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October 15th, 2008 Heidi Yorkshire | Special Section Stories
 

Restaurant of the Year: Sel Gris

Mondok world: A self-taught iron chef who rules with an iron fist.

     
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IMAGE: Darryl James

Next time you’re dining at Sel Gris, listen. Over the muffled bass of background music, you’ll hear bursts of laughter, the clink of crystal, and the animated conversations of people who are happy to be exactly where they are. And, if you’re attentive, you’ll hear executive chef and co-owner Daniel Mondok’s voice, low and sharp, calling his staff to pick up a plate that’s ready to serve.

“Runner!”

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.

“Runner!”

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 Sel Gris, WW’s 2008 Restaurant of the Year. He’s the leading man, front and center beneath the gun-metal-gray proscenium that frames the kitchen in this shoebox of a restaurant. A rack of copper pots hangs from the ceiling, sparkling in silvery pinpoint spots. The bright kitchen light draws all eyes from the subdued dining room to Mondok, in chef’s whites, his shaved head giving him a touch of Iron Chef.

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 Sel Gris stand out. No dish leaves the kitchen without landing on his station first. He might do most of the cooking, or he might just add a squiggle of sauce or a tangle of greens. In any case, it doesn’t go to the customer before he’s made sure it meets his standards.

Not that Mondok presents himself as some kind of star. He’s the first to say that Sel Gris is the sum of many parts, including business partners, servers, fellow chefs, purveyors. But in a world where too many restaurants resemble too many others, what brings customers back to Sel Gris is the sense that this restaurant is one man’s vision, and that he’s offering it up to the public with all the energy and focus he can muster.

Sel Gris isn’t perfect. The room’s so small it’s hard to believe it seats almost 40; there’s no place to wait for a table; the sound level can get out of hand. But, somehow, it works. Neutral colors and minimalist art accommodate both a dressed-up night out and a spur-of-the-moment snack in denim and fleece. Service is warm, efficient and smart. The chairs and banquettes were not designed by a chiropractor eager for business.

Most important, the food at Sel Gris is inventive without being gimmicky, luxurious without being too impressed with itself. The style doesn’t work for everyone: Fans of lighter, more ingredient-driven cooking sometimes find Mondok’s dishes overly elaborate, especially in warmer months. They criticize his intricate presentations as arty or precious, and I can see their point. But dining at Sel Gris is a take-it-or-leave-it experience. You’re entering Mondokworld—it’s not like anyplace else in town. And the food is just delicious.

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.

Though Sel Gris feels like the kind of small, chef-centric restaurant that you’d be lucky to stumble on in Paris or London, Mondok’s never been to Europe—or to culinary school. He grew up in Eureka, Calif., and learned by doing, mostly in Bay Area restaurants. He seems genuinely proud of his whole résumé, happily telling stories about working for corporate chains and coffee shops as part of his apprenticeship. His most prestigious gig, a couple of months at Napa Valley’s French Laundry, had an unexpected downside. When he put it on his résumé, potential employers started saying, to his dismay, “We’re not looking for a head chef.” Mondok says he kept replying, “I don’t want to be a head chef. I just want a job!”

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 Sel Gris was as head chef at the Carlyle, where his food garnered passionate fans and almost equally passionate detractors.

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 Carlyle when he first hired dessert specialist Steven Smith, who came with him to Sel Gris. “This guy’s email address was ‘pdxpastrygod,’ so I figured he was either arrogant or incredibly good,” Mondok recalls. “Well, he was incredibly good.” Smith’s desserts, like Mondok’s savories, always have an extra level or two of complexity that set them apart. The Bing cherries in a financier, a buttery cake, almost taste lightly pickled, giving the dish a lively acidic edge to balance the sweetness. A chocolate roulade is simultaneously light and rich, intense and evanescent.

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 Sel Gris. Nothing’s too much trouble if the result dazzles.

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.

“Runner!”

 
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