Somebody hand Caleb McBee a pork-belly-shaped trophy. In his three-month-old Skin & Bones American Bistro, the former owner of much-missed Pearl-district bar Apotheke has succeeded in epitomizing every cliché attached to Portland's restaurant culture.
Skin & Bones is tiny; it has 22 chairs, 14 of which are at large communal tables. The dining room and open kitchen share a single room in a newly remodeled building in a formerly dreary neighborhood—the stretch of East Burnside Street between old-money Laurelhurst and new-money Montavilla. Its logo is a wishbone. Everyone I saw on staff had a beard, prominent tattoos or long hair; most have some combination of all three.
The interior features an exposed wooden beam, subway tile, a chocolate-brown accent wall, chalkboards, a gleaming espresso machine and both retro light shades by Schoolhouse Supplies and bare, dangling incandescent bulbs with fancy filaments. The website proudly names its suppliers, which include Rain Shadow El Rancho, Winter Green Farms and, of course, cheesemonger Steve Jones. The menu, which changes too frequently to ever expect a repeat dish, recently featured Padrón peppers (overpriced as usual), quinoa and farro. One-fifth of the dishes involved bacon. Everything feels about 15 percent too expensive for the neighborhood (prices vary night to night, but expect to pay $35 to $45 per person before tip). The check comes weighed down with a knucklebone.
In keeping with stereotype, the food is both very good and certain to annoy a large portion of diners. The menu is divided into "Veggies," "Small" and "Main" sections, but vegans shouldn't get excited—they'll have to content themselves with green salad, sliced tomatoes and the aforementioned "flamed" Padrón chilies. The kitchen likes salty sauces; hypertensives and bread-dippers should be wary. At my last visit, both the garlic-butter on a green-bean appetizer and the basil-butter on a ravioli entree, while very tasty, were too salty to mop up with bread.
Fortunately, the bread is good enough that sauces are superfluous. McBee and company make several breads and all pasta and desserts in-house. The complimentary bread plate comes, most recently with crisp bread sticks, slices of chewy, rye-scented brown bread and a sort of whole-wheat focaccia. (The lineup changes at the whim of the baker.) Desserts are also excellent. A cherry pie hit the ideal balance of sweet and tart with firm fruit and a salty, flaky crust. A blueberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream went easy on the sugar and acid to let the fruit shine. The pastas, from my limited sampling, are dense but still better than Portland's average.
The kitchen knows its way around a piece of meat—I've had a good medium-rare bison steak and an excellent dish of chopped chicken and herbs, wrapped in chicken skin, fried and served over grits. But the highlights of every meal have come from the "Small" list, which emphasizes fairly simple preparations: grilled cauliflower with dill and aioli; a wee quiche with caramelized onions; crisp green beans in butter; fried potatoes covered in paprika, sprinkled with "duck ham" (salty cured duck breast, I think) and topped with a fried duck egg. "You guys are so lucky to be getting a duck egg tonight," the waiter said. He was right.
While I enjoyed all my meals at Skin & Bones, the restaurant does not offer an experience in food or wine or any other respect that I could not find closer to home. That's no slight on the restaurant; so long as the food's good, who cares if every tiny neighborhood eatery offers the same menu? McBee's concept lacks any unique aspect to draw diners out from 28th Avenue, but that may change soon; he has applied for a full liquor license, and, as a former barman, the guy knows his booze.
- Order this: Pie! There always seems to be a beautiful fruit pie on the counter. The crust is perfect. You want a slice.
- Best deal: The complimentary bread plate.
- Iâll pass: A $10 glass of Witness Tree rosÃ© of pinot noir was bitter and unpleasant.
EAT: Skin & Bones American Bistro, 5425 E Burnside St., 236-3610, skinandbonesbistro.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$-$$$.