II’ve long been baffled why Portland—ye olde town of farm-to-table and just over an hour from the Pacific Ocean—doesn’t have better seafood restaurants that pull right from our salty shores.
We finally caught one. Erizo, the new pricey prix fixe restaurant from a couple of guys in their 20s, is giving us the sustainable, largely locally-caught fish we deserve. Chefs Jacob Harth (recently named a national Eater Young Gun) and Nick Van Eck, both 27, earned commercial fishing licenses and now head west each week to harvest mussels, clams, and seaweed, which they then elaborately prepare and plate in a small, open space behind Bar Casa Vale.
The menu offers 20 courses and runs $125 before the (optional) $75 wine pairing and (not-optional) gratuity. But the sheer amount of fucking effort that goes into this meal, and the results, make it money well spent. With impeccable service and wine/sake pairings headed by Treva Willis, who was a captain at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in NYC, this is a reservation that should soon be hard to get.
When I emailed Harth to get more details about the menu, his description of technique and sourcing ran far longer than my word limit for this review.
That menu includes the best bite of octopus I’ve ever had. In this case, it’s a red Oregon octopus that’s a bycatch of crab and cod fishermen in Astoria. The limbs are blanched repeatedly, grilled over a fire and then fried, served over a romesco-style sauce of puffed rice grown on Sauvie Island. The smoky octopus was somehow made more tender while becoming denser in texture and concentrated in flavor, with crispy bits on the outside. Perfection, paired with a 24-year-old bottle of Portuguese white.
A plate of six pieces of aged fish was amazing all around. Harth says he ages the fish to concentrate the flavor and oil content. Ten-day-old flounder may sound weird, but boy howdy, was it a perfect bite: firmer than most fish, served with a sauce made from the excess meat from the fillets and a splash of tangerine to brighten it up. A Hood Canal spot prawn cured overnight on dried kelp came with a bitter green almond, the sweetness of the meat a wonderful foil.
Harth says it took years to get Erizo (which means “sea urchin” in Spanish) to float. Sourcing local and sustainable seafood is harder than it seems.
“It’s mainly due to a broken system with our fishing industry and a lack of interest from restaurants,” Harth says. “There’s virtually zero communication between restaurants and fishermen, and the market is dominated by giant corporations that provide no visibility as to how their product is sourced and where it comes from. There is no transparency whatsoever.”
Instead, these chefs are out there digging wild blue mussels in Barview to smoke and bathe in hazelnut milk, and driving to Port Orford to collect hand-caught invasive purple sea urchins from divers. The seaweed salad includes 20 varieties that Harth and Van Eck gathered. This is some real Little Red Hen business.
Let’s get honest, though: Not every course in 20 is going to be a winner. During very fancy dinners, it’s good to have a few plates miss their mark—the lows show the chefs are pushing the envelope just as well as the sublime ones do. To that end, a grilled oyster that was poached in its own liquor, then caramelized on a wood grill with grilled lettuce juice, ends up as a rubbery bite of overly fishiness in green water. The “main course” of Alaskan halibut was the tail—salvaged from being tossed out as an “off cut”—marinated in a miso made from Ayers Creek borlotti beans and fire roasted. The flavor was incredible, but the volume of bones underscored why the tail isn’t prized. The pillowy parker house rolls accompanying the halibut, however, are worth bagging and selling on their own.
Erizo’s price tag puts it in the ranks of Castagna, Nodoguro, and Holdfast—but it’s the innovation, tenacity, and methods these chefs use that make it worthy of an induction to the top tier of Portland dining.