It's Thanksgiving eve and the Woodsman Tavern is bustling. The harried staff darts about as diners seated on iron-legged drafting stools blend together in the richly dim room. A pale, slightly built bartender wearing suspenders and heavy frames pours three fingers of bourbon over cubed ice, then violently shakes it to shards. A waiter in dark plaid with a long, scraggly beard bolts across the hardwood floor to deliver freshly shucked oysters. A waitress with a dainty apron and a messy ponytail slinks around him to deliver puffy, neon-orange pork rinds.
The Woodsman is Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson's new pet. He's been mentally polishing the concept, and collecting the bucolic Hudson River School-type mountainscapes lining the walls, for five years. The restaurant opened in mid-October on the same block as his original coffeehouse. Sorenson's time and talent for curatorship are on full display. The place is beautiful—ruggedly elegant, a superb manifestation of our obsession with the pre-industrial. The food is not far behind.
Dinner at the Woodsman is a little like a homily at the Sistine Chapel. Of course it's good—look at this place, it has to be! That's not to be casually dismissive of the kitchen's accomplishments. Everything served Thanksgiving eve, and on a subsequent visit, was well-built from fine materials. Several dishes from the kitchen of chef Jason Barwikowski, formerly of Olympic Provisions, reward those driving German cars from the 'burbs to far-flung Southeast Division, all the way past the adult theater. (I live in the neighborhood; Boxster sightings are rare.)
Seafood is a small part of the menu but gets big play, starting at the front door where patrons walk by an ice-filled raw bar stocked with Tillamook Bay and B.C. oysters, Dungeness crab and prawns before encountering the hostess. Care is taken in sourcing excellent shellfish—Sorenson has been making field trips—and a simple cocktail of big, peeled prawns ($12) pleased our table, though it's hard to give much credit to the "cook." Roasted trout ($20) was a more impressive creation. Served whole in the skin, with a dusting of herbs and a few cherry tomatoes in the brightly flavorful yellow broth called "crazy water," it could easily become the Woodsman's signature dish.
Artisan country hams also get a lot of space on the brown paper menus that are in constant flux. (We enjoyed a roasted rooster entree on one occasion; it's typically chicken.) The cured meats require little more than shaving, but we happily sampled a plate of Iowa's buttery-smooth La Quercia ($8), a Hawkeye's take on prosciutto. Country ham also makes a cameo in an impressive appetizer of fingerling potatoes and chanterelles. The tender lettuce salad topped with radishes, buttermilk dressing and a crouton made from a Sally Lunn bun, and a smoky octopus dish flavored with salty chorizo sauce were other standouts. A decadent pork terrine, tender with micro-minced fat, was another fleeting but remarkable offering. (A chicken liver version is the usual, and is reputed to be quite good.)
Plan to sample a few first plates, and try a round or two from bar boss Evan Zimmerman's bourbon-heavy cocktail list, the thorough wine list, or beer offerings tilted toward Belgium, as you may be waiting a while. Service is quick and sharp—a napkin was refolded on two trips to the restroom—but the kitchen seems to gear up for big nights and, paradoxically, move slowly when things are quiet.
The bar is a worthy draw itself, having already pulled in The New York Times' coffee-obsessed vagabond Oliver Strand, and has both simple and complex offerings. We favored the strikingly straightforward Goldrush, a therapeutic blend of bourbon, lemon and honey. Coffee lovers will be happy to hear Sorenson brings out his famous Chemex—for $7 you can get beans brewed on a level rarely seen in a restaurant.
The trout, as mentioned, is a stellar entree. A hearty fried pork shank served on the bone with an aquavit-cranberry gastrique and a dab of sauerkraut ($24) had a crunchy coat over a supple interior. Along with the poultry dish, it's a nice option for fishphobes. The tender flank steak with french fries and a creamy bordelaise sauce is totally forgettable, an obvious concession to the unpardonably unadventurous, and will serve its ignoble purpose well.
The only similarly boring dish is, surprisingly, the snack menu's pork rinds "Ala Kahan" ($4), a nod to British tavern food. The Woodsman's version is lightly spiced and remarkably similar to Plaid Pantry's chicharróns. The pork rinds are one of the few instances where Sorenson stumbles toward what he might rightly fear: getting a little too cute. It's a cheapish curiosity that reminds us, compared to nearly everything else, just how well Sorenson assembled the Woodsman. This restaurant is like a vintage Pendleton catalog come to life, which makes it a perfect panorama for these woolly times.
- Order this: Whole roasted trout with cherry tomatoes and crazy water ($20).
- Best deal: The small salad at the bottom of the menu: lettuce, lemon and olive oil ($3).
- Iâll pass: Pork rinds Ala Kahan ($4).
GO: The Woodsman Tavern, 4537 SE Division St., 971-373-8264, woodsmantavern.com. 5 -10 pm daily,
9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$$.