Even in the atmosphere of the ever-revolving kitchen doors of Portland's restaurant scene, news that Tommy Habetz (co-owner and chef of the defunct Gotham Bldg. Tavern) was taking over the kitchen at Meriwether's raised a few eyebrows last winter.
Meriwether's was a staid Northwest neighborhood restaurant with the rustic charm of an upscale Vermont inn and well-heeled, middle-aged patrons to match. Tommy Habetz was chef at one of the most cutting-edge restaurants Portland has witnessed in several years. Could the twain ever meet? The answer is yes, but it took a while.
Initially when Habetz was settling into Meriwether's, I wasn't getting any of the "wow" factor I had come to expect from his cooking. The menu seemed tame and predictable—Dungeness cakes plopped next to a mound of arugula salad ($13) were good, but hardly groundbreaking or exciting. The Caesar salad ($9) was just pale romaine doused with a bland dressing; I couldn't help but compare it to the gutsy escarole heart Caesar draped with white anchovies served in days gone by at Gotham.
Main courses followed suit with disappointingly tame entrees. Our server raved about the roast chicken with "Grandma Maye's sage stuffing" ($19). Though the stuffing was great, it was, as the name implied, grandma food. Likewise, the ribeye ($28) was tough and didn't deliver any of the promised black truffle, and a rabbit cassoulet ($24) was bone dry.
Now, weeks—and a flurry of seasonal menu changes—later, the kitchen seems to have things dialed in. The Caesar is now made with crisp escarole and was as boldly garlicky as I remember it from days of old (though I missed the white anchovies). Innovative dishes like light-as-air green garlic fritters ($7), and tangy goat cheese ravioli with stinging-nettle sauce (half order $8, full $16) taste true to Habetz's creative abilities. A stunningly tender double-cut pork chop ($23, served almost medium rare...buyer beware) with a smoky romesco, and a gratin dish filled with tender rabbit, piquant mustard sauce and fluffy dumplings ($23), among other stellar dishes, had me rejoicing at how good food can be.
Though this partnership between rock-star chef and old-school restaurant seemed a bit rough at first, it seems after a bit of fine-tuning that there's a hit in the making.