photos by Aaron Lee

Saying that Bullard is the best hotel restaurant in Portland could be seen as damning it with faint praise—but it’s not meant to be.

It’s to say that we’ve come a long way from the days of bland plates meant to mollify the palates of travelling businessmen. Bullard, the long-awaited first restaurant from Chef Doug Adams (and business partner Jen Quist) located inside the chic Woodlark Hotel, is the hopeful future of downtown restaurants.

Named after Adams’ hometown in east Texas, Bullard is a restaurant that’s super personal. It’s where “Texas meats Oregon,” as Adams puts it, and its website features quirky pictures of cacti, roast chickens, Adams’ dog, and a gif of Gene from Wet Hot American Summer tossing a salad.

Chef Doug Adams

“I had pretty much carte blanche, and that’s kind of what you’ll see hotel restaurants doing from now on,” Adams says. “I think the industry is adapting.”

Adams built a following after landing in the finals of Top Chef in 2014 and making a serious mark as the chef de cuisine at Imperial. He’s been working to launch Bullard for more than two years, spending the two dozen months of lag time mastering the art of smoking, which he now does in the basement using white Oregon oak.

The signature smoked dishes are meant for sharing: a massive beef rib ($59) and a San Antonio smoked chicken ($29 for a half; $57 for a whole). Both come with flour tortillas and salsas to wrap the meat in, but make sure you try each on its own. The ribs go on the smoker each morning at 8 am, while the chicken gets its turn at 3 pm, Adams says. Both are tender and, particularly in the case of the chicken, juicy and full of flavor, especially once the tomatillo sauce gets involved.

The hedonist in me loves the numbers involved with the cold-smoked steak: $74, 22 ounces, 45 days aged. Served sliced on a platter with a big pat of allium-infused butter, it arrived a bang-on medium rare, with a side of crisp onion rings accompanied by a buttermilk dip with slices of truffles on top. It’s a cardiologist’s worst nightmare, and the stuff of my dreams—especially if Adams can figure out how to infuse just a touch more of the smoky flavor into that beef.

Don’t worry, fried chicken freaks: Adams has just brought back a bone-in fried chicken platter on Sundays only, and it’s achingly good. Five pieces are dry brined, smoked just enough to give it a kiss of flavor, then fried, and served with hominy cornbread and a pepper jelly—for just $26. Grab a friend and a glass of something bubbly from the well-curated wine list, and get to it.

While there isn’t much beyond a $24 cauliflower steak for the vegetarian set, Adams says he’s looking forward to adding more vegetables as the seasons change, and already the number of fish options has swelled. A shrimp and grits plate arrives as two fried polenta cubes with six fat shrimp on top ($16), bursting with flavor brought from red chili butter. A bright Hamachi crudo gets a Peruvian citrus treatment ($16), and a side dish of turnips ($9) served with just a smattering of chile oil and trout roe shows Adams’ delicate side.

Bullard is not cheap, and Adams says he’s been working to tweak prices since opening. But don’t let the barbecue-centric focus fool you: This is high-end dining, with quality meats and a well-appointed dining room, and you’re paying for it. (For example, a whole chicken for two at Coquine is $64, actually a touch more than Bullard’s.)

Lunch time is the secret here: A limited selection of the meats are available as a “meat and three” for $19. It’s a great chance to try the superlative Texas red tamale without the $9 dinnertime price tag, and you can walk in without a reservation.

Ice cream and a short list of solid desserts (try the rich chocolate Texas sheet pie with figs or a grapefruit baked Alaska) round out the meal, while cocktails focus on twists of classics like the margarita and old fashioned. They’re simple, strong, and get the job done.

Adams says that the hype surrounding Bullard was tough to overcome, but he stayed grounded in making his first restaurant true to himself. “That’s the whole goal, is to make a menu that I want to eat everything on it. You know sometimes, especially downtown, you can get caught up trying to do something for everyone. I focused on stuff that I like to eat.” Lucky for Adams, it’s also something we also really like to eat.