| CHEF ADAM SAPPINGTON |
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.
The Country Cat, 7937 SE Stark St., 408-1414. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday. $$ Moderate-$$$ Expensive.