Angela Cash
Buckman Grill
207 SE 12th

Immediately upon sitting down at the Buckman, a bowl of bright red steamed crawfish at a neighboring table caught my eye. When I settled in and my focus turned to the menu, I realized there were difficult choices ahead.

For appetizers, I mulled over the jambalaya and the chicken confit with figs, almonds, and chestnut honey. But when push came to shove, I opted for a fennel theme: Potato fennel soup, and shaved fennel and artichoke salad. The soup burst with buttery potato flavor and used the fennel's subtle licorice taste to back it up. Torn, soft chunks of the warm bacon cornbread muffins I'd ordered soon made their way to the bowl to sponge up every last creamy bit of soup. As for the salad, the portion is enough to share, but you won't want to. Crisp, pasta-thin ribbons of fennel and slices of artichoke sat on a perky bed of greens. The verdant mix was lightly coated with a lemony Caesar dressing, unifying the ingredients, but not masking their taste.

Entrees were a tough call, too. Again, my eyes darted to other tables, checking out a Carlton pork chop that was almost as thick as a phone book, and a glistening Chinook salmon special. In the end, red meat won out. A generous culotte cut of steak came plated in a sea of warm tomatillo sauce, and was accompanied by an arugula salad and a hill of fingerling potatoes. The spicy green sauce complimented the medium-rare steak perfectly--and later served as an addictive makeshift condiment for a side order of fries. My ravenous dinner mate was set to make short work of the Buckman burger, but it turned out this thing was big enough to unhinge your jaw. Topped with crinkled strips of house-cured bacon and melted smoked cheddar, it was a burger-lover's burger.

There was barely room for dessert, but I came with an appetite reserved for my elastic-waistband Dockers, and refused to relent to fullness. The bizarre but intriguing Buckman specialty--a PB & J made with brioche and homemade peach preserves, all deep fried in pancake batter (something like a Monte Cristo)--would have to wait for my next visit. The bread pudding was calling. Again, Buckman asserted itself as a place where "skimp" is a four-letter word. What arrived was nearly the size of a hatbox. I carved effortlessly into the sweet and silky mass, each forkful showing off the dried cherries that hid like treasure in every cranny of pudding.

As I worked my way through the menu like the levels of a videogame, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But at each turn, Oregon's bounty of ingredients and Buckman's skillfully prepared dishes amazed. The trio of executive chef Paul Murphy, sous chef Lorenzo Gonsalves, and dessert chef John Stewart is strong out of the gate. The friendly wait staff knew their stuff and then some. Even the bartender had time to field a question or two while gracefully pouring a Buckman martini--Absolut Currant, champagne, and sour mix.

Beyond the food, the restaurant also hit high notes. Everything from the amber-tinted lighting fixtures to the saffron-colored walls to the dishes of coarse salt for seasoning signaled that the Buckman is classy but not fussy. On its humble Southeast block, it's part of the vernacular of Portland, and will give neighborhood foodies a formative dining experience.