These are our anxieties.
The first time I ate at Roost, I worried that it'd be the last time I sat in that spare little dining room, quietly enjoying my steak and corn fritters without hungry people spilling onto SE Belmont, eyeing my plate and waiting for me to leave. But a couple weeks went by—then a couple months—and still, each time I pass and look through those big plate windows into that stark white restaurant, I see servers leaning against the bar, a few patrons finishing a meal. At a recent weeknight dinner, ours was the only table occupied. A Saturday brunch fared a little better, but the place was still maybe at half capacity. Dammit, people... the only thing worse than having your neighborhood spot discovered, is discovering a for lease sign in the window.
So what's keeping the crowds away?
It should have been the hype. Owner/chef Megan Henzel trained under Julia Child before working in New York as a personal chef for celebrities. You'd think culinary starfuckers would be bellied up at the bar to talk about the various joys of French cooking or how Diddy likes his eggs (note: my projection of what it means to be a "chef to the stars").
The space is nice. A couple people have told me it looked cold from the street, but they were charmed as soon as they went in. Maybe it errs a bit on the Ikea side, but the clean lines, mix of light and dark woods, and chrome accents make for a pleasant dining room. Pocket doors with large windows allow you to watch Henzel busying herself in the kitchen without turning your meal's preparation into dinner theater.
The location—SE 14th and Belmont—certainly isn't hurting anything.
And it's definitely not the portions. If you have a father who feels more comfortable with steakhouse-size dinners, don't shy away from taking him here. Never before have I had to worry about filling up on brussels sprouts (and it was tough not too...Henzel's were perfectly crisp and never verged on that skunky flavor that comes from overcooking). My beet salad—six large beets and a pile of watercress, plated with a perfect horseradish cream—came with two pieces of brown bread loaded with egg salad... the garnish alone could have practically been lunch. And contrary to doctor's orders, my steak was far, far bigger than my fist. The bacon chop they were serving in early fall was comically—like, Fred Flintstone—large. I'm praying for its speedy return to the menu.
Prices aren't bad. Most entrées are in the $14-18 range, and the most expensive thing on the menu right now is $22.
I refuse to believe it's the quality of the food. The grilled spatchcock hen—a dish that could easily come out bland and forgettable in lesser hands—was rich, full of flavor, and gussied up by a leek and Parmesan terrine. The potato-crumbed dover sole used the flaky crust to keep all the moisture inside. Its bed of escarole was a nice touch, and I would buy jars of the dill pickle mayonnaise it was served with.
Without a Bloody Mary on the menu it'd be hard for me to make Roost a brunch standby, but if you can settle for mimosas, you're in for a treat. Henzel's take on a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich is inspired. She uses a savory french toast (picture an über-rich garlic bread), poached eggs, bacon, and tomato. Her Mornay sauce—which she lathers on generously—has almost a meringue quality. Though I liked what I stole of my date's ham, gruyere, and shallot omelet, it'll be hard for me to pass up that heart attack of a breakfast sandwich when I return.
The wine list seems to be focused on value rather than flash—I drank an affordable, though not particularly memorable, Southern Oregon Tempranillo—but I was thrilled to see three Heater Allen beers in the lineup (along with offerings from Hopworks, Caldera, and Oakshire).
Excellence is passed over for mediocrity all the time—this has ceased to shock me. I'm sure Olive Garden's stockholders do just fine. I'm only surprised because Roost seems primed for a devout following among Portlanders. Not that I can pretend to know what their books like, but I hope word of mouth comes around before too many creditors do.