Erin McBride does wonderful things with beets. And kale. And sometimes peaches. As so often happens in this town, (say it with me) it all depends on the season. The Ohio-born farm girl made desserts at Higgins and cooked with Lincoln's Jenn Louis for years before she teamed up with friends Andrea Pastor and Jeremy Adams last fall to open 2nd Story, a small bistro/bar upstairs from the couple's Cellar Door Coffee in Southeast Portland.
Nothing about this small-plates dinner spot crammed into three rooms of a former house makes a lot of sense. There's old soul on the iPod, Oregon and French wines, and candlelit tables for canoodling, but McBride's light, fresh flavors and excellent jams and pickles scream to be admired during daylight hours at brunch or lunch. Regardless, there's also a big wood bar where you can sip a quince-spiked gin and tonic and other house-infused elixirs courtesy of Higgins and Pok Pok alum Brandy Graves.
One of McBride's trademark dishes is shaping up to be her quinoa ($8), a health-food standard that so often tastes like dishwater in other cooks' mitts. She boils and then drains the tiny grain
like pasta in order to keep it toothsome, then adds whatever happens to be fresh at the moment, from sweet roasted corn and Walla Walla onions to a winter mix of feta, almonds and chickpeas punched up with a lemon-caper vinaigrette.
The rest of the shareable menu veers from creamy soups and salads to cannelloni and grilled cheese, but she's almost always serving something involving pig—for better or worse. A few months ago it was a great gamey pork cheek sandwich slathered with a sweet and spicy Baird Orchard peach, onion chutney and sinus-clearing mustard ($9). Less successful was a recent plate of pork braised with mustard paired with red pickled cabbage and plopped atop a trio of overpoweringly earthy black-eyed pea fritters ($11).
But for every bummer of a plate there's two others that you want to order seconds of. On my last visit, it was a crunchy-edged kale and shallot bread pudding with a pillowy center ($13) so herbaceous and buttery-good that I momentarily forgot about the perfectly seared steak sitting atop it.
Start and end your meal with things in jars. A double handful of restaurants in town are making their own great pickles, and 2nd Story is one of them ($5): tart golden beets and curry-laced cauliflower florets, punchy string beans and sweet zucchini bread 'n' butters served in a squat glass jar big enough to give two diners pucker face. Later, order the silky caramel pudding ($6) for dessert, again, served in one of those jars. And again, you can share it—but your faces will be all smiles this time.
EAT: 2nd Story, 2005 SE 11th Ave. (above Cellar Door Coffee Roasters), 741-9693, 2ndstorypdx.com. 5 pm-close Wednesday-Saturday. $$.