Hold Me

Pop-ups are a hassle for customers. Holdfast is worth it.

In a perfect world, Holdfast is pretty much perfect.

Just before dusk, you arrive at a semi-industrial street, where the neighboring car dealership recently took down its barbed wire. Inside a sparsely decorated cocoon that could double as a sound stage but for the L-shaped bar and a few barrels of aging pinot, you find two eager young chefs wearing gentlemanly leather-strapped aprons. They know your name and show you to your seat. They bring an aperitif and paint the scene of their drive out to the foggy coast to grab the fresh geoduck clams you're about to eat. There are no servers or even dishwashers—two guys do it all. No need to fret the order; three well-coursed hours later, you emerge sated, smarter and perhaps with a couple of new friends.

But, of course, the world is not always so perfect. Say you bought that $95 ticket a few weeks in advance, and you're still chasing off a bug. Maybe your date isn't feeling up for a marathon meal on a Sunday night. And maybe you're allergic to shellfish. In that case, you might end up sitting alone in a dark room with a leaky nose, finishing your second drink on an empty stomach, surrounded by happy chatter and eyes made.

The inevitability of those situations has always dimmed my enthusiasm for Portland pop-ups. We're not talking about a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant who rents out a roach coach to surprise office drones with foie gras tacos. Rather, we're talking about a chef-friendly restaurant that operates in the same cheap, no-frills space for months or years and employs a strict reservation system. It's exactly what so many chefs want and yet are afraid to ask for. But in a city with sympathetic eaters and a rah-rah food press, it's proven sustainable. And in the case of Holdfast's 228th dinner, I'm glad of that.

Tartare, Miso, Turnip, Sea Vegetables

Chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks—the guys in the custom-made aprons—are local journeymen. They previously worked together at Bent Brick during its ill-fated fling with molecular gastronomy. When that bistro’s owner tossed the pressure-cooked hazelnuts in early 2012, Portland Monthly and The Oregonian both filed obituaries for Preisch’s career and local modernist cooking. And yet, with a minor rebrand and fresh-harvested local seafood, they’ve managed to make the same ideas “Zeitgeisty.”

The menu changes weekly, and there’s a short speech to accompany every course, but there are a few things you should look out for.

The first is the wine pairings, chosen by a different person each week—in this case a local wine distributor. It was the only thing I found lacking. The first two courses came with a 2011 Brooks Ara riesling, whose huge green-apple and grassy notes overpowered delicate fennel puree, celery and baby fennel fronds. It’s a prestige bottle—the 2006 vintage was served at a White House state dinner—but wasn’t well-matched to the food. A caramel-heavy 1999 Spanish white Rioja was too much for subtle halibut, and a 2014 J.K. Carriere white pinot noir called “Glass” was more cute than interesting with dessert.

Green Strawberry, Cucumber, Pistachio and Herbs

But every plate had at least one revelation. A salad of anchovy, peas and pea leaves got a wonderful punch-up from bits of rich, dehydrated olives. It was a perfect setup pitch for the seafood course that followed: innovative, fresh and salty.

And, my God, that halibut—so plump and delicate it ate like a marshmallow, floating like a cloud on a pretty pink rhubarb butter sauce. That prepared us for a soup with broth made from jamón ibérico bones from Ataula. And then, a beautiful beef culotte with a gobsmacking bone-marrow bread pudding atop a few pungent ramps.

Mackerel, Fennel, Green Tea, Lemon

Ramp season is fleeting, and by the time you read this they’ll probably be gone. But here’s some good news: The very best thing on the Holdfast menu was the only thing that comes back for every meal. That’s a cornbread madeleine that looks like Easter candy and gets a wonderful salty-sweet jab-uppercut from local honeycomb and a little Parmesan cheese. It’s followed by two more desserts, then candies, then excellent coffee from Heart.

If you’re anything like me, you walk out a little dazed, having been sucked into the little world that these two guys created. Once you’re inside, it is sort of perfect.

EAT: Holdfast Dining at Fausse Piste Winery, 537 SE Ash St., Suite 102. Dinner 7 pm Thursday-Sunday. Tickets at holdfastdining.com.