The website for Roe, the reigning champion of modernist seafood in Portland, and likely the Pacific Northwest, announces that from Sunday to Tuesday, the restaurant is “Fishing.”
This isn’t a cutesy way of saying they’re closed—they mean it. In a state so bountiful with the sea’s riches and a city so enamored with eating local, Roe Executive Chef/Owner Trent Pierce and his team are among just a few restaurants that truly capitalize on seasonal and straight-from-the-boat sourcing, and are certainly the only ones to elevate it so highly.
Roe isn’t new—it spent its first four years as a hidden speakeasy on Southeast Division. There, Pierce and his right-hand chef Patrick Schultz cooked quietly in a luxe-but-tiny room on no more than a few induction burners and sous vide machines, turning out 10-course masterpieces of soft-poached Oregon razor clams in bacon broth and ineffable prawn carpaccio.
But Pierce had bigger things in mind, and closed the destination spot for the better part of 2017, finally reopening in December on the mezzanine level of the historic Morgan Building downtown. There’s more seating, an option for an $80 four-course menu along with the storied seven-plus course experience ($125-155), and dedicated pastry chef Elizabeth Clements, an alumni of Coquine and the French Laundry. A full kitchen, with gas-powered burners and ovens, is open to the dining room, and puts Pierce’s new ability to play on display.
In the two months since launching, Pierce and company’s food is at 100 percent, even if some of the organizational kinks are still being worked out. Over two meals, each totaling close to three hours (full disclosure: one was as a guest of the restaurant during their soft opening), it is clear this iteration of Roe would easily earn a Michelin star, if they handed those out here.
The menu rotates constantly, arriving on the table printed on a small card with single words describing the journey ahead: butterfish, scallop, lobster, salmon, sea bass, cheese, honey.
What arrives could easily cover several dozen adjectives and nouns. One night, the butterfish was a Roe throwback: walu dusted in porcini mushroom and given a ribeye-like sear, served surf-and-turf style with a soft prawn swimming in nc chm and draped with enoki mushrooms. Divine. Salmon could be a meltingly soft cut flavored with juniper and fluffed with a gin-based foam, creating a gin and tonic effect. Or it could be a portion of king salmon, grilled over Japanese charcoal (an impossibility in the former setup) with sunchoke puree and chips.
Inevitably, there’s an extra course or two beyond the seven listed, including a recent four-part amuse bouche of dashi spiked with lemon oil, raw geoduck sliced razor-thin, salmon with microleeks, and octopus with lime meringue. Caviar can be added to the meal for extra cost.
Since you’re already paying dearly for this dinner (Valentine’s Day is booked, but try to sneak in soon after and celebrate a bit late), don’t skimp on the wine pairing ($85 for the seven-course meal) provided by general manager and wine director Salvador Perdomo. [UPDATE: Salvador Perdomo is no longer with Roe.] Weighted heavily toward European whites and sake, Perdomo clearly loves wine making and history, expounding upon the ancient origins of a Roman blend or explaining a cedar-barreled sake in a way that’s never pretentious or stuffy.
A Vouvray from François Pinon seemed far too sweet on the first sip, only to come alive alongside a plating of Japanese sea bass blooming with purple applications of sweet potato and a sea of prawn curry. A real treat for this usually middle-brow oenophile was a William Fevre Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru, not the usual pairing for the lobster with grapefruit foam and smoked grapes, but, as Perdomo explained, it was open and needed to be enjoyed before they closed for the next three days.
During the soft open, a few dishes fell a bit flat, but our second visit six weeks later had little to fault. Desserts by Clements have been uniformly triumphant, my favorite being a play on milk and honey: crunchy and subtly salty milk streusel with honeyed milk foam and a milk chip. It’s hard to get people to keep eating at the end of a meal like this, but her approach is compelling.
The only downside to Roe is the space itself, perched on a mezzanine overlooking the retail shops on the first floor of the Morgan Building. There’s little signage to point diners up the stairs at the end of a hallway, and when you enter, you find yourself in a small waiting room, not unlike at a doctor’s office. Of course, instead of the 2003 People magazines, there’s a small cart with champagne and a note for your party, asking that you wait to be seated. I think the idea is to keep some of the old clandestine feel of the previous Roe, but here, it’s clunky.
Inside, the space is well decorated, but it’s too bright, thanks to the fluorescents from below. It’s good news for taking gorgeous pictures of your plates, not so hot for date-night intimacy. Yet, as you unconsciously start chair-dancing to deep cuts from the Kinks and Motown somewhere around the fourth course, it’s also right where you want to be.