Outside the perfunctory nod fish is given in most of the finer restaurants in town, Portland diners of a piscatorial bent have been limited to visiting one of the sushi joints scattered around town or settling on an outpost of the McCormick & Schmick's empire. Fin, helmed by chef Trent Pierce and opened over the summer in the space formerly occupied by Sel Gris, is determined to boldly elevate Portland's seafood dining experience beyond boilerplate slabs of grilled salmon. Aside from a few missteps, it succeeds, wielding a small but focused menu of artfully assembled creations that challenge and delight.
Fin's menu is designed with a shared, smaller-plate focus. Ninety percent of its fish are flown in from Hawaii. The ever-changing menu features both raw and hot sections, with a note that to preserve the delicate flavors of each dish, they are served as soon as they are ready. With some of the raw preparations, such just-in-time manufacturing is vital, as was the case with the ceviche ($12). The glistening hunks of ono were bathed in lime juice just long enough for the surface proteins to denature without turning rubbery, while heat from Thai chiles played nicely off herbs and ginger. The dish did skirt the edge of overwrought—it was sometimes difficult to discern the flavor of the fish past the nuoc mam-like dressing—but the bites in which the fish was the primary player were sublime. In that regard, the yellowfin carpaccio ($13) was less effective, as the flavor of the beautiful, translucent sheets of fish was lost beneath a slick of ponzu soy and chives. (To be fair, the taste of that great ceviche still lingered in my mouth, so perhaps a proper palate cleanser would have helped the carpaccio.) The butterfish tartare ($11) needed no such qualifiers, as the tender chunks of yuzu-dressed fish meshed well with the crunch of pomegranate seeds and tobiko (flying fish roe). Sweet kabocha squash nestled in the tasty dollop rounded out the salty and pungent flavors in the dish.
The hot dishes at Fin are all about luxury. Witness the gnocchi alla Romagna ($16), the airy semolina dumplings draped in a buttery sea urchin sauce laden with Dungeness crab, so rich and sweet it could double as dessert. Higher up on the food bling scale is Fin's treatment of some larger portions of fish, like a lovely hunk of marlin belly ($16), cooked perfectly medium, clad in lardo and perfumed with truffle ponzu and chanterelles. Big eye tuna ($22) that received the same outfitting was a touch sinewy, but was helped with the addition of several slivers of shaved truffle.
As exciting an operation as Fin is, it can still produce clunkers. Hand-cut squid-ink tagliatelle ($14) looked exotic enough, the blue-black noodles blanketed in a seafood Bolognese. But one bite had a dining companion looking for some crushed potato chips, as the shockingly familiar tuna noodle casserole qualities of the dish became apparent. "I feel like I've been punched in the mouth by the '80s," she exclaimed, parochial-school cafeteria memories rushing back.
Who knows? Perhaps that was the effect the kitchen was aiming at. Everything about Fin—visually, texturally, gustatorily—seems designed to elicit a response of some sort. With a staff seemingly dedicated to being unconventional, you shouldn't put it past them.
- Order this: Any permutation of the lardo-wrapped fish with truffle ponzu.
- Best deal: The tartare with accompanying microgreens is surprisingly filling ($12).
- I’ll pass: Seafood Bolognese, unless you’re feeling nostalgic.
Fin, 1852 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 517-7770, finpdx.com. Dinner 5:30-10 pm Tuesday- Saturday. $$ Moderate. Note: This past Monday Trent Pierce revealed that Fin is expanding its menu for a more "gastropub" vibe, including meat options and a dedicated pasta section. We'll report back soon with our take on the changes.