You can keep your vast menus, your sprawling hide-bound dining tomes, your infinitely paginated Cheesecake Factory bills of fare. Give me instead a restaurant that does exactly one thing, with minimal variation, and strives to do it within an inch of perfection.
We're blessed with a few such joints here in Portland—the iconic minimalism of Nong's Khao Man Gai springs to mind—and to this list I'm happy to add the new permanent outpost of Kalé, a Japanese-owned expression of that country's favorite lunch dish, curry over rice.
Originally from Kobe, owner Makoto Yoshino has captured the essence of Japanese curry. Kalé's menu outlines the story in miniature, as curry was first brought to Japan in the late 1800s by the British via India. It became a staple food of Meiji-era Japan, which prized internationalism and all things European, and was included in army and navy cookbooks. It has long since crept into the popular consciousness of Japan—Kalé's website cites a Japanese agricultural ministry study claiming the average Japanese person eats this curry and rice dish 80-plus times a year.
Despite its ubiquity in Japan, many Americans have never tried the dish—your reviewer included—and this gap is something Yoshino and company would like to address from their new storefront on Southwest Pine Street. The space is nothing special, veering toward perfunctory. Seating is limited—just four-tops, plus a standing counter along the south wall. The space is almost uncomfortably well-lit, almost cafeterialike, and the restaurant's minimal service team looked harried at times across multiple visits.
But it doesn't matter. All criticism of ambience or service floats away here when the curry and rice arrives.
The smell hits you first. The olfactory experience of walking into Kalé is nothing short of extraordinary. I'm talking stop-you-in-your-tracks good, holding-up-the-line-with-your-nose-in-the-air good. It is a deep, savory, slightly sweet smell, unmistakably fragrant with curry spice, offset by fresh roasted root vegetables and steaming rice.
Kalé offers three kinds of curry ($8.45-$9.25), four if you count the "mild gluten-free" version, which I was actively discouraged from ordering by the staff. All of it will be served with rice, bright red fukujinzuke pickles and an oversized metal spoon with which to eat it all, as is the style in Japan. The core options include a classic beef curry (bass note, deeply satisfying), veggie curry (a bit lighter, with a hint of vegetal sweetness) or chicken, my favorite, with heaps of acid amid the curry umami and a creeping, spicy tingle.
The add-ons are where it's at here, and they're all good. Kalé's roast vegetables ($2.50) are deftly textured, just so slightly charred in the oven but still maintaining crunchy snap and freshness. But it's the restaurant's take on a baked chicken or pork katsu ($5) that really stands out. For breaded chicken or pork, it manages to be light and vividly textured, totally flavorful on its own or as a broad amplifier when mixed with a bite of curry. It is an arguably healthy take on the more common deep-fried katsu style more commonly found around town.
The dish morphs into something transcendent when covered in cheese, or "Doria" style, available dine-in only for an extra $2. You can choose cheddar, mozzarella, or a combination. I really loved this with a few add-ons, like chilled spinach ($1) and hard-boiled egg ($1), the varied temperatures and textures providing a marked contrast to that steaming, unctuous curry.
I can't exactly wrap my mind around why, but something damn near alchemical happens once cheese is introduced over the top of the curry. It somehow traps the depth of flavor, and simultaneously amplifies it while morphing the texture into something greater than the sum of its parts. Cheese makes it taste good, is what I'm trying to say. You simply have to try it, and all the better with a can of Asahi ($3), Sapporo or a local micro can in Kalé's beer fridge—ask and servers will show you what's in stock.
The curry and rice at Kalé tastes like you grew up eating it, even if you didn't. I hope we can expect more single-item restaurants like this from around the world. I am strongly here for it.
EAT: Kalé, 50 SW Pine St., Suite 102, 503-206-4114, kalepdx.com. 11 am-8 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-9 pm Friday-Saturday.