Winning by a Nose 

Trifecta Tavern's a Sure Bet—if You Play the Right Ponies

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ACCORDING TO A GAL PAL of mine who plays the ponies, a trifecta bet is when you pick the first three horses in a race to come across the line. If you're successful, it's extremely rewarding. But it's also one of the toughest bets to pull off.

Much the same can be said for Ken Forkish's new Trifecta Tavern in Southeast Portland. When you lay your hard-earned money down on the right dishes, you're set for a meal that easily ranks as one of the most satisfying in the city. But pick the wrong plate—it's easy to do—and you're throwing your money away.

Trifecta is the third in a line of winning ventures from Forkish, beginning with Ken's Artisan Bakery in Northwest and followed by his artisan pizza joint in Southeast, which has more cult fans than the Log Lady from Twin Peaks. Trifecta is the most polished in atmosphere, with dark wood, ember-like red walls, and an icy oyster display that'll make anyone with a shellfish allergy weep. The giant mirror hovering over one section of the restaurant doesn't deter you from feeling sexy—even if it means you can see yourself shoveling meat into your maw.

There's no escaping the gluten at Trifecta. A selection of walnut levain, country wheat, and other greatest hits (also for sale after 4 pm at the tavern's bakery) is complimentary with olive oil to start. But it's worth handing over $3 for the house-churned butter—a creamy slab with a flash of acid from slight fermentation, and topped with just the right amount of flake salt.

Headed by former Higgins chef de cuisine Rich Meyer, Trifecta's menu is at its best with dishes that don't push the envelope. And in a town that largely rests on its comfort-food laurels, it is sad to watch ambition come limping in last. I wanted to hate the pimento double cheeseburger ($15); it's not like Portland needs another upscale restaurant making an incredible burger. But dammit, it's delicious—charred on the grill to a medium-rare middle, plopped on an unimpeachable brioche bun with super-savory house-made pimento cheese that drips everywhere, and, well... damn.

The oysters trifecta ($21) was an impeccable vehicle for hollandaise sauce, bivalves, and bacon (race horse name: Uncle Ken's Unkosher). The crispy pork shank ($19) made for the perfect bite when paired with the accompanying bacon broth and greens. Brussels sprouts with chorizo and apple butter ($11) may not be a new flavor combo, but it's done with aplomb and skill in the kitchen's wood-fired oven.

Even though the restaurant's pared down its multi-page menu since opening in November, Forkish would still be advised to send about one-third of his menu to the glue factory. Smoked farro with cauliflower and pickled cherries ($9) left an odd bitter taste. Grilled marrow bones ($16) were topped with so many piccalilli pickles that the funky meat butter flavor went missing.

The profit margins on the shrimp 'n' grits (race horse name: Papa Forkish's Hot Mess) must be huge. For $21, there are three head-on shrimp, over-salted gravy, and mushy grits. When the feasting was over, a large portion remained in the bowl.

Yet Trifecta does know how to win the heart of a girl like me with inventive cocktails and dessert worth running a few extra laps. Be ready to ante up—most cocktails were north of $10—but after an hour-plus wait without reservations on a Friday, you'll be ready for a stiff slurp. The eggs and cream portion was my favorite part of the drink list to explore, and the New York Sour ($10)—Old Overholt rye, fresh lemon juice, egg white, sugar, and a spiced red wine float—tastes like Christmas made out with a drunken grandma, and somehow only good things happened. And eggnog by any other name is just as sweet: The Eye Opener ($10) was also all debauched holidays, with Hennessy, Bacardi añejo, a whole egg, sugar, and nutmeg. A rare miss was the Harvey Wallbanger ($10), which had an elderflower twist that made it a bizarre screwdriver.

The bittersweet chocolate soufflé ($9) topped with toffee ice cream, served in a hot cast-iron ramekin, has enough bitter mixed with the sweet to keep it from being cloying. And think of the baba au rhum ($9)—a cake sliced in half tableside and doused with rum and a nice dollop of whipped cream on the side—like a dessert shot. You want to scarf it down before the cake gets too soggy.

So go forth to Trifecta, wait with the hordes, choose your dining bets wisely, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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