I SHOWED UP at Grain & Gristle the first week they opened, and developed a pretty strong opinion right away. Since then, I've heard a few people gripe about how they felt let down, how it didn't live up to co-founder Ben Meyer's previous project, Ned Ludd. It took everything inside me not to lash out at them. Of course Ned Ludd is wonderful, and of course you're not going to get the same experience at a casual gastropub that serves entrées for roughly half the price. Do you watch Groundhog Day and then say: I don't know... I really prefer 8 1/2? Maybe you do, but all that tells me is you're an asshole.
When Meyer teamed up with Upright Brewing's Alex Ganum and restaurant designer Marcus Hoover, the idea was to open a neighborhood place you'd be comfortable stopping by every day after work, but would still serve as a destination for food and beer lovers around the city. For my money (and not much of it), they nail that balance as well as anywhere in Portland.
All that said, Grain & Gristle clearly has some crossover with its big brother. The cured meat board ($10) is pretty similar—minus the price tag and presentation—and even featured my Ned Ludd favorite, porchetta di testa (ahh... pig face). The menus, which have a small, carefully curated entrée selection, are supplemented with hearty vegetarian appetizers, cheeses, and upscale drinking snacks, such as housemade olives ($3) and pickles ($4). Then there are the salads—capable of upstaging your next course.
But playing to a broader audience (and owning appliances) has allowed Meyer to play with a wider range of dishes than you can pull from Ned Ludd's wood stove (admittedly, it's less geared to our herbivore friends). His pork cracklin's ($4) opened my imagination to what the pork rind is capable of. His salt cod fritters ($8) are immaculate. The bite-sized balls are not overly salty—the potato cuts the flavor nicely—and the texture is just right. It's served with a salad of shaved fennel, grapefruit, and chopped olives, a flavor combination new to me, but I can't wait to try it at home.
Another standout are the mussel frites ($9)—hold on, let me say that again, $9! The portion is huge, and while more could be done with the broth, the aioli heaped on top of the fries does plenty for my meal's rich-and-decadent quotient. Still, the standout value of the menu is their nightly twofer. It's a meal meant to be split with your date (I've seen chicken pot pie and greens, and half a roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes... both would handily feed two), complete with a pair of beers for $20.
Speaking of which, Alex Ganum's beer is reason enough for a visit. Not only are his own Upright brews among my favorite in town, but he administers his tap list with all the care and knowledge of a good sommelier.
Grain & Gristle might get crowded. The front of the house might get frenzied—so might the kitchen. Is it the special-occasion spot you go to when you need your night to be perfect? Probably not. But compare it to places trying to accomplish the same thing—maybe another successful local establishment with entrées in the $8-10 range (or even more) that specializes in beer and some variation on pub grub, a place that wants to be your neighborhood bar. Would you pick Grain & Gristle or McMenamins?