Step inside newish Firehouse restaurant at the hub of the up-and-coming Woodlawn neighborhood in Northeast Portland, and you'll notice the smell immediately: a perfume of burning wood, seared-meat juices and the nutty scent of baking bread.
It only seems fitting that a former firehouse, should now be lit by the flames of a wood-fired oven and rotisserie. Owners Matthew Busetto and Eric Rose have restored the historic space, transforming the ground floor into two smaller dining rooms and a tiny bar. For the warmer months, they've created a patio garden, surrounded with flowers and raised beds of vegetables and herbs. It is a sublime place to dine.
But while that heady perfume is sure to make any diner hungry, the Southern Italian-inspired menu doesn't satisfy the resulting pangs as consistently as you'd hope, despite the obvious care taken to prepare it. Prices, though, are affordable, and portions are quite large. So a return trip to sample new seasonal offerings is always an option.
Small plates are a good bet; roasted beets with feta ($4.50) were earthy and tangy, bruschetta with winter squash and chanterelles with fromage blanc ($5) was a single slab of olive oil-drenched bread, loaded with the cubed, sweet flesh of the squash tossed with a few tasty mushrooms. The vegetables we tried, however, would've benefitted from a heavier hand with the salt and pepper. Try any three for $12 and add a glass of wine or beer and you've got a great light dinner.
Second courses are basic salads and pizzas, and the Caesar salad ($7), cleverly disguised as "romaine hearts with lemon-anchovy vinaigrette and shaved pecorino," was fresh, crisp and delicious, coated with a creamy garlicky dressing. The pizza margherita ($10) was simply topped with a thin, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, sparse blobs of fresh mozzarella, a few basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. The wood-smoke flavor of the oven lingered in the blistered dough.
Main courses could use less emphasis on that smoke. A fennel-roasted pork shoulder with cannellini beans ($14) was plentiful enough, with half a dozen 1/3-inch-thick slices laid over a thick slab of country bread. The tender meat was juicy but too salty, and the fennel seeds and rosemary clinging to the outer edges couldn't prop up the flat, saline-smoke flavor. The rotisserie chicken ($14.50) was also moist under its crisp skin, but any subtle flavors the half bird may have had were buried in that deep blanket of smoke. Mussels with tomato, saffron, Portuguese peppers and fennel ($14, now served with roasted leeks and Meyer lemon aioli) fared better from its visit to the yellow-tiled, dome-shaped, 750-degree oven. The heap of briny mussels were plump and tasted of the ocean, coming arranged in a pan of tomato broth, studded with chunks of pepper, big cubes of bread and thin slices of fresh fennel.
Desserts from pastry chef Gretchen Glatte may become known as Firehouse's most beguiling attribute. Glatte's work is confident and deliberate, and she allows assertive flavors just enough room to speak for themselves. Her bittersweet chocolate-hazelnut torte ($6) is an exercise in technique; perfectly dense and chewy inside while crisp and nutty on the edges, it's garnished with a dollop of whipped cream bolstered with tiny chocolate nibs. Her crème caramel ($6) reaches similar heights—super-creamy with a smooth texture and a slight tangy taste. Pumpkin cheesecake ($6) had a fluffy texture that added another dimension to the seasonal flavor.
Service and atmosphere are friendly and welcoming, and Firehouse has quickly become a neighborhood favorite as well as a crosstown destination. And for good reason: a warm reception and comforting food at reasonable prices.
Firehouse, 711 NE Dekum St., 954-1702, firehousepdx.com. Dinner 5-9:30 pm Wednesday and Thursday, 5-10 pm Friday and Saturday; Brunch 10 am-1 pm and dinner 5-9 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.