In 2013, Holdfast Dining was one of Portland's first breakout pop-up restaurants, a fine-dining chef's counter in which the chefs both serve and clear your plates, and even do the dishes afterward. With a new, permanent venue, Holdfast Dining has raised the level of service to the level of its food.
Holdfast Dining's new home is just west of Ladd's Addition. Its formerly Mondays-only bar pop-up, Deadshot, also made the move, and now operates next door seven days a week.
Inside the new Holdfast, the 16-seat chef's counter remains the main exhibit. The space is a beautiful blank slate. With high ceilings, the walls disappear into darkness, and cool blue lighting pours down onto a black countertop. A massive hand-painted mural of botanical ingredients instills a natural history museum mood on one wall.
Holdfast sells reservations through OpenTable, and its reputation and loyal following means booking at least a month in advance, at present. The $140 ticket includes the prix fixe meal, drinks and tip, which makes it one of the most affordable of Portland's innovative fine-dining destinations.
While reservations are still required, seatings are now staggered. The result is a more personalized meal, as though your section of the counter were its own table. You can both dine at your own pace and tap into the communal ethos as you wish.
Holdfast has also added key staff. A waiter, in addition to a sommelier, attends to guests, while chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks have brought on a full-time sous chef, Kachka alum Matthew Wickstrom.
Holdfast may have finally solved its silverware situation, too. In welcoming diners, Preisch and Stocks used to require guests to hold onto the same silverware throughout the meal. "If we ran out," said Stocks, "we sometimes had to wash a fork on the spot." Now each seat at the counter has its own drawer full of cutlery, granting you the complete freedom to eat each course with either a fork or spoon as you please.
The model has been tested. Preisch picked up the idea while cooking at Relae in Copenhagen, a Michelin-starred restaurant run by Noma alum Christian Puglisi. But, as every freedom brings confusion, you may find you've used up all of your spoons by the time dessert arrives. The staff will bring one fresh, but you will have to ask.
As always, chefs Preisch and Stocks introduce and serve each course and are on hand to answer questions throughout the meal. They have always cooked by a code of curiosity, and five years in, they've sustained their free-wheeling, open-minded approach. Their iconic cornbread madeleine, served with browned butter, melted fat back and honey comb beneath a snow pile of Parmesan shavings, is one of the only repeating dishes.
Recent standouts include house-cured salmon roe beneath minuscule threads of smoked salmon; olive oil-poached baby octopus with Castelvetrano olive puree; and a boneless duck confit.
The dish of salmon roe proved there are still new ways to prepare salmon, even in the Pacific Northwest. The dish had all the headiness of smoked salmon but the freshness and poppy texture of salmon roe. A thickened sauce of buttermilk and smoked tomato was simultaneously reminiscent of creme fraiche and chowder. The flavors were further widened by foraged sea greens, an acidic tomato chip and lightly pickled Japanese seaweed.
The Scandinavian technique behind the pulverized smoked salmon was actually Wickstrom's contribution, showing the chef is wasting no time in putting his touch on the menu. To make it, salmon is slow-smoked over cherry wood, shredded and then baked at a low temperature for several hours. This increases its meatiness through dehydration without making it sweet. Finally, it is added to a food processer with something resembling housemade potato chips, for crunch, and minced.
The poached baby octopus draws from a dish Preisch and Stocks made together 15 years ago at Park Kitchen. The Holdfast version was excellently tender, like nibbling the ocean's earlobes. It had been briefly pan-fried in a fennel reduction, adding caramelized sweetness. The puree of Castelvetrano olives doubled the already insistent olive oil flavor. The Basque cider pairing brought the wonderful combination of apple and fennel.
Lastly, Holdfast's duck confit was astonishing because it actually improved the classic dish. The duck arrived as a rectangular slice, with crispy skin along the top, shredded duck meat underneath. Each piece of the duck was immensely flavorful, tender, moist and succulent.
In case you'd like to supplement the pairings with a cocktail or glass of wine, a meal at Holdfast begins with a pre-dinner drinks list. Note the pairings amount to around 10 ounces total, or about two glasses of wine, over the course of the night. Most of the wines are rare picks from Oregon, France and Italy. Deadshot's Adam Robison, who has known Preisch and Stocks since they all worked together at Park Kitchen, is making some of the most exciting cocktails in the city right now.
Somehow, it all still manages to come off as unpretentious. Holdfast continues to be one of Portland's fanciest restaurants while deftly defying fine-dining norms. At its idiosyncratic chef's counter, fine dining isn't a stuffy experience—it's a conversation.