, chef Scott Snyder's new Buckman restaurant in a former bakery, is a staid dining hall of warm wood, hot brick and neutral walls that seem to buff the room's sound into a soft cushion of air.
The eatery has invented its own genre: high-end French modernist takes on the food of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora—Arabic, African and Hebrew lands huddled around the Mediterranean Sea. Snyder touts his family's Israeli roots, and an early menu boasted a dish cooked, charmingly, with Manischewitz kosher wine.
As a pitch, it's irresistible. Too irresistible, it would appear, even for its own chef—the restaurant's ambition and high concept are derailing the dishes.
To be sure, the menu has some tremendous successes. A dish humbly titled "hearth-roasted lamb, spring vegetable mélange, mint, preserved lemon lamb jus" ($26) was lamb in full riotous concert, from rack to loin to tender roast to spiced meatball. Citrus and rich jus blended for a depth and acidity a bit like a fine bourguignon gone beautifully herbal. The meat was enthusiastically salted, but this felt less like excess than indulgence—the coddling of a loving bubbe.
A simple salad of baby artichoke, garlic vinaigrette and lamb bacon ($10), topped with an over-easy egg, was similarly a thing of warmth and comfort, a blend of low, earthy notes that reads a bit like a string orchestra stripped down to harmonies of bass and cello. It is a rarefied music nearly disorienting in its powerful baritone richness. John Gorham, at Tasty n Sons and Toro Bravo, works with similar overtones in some of his more excursionary comfort fare.
Unfortunately, at Levant, the dishes occasionally play out a bit less like a cello project and more like an orchestra of tubas.
A monkfish fillet ($23) was adorned with chickpea that badly encouraged the natural mustiness of the fish. The dish was also accompanied by a bewildering piece of tableside theater in which herbed broth was poured across the fillet: One is meant, I suppose, to breathe in the first blossom of vapors as the broth flows across the fish. But the overall effect was anticlimax. The dish was dreary, a shale-sheeted slab of oily fish supporting a lean-to of overcrisped chicken cracklings and the aforementioned garbanzos.
In what seems more a nod to the theme than to the meal, garbanzo and fava beans are scattered bizarrely throughout the menu as a bonding agent for disparate Mediterranean cuisines. A hailstorm of green garbanzo badly damaged an otherwise lovely dish of marinated octopus ($16) spiced with orange, fennel, saffron and the earthy, sweet heat of Aleppo pepper. One bite rewards the diner with salty, low, romantic harmonies playing among tender meat and warm spice, and the next bite jars with firm bean that knocks all intimacy off the tongue.
A spot prawn crudo ($14) was covered in a pickled chili sauce that—in its oiliness, intensity and slight edge of tartness—resembled stomach acid. Atop it was a sorbet made with preserved lemon and arak, which kept the citrus unfortunately at bay. Mint leaves were a loitering bystander. In its components the dish was prawn ceviche with a thick accent, but the restaurant's ambitious deconstruction left only elegant rubble.
The beer list is a bit of a redheaded stepchild—unwanted, unloved—but the cocktail menu, from a hibiscus- and pineapple-accented "Gin Rummy #2" ($9) to a terrific Tasvan Delight ($12) that leavened Aquavit and Old Tom Gin with carrot, was universally on point.
Levant seems to have the makings of a very fine place, but it's too eager to prove a concept. The restaurant fares best when it aims not to astonish but to comfort.
- Order this: Chef Scott Snyder has a way with lamb and octopus.
- Best deal: The hearty-portioned entrees.
- Iâll pass: Fish fillets have been underwhelming.
EAT: Levant, 2448 E Burnside St., 954-2322, levantpdx.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$$.