Maybe you've noticed Roost from the fogged window of the Line 15 bus—a bright white cave, gleaming in the night, a table or two of diners like animals on display. Maybe you've wondered what became of Squeez, the slightly divey cocktail bar that occupied the corner until 2010. But you probably haven't eaten at Roost; Chef Megan Henzel's casual American diner has been open since September and received positive reviews in print and online, but I've rarely seen more than a third of its 10 tables occupied.
Where is everybody? You can't blame the food. Henzel takes the near-cliché of simple American fare, well prepared, and really delivers. You won't find any stunt food at Roost, and indeed there is nothing on the menu I couldn't prepare at home, given a few hours and a trip to PastaWorks. But there's no way it would taste this good.
Take the shaved cabbage salad with butter-toasted walnuts and apple ($10). I've made this, but Henzel's rendition is flawless, not overly oily or cabbagey. The same goes for the pork stew ($18), with carrots, mushrooms and braised giant beans in sweet broth, arranged around a giant lump of hog so tender it could be eaten with a spoon. It is the ideal filling meal for a chilly winter evening.
More fussy but no less enjoyable was a grilled hen ($16.50), spatchcocked—the back and breast bone removed so the bird can lay flat—and seasoned, I think, with thyme and sugar. It was juicy, lightly charred and very chickeny, like a summer barbecue in Elysium.
Every dish at Roost is more or less exactly what you expect, except for the "burger," which is a wad of braised beef wrapped in caul fat—the lacy membrane that surrounds the internal organs of cows, pigs and sheep—and seared, served on top of a bun and a pile of watercress and beneath a crown of fried onion, with small jars of horseradish sauce and pan juices on the side. It requires a knife and fork, and winds up as a wet, sloppy pile. I heartily endorse it.
Brunch teeters on excess. The "Kentucky Hot Brown" ($13) is a slight variation on the open-faced pile of cheese and turkey that usually bears the name. Roost's take is a stack of inch-thick, crisp French toast and two poached eggs, capped with two large, thick slices of very smoky bacon and smothered in Mornay sauce—that's béchamel plus cheese—in a heart-quickening collision of eggs Benedict and Welsh rarebit. It was very satisfying, but not nearly so much as the "omelet," which was really more of a soft frittata of ham, Gruyère and shallots, served with roasted potatoes and the same toast as the Hot Brown. It's just as good as any dish at Zells, around the corner, but Roost has no lines, no wait.
Service at both meals is friendly but not intrusive or cutesy. The short wine and beer list is entirely good, and not outlandishly priced. Everyone at the restaurant seems genuinely determined to make diners feel welcome.
But this warmth doesn't make it through Roost's uncurtained windows. From the street, the restaurant looks like a bright, white box, cold and alienating. The vast, blank expanse of walls and ceiling is broken only by air ducts and a row of coat pegs halfway up each wall. There isn't so much as single pillow to offset the hard surfaces; on the rare occasion that the restaurant is full, the din is overpowering. At the back of the room, Henzel and crew cook behind a sliding glass door, and my first impression was of a hospital hallway looking into an operating room. It cries out for curtains, and art. From the street, Roost is sterile, a little frightening. But fear is a lousy way to pick your dinner; face it down. Because this is the friendliest vertiginous white cube in town.
- Order this: The grilled hen. Mmm-mmm!
- Best deal: The âburgerâ ($14) is the most filling and cheapest entree.
- Iâll pass: âA simple chocolate trifleâ ($6.50), for dessert, was a little too simple. The layers of chocolate cake and cream reminded me of grade-school potlucks.
EAT: Roost, 1403 SE Belmont St., 971-544-7136, roostpdx.com. Dinner 5:30-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday and 5:30-9 pm Sunday. Brunch 10 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$ Moderate.