On the quiet corner of Northwest 17th Avenue and Flanders Street, sandwiched between the trendy, restaurant-drenched neighborhoods of Northwest and the Pearl, Epicure has steadily built its clientele around brunch and a solid catering business. Now the chef and co-owner, Charlie Zorich, serves dinner five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday.
Epicure's small bistro space is modest and chic, with bold orange and mustard walls as a backdrop for colorful paintings and prints, while the stained concrete floor provides a casual touch. Plans to expand the eight-table dining room are in the works, but for now diners spill out onto the patio on warm evenings, a fine spot to linger over coffee or dessert. There's a family feeling about the place, and in this case, that's a good thing.
What Zorich and his staff have concocted is a dinner menu that is not, culinarily speaking, revolutionary. But the food tastes good, and dishing up gimmick-free American classics is no small potatoes.
Epicure's dishes start with quality ingredients like organic greens, Prince Edward Island mussels and Painted Hills beef. The artichoke hummus ($6) is artfully served, the pita bread tastes fresh, and Portland's favorite salad, the Caesar ($5) is perfect: garlicky, lemony, salty and crunchy. In the hands of a lesser chef, the fried calamari ($7) and lemon-rosemary roasted chicken ($14) might taste as bland as they sound.
Seafood is the best of the offerings here. Menu specials like king salmon ($20), pan-seared scallops ($8) and clam chowder (cup $3, bowl $5) are the kind of comfort foods that taste reassuring during the first crisp nights of a Portland autumn. A regular Epicure menu item, the Dungeness crab cakes ($17), features a crispy panko crust on the outside and a fair portion of delicate crab meat inside. A good bet, too, are the daily specials that spotlight seasonal ingredients, like a recent side of lightly sautéed chanterelles.
Growing up the son of a restaurateur on Washington's Long Beach peninsula, Zorich has coastal cooking in his blood. Both of his grandmothers were caterers who had the honor of cooking for Portland's patriarch of gastronomy, James Beard.
Zorich himself started working in restaurants at age 15, graduating at 19 from Stumptown's own Western Culinary Institute in 1995. Cooking stints followed at Seattle's Seastar, Serafina and Coastal Kitchen restaurants. If Zorich's seafood specials are an indication, the four years he spent cooking at the Ark--a restaurant perched above the oyster-rich Willapa Bay and surrounded by canneries--proved most formative.
Zorich says it has been hard to find quality cooks to match the quality of the region's ingredients. After a year of ups and downs, he now claims confidence in his crew. Perhaps that unevenness isn't entirely in the past, however, as on a recent visit the bacon burger--made of free-range, organic beef and billed as the "knee-deep ranch burger"--was served more charred than had been ordered. But forgiving a little char between the teeth is easier when the staff not only recognizes you by the second visit but also treats you like a prize egg throughout your meal.
For the sweet stuff, standards again take the cake in the form of a black and tan (warm brownie, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, $5), a delicious homemade cheesecake with cherry sauce ($5), and a berry pie du jour ($5). On a recent night, a peach galette--think flaky pastry and browned fruit beside vanilla ice cream--incited a passive-aggressive spoon war between two diners, one of whom was me.
While Epicure is still rooted in its catering company past, offering few surprising or unique dishes, it solidly delivers on the promises of its bistro menu. And Charlie Zorich is the kind of talented young chef you hope continues training to prepare for an even bigger and brighter future. In the meantime, get thee to his--for now--quiet neck of the woods for your own piece of the pie.
407 NW 17th Ave., 916-1676.Lunch 11 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday, dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch 9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday. Bistro menu available 3-5 pm Monday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate
Picks: Dungeness crab cakes, any seafood special.