If you want to catch Trent Pierce, you've got to know your tide tables. The chef behind Southeast Division Street ramen go-to Wafu has been spending at least a day a week at the Oregon Coast, lovingly collecting the kind of seaside crud you'd usually wash off your flip-flops to use in the meticulously constructed little plates of highbrow seafood he's serving in Wafu's sexy, new reservations-only backroom, Roe.
In some ways, the moody spot resurrects the chef's lauded but short-lived modernist seafood restaurant, Fin, which closed in early 2011. But it also presents a new business idea for how to support the kind of fine dining that includes a $100 tasting menu in a notoriously bargain-oriented town. (Step 1: Open a popular Japanese comfort-food bar. Step 2: Use the spare room as your culinary science lab, rent free. Step 3: Take over the world.)
This morning, the spiky black-haired Portland native and former high-school track star is itching to get out to Lincoln City to forage purple varnish clams for a dish involving tomatoes and black-tea smoke. But first, he has paused to ponder the future of local fine dining and explain why burgers are outlawed at his restaurants.
WW: What exactly are you gathering out there?
Trent Pierce: Seaweeds…sea beans, sea peas, all the little veggies that grow on the coast. Also gooseneck barnacles. They're scary to look at but they [taste] amazing. They're a delicacy in Spain and literally you just scrape them off the rocks around here. I want Roe to be [in part] about the locality of seafood, and as far as that goes in Oregon, there's not a lot of it—there's not a huge fishing industry beyond salmon and halibut and...black cod. I want to bring something in from the coast that you don't see at markets and let people try it. I mean, we'll have hermit crabs on the menu in some shape or form.
Opening an experimental fine-dining spot in the back of a bar seems backward. And your first high-end place, Fin, closed after just six months. Why try it again?
Fin closing was heartbreaking but…it didn't close for lack of business. [Owner Joan Dumas sold it for health reasons.] With Wafu, I loved the idea of being really creative but have it just be really dirty food, you know, with lots of mayonnaise. But the idea was always to open and make it as successful as we [Pierce and Wafu co-owner/ChefStable honcho Kurt Huffman] could and then, in the back of our heads, work toward Roe. It wasn't an explicit part of the business plan but it was there. I am super lucky to have the backroom set up the way it is: You're a chef and you just want to do exactly what you want to do and not have to worry about outside input and the realities of running a business. With [Roe], I don't have those things weighing on me. It's just us making an experience for people for three days a week; the rent is already paid.
Still, despite our rep as a food city, it feels like Portland is hitting a bit of a ceiling for what the populace is willing to spend and support when it comes to restaurants. Are we just cheap?
What happened in the past four years is really due to economic circumstances. Fine dining was at its peak and then it crashed—just crashed. And it left a void in town. There is still a smaller market of people that want [fine dining], and the [restaurants] that stick it out do really well. I don't think Portlanders would be afraid to pay $100 per person to go out and have an amazing time. It's just that [many experiences like that] just haven't existed yet in Portland. With fine dining, you're trying to give somebody a whole experience. That's what's hard in Oregon as opposed to a big city like Chicago or New York. In [those cities], the service is really, really amazing—and food tastes way better when you're being waited on hand and foot. In order for [our restaurant culture] to change, a lot of people have to be willing to take big risks in their business plans. We're inching forward. We have amazing talent here.
It feels like no matter what the plan is, people just demand a bacon-topped bistro burger anyway.
The burger is the Catch-22 of the restaurant world. You put one [on the menu] because you know it's gonna sell, but at the same time, that's all that's gonna sell. It's a bad idea—at Wafu, we were like, "We'll never have a burger on the menu."
One of the big trends in 2012 is "inauthentic" Asian eats; high-end places like Smallwares and Aviary using Asian food as a springboard for wildly creative dishes. What other trends do you see?
It's not "inauthentic," it's having a Japanese slant on being creative. Me, I'm toying with a kind of Spanish and Asian combo; [those countries'] philosophies of food go insanely well together. And almonds go with everything. Also, the value is in prix fixe menus now, and people are starting to catch on to that.
What exactly is your own food philosophy?
In a nutshell, you were trained from when you were born on how to eat...whatever your parents give you, how you eat as a family... I'm about breaking out of that and always trying new things. It's all about developing your palate to appreciate things. It needs exercise like anything else does.
Spoken like a true track jock.
Yeah! Your palate needs exercise! You're gonna get sore at first, but once you work through that soreness, you appreciate it more.