"Oh my god," I gasped. "It's her."
I was walking by Balvo—the chic Italian eatery on Northwest 23rd Avenue—on Wednesday, Oct. 18, the day it morphed into 23 Hoyt. For local foodie folks this was a big event. That's because it was equivalent, at least in the restaurant scene, to the second coming of Jesus Christ.
It was "the return of Zefiro."
Owner Bruce Carey closed his beleagured Balvo to team up, once again, with chef Christopher Israel, his ex-partner in Zefiro, a much-missed Northwest 21st Avenue restaurant that is often considered the spot where Portland found out it had what it took to turn from just a good restaurant town into a great one.
Balvo's white walls—and the orange "B" logos that labeled it, justly or not, as more about marketing than meals—were gone. In their place were sage-hued tones and mood lighting. In the corner, on a wall full of art, hung a black-and-white photo of a nude woman. It was from the notorious shooter of beach-lovers, Jock Sturges. Maia, Montalivet, France 1991 was a striking photo of his wife.
For years this image used to hang out in one of Zefiro's two airplane-sized bathrooms. Due to its size, and placement, over the toilet, it was impossible not to have an intimate relationship with this intriguing k.d. lang-looking character clad in nothing but a pensive gaze.
That is, until it was stolen.
"Christopher and I purchased it from Butters Gallery in 1993 or 1994," says Carey about the print (which cost them around $1,700 at the time). "But it disappeared in 1998."
It was eventually recovered by one of Zefiro's waiters, who swiped it back after she found it hanging above the mantle of a local frat-boy house. In the meantime, Sturges had reissued another print to hang in its place. So, for a while Zefiro had two images of this enigma. That is, until it was stolen—again. On the night Zefiro closed—March 11, 2000—that photo, and another Sturges print, were nabbed. The remaining, original image ended up in storage.
That is, until that Wednesday.
"The goal of 23 Hoyt is to create an intimacy that was lacking at Balvo," says Carey, who has filled the new restaurant with personal touches. "We want to make it a more personal experience, and bringing [art] from home was an obvious way of giving it a homey vibe."
That's why in the dining room you now find Maia, proudly displayed next to a Patrick Long-designed "I Love BJ" birthday card (it stands for Bruce and Joe Rogers, Carey's longtime partner, not what you think), and other ephemera from Carey's life.
"A lot of the art hanging here is stuff that didn't make the cut at [our] home," says Carey. "For me, that photo is a constant reminder of one place in the world: the second bathroom at Zefiro."
For me, it's a sly reference to a more innocent time in Portland when risotto could change your life and gnocchi always went well with a dry martini. I don't know if 23 Hoyt will ever recapture those homey Zefiro days, but it's sure nice to see my old "friend" back on the wall. Now, someone needs to nail that sucker down.
23 Hoyt, 529 NW 23rd Ave., 445-7400. Dinner 5-10 pm nightly. $$$ Expensive.