This is a tale of two kitchens. One you'd never notice, since it's only used to cook ingredients that make their way into the deli cases of Viande Meats & Sausage, a grocery-store meat counter that provides the best animal protein in Portland. The other kitchen is wide open, practically in the dining room of Simpatica Dining Hall, one of Portland's better-kept restaurant secrets, a place often open only on Saturdays and Sundays. But between these two humble rooms, a triumvirate of local chefs are providing an extravaganza for serious eaters.
You'll find the beaming faces of two of Viande's three owners, John Gorham and Ben Dyer, behind a counter case at Northwest 21st Avenue's City Market filled with rows of vibrant, spicy Louisiana hot links, savory rabbit and cherry sausages and slabs of pâtés. Quick as you can say "guanciale," they'll offer you a mini-course in the curing of hams if you give them a chance.
Gorham and Dyer have perfected their technique with meats ever since they bought Viande from a local couple in late 2003. Gorham fell in love with cured meats as a lad in North Carolina. "I have always been around whole animals," he says with a wry smile, though it's obvious he also likes to do things with fractions of them. The French name of this carnivore's boutique sounds elegant, but it means simply "meat." To wit, Viande is not only a boucherie but a charcuterie (French for "a cooked meat") as well. The gamut of Viande's pâtés includes versions made from pork as well as duck, veal, venison and other game.
The two are also fans of Italian curing, and you'll find salamis, bresaola (an air-dried salted beef fillet), and gamy guanciale—pancetta made from the jowl of a pig and superb in pastas. And you won't get more tender pastrami in any Jewish deli this side of the Negev. They sell to many restaurants in town, but they may be prouder still that one of the partners of Seattle's famed Salumi cured meats comes down to shop at Viande three times a month.
All Viande's own curing—preservation by smoking, brining, corning or salting—is done in their kitchen in the back of City Market, too. It takes time and patience. Viande's prosciutto can take a full year to arrive at perfection. Inside the cold locker there's an 18-pound leg of pork that's been wet-brined for a week and, after three months of air-drying, will hang in the basement for nine more. That pig, like a true Oregonian, was raised on hazelnuts.
While Dyer crafts sausages, Gorham (who cooked at Fratelli and Tuscany Grill), and his other partner Jason Owens man the stoves at their new project, Simpatica. Restless even as the meat business took off, Gorham joined hands with Owens in a catering business. Before long they were delighting the weekend crowd at Pix Pâtisserie with Sunday brunch. "Things kept snowballing," Gorham says. "Soon we felt we had to show even more folks what we could do...Simpatica is the result."
Just as Viande is more than a butcher's counter, Simpatica is as much an experience as a meal. That restaurant is a concealed, undercover sort of place. As if you were entering a speakeasy from the 1920s, you step through an unmarked door of what looks like an abandoned, derelict warehouse, descend a few steep steps, make your way down a long, chilly corridor with concrete walls, and take a hard right turn into revelry. One could call it Portland's latest supper club, a society which lets its members know what's for dinner via weekly emails written by Dyer himself. Like ripe's Family Supper, this jubilant restaurant has a single seating (for up to 36 people) proceeded by socializing over wine. Unlike ripe, Simpatica serves appetizers with the wine (one night they were mounded platters of oysters), while tables for two or four, as well as a communal table, accommodate the hungry hordes.
Each Saturday and Sunday there are different menus. One of the earliest dinner outings last December began with smoked trout followed by cauliflower soup, and featured a great French dish: choucroute royale, the Alsatian riot of housemade sauerkraut piled high with Viande's sausages, lamb ribs and duck confit, all served family-style.
Sunday brunches at Simpatica are as remarkable as the dinners because, again, their meats come from Viande's lockers and cases. A Southern-inspired dish of hearty stewed white beans paired with a chunk of cornbread and a generous slab of intense and flavorful ham. Boudin blanc, a sausage usually in a link but here in a spicy, smoky patty, complemented a smooth, creamy "Eggs Benny," or a crêpe that cradles oozing butternut squash.
What's next for the busy trio? Last week Dyer went to Napa's Culinary Institute to take an Advanced Techniques course in Charcuterie, Smoking and Condiments—the graduate school of his trade.
Meanwhile, back at Simpatica, Owens and Gorham are hard at work. The mingling artists, wine makers and Portland's food cognoscenti are in high spirits. The spare dining room was part of a complex that formerly housed the music club La Luna, and while the tunes from this trio of chefs are very different ones, culinary speaking, the place once again rocks.
Viande is located inside City Market, 735 NW 21st Ave., 221-3012. Simpatica Dining Hall, 828 SE Ash St. Call 235-1600 for reservations (required for dinner). Walk-in brunch 9 am-2 pm Sundays. Join Simpatica's weekly email list at www.simpaticacatering.com.