When Kevin Ludwig announced plans in 2007 to leave his job as bartender and front-of-house manager at Park Kitchen and open his own place, most of Portland’s foodie community assumed it would be a craft cocktail bar in the mold of Teardrop Lounge, with plenty of attention paid to housemade tonic and bitters and whatnot but not so much to food. This wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. The cocktail revival was just getting into swing in Portland, and a hot-shot bar (Ludwig is one of the few local bartenders with real name recognition) on the east side seemed like a sure bet.
The idea of Ludwig’s venture as a bar and not much more persisted, even as Beaker & Flask was delayed again and again by construction as well as the permitting and licensing process. But Ludwig started bartending at Wildwood and has been working in restaurants—not bars—ever since, at Paley’s Place, Park Kitchen and Clyde Common. And then there was his secret weapon: chef Ben Bettinger. “The intention was definitely to be a restaurant from the time Ben signed on,” Ludwig said. “It would have been stupid to waste his talents.”
It would indeed. Bettinger, a muscular, baby-faced Vermont native, started his kitchen career as a teenage dishwasher. In 2001 he moved to Portland to attend Western Culinary Institute and moved straight into an internship at Paley’s Place. Within two years he was appointed sous chef. “[WCI] used to have a poster of me in the office—I’d have interns come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re the poster guy,’” Bettinger says. After six years at Paley’s, Bettinger decided it was time to move on. “At the going-away party, Kevin sidled up to me at the bar and said, ‘What are you doing now?’ And I signed on then.” Eighteen months later, on June 25, 2009, Beaker & Flask finally opened. The immediate reaction from Portland’s food bloggers was, in essence, “Great cocktails. But, dear lord, the food!”
Bettinger’s education at Paley’s shows in his affection for underrated meats—pork cheeks, pork belly, lamb neck—mushrooms, bacon and pickles, and in perfectly plated concoctions such as grilled pork cheeks with braised peppers, pickled octopus and aioli. He is, like the Paleys, intimately in tune with the seasons. “We’re definitely in the swing of fall,” he said in early October. “We’ll see a lot of chanterelles and delicata squash. As far as proteins are concerned, braises. We have a lot of kale.” But Bettinger has a style all his own: His pork-belly kale, squash and apple, a Northwest cuisine standard, is braised in maple syrup. The feta in his grilled romaine salad is smoked. His flawless quail comes with peaches and candied pecans. His mackerel is grilled and smoked. And the prices—nothing on the menu costs more than $20—are a world away from the bistro on Northwest 21st Avenue.
While the food shines, the drinks do not disappoint. Ludwig is joined behind the bar by Tim Davey, the former bar manager for Clyde Common, and a handful of the city’s expert cocktailians. All are improbably enthusiastic about spirits and have crafted a thoughtful menu of house concoctions that reaches beyond gin and bourbon to scotch, aquavit, shochu and sherry. A standout is Joe McCar-thy’s Ghost, a warming blend of aquavit, Carpano and apricot brandy. Drinks are served in a charming array of mismatched glassware Ludwig has collected over 10 years.
There’s room for improvement, of course. Service at Beaker & Flask can be very slow, though never when it’s time for the check. The reservation system can be confusing. There’s still no sign, though Ludwig says it’s on the way. But these are quibbles. Sitting at the restaurant’s semicircular bar with a cocktail and a plate of pork cheeks, looking out the curved glass window onto Sandy Boulevard? That is bliss.