Creature Comforts

Kingdom come, in Portland as it is in McMinnville. But who's game?

The Kingdom of Roosevelt's menu may be a minor literary work, short prose that begins with "Fallow deer heart tartare with his marrow," continues to "Eggs in various forms" and closes on "Bread and fat."

"That's not a menu, that's a Decemberists song!" a colleague sang out, reading the restaurant's "Fruits of the forest and field" section in a high-pitched crackle. "Wood pigeon liver custarrrd with elderflower and pickled huckleberrrrrries."

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Eric Bechard's new 26-seat restaurant next to Joe Bike on Southeast Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard is named for the native Roosevelt elk and focuses on indigenous game animals, seafood and foraged seasonal produce. It has captured Portland's imagination if not our reservations—two visits, one on a Friday night, found plenty of open seats below antler chandeliers and the glass-eyed gaze of a stuffed fox.

That's surprising given the Roosevelt pedigree. Bechard's McMinnville outpost, Thistle, was The Oregonian's top restaurant of 2011, though the polarizing chef is more infamous as the tattooed bruiser who punched an event organizer for allowing an Iowa pig into what was supposed to be an Oregon-only cook-off.

Adventure-seekers—a Friday-night crowd included seven bros who downed five $38 wine-sized bottles of Logsdon's coveted peche beer then mugged for photos with pigeon legs dangling from their mouths—begin with raw fallow deer heart ($15). Minced bits of ultra-lean muscle are served with marrow-filled bone to be blended and spread over bread. The flavor is unremarkable even as the experience is unforgettable. That result is not infrequent with Bechard's ingredient-focused approach, which employs delicate seasonings that force flesh and foliage to shine—or not.

Salt-cured lingcod with shell beans, cucumber and sea vegetables was a dud—the whole thing ultimately had the flavor of salted English cucumber, with the mealy beans outmuscling delicate fish. I found myself gnawing on duck breast carpaccio topped with a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil, sour cherry bits and a handful of tender corn shoots, as the raw duck proved far chewier than beef. On our visits, the fat portion of the bread and fat ($4) was heavy on potato and light on herbs and duck grease.

When the scope is right, though, the Kingdom is one of the most innovative restaurants in town: a high-concept journey through Oregon's bountiful forests guided by the sort of experimental spirit seen at Aviary and Castagna.

Bull's-eyes include the smoked steelhead roe atop a wreath of radish bits ($13), with the delightful pops of brine enlivening a novel salad course. Meanwhile, a potato-topped forager's pie—one of four vegetarian-friendly main courses—gets amazing mileage from earthy hedgehog and yellowfoot mushrooms bought from local foragers. Gnocchi-like dumplings of woody acorn flour in a rich sauce of cabbage and caraway ($14) taste like something from the magical kettle of a Black Forest gnome.

Most stunning of all is an exquisitely savory bobwhite quail with a runny fried quail egg, the cocktail of pungent bulbs bringing an intoxicating warmth to gamey juices. It was all we could do to avoid the fate of another diner—not one of the bros—who actually picked up his plate to lick up the excess gravy.

Hunter's stew ($26) is another direct hit. It's more sampler plate than stew, with duck leg, elk meatballs, rabbit and a whole pigeon head biting a little sprig of rosemary bathed in a thin venison gravy. You crack the beak and peel the neck to access the meat of the quail's throat. My companion took it before I could claim a piece: "You know why this was so tender? These muscles were only used for singing."

On our first visit, a rabbit's blood barley pancake with cream and berries brought with the $60 six-course tasting menu was dry and drab. Bechard's original recipe hewed closely to Scandinavian tradition, though it's since been sweetened to appeal more to American palates. On the other hand, a birch-syrup pie with sour milk dazzled us—the sweet, spicy sap and tart milk playing perfectly off each other.

But there are also some unexpectedly ragged edges for an upscale restaurant. The Kingdom is the first restaurant of its caliber in Portland to put an intense focus on fancy bottle-conditioned beer. An excellent lineup of farmhouse and wild ales in 750-milliliter bottles are fairly priced between $17 and $45. But servers schooled in wine service don't properly handle them. After presenting the label for inspection they ruggedly dump Flemish red into a glass as though trying to aerate a tight pinot. The first glass from each of the four bottles we had came with 3 inches of head. Servers also top off beer as they would wine, lifting bottles with one hand to hurriedly refill a glass as they grab sullied silverware. And they're not shy about inverting the bottle to dump in the settled yeast without inquiring as to preference.

Also, a restroom window facing the parking lot is uncovered at chest height, meaning that arriving customers make eye contact with men who stand pouring their Pilsners.

But for all its roughness and ridiculousness, the Kingdom of Roosevelt never feels insincere. Rather, this is Bechard as an innocent, knuckle-tatted babe at play in the wild, romping field and forest, seemingly humbled by the bounty before him. Such a project is sure to be polarizing, but I ultimately found it a moving ballad. 

  1. Order this: Smoked steelhead roe ($13), bobwhite quail with alliums and fried quail egg ($14), Hunter’s stew ($26).
  2. Best deal: Forager’s pie ($14) and acorn dumplings ($14).
  3. I’ll pass: The $60 six-course tasting menu. We’ve been told the best dining bargains are found on tasting menus, but that’s not the case here.

EAT: The Kingdom of Roosevelt, 2035 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., 477-9286, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$$.

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