Erik Van Kley is done with French food. After a decade in the kitchens of Gabe Rucker's Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro, the chef's new Central Eastside restaurant, Taylor Railworks, which opened in September, barely even stocks cheese except to put on salad.
Located in a majestically high-ceilinged, iron-and-concrete building erected in 1908 for our nation's finest makers of chilled plows, Taylor Railworks is a drinks-happy, open-kitchen restaurant originally conceived as an ode to roadside Americana.
The first dish Van Kley developed for Railworks was fried chicken ($21). But while it's buttermilk-battered Southern-style, Van Kley doesn't play it straight. The chicken is herbed and spiced with a curry-and-mint combination that's a lot closer to Mumbai than Memphis, with the soft fat of avocado topping the crispy fat of the batter.
On paper, the dish seems a mess. The flavors are all intense and geographically far-flung, the balance unlikely or even awkward. But it comes together into an unlikely comfort that quickly becomes addictive. There's almost an aha moment, as if you've solved a puzzle in your mouth.
This seems to set the tone for the restaurant: Apparently any ingredient from Van Kley's deep pantry of dried shrimp, purple shiso or unpronounceable chili pastes is up for grabs. Consider it big-tent Americana, a goofball jumble of heritage from all over the world, served up in an industrial-building restaurant outfitted with cozy spaces that allow it to seem intimate.
The menu is full of little discoveries, from an excellent bone marrow ($13) grilled at an impossibly hot 700 degrees and topped with the fixings for a DIY open-face banh mi, to apple-sweetened $3 oysters served on a bed of seaweed, to grapefruit cutting the fishy savor of XO sauce on salmon grilled so its skin formed a satisfying crispy bookend to tender meat. If I thought a fish-sauced flat iron steak ($27) was overpowered by the sweetness of pears, even with an excellent celery mostarda as counterpoint, my dining companion had fallen into a sort of giddy rapture with it.
Some experiments were less successful, sure. "The Boxer" chili-cilantro yellowtail plate is a sashimi-style tribute to Micah Camden's shuttered Boxer Sushi off Hawthorne Boulevard—where Van Kley ate every Monday, on his day off—made with chef Ian Skomski's old ponzu recipe. But it doesn't pop, dulled in part by the addition of a blood-orange oil that comes on as warmly cloying.
But among all those little discoveries, there was one very big one: Jesus Christ, that Singapore-styled chili crab, which may feature king crab ($39) or snow crab ($30) depending on the season. That solid pound of half-cracked, shell-on crab serves as ground for a bowl that's a revelation in flavorful intensity—sweet and salty and spicy and singing with garlic. Mae Ploy brand sweet chili sauce mixes with the deeper acid of tomato, enriched with the low savoriness of bok choy that has been caramelized to free it from bitterness. You won't even notice you've goobered up your hands until you're reminded by the presence of wet naps.
The agile drink menu was designed by Van Kley's partner, Gabriela Ramos (with a consult from Little Bird drink manager Tom Lindstedt) to match the intensities of the food. Drinks are bitter and sour and almost never oversweet, with personal touches like a near-fanatic devotion to vermouth and digestifs ($7-$10). Alongside a beautifully composed bourbon-brandy Paper Kite ($10) cocktail, the highlight by far is a Pinewood Baron ($10) that's essentially an elegantly smoked Negroni without the tableside pomp, made by adding barrel-aged, smoky lapsang souchong tea.
The desserts, after all those experiments, are almost touchingly simple in their straightforward sweetness: a very grapy grape sorbet ($7) served with peanut butter cookies, or a near-candied banana waffle with bourbon-aged maple syrup ($9).
Those desserts are maybe the first moment the diner is confronted with the simple nostalgic American feeling that was Van Kley's jumping-off point for the restaurant. But I prefer the broader vision evident in the savory plates. If you can't make something beautiful out of a batshit array of flavors from all over the world, then what's the point of America?
EAT: Taylor Railworks, 117 SE Taylor St., 208-2573, trwpdx.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday.