It’s 11 in the morning, six hours
before dinner service begins, and Trent Pierce is already three hours
into his workday. In the open kitchen of his tiny avant-seafood
restaurant, Roe, tucked into a quiet room behind his mixed-DNA
fishhouse, Block and Tackle, Pierce is chopping pepper into shards near
plates of mysterious powders, while sous-chef Patrick Schultz slices
fish into sheets thin as a book’s pages. A sticky tray of pralines sits
drying on one of the dining room tables.
If the restaurant’s open that day, the kitchen is where you’ll find them. Since Roe cracked its doors last fall, neither Pierce nor Schultz has missed a single evening’s service. “Even when we get sick,” Pierce says, “it happens on our days off, on a Monday or Tuesday.”
The kitchens of most fine-dining restaurants are like the innards of a machine, with a martial cadre of cooks blanching, filleting and chopping in a production line only one step removed from turn-of-the-century Henry Ford. But at Roe, our 2013 Restaurant of the Year, almost every small plate on the tasting menus is prepped personally by Schultz and Pierce, a Barlow High School grad whose family has served Portland food, in one form or another, for five generations.
“There’d be no room
for anyone else,” Pierce says, gesturing to an economical kitchen
housing a sous-vide cooker, steam cooker, four magnetic-induction
burners that are essentially ultra-precise hot plates, and a tight
two-man chef’s station where the pair work in well-orchestrated concert.
Roe is a deeply intimate restaurant of warm light and few distractions, offering almost no physical separation between chef and diner. Pierce and Schultz apply priestly discipline to tasting plates of uncommon ambition, playfulness and invention (available in four- and 10-course menus for $70 and $100, respectively).
In a riverfront town close to the ocean, Northwest-focused chefs have traditionally been bent on a small variety of local seawares—simple preparations of salmon, cod, oyster and crab. Pierce takes on the much broader palette of the sushi chef and puts it to new purpose, mixing local produce with exotic seafood from Hawaii, New Zealand and Japan. In the process, he’s created not only our restaurant of the year, but perhaps the finest seafood restaurant Portland has yet seen.
“It’s a personal restaurant,” Pierce says, and though it’s been open for only a year, in another sense it seems to exist out of time. The seafood shrine is a sanctum far removed from the street, far also from any particular trends in Portland dining. The place might have opened yesterday, and it might have opened a decade ago.
Still, the dishes change with the seasons and what the tide brings. In the winter, shrimp heads are used to make dashi, while in the spring coastal spot prawns were flayed into tender carpaccio and sauced with an “aioli” from within their own noggins. We also found salads of roe atop a perfect egg, a bright ponzu sauce and some of the last olio nuovo of the season, giving way in the next dish to the year’s first white asparagus. As fall descends, Pierce is looking forward to the sea’s brimming cornucopia of shellfish.
Though he used to seek out edification in the science-heavy food tracts of Harold McGee or Heston Blumenthal, warehouses of culinary lore from Japan and France and London, Pierce says he hasn’t cracked a cookbook in over a year. Roe’s chefs find their inspiration in direct confrontation with the ingredients. Each week, rather than source out the task to purveyors, the pair travel to the unforgiving Oregon Coast to talk to fishermen and forage for ocean vegetables: kelp, sea beans and sea peas, the alien fruits of an alien frontier.
On a Friday morning in September, Pierce is talking about Antarctic toothfish, sometimes sold as “Chilean sea bass” because the name is more palatable, sellers of food being even more diligent than realtors in their penchant for euphemism. Pierce, however, prefers to call a toothfish a toothfish. “It’s a good fish that holds up to a lot of flavors,” he says. “Kind of crabby. There are some shellfish notes.”
But the flavor he’s excited about, the one the fish needs to withstand, is mushrooms. The elusive and valuable matsutake is in season again. “They’re really not like anything else,” Pierce says. “They’ve got this intense, unique, piney flavor.”
Cooking is an art not just of the imagination, but of the available—as if a paint store sold only certain colors each week, and asked you to paint pictures of only the things that had those colors. “Right now shishito and padrons are at their peak,” he says. “Pairing matsutake with shishito is kind of a no-brainer.” He then pauses, building suspense. “Huckleberries are the curveball. There’s a piney-ness in huckleberries, along with the tartness, that bridges the gap.”
In the past, Pierce has been a mercurial presence in Portland food. In a little over three years, the chef has opened and closed not one but two of our favorite restaurants in town—Wafu and Fin—both while they were still popular. With Roe, the onetime 400-meter-dash track star is excited about entering his second lap, coming back around to the past year’s seasonal offerings and honing the flavors even more tightly. “We’re trying to perfect everything we’re doing,” he says.
After a New York Times review filled up Roe for the summer with Manhattanite food tourists who slotted their seats online weeks in advance—shutting out locals and regulars on weekends—Pierce learned to hold some seats back for phone reservations, and keep a few seatings a bit flexible. The restaurant has moved from three nights to four a week, which Pierce says is the most it will do.
His mind starts churning with notions of what’s possible for Roe’s future. He’s thinking of adding a larger tasting menu to the main dining space, not merely the 10-courser at the chef’s station. “I’d love to be able to go into our own space,” he says. Exceeding 32 seats, he’d need more burner space. He could bring in more people for prep work. They could do three seatings. They could...
He stops and looks around at the restaurant. “I’m pretty happy with where we’re at,” Pierce says. “At this level, everything touches our hands.”
Roe, 3113 SE Division St., 232-1566, roe-pdx.com. $$$$.