When asked to describe his approach to cooking, Daniel Mondok reels off his mission statement without hesitating: "American contemporary with an emphasis on French techniques and Northwest accents." It's no wonder he's got his spiel down pat: He's been refining his approach for 20-plus years, from a stint at Napa Valley's famous The French Laundry under the tutelage of Thomas Keller to time in high-end Portland kitchens like Carlyle and The Heathman. In his new dream gig as chef and part owner of Hawthorne's sel gris, Mondok had his hand in designing every element of the restaurant, from the intimate 45-seat dining room to the custom bar stools to the kitchen; and the space feels coherent, the gray and amber hues of the dining room reflected in the stainless steel and copper of the open kitchen.
It's a big city restaurant with a Portland twist, and the menu reflects that: This is high-end dining, "foodie" food, locally sourced ingredients artfully combined and arranged in towers, patterns, and flourishes. It can feel intimidating, even overproduced, but when confronted with a stack of food you're not quite sure how to eat, bear Mondok's advice in mind: "Take a fork. Knock it down. Take a bite."
The menu is expensive, but not unreasonably so: It tops out at around $30 for entrées that include a braised lamb shank, grilled escolar, and a house take on "pork 'n' beans" (Carlton Farms pork cheeks and French beans). Starters and salads, meanwhile, run from an entry-level soup ($5) to $16 for foie gras two ways. (Mondok's affection for foie is obvious: He even puts it on his burger, available on the late-night menu, served from 10 pm-1 am on weekends, and 10 pm-midnight on Thursdays.)
A simple salad of beets three ways—raw, roasted, or cured—is a revelatory take on the ubiquitous salad, a friendly reminder of the versatility of the lowly beet; while in the fritto misto, a plate of fried seafood, is brightened up with tangy, surprising bites of fried lemon. The salmon comes in one of those aforementioned towers, an artful little assemblage of salmon, prawn, crab, squid, and "coral oil," which the internet informs me is a recipe from Thomas Keller's kitchen, made by blending lobster eggs with oil—the resulting dish is surprisingly rich, and fun to deconstruct. And a tender hunk of venison is grilled to that flesh pink that speaks directly to the inner carnivore, sweetened with a light sauce of roasted fig. This is food best savored: A slow pace suits both the attention paid by the kitchen to every detail of the food, and the unexpected richness of much of it. ("If I only go through five pounds of butter in a night, that's a good night," Mondok told me.)
And then there are desserts. Dear god. Pastry Chef Steven Smith, formerly of Carlyle, is reputed to be one of the best in town, and after a bite of his tri-color chocolate mousse, tempered with a near-bitter orange sauce, I believe it. (Smith also bakes sel gris' excellent bread, fresh daily.)
Sel gris has only been open for a few months, but it's already vaulted into the upper echelons of Portland's fine dining scene. Mondok's baby is clearly here to stay, so you better head on over and form an opinion of your own. Don't forget to make a reservation.