IMAGE: Darryl James
Next time you’re dining at
If 30 seconds or so pass, and that plate isn’t yet on its way to the dining room, you’ll hear him again, his tone more insistent.
The servers hustle, because those plates can’t wait in the kitchen. “I don’t use heat lamps,” Mondok explains. He’s a man of definite opinions. “My plates are hot. The food is hot. That’s how I want it served.”
You can’t miss Mondok at
If you’re at one of the four seats at the bar—for my money, the prime spot in this restaurant—you’ll be an arm’s length away from Mondok. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the intense attention to detail that makes
Not that Mondok presents himself as some kind of star. He’s the first to say that
Most important, the food at
Take Mondok’s Foie Gras Two Ways, an appetizer that’s become a signature. What you see on the plate is a nubbin of crisp-seared foie gras balanced on a golden disc that Mondok calls a Monte Cristo, referring to the traditional French deep-fried ham-and-cheese sandwich. Sel Gris’ version starts with housemade brioche spread with savory-sweet heirloom-tomato jam, and then a purée of foie gras and toasted marcona almonds. A paper-thin slice of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an aged artisan cheese from Wisconsin, is tucked inside.
“It’s basically a fancy PB and J with cheese,” says Mondok. Just before serving, the whole thing is dipped in a batter flavored with cinnamon, cognac and vanilla-bean paste and sautéed. Call it French toast from heaven, with foie gras on top.
One of the keys to Mondok’s success is his gift for balance. His best dishes contrast sweet and savory, salty and acidic, meaty and herbal, creamy and light, smooth and prickly. A late-summer salad combined grilled nectarine and peach with milky-fresh mozzarella, spicy arugula, peppered walnuts, a shaving of aged sheep’s-milk cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette. Herbed ricotta agnolotti get different partners depending on the season; in late August, the creamy pasta pillows contrasted beautifully with the sweet smokiness of roasted corn, the earthiness of shimeji mushrooms, and fruity, acidic bites of toybox tomatoes. Even “Pork and Beans,” a potentially monochromatic ragoût of braised pork cheeks, fava and cannellini beans and pancetta, has echoes of molasses, piney rosemary and crisp cornbread croutons.
Mondok loves remaking classic recipes. His calamari fritto misto adds preserved lemon and a walnut-olive oil-garlic dip to the fried squid. For his version of salade Lyonnaise (a French bacon-and-egg salad), he takes the components apart. On a matte black plate, he arranges a nest of curly, pale green frisée to cradle a poached duck egg in, then lays a sweet-salty piece of braised bacon on the side. A small pile of chunky gray salt (sel gris, of course) provides punctuation.
He made a few visits to Portland and thought it was a promising spot. (He confides that he still has Gourmet magazine’s January 2002 issue featuring Portland, which he used as a guide on those early visits, tucked away as a keepsake.) When he made the move, his first job was at Peet’s Coffee on Northeast Broadway. “People still walk into the restaurant and look at me and say, ‘I know you from somewhere.’ I’ll say, ‘I used to serve you coffee at Peet’s.’” His highest-visibility job before opening
With his own restaurant, Mondok seems to have hit his stride. And there’s a refreshing sincerity about him as a person. While too many Portland chefs are busy amusing themselves with their own bright ideas and clever concepts, Mondok is the kind of guy who can look you straight in the eye and say, without a hint of irony, “I didn’t expect to be so successful and so lucky. Actually working for myself, and being able to cook from the heart rather than for the paycheck. My goal is to make everybody who walks in the door happy.”
Mondok was at the
In Smith’s version of peach Melba, he poaches the peach in wine, sandwiches a scoop of smooth raspberry sorbet in the cavity where the pit should be, and adds a garnish of fresh basil. The whole thing’s glazed with raspberry sauce and comes to the table looking like the sun on a rosy dawn. Smith is also responsible for the bittersweet chocolate-dipped nubs of buttery caramel, sprinkled with sel gris, that end every meal.
Few nonprofessionals realize how labor-intensive this kind of cooking can be. I spent a couple of hours at the restaurant on a Friday in late August, as Mondok and two assistants were prepping. I watched as fish was trimmed, pounds of pasta dough kneaded through a hand-cranked machine, hundreds of agnolotti stuffed with ricotta. Meanwhile, Mondok finished braising the bacon for the salade Lyonnaise in a broth of red wine, veal stock, brown sugar, apple cider, onion, carrots, celery and molasses. He cleaned, portioned and wrapped nubbins of sweetbreads for the restaurant’s popular appetizer, which is served with a crisp pancake shell that encases a deliciously runny duck-egg yolk.
Then, Mondok pulled another plastic container out of the walk-in, this one full of speckled, soft-boiled quail eggs. They’re a component of Lamb Three Ways, an entree combining fork-tender braised lamb shoulder, grilled loin and the aforementioned egg, wrapped in lamb sausage and fried golden. “This egg has become my nemesis,” Mondok quipped, and it is a fuss. Each tiny quail egg must be coddled for exactly two minutes, so the yolk remains slightly soft, then cooled, peeled, floured, encased in sausage and finally fried before serving.
“If it’s such a pain, why not do something easier?” I asked. Mondok looked at me as if I had started speaking Vulcan. “My customers love it,” he said. “Why would I change it?”
Exactly the point about
A few hours later, it’s curtain up on another evening. The plates land on Mondok’s station. When he’s satisfied, he’s sure his customers will be, too.
Then, the refrain begins.