IF YOU WERE FORTUNATE enough to spend time in Caleb Mcbee's old bar, Apotheke, before it shuttered, you might—from the street anyway—be surprised by his new digs. Where Apotheke sweated Scandinavian chic from every pore (monochromatic fiberglass, modern furniture, ambient electronica), Skin and Bones feels right at home in its cinderblock cube in East Portland—which seems to be the point.
After Apotheke closed up shop, Mcbee was accepted into a program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, a program in Northern Italy started by Carlo Petrini (founder of the Slow Food Movement). There, he studied the inextricable link between a culture and its food. The anthropology-heavy coursework, as well as his own wanderings through the bistros of various European cities, gave him an appreciation for regional culinary pride, and reminded him of the way we think about food in this part of the country.
Skin and Bones, then, is meant to be something of a celebration of the Pacific Northwest. When he was starting the build-out, he said various neighbors would pop their heads in and ask what the restaurant was going to serve—was it a pizza place? A burger place? He could only answer that he'd be playing with all the local ingredients and recipes that he could.
The menu, designed around what's in season, changes significantly every month or so, and is tweaked even more regularly based on particularly exciting batches of produce or meats. But certain patterns and trends are certainly maintained.
Each menu I've seen has featured a single house-made pasta dish; a couple weeks ago it was served with sage butter and lamb bacon, but on my recent visit, we had a pastured egg yolk pasta topped with raw quail egg and shaved grana cheese ($16). The pasta itself was thin and dense, and considering how unadorned it appeared, it was surprisingly rich. They always have a "chef's toast" ($15), which looks something like an open-faced sandwich with elaborate toppings. Depending on what's growing, they feature a variety of vegetable-based small plates. The flamed Padrón peppers we ordered were good (albeit a bit small for $9), but I'm crossing my fingers that the simple heirloom tomato salad I spotted across the restaurant is still on the menu for my next visit.
Mcbee seems to really excel when it comes to pâtés, terrines, galantines, and the like. The best dish I've tried might be the potted rabbit ($16). It came out in a small mason jar under a thick layer of clarified butter, and was served alongside a generous pile of strawberry balsamic chutney and toasted brioche. The appetizer could easily be shared by a group of four, but my companion and I made quick work of it. When we exhausted the bread supply, our server brought us a plate of house-made cardamom crackers, which rivaled the bread as a vehicle for that soft, rich rabbit.
A close second would be the smoked bison brisket served over a bed of porcini grits ($19). The meat was much more tender than I'd anticipated—I had no need for a knife—and its outsides seemed almost caramelized for a slightly sweet finish. The grits were tremendous; they also carried a sweetness to them, but took on that meaty flavor of the mushrooms. This too was a large portion, and I'm glad we decided to share.
The entrées lean heavily on the meat-eater side—pan-fried sardines over quinoa, smoked jowl, duck confit with savory bread pudding—but if you don't mind ordering tapas style, vegetarians could probably piece together a meal from Mcbee's vegetable plates, grains, and breads (though you might want to check the current menu before heading out).
It's not cheap by any means—two entrées, two appetizers, and a couple drinks set me back $75 before tip—but I've yet to be disappointed by a dish. The space makes for a cozy neighborhood bistro—the open kitchen is flanked by two family-style tables and two four-tops—but it doubles as one of the better second-date spots in town. It's got class, but it's understated; it's intimate, but even more so it's warm and friendly.
Right now, Skin and Bones is only serving dinner, but keep an eye out for expanded hours in the future. Considering their excellent baked goods and my own affinity for morning forcemeat, I have a feeling that when they get around to doing brunch, they'll blow it out of the water. Right now, they're only licensed to sell beer and wine (they carry a small but well-designed list of each), but a full liquor license will be on the agenda down the line. And if you remember how far ahead of its time Apotheke's list of whiskeys and herbals was, you might become pretty familiar with those 50s blocks of East Burnside.