The Country Cat is the short answer to the question "Where the hell is Montavilla?" A hodgepodgey cluster of storefronts near 80th Avenue along Stark and Washington streets, Montavilla finds in Country Cat a dining destination. Here, longtime Wildwood chef Adam Sappington consummates a marriage of Northwest ingredients, slow-cooked swine and traditional American cuisine in a spot that could awaken an entire 'hood—with the right attention. There are both gems and duds on the menu (the unsalted butter on the tables must go), but the new restaurant is moving in a positive direction.
Skip the nearly nude mixed salad ($6); it's nothing more than bitter micro-greens tossed in your choice of dressing. A soft wedge of butter lettuce ($6) is a better diversion, dressed in zesty green goddess and capped with a soft-boiled egg. A blob of garlic mascarpone doesn't save a bland purée of sorrel and white bean soup ($5) but Sappington finds God in a chowder pot pie ($7) that floats a faultless biscuit in a musky seafood brine teeming with life aquatic. Tragically, those biscuits don't appear elsewhere.
Chef Adam butchers a hog every week, renders the fat, cures his own ham and bacon and uses every last bit of it. His Manila clams, smoked country ham and sugar peas ($15) aren't done justice by a mint-heavy, not-so-sop-worthy broth, but the bacon-wrapped trout ($16) is a beautifully prepared fish wrapped in a house-cured pork tuxedo. The trout literally swam in the watery veggies that accompanied it—I'd ask for them on the side next time.
For my money, the molasses and hickory-smoked duck leg ($18) is Country Cat at its best. The smoked, confit-style, Viking-sized drumstick is gorgeously sweet and spanked with fennel. And add the "Heritage Burger" ($10) served on a squishy onion bun alongside a molehill of onion rings to Portland's A-list.
Sappington's great-grandma cooked fried chicken at a Missouri state prison. While he tweaks the family recipe by de-boning the buttermilk-soaked half birdie and finishing with spunky Tabasco vinaigrette, his cast-iron-skillet fried chicken ($18) is worthy of its Bible Belt roots—though larger pieces were a little too pink. The Carlton Farms "Whole Hog" ($18) culturally represents North Carolina all on one plate: The pig-parts sampler commingles fork-tender shoulder, a head-cheese croquette, a brined chop and a fatty—yet overcooked—belly in a puddle of swine reduction atop the best damn grits in Portland, Ore. Tractor-trailer-sized portions encourage sharing.
Dessert features a peerless baked-to-order rhubarb pie ($6), chocolate pudding ($6) and other creations, while the short yet well-rounded beer list won't leave you thirsty.
Country Cat can be noisy. I'd welcome window coverings that would shade and muffle a dining room that charges 18 bucks for fried chicken. Also, the pace of service is a tad brisk. Four courses zoomed by in 59 minutes, including a baked-to-order pie. If you're gonna slow-cook my meat, don't rush me while I eat it.
In growing Portland, a new restaurant can quickly help define a neighborhood—think Le Pigeon or Pok Pok. Like Montavilla, Country Cat has yet to reach its enormous potential. On a good night, it's better than most spots in town, and definitely one of the best of the dozen-odd eateries that sprang up this May. It's also testament to Portland's burgeoning gastronomical scene—that inspired food can be found in such far-flung corners.