When Bruce Carey, Chris Israel and Monique Siu opened Zefiro in 1990, the restaurant blew through the Portland scene like a gust of fresh wind. Local diners were thrilled to find a restaurant that reminded them of California's best, bringing trends like Spago's combination of high-end cooking and casual style and Zuni Cafe's ingredient-driven, Mediterranean-influenced menu to town. Zefiro signalled such a clear line of demarcation that you could soon describe local eating places in shorthand: "B.Z." or "A.Z."—"before Zefiro" or "after Zefiro." B.Z. meant the menu never changed and there was melted cheese on everything; A.Z. denoted places where chefs paid attention to the seasons and you could wear jeans to a $100 dinner without getting funny looks.
With Greg Higgins busting out of the Heathman and starting his own restaurant, and the arrival of chefs like Cory Schreiber and Vitaly Paley, dining out in Portland was forever transformed by the time Zefiro officially closed in 2000. And over time, whatever flaws and rough patches Zefiro may have had were blurred by the soft focus of nostalgia. Even today, I remember making special trips just to buy a loaf of bread from the restaurant's kitchen, which produced the best levain in town before Portland had a decent bakery.
As for the partners, the multitalented Israel, who was head chef, went to New York, where he worked as an associate art director at Vanity Fair. Siu, the dessert chef, eventually opened Castagna with her husband, Kevin Gibson. Carey, the front-of-the-house guy, matured into the role of impresario, co-founding Saucebox and Bluehour. Israel came back to Portland in late 2005 and teamed up with Carey once again to open 23Hoyt in November.
23Hoyt is by no means the second coming of Zefiro, and that's not a bad thing. Portland has moved past the point where any one restaurant could have the kind of influence Zefiro had back then, redefining the scene in such a dramatic way. Portland will never again be considered a culinary backwater. But on its own terms, 23Hoyt is a restaurant with nothing to prove: stylish without attitude, handsome, confident.
The space is a minor renovation of the failed Balvo (another Carey co-production), with charcoal walls, twinkly lights, lots of room in the bar to see and be seen, and an upstairs dining mezzanine. I really love the bar area. In most restaurants, eating in the bar is an ordeal of tiny tabletops and flying elbows, but here, tables easily accommodate more than a martini glass. Nice touches like cushy stools and handbag hooks make even sitting at the counter comfortable.
The entire menu is available in the bar, plus some well-conceived small plates—try the grilled prawns with red potatoes and romesco sauce ($9) or the hearty country pÂtÉ ($6). The hamburger's a contender for best-in-town honors: juicy, rough-ground meat, a touch of bitter char, on a brioche bun, served with bread-and-butter pickles that rival Higgins' and a zingy housemade ketchup with a touch of jalapeÑo heat ($9).
One of the hallmarks of Israel's food at Zefiro was his sense of lightness and balance no matter the season, and that continues here. Even the salads show it: One combines smoked trout drizzled with horseradish cream, cubed beet, watercress and red onion ($10). Another is a successful mÉlange of blood oranges, red onion, black olives, hot pepper oil and mint ($8). Both say winter, yet neither is heavy or dull.
A spot-on winter pasta of chitarra (square-sided spaghetti) with crisp-roasted cauliflower, arugula, hot pepper and garlic was so good that we ended up in a four-fork battle over the last of the yummy bread-crumb topping ($16). Creamy, GruyÈre-topped potato gratin proved a fine foil to a rack of lamb and the salty tang of black olive tapenade ($30). Seafood stew appears on the menu in several guises, including a Tuscan version served over grilled bread and a paella version with rice and chorizo (both $28).
As good as the restaurant is, I wish Israel would push himself further past his pan-Mediterranean comfort zone. Eating the best dishes is a little like watching B.B. King in his prime—it's going to be a fabulous show, but you aren't going to be too surprised by any of the notes. That said, some new ideas and touches work well: The ubiquitous ahi tuna tartare is updated Moroccan-style, with cumin, cayenne and preserved lemon ($14), and two sensational dishes use in-vogue braising techniques—beef short ribs in a goulash of sweet peppers, paprika and caraway ($26), and pork loin in milk with sage, garlic and rosemary ($24).
Not everything runs like clockwork. On one visit, the Caesar salad was one-note lemony, while another time it had the requisite richness of anchovy ($10). Braised rabbit and wild mushrooms over housemade spaetzle was deeply savory and saucy one night, dry and uninteresting another ($20). A perfectly tender duck leg and breast gained nothing from an overcooked relish of pears, sherry, raisins and pine nuts ($27).
A Carey signature over the years has been professional service with a cordial style, a tradition that lives on at 23Hoyt. Servers are well informed, even about the mostly European wine list—an explorer's delight that includes some little-known yet ultra-food-friendly bottlings, several at approachable prices in the $20 range. And the selection of imported beers is worth a serious look.
Another welcome echo of Zefiro: They're making that great levain bread again. And the desserts are terrific, especially the intensely flavored sorbets and ice creams. The ruby grapefruit-Campari sorbet ($7.50) was killer, as was a duo of date and cardamom ice creams ($7). Then there are the pornographically silky chocolate or butterscotch pots de crÈme ($7.50), and a layered "strudel" of phyllo, caramel cream and poached pears ($8).
One of my husband Joe's most prized possessions is a tattered, once-black T-shirt with the legend "Z4" in faded orange on the chest, a souvenir of Zefiro's fourth birthday, in 1994. Joe loves the shirt because it's a reminder of dozens of memorable meals. Nostalgia? Sure. A place like 23Hoyt can't erase those kinds of memories. Then again, it doesn't have to. With time, it could create its own.
23Hoyt, 529 NW 23rd Ave., 445-7400, 23hoyt.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday. Full bar menu available until 11 pm Tuesday-Thursday and until midnight Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.