Fife, a new restaurant in a new building in an old neighborhood, is making people happy. The self-described "American place" offers comfortably familiar fare and nothing's over 20 bucks, a bargain to the relatively well-heeled denizens of Beaumont, the up-and-coming commercial enclave that starts at Northeast 42nd Avenue and Fremont Street and ambles east a dozen or so blocks. Even in days of peace and prosperity, affordable comfort makes for good business.
Marco Shaw, chef and co-owner of Fife, crossed over from the Italian food he used to cook at Tuscany Grill. Red meats dominate his short menu, but the preparations change regularly. Pork has appeared as an apple-and-currant-stuffed loin, a spice-rubbed tenderloin, and a T-bone--really a big chop--with applesauce and kale (all $16). Cast-iron chicken ($15) is a menu perennial, the cut-up half bird seared in one of Shaw's vintage skillets, a few of which his grandmother cooked with, and finished in the oven. It gets a crispy skin and stays juicy, and you can't ask for more. Braised buffalo short ribs ($17) are leaner than their beef counterparts, but slow, moist cooking makes them tender. They're served with "cowboy" beans, scarlet runners cooked with chunks of ham hock until they're dark and smoky. Nothing's cutting-edge, it's just plain good.
Occasionally the good is a little too plain. A shiitake, portabella and wild rice soup ($6) needed a bit of salt and dollop of butter from the bread plate to really come to life. Redemption arrived with an appetizer of battered and fried artichokes and eggplant ($6), perfect little morsels of crunch so good they almost didn't need the old-school remoulade served alongside. That made the disappointing acorn squash, roasted with quinoa, apricots and red-pepper ($13), even more so. The dried-out grain stuffing seemed to have sucked every last bit of flavor right out of the dish. But this flop seems to be an anomaly.
Shaw grew up in Washington, D.C., and he flies Chesapeake Bay blue crab out for his Maryland-style crab cakes ($7). I'm a local boy who thinks Dungeness rule, but I loved these. Barely bound with a little egg and just enough bread crumbs to give the outside some crunch, they fall apart at the first touch of a fork and taste, appropriately, like crab.
Except for that interloping crab, Fife buys from local sources as much as possible, and the grilled leg of lamb ($16) demonstrates why that makes a difference. Sue and Dan Wilson graze sheep on grass eight miles south of Canby. Their SuDan Farms lamb is tender and mildly flavored, perfect for a quick grilling that leaves it pink and juicy. Fife pairs it with "mint julep" sauce, a simple reduction of stock and bourbon flavored with fresh mint that avoids the too-sweet mint jelly cliche.
Dessert is where Fife pushes the boundaries, and pastry chef Steve Smith takes all-American flavors on the kind of consciousness-expanding world journey you might wish certain politicians would try. Rice pudding ($6) goes beyond raisins with layers of jasmine and forbidden rices, the latter cooking up black as caviar. The plate includes a scoop of carrot sorbet, shockingly orange, the familiar essence of carrot there but enhanced with a little more sweetness; it may be the single best thing I've eaten all year. No, wait--that would have to be the candied serrano chiles right next to it, mind-twisting, tongue-tying little strips of sweet and spicy. There were also shavings of dried carrot with bits of dried apricot (both orange, and a nice little play on color and flavor), and it all sat in a pool of blueberry crème anglais. It might sound like a sweet train wreck, but everything clicked; full as I was, I wanted more.
The four best seats in the house are the tall stools tucked to the side of the pass-through that separates Fife's dining room from its kitchen. It's not that you can't see the chefs working from the banquette that runs all the way down one wall or from the simple square tables arranged under the Brobdingnagian lampshades that hang from the ceiling. But, perched at the counter, you don't just watch. You feel the heat of the stove, hear the sounds of sizzling fat and bubbling stock, smell the char forming on the hunks of red meat.
Fife attracts a mixed crowd. One group of women have abandoned their partners; whether it's for good or just the evening isn't clear, but they're having a fun time together. Some look like older parents and their grown children. I like to think they live nearby and remember when the kids were little, and they would bring them to Rose's Ice Cream, which once stood on this very spot, for grilled-cheese sandwiches and milkshakes. And there are some of the youngish couples who can somehow afford the neighborhood, or maybe they just drove up the hill from Mississippi. They all seem to fit in just fine at Fife.
4440 NE Fremont St., (971) 222-3433. 5-9 pm Tuesday- Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$
Cast-iron chicken, buffalo short ribs, crab cakes, leg of lamb, rice pudding
What appear to be wartime love letters on the wall of the men's room make for interesting reading. But they're mounted a foot or so from the urinal, so watch your shoes.