Chefs Greg and Gabrielle Denton conceived their 6-month-old West End small-plates spot as a counterpoint to their big-plates restaurant known for consistency, bone-marrow chowder and bone-in grilled meats. In the space that once housed staid middle-European eatery Grüner, the Dentons serve a collage of plates meant as flavor pops to the kisser.
During visits spanning months, we've found it ambitious, expensive, rewarding, disappointing and sometimes just plain confusing.
The menu is vast to the point of unwieldy—a 20-something-strong list of "bites," "plates" and "platters" that ascends from $4 bites so small your server will warn you they can't feasibly be shared, all the way up to a $78 plattered feast of grilled, pan-finished rib-eye steak and potatoes.
Each item is identified only by its ingredients: "Ramen egg, chashu sausage, ginger broth, Swiss chard, sesame chili oil." It's a form of suspense that will also leave you leaning on your server much harder than usual. Each diner is asked whether they've been in before, and first-timers receive an introductory speech.
Among the reliable highlights, the "spaghettio" dish ($7) is a blast of truffled and Parmesan-cheese-topped richness I'd eat by the boatload, although it arrives by the cup. Each button-sized O is individually hand-chopped by the kitchen from housemade penne that has been dried overnight to make it more malleable, a Sisyphean labor that keeps the dish small. Alongside the single-bite shroom-on-shroom action of a shiitake splayed across a softly sweet porcini-miso marshmallow ($3), it more than lives up to the promise of the restaurant's name: a tiny thing packed with crazy flavor.
But for a place named SuperBite, the bites are more often subdued. The deconstructed salmon ceviche ($5) is a macaron-diameter layer cake of avocado and fish, with a roelike topper of crunchy quinoa whose aggressive crunch carries the jolt of pop rocks on a Jell-O shot. The mild citrus and fish-sauce vinaigrette didn't provide enough acidity to balance that fatty double stack, however, leaving the flavor overwhelmed by the texture. A salmon-belly crudo ($4)—too small to be shared—is frankly beautiful, arriving as a tiny, spiral-blossomed cut of fish stuffed with shiso and topped with ginger, adrift in a pool of sweetly acidic hibiscus ponzu. Its flavor is as delicate as its appearance, however, drifting gently across the palate and out of memory.
A somewhat mushy mini-Twinkie of halibut-brandade fishstick ($5) is a badly landed joke that doesn't transcend its 1950s namesake, even with the addition of a gochujang-like fermented hot sauce.
Much of the rest of the menu follows a similar pattern. There are so many ideas, even individual plates can feel busy. Many dishes are collaborations between the Dentons and the numerous cooks in their kitchen, and often there's one ingredient too many. So there might be distracting pumpkin seeds in an already complex sweetbread dish in green-apple-and-onion soubise, or a confusing piece of liver-mousse toast added to a rich coq au vin. The mousse, I learned later, was meant to be spread across the bread and used as ground for the coq au vin, like bruschetta on high-grade cocaine.
A similar scenario plays out in bar manager Beau Burtnick's cocktail menu. Though his menu at adjunct bar Kask next door is free and easy, at SuperBite it contains both can't-miss treats like a bourbon-mezcal-maple take on an Old Fashioned called the El Camino Royale ($13), and too-far-afield concoctions like a sage-garnished Nature and Nurture ($12). Based on an affinity between IPA and tart French liqueur Benedictine, the drink ended up washed in acidity, with lemon and Clear Creek plum brandy also onboard.
But still, the reduction on that coq au vin was impressively deep in flavor, deepened still more by a duck-heart variation on the bacon-wrapped chicken-liver "rumaki" of old Trader Vic's menus. A chicken-fried quail dish was pretty much perfect, a petite take on fried chicken set off with a light turmeric yogurt, citrus and vadouvan-curried shallot served on greens.
The aforementioned ramen egg ($16) turns out to be a playful Japanese take on scotch egg, an impressive feat of both engineering and whimsy. It looks like a ramen-spined sea urchin pregnant with a soft-boiled egg, not to mention tender chashu pork. But that pulverized-noodle breading with lo-mein-style "spines" steps heavily on its delicate contents. The dish's biggest flavor punch was packed instead into the dashi it sits in, laden with lovely pickled-ginger stems of Swiss chard.
Two noodle dishes play with the fruits of the sea in surprising ways, but to opposite effects. A sea urchin fettuccine with Meyer lemon ($19) drowned in the urchin's funky brine, while a dish of cuttlefish "noodles" and out-of-shell mussels ($14) was more satisfying, with cuttlefish and fennel strands delightfully mimicking each other in appearance and texture, but not flavor.
Dishes are brought to your table by a parade of cooks from the kitchen, which means the person bringing your food has an intimate understanding of the dish they're laying down. But it may also mean that your small share plates and utensils don't get replaced after six dishes' worth of sauces, and then are swapped between each individual dish thereafter. While we were mid-dish on one visit—during which we'd received neither serving utensils nor clean plates—the hostess ceremoniously removed a single fork from within a folded napkin and wordlessly placed it onto the center of our table, for reasons I'll likely never know.
But if you'd like, you can short-circuit the whole roller-coaster ride by ordering grill dishes like beef short ribs or lamb T-bone, or doubling down on one of the platters. That 20-ounce rib-eye—served atop potatoes soaked in beef jus, spiked with horseradish and served with a lovely Caesar side—is like something from a different restaurant altogether, a literal meat-and-potatoes dish with solid execution. Two could order only that, and be happily sated and ready for dessert.
Among those desserts, the maple-walnut tart ($8) includes a maple slab thick as a children's book, a piece of beautiful excess that allows Greg Denton's Vermont roots to show. It's one of the most delectable desserts I've had this year, but only if you leave the unpleasant ethanol whiff of intense rum-raisin whipped cream to the side. Do so, and discover a new kind of sticky, crunchy decadence.
Still, the restaurant's very steep price tag—it's rare a person would get out under $75 and be full—demands reliable perfection SuperBite doesn't deliver. This leaves it a bit like a Star Trek mission to a strange new world. It's hellbent on discovery, but you might regret that you had to kill a couple dudes to afford it.
EAT: SuperBite, 527 SW 12th Ave., 503-222-0979, superbitepdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday. 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday.