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Can the New Besaw's Handle Its Own Wild Popularity?

Besaw’s: The Sequel

Besaw's is busy as hell.

At the Slabtown eatery, there are lines even for Monday lunch. On a recent Sunday morning, there were at least 30 people on the sidewalk in the rain, hoods up or huddled under overhangs. Owner Cana Flug was at the front desk taking phone numbers for the hourlong wait.

It's an unusual problem for a restaurant less than two months old. But depending on how you tally it, Besaw's is also coming up on year 113.

Besaw's was housed in a rickety space on Northwest 23rd Avenue for over a century—a few blocks from its current spot on 21st Avenue—before its historic name became the ball in a very public game of keep away between Flug and former landlord C.E. John. One point of contention? The trademark neon sign that Besaw's staff took with them—which now hangs inside the new 2,800-square-foot spot, a palatial ode to art deco that looks like Dorothy Parker's brunchery in hardwood and forest green, with half-moon booths, custom wallpaper and a huge horseshoe bar.

The much-ballyhooed reopening has meant the restaurant's start has been, as Flug told another reporter last week, a "shitshow." After a rushed opening schedule, the good-natured service staff have struggled to keep up, even on weekday lunches—clumping up, missing or mismatching a few orders and bottlenecking on drink orders. The receipts all bear a cheerily apologetic message: "We couldn't be happier to be back and getting better every day."

At lunch and brunch, the half-traditional, half-nouveau menu from ex-Wildwood chef Dustin Clark is coming into focus. Where simplicity reigns, the lightness of Clark's touch can be nothing short of extraordinary.

The eggs Benedict was a delicate construction—perhaps better than it ever was in its airiness, balance and resolute Frenchiness. The texture of the butternut French toast was managed beautifully as well, with a subtle basil topper.

A Reubenesque pastrami sandwich was a marvel of meatiness, tempered by tender touches: pecan-smoked beef, and a gentle leek fondue that didn't over-announce itself. A "cider-braised" oatmeal—i.e., oatmeal made with cider instead of water—with touches of honey, apple, walnut and lemon curd was shockingly flavorful, as was a recent pumpkin soup with herb and creme shuttled onto the menu when the usual pear and celery soup ran out.

And though the ingredients on the new "breakfast burger" almost read as if the proteins were offset during printing—pork burger, beef bacon, duck egg—the result was harmonious and magnanimously fatty, a richness both leavened and sweetened by the pork's natural topping of applesauce.

But the menu can be as busy as the restaurant. Clark sometimes seems to have too many ideas at once.

The meatloaf sandwich, soon to be discontinued, was 50 ways to salt a sandwich: meatloaf smothered in Muenster and sausage gravy with a distracting poblano, on a biscuit base. A similar ADHD plagued the chile relleno burrito, which has a creamy pumpkin sauce within and an entirely separate earthy mole spread on the plate, plus a pungently seedy green pepper. It's as if multiple ingredients of the burrito were all trying out for the same role, and were all allowed to play it.

But, for the most part, Besaw's manages to feel fresh, without abandoning its roots—updating and upscaling very old notions of comfort. As it irons out how to manage the crowds, its best dishes already place it among the few Portland brunch spots that justify the wait. That is, so long as Flug's planned second restaurant—cafe-by-day Asian-fusion spot Solo Club, due next door in a month—doesn't throw in a bunch of new wrinkles.

EAT: Besaw's, 1545 NW 21st Ave., 228-2619, besaws.com. Brunch 7 am-3 pm Monday-Friday, 8 am-3 pm Saturday-Sunday. Dinner 5-10 pm daily.