THE SEA be a rough mistress: she giveth great bounty, but turn ye back on her and she’s liable to suck yer whole crew out past the breakers with a well-timed sneaker wave.
Such has been our experience at Headwaters, the ambitious remake of the restaurant at the Heathman Hotel by Portland titan Vitaly Paley and Executive Chef Ken Norris (Clutch Prime Sausagery).
The duo is tackling two of Portland’s big dining problems: a paucity of truly great seafood establishments and the plague of generic, unimaginative hotel restaurants downtown. There are a few exceptions in both categories—for example, Paley-backed Imperial inside the Hotel Lucia rose to major accolades under Chef Doug Adams (who plans on opening his own hotel restaurant, Bullard, next year).
Headwaters’ predecessor, the Heathman Restaurant and Bar, was for years a bastion of fine dining under Chef Philippe Boulot. But after his departure in 2012, the former go-to place for a bite before a show at the Schnitz flailed.
It’s clear Paley is hoping for a second act of that success. Headwaters’ space got a big rework, with heavy wood accents replaced by custom tilework meant to mimic waves and a raw bar that’s a gorgeous wonder to behold: Spidery king crab legs emerge from the ice like can-can dancers near clusters of dark mussels and islands of oysters.
Norris was behind the short-lived Riffle NW, a “catch-inspired” spot in the Pearl—and many the 2012 era dishes live on at Headwaters, often with an updated twist. Among them is my hands-down favorite menu item: squid carbonara with guanciale and pea tendrils, now topped with a perfectly seared hunk of salmon ($28). Screw zoodles—if you’re going to take away my glutinous pasta, it should be done with something as magical as tender rounds of squid coated in a smoky sauce.
The flavors at the raw bar are nearly universally perfect. An $8 plate of thin-sliced raw diver scallop with a truffle vinaigrette and shaved foie gras on top sounds like a recipe to burn fancy ingredients, but the result is surprisingly restrained, the luscious scallop’s sweetness pinging off the funk of the truffle with the foie adding heft to the light shellfish. A king fish with Polynesian flavors ($6) had bright acidic notes from pineapple, heat from peppers, and a creamy sauce for richness. I loved it more than I expected to.
Norris used to have uni in a shot glass at Riffle—it reappears here at $5 a pop, ready to slurp with tomato water and smoked salt. While I love uni, the salty water brought out the most viscous qualities of the uni, and had us wishing for a simpler companion.
The menu also has heavy hits of Paley’s Eastern European background, from a Saturday afternoon Russian tea service to the smoked and kippered fish and a caviar board. Russian k’vass lends a hand in one of my favorite cocktails, as the fermented “bread wine” mixes with spiced and dark rums, curacao, lime, and cinnamon to create a k’vass punch ($10) that suggests a Tiki drink with a sweater on.
Other drinks hit all the stops for an array of liquor preferences (though I wish they’d rename the vodka-based “Sweater Puppies.” Like, yesterday). There’s a short menu of wines by the glass, where I came to love a gamay noir from Oregon’s Garryana ($12), and a long wine list.
As a hotel restaurant, Headwaters is responsible for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and happy hour. I’d happily spend a power lunch eating the impressively-plated crab luigi ($18), mixed greens piled high with fresh crab, surrounded by Bayonne ham, and a silver pitcher of Louie dressing for ample application. The only border wall I support in 2017 is made of this ham.
Despite its slavish devotion to the sea, there are many dishes that seem to be mishandled by the kitchen crew, especially at the hearth. A roasted halibut tail ($45/lb) had us nervously checking the time as we waited before a show, only for it to arrive dry and overcooked. It had to go back. Our next visit brought a wildly undercooked whole rockfish that was taken back by our server for additional cooking without us even having to ask. However, a black cod en papillote ($29) was protected in its own steamy pouch, emerging moist and luxuriating in a saffron vin blanc sauce.
Sailors have all kinds of superstitions about what the sea’s whims hold for them. With the banner names, big backing, and ever-improving execution, here’s hoping that Headwaters soon becomes a delight.
Monday-Thursday: 6:30 am to 11 pm; Friday-Saturday: 6:30 am to midnight; Sunday: 8 am to 11 pm. Reservations accepted.