The Verdant Fields of Cully

Old Salt is a Renaissance restaurant.

SALT OF THE HEARTH: Roasted beef with tomatoes and Padrón pepper at Old Salt.

Old Salt contains multitudes. A stately 6,000-square-foot pleasure dome of food in the otherwise barren Cully neighborhood, the venture encompasses a butchery that works only from whole animal carcasses, a deli with $10 to-go plates, a pastry shop and a cooking school. One of the owners brews fine farmhouse beer, which is always on tap. A farmers market debuted out front July 11, and a produce market is in the works. It’s got a little of almost everything Portland holds dear at the moment; if they annex the Spare Room dance hall across the street, they’ll have it all.

But vast though this follow-up to Grain & Gristle may be, its supper club is nonetheless an intimate affair, a wood-slatted space that wouldn't be out of place on Twin Peaks. The chef, Timothy Wastell, an alum of DOC and Firehouse, is known for his obsession with the foraged and fresh, so the early summer menu is thick with cardoon, trumpet mushroom and pickled spring ramps.

Meat entrees are uniformly wonderful and far cheaper than it seems they should be, especially as each showcases multiple cuts. One presumes this is an advantage of having an in-house butcher shop. The duck ($17) was served two ways, tender confit breast and lightly crisped legs glazed with sweet Brooks cherries whose lightness was deepened—justified, even—by the rich fattiness of the duck.

The generous and immensely flavorful hearth-roasted beef ($18) was served rare and paired beautifully with meaty heirloom tomato. And while simply prepared cuts of meat are often lovely but rarely surprising, this was a blazing exception. It was as if I could taste not only the beef but the grass the cow had eaten. The accompanying short ribs were a little dry, but the charred baby onion and Padrón pepper were likewise well matched to the cut, a sharp bitter-to-salty yin and yang.

The restaurant is a broad-gestured showcase for well-sourced ingredients, with produce picked to complement the flavor of meat much as cheese is chosen for wine. The thick cuts of rare albacore ($16), cooked just enough to firm their exteriors, made a surprisingly amenable complement to the honeyed acidity of apricot. However, the pork ($15)—served as loin, rib and rind in jus—overwhelmed the slight turnip and bland cheddar polenta that were served with it. Luckily, none of the three cuts needed any help.

Appetizers, however, are a jumbled affair. The soft-on-soft chevre gnocchi ($12), served in mushroom sugo with earthy chili sprinkle, was played to terrific effect against the refreshing crispness of fava beans. A dish of prettily halved farm radishes with house-whipped butter ($5)  offered no reason for complaint—nor particular reason for celebration. But a too-cute-by-half concoction of "buffalo-style cardoons" ($8) featuring grotesquely intense, Cheetos-powdery dehydrated wing sauce on tempura thistle, served in a shallow cat dish of buttermilk with shaved crudités, just about put me off of my meal. A tempura vegetable salad ($8), though warmly verdant, quickly wore out its welcome.

Biscuits ($4), on the other hand, tasted like reconstructed heaven, and were a better showcase than radishes for the house butter. A chocolate marionberry tart might sum up the menu: elegant in its simple combination of fruit and ganache, but with additional intense sides that distracted from the show.

Old Salt is not without its stumbles, but it has the makings of what could become a quintessential Portland eatery. Its ambition certainly seems to prepare it for this. But for now, a word on how to use the menu. Stick to the entrees, and order the dish that looks the most boring: "Pork," "Roast beef” or “Ham hock.” It will not be boring. It’ll feel like coming home. 

  1. Order this: The hearth-roasted beef is unparalleled in this town. Also? Duck. Also? Pork.
  2. Best deal: Even unaccompanied, the hearty protein entrees sate for a price ($15-$18) that some comparable restaurants would charge for a second course.
  3. I’ll pass: Buffalo cardoons are dismal.

EAT: Old Salt, 5027 NE 42nd Ave., 971-255-0167, 5 pm-midnight daily. $$.

WWeek 2015

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