Any honest chef will tell you that some of his best ideas were purloined from other people's restaurants. A truly original dish is damn rare, and almost all restaurants these days are variations on one formula or another, or hybrids of several. Of course, the good chef will take a good idea and find a way to improve on it or make it into a creation of his own. As Pablo Picasso supposedly said, "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal."
Terroir, which opened in June in Northeast Portland, is named for the hard-to-translate French word that signifies a sense of place in food and wine, the combination of soil and season that makes a taste unique. For this new venture, owner-chef Stu Stein (who spent several years at the Peerless Restaurant in Ashland and wrote a cookbook, The Sustainable Kitchen ) took a heaping helping of the local-seasonal-sustainable ethos and mixed it with the trendy small-plates format for what the menu calls "a taste of the Pacific Northwest."
Nothing wrong with those concepts—nobody takes a restaurant seriously around here if farmers aren't traipsing through the dining room with muddy flats of carrots, and "small plates" used to be called "the bar menu." But compared with fellow Northeast Portland hot spots Toro Bravo and Lolo, both of which have a small-plates focus, the cooking at Terroir is uneven and curiously timid, and the menu feels like a pastiche of good and not-so-good ideas. While you'll certainly find some tasty bites, it's tough to put together a meal that pleases from beginning to end.
Perhaps due to its location (the building, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Northeast Fremont Street, is a poster child for the Portland Development Commission's MLK renewal project), the restaurant touts "affordable" prices. Still, don't expect bargains: Though most dishes cost between $5 and $12, they're just a few bites. On a recent visit with a girlfriend, an adequate but hardly gut-busting meal (with two of the less expensive glasses of wine) ran $85 with tip.
Although the layout of Terroir is awkwardly long and narrow at first glance, a snazzy "wine wall" and theatrically lit kitchen with a handsome stone oven pull the space together. The hostess handles the door cordially and promptly. Earnest servers in smart thyme-green pullovers welcome questions about dishes or ingredients, and are happy to trot back to the kitchen for answers.
Some of the most consistent dishes have been long-cooked meats from the wood oven, like savory "12-hour" veal cheeks (with delicious Juniper Grove goat cheese mac-'n'-cheese, $12) and braised lamb shank ($12). Roasted beef marrow bones with herb salad and toasted brioche ($7) are credited to London chef Fergus Henderson, who has made the dish a signature. I happen to love marrow and never get enough, so this dish thrilled me—except for the time when the bones arrived at the table bloody, a real appetite-killer.
Simple vegetable sides like roasted green beans with shallots ($4), a sauté of wild mushrooms ($7) and roasted fingerling potatoes with smoked sea salt ($5) have been simply fine. Soups, including an "heirloom" tomato broth with gazpacho vegetables and a poached oyster ($6), have been strong as well, though an otherwise sweet, earthy celery-root purée was ruined by a insistent backnote of hot pepper ($6).
High-end presentations—squirted oils, architecturally stacked components—seem inappropriately fussy for the rustic, ingredient-driven style of the menu. And good ingredients don't necessarily add up to good food without a sure hand to balance essential components like salt, acidity, sweetness and spiciness, any of which can be off kilter here, and in different ways on different nights. For many of the dishes, flavors were so mild I had to check the menu to find out what they were meant to taste like. Take risotto with "caramelized cauliflower, horseradish, vanilla and almonds": the cauliflower never showed a hint of brown, the horseradish and vanilla were undetectable (probably a blessing in disguise), and the almonds made the whole thing smack of breakfast cereal (small portion $5/large $9).
For a restaurant that features seasonality, it's surprising how many dishes on the menu back in mid-August were just tweaked a bit for early November. In summer, for example, the pasta was black-pepper pappardelle with braised lamb shoulder ragù and "wine-soaked" apricots ($7/$12)—not that the black pepper could be tasted in the too-thick noodles, or that nubbins of apricot added much to the dish. In autumn, the pasta became black-pepper fettuccine with braised fallow deer venison, wild mushrooms and leeks ($8/$14). Rockfish "crudo" ($8) in summer came with the too-creative combination of lemon-rosemary oil and tomato-watermelon salsa. (One or the other would have sufficed.) In autumn it became rockfish ceviche ($8), with a bashful citrus vinaigrette and radish and sunchoke salad.
Several aspects of Terroir live up to its aspirations, especially the selection of regional artisan cheeses and the smartly curated, all-Northwest wine list, brimming with original and unexpected choices. Served in first-class stemware, the wines are fairly priced, and you can always find a couple of sophisticated flights, like a summer offering of rosés made with tempranillo, pinot noir and syrah.
On paper, Terroir is a surefire combination of proven concepts, something you can take to the bank. On the plate, however, the flavors don't pay off. Stein has borrowed ideas from some of the best restaurants around the country, but he hasn't been bold enough to steal them and make them his own.
Terroir, 3500 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 288-3715, terroirportland.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.