In a Neat Little Roe

Former Fin chef Trent Pierce works wonders in Wafu's back room.

Going to Roe is a bit like passing into the Egyptian afterlife. Before you reach its peaceful space, you must first pass through the land of wish fulfillment—in this case, the lively food tunnel that is Southeast Division Street eatery Wafu, where terribly attractive people pack the long tables slurping vegan ramen and shiso gin rickeys. Do not pause here, though it is tempting.

And reservations only, please, for those who wish to pass beyond the black curtains and through the thick door into Roe's quiet sanctum, where jazz plays softly enough you might mistake it for a memory. The room, indeed, swallows sound as if closed on by a mouth.

Everything about the wall-hung spartan space is contemplative, from molded Taoist fish on the wall to a wabi-sabi paneled painting hung behind the open kitchen, where chef Trent Pierce and sous chef Patrick Schultz create their plates with the seriousness, silence and formality of Hoover's original G-men.

Photos by Amaren Colosi

With Schultz's tiny ascetic frame next to Pierce's warrior-priest physicality, they also look a bit like the before and after in a Charles Atlas ad.

There's no need for a soundtrack or visual distraction. The party's on the plate. Though you can order a la carte, the three-nights-a-week restaurant exists best as a tasting room and three-hour experience, whether for the 10-course, $100 tasting menu at the four-seat counter or the $65 four-course meal. If you try to spend less, you'll sit in seething jealousy. Don't.

For one meal, the tone was set immediately by an appetizer of tender Alaskan spot prawns peeled into delicate sheets of carpaccio, set off by the citrus tang of a light ponzu sauce and integrated by a creamy shrimp "aioli" made from the stuff inside a shrimp's head. The characteristic structure of the prawn had been unpacked and recontextualized: It no longer felt like prawn in the mouth, though the flavor spoke otherwise. 

Meanwhile, the dish's rich intensity was set off by the snap of lowbrow crisped rice, placing the diner's experience somewhere between Frenchified cream coma and childlike delight at the simple, sweet crunch of a breakfast cereal. In the most elegant way possible, it's a bit like potato chips shoved in a sandwich. 

Pierce mixes food much like a cocktail, with bitter, salty, sweet and smoky notes that blend to create an unexpected depth of flavor. His recipes, as well as his plating, often have the theater of old-school nouveau cuisine, with its characteristic mix of Jackson Pollock expressionist solemnity and Jackson Pollock piss-in-a-fireplace whimsy.

A dish called kajiki toro was a nearly laugh-out-loud bait-and-switch, from the first bite of a dime-sized potato that seemed to contain the essence of 300 years of clam chowder. Though the entree's centerpiece was a neatly sliced fillet of costly cold-smoked marlin belly, the plate was at heart a chowder torn to its atoms and remade, right down to little granulated carrot and celery as scattered punctuation.

Another wild success was the roe "salad," a mix of roes atop the viscous core of a five-minute egg resting on a bed of creme fraiche and olio nuovo. As the egg's soft wall crumbles, the dish crumbles into itself, revealing also a sharp and strong citrus note from ponzu and a bitter-spicy flank attack from shavings of charred wild leeks. It was, perhaps, the highest note hit in two trips to Roe.

Almost everything in the first two courses was an impressive exercise in tightly controlled pyrotechnics—that is to say, surprise without confusion—from a kampachi sashimi popping with grapefruit and wasabi tobiko to a marlin tartare remade into the anatomized core of a fish taco, using steelhead roe to create the smoky undercurrent of chipotle. The only appetizer to miss its target was matcha noodles, whose distinctive flavor and texture seemed to draw away from rather than interact with the rich sea urchin and fresh, salty crab.

The third-course entrees—of which the kajiki toro was one—suffered in comparison to the bright intensity of the starters. A porcini-dusted butterfish revealed its secrets swiftly, but lingered longer on my now-entitled palate.

The menu changes regularly, with spring ocean plants overtaking it soon. A mere two weeks between visits showed half the meals and a third of the cocktails out of rotation, though the Lost in Translation, a citrus-tinged Monopolowa and sake drink ($12) best captures the unlikely harmony of sweet, rich, bitter and tart that characterizes the menu.

A note, however: After your indubitably hours-long meal, when you leave you will re-emerge in Wafu's noisy space, and it'll be as if you left a movie theater into bright noon sun. Bleary-eyed and surprised to find yourself once more in the familiar world of too-loud laughter and party fouls, you will briefly mourn the passing of the one you just left. 

  1. Order this: If two people each order the $65 four-course meal plus two additional appetizers—taking care not to duplicate—and then share, you’re each having the full $100 tasting menu for a total of $160. Just sayin’.

EAT: Roe, 3113 SE Division St. (in back of Wafu), 232-1566, 5-10 pm Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$$$.

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