Trent Pierce's Block and Tackle—in the former Wafu space—is like a four-eye butterflyfish. That is to say, it's hard to tell where its head is.
On the one hand, Block and Tackle is the mild-mannered River Queen fishhouse of Pierce's youth. Pictures of his waterfront childhood are framed and neatly displayed on the train-car restaurant's walls. The airy, buttery vodka-beer batter on the cod sandwich ($13) is a family heirloom. The raw oysters ($3 apiece) are served with cocktail sauce and the simplest of mignonettes. Fish endures a slog of heavy mayo and cream, just like it did in the 1950s. Representative cocktail: USS Malmsteen ($8), a safe aquavit update on the bloody mary.
On the other, Block is a solidly Portland-modern affair, a hall of rough-hewn chichi. Its kitchen is open, its vents exposed. The inventive Daniel Mondok (Sel Gris, Paulee) heads the kitchen, spicing seafood adventurously with French, Arabic and Mediterranean accents such as harissa and Calabrian chilies. Globular lanterns are suspended in netting above a long, communal table, as if the relics of ancient Pier One had been hauled up by a trawler for proud display. Patron drink: Norwegian Rose (apple brandy, aquavit, lime, hibiscus grenadine; $9), a Molotov of volatile intensities in wonderfully unstable equilibrium.
So is Block and Tackle just a hedged bet? An opportunity for ingredient-forward foodies to take their Midwestern aunt out to dinner? The menu is not so much split in two as it is jumbled up like minerals in seaside rock.
The halibut fish and chips ($16)—as good as any in the city—are served with tartar sauce and enough standard-issue fries to choke the appetite of even the sturdiest gourmand. Meanwhile, a creative dish of mackerel and watermelon ($11)—two dishes down on the fish menu—is a refugee from a Mediterranean tasting menu. Well, contact the State Department and grant it asylum: It is delightful. The saltiness of mackerel and cured olive are balanced against sweet watermelon and rich creme fraiche, grounded by mint and cress, enlivened by cayenne.
Also delightful is a fried cauliflower dish ($7) that might as well be Julius Caesar's conquering trip to Africa, with currant, olive and pecorino cushioning stabs of chili and fennel. An Arabesque grilled octopus salad ($15)—featuring harissa aioli and chickpeas crisped to the texture of candied walnuts—puts a similar dish at East Burnside Street's Levant to shame.
The kitchen's most inventive dishes consistently bring intense flavors and textures into brave oppositions. This may lead to failures, as with the cloyingly orange-sherried cuttlefish or oily confit fish among the charcuterie, both served in preserve jars filled with oozing brines that overpower the seafood they're meant to enhance.
But such failures nonetheless occupy the happy territory between whimsy and courage. The staid salmon tartare dulled by an overload of creme fraiche ($7), or a roe-speckled crab louie ($12), replete with the flavor of mayo, exemplify the opposite: a humdrum safety. The results are often better than the traditional fishhouse fare that inspired them, but with little evident passion or fun. (Notable exception: deviled eggs! And an albacore and salmon Nicoise! With soft-boiled eggs!)
Some deep service hiccups also remain, two months after opening—excused by an embarrassed staff with generous comps—but one assumes these issues are fixable. The real interest is in seeing how Block and Tackle resolves the contradictions at its core, as it flits between excursionary Mediterranean fare and the staid fruits of the English wharf. Perhaps one need not choose, but so far the menu succeeds best when it lets its sails out into the wind.
- Order this: Split between two: a couple oysters, a Nicoise, the cauliflower and the mackerel. $18 a person.
- Best deal: Happy hour (4-6 pm) offers $1.50 half-shell oysters, $1 shooters, $7 clams and chorizo, and a $5 specialty cocktail.
- Iâll pass: The charcuterie (save a lovely marlin rillettes, $8) is so far a work in progress.
EAT: Block and Tackle, 3113 SE Division St., 236-0205, blockandtacklepdx.com. 4 pm-close Wednesday-Sunday. $$.