Hotel restaurants are notorious for mediocrity.
Demands for food at all hours to accommodate the widest range of tastes is the norm, and bland pablum or worse is the usual result. So you would be forgiven for expecting the same of Bullard's long-awaited opening in downtown's new Woodlark Hotel.
Sometimes it feels so right to be wrong.
Bullard's one-of-a-kind menu is both conceived and executed to the high standard of a laser-focused stand-alone establishment, a feat all the more remarkable given the many opportunities for distraction during its two-and-a-half-year slog from announcement to reality.
Bullard's chef is Doug Adams. On the national stage, as a contestant on Bravo's Top Chef, Adams was reduced to a caricature of himself as the plucky, short-in-stature young cook from Portland via Texas who defied all odds to make the finals. Before TV fame hit, Adams was working under Vitaly Paley at Imperial, a more traditional hotel dining room that tried to touch all the bases, and managed to hit many of them. More recently, his short stint at the now-closed Woodsman Tavern excited the burger-and-beer crowd. But up until Bullard's December opening, Adams' ability to actually conceive a credible menu and run a restaurant of his own awaited proof.
To say Bullard's menu is meat-centered is accurate as far as it goes, but fails to capture the restaurant's essence. The overarching theme is reflected in the small-print logo at the bottom of the menu that reads, "Where Texas Meets Oregon," and on the mashup of the Oregon and Texas state flags that hangs in the airy, attractive, slightly dude-ish dining room. How perfect is that for a Texan stepping out as a chef in Portland, Oregon, with plates that ride the range between barbecue, local game, fish and plenty of plants?
For an admirer of Texas barbecue, the most impressive offering is Bullard's beef rib ($59), a Flinstonian affair that arrives with the spoon-tender rib meat neatly sliced perpendicular to the bone à la Peter Luger. It's accompanied by no-bullshit "fresh flour tortillas," pickled jalapeños and mild roasted tomatillo-lime salsa. The winning strategy is to roll your own tacos, but gobbling each component on its own is completely understandable. With the T-bone steak dinner ($74), the long-aged Creekstone steak also arrives pre-sliced, along with on-point onion rings, breaded in an even layer and deep-fried to a crunchy roasted umber. Naturally, the rings need a dunk, and this one is a doozy—a rich yet buttermilk-tart truffled ranch dip that merits bowl-scraping once the rings are devoured.
Of all the mains, most of which are ample enough for two, the only one that didn't hit the top notes of the others was the San Antonio chicken ($26 half, $52 whole)—ironic, given that Adams' fried chicken is the source of some food-geek notoriety. It's splayed out, roasted and served with the same accompaniments as the beef rib. When asked whether a switch might be in the future, Adams talked about how hard it is to make fried chicken to order fast enough to avoid complaints from customers.
Smoked meat isn't the only thing worth ordering at Bullard. The winter radicchio salad ($12) is an exemplary expression of the season, beginning with the bitter leaf, augmented by crunchy sweet apple and savory celeriac, punctuated with dill then doused with blue cheese dressing. The shrimp and grits ($16) places a half-dozen plump grilled shrimp alongside a crisp-surfaced block of grits—more like polenta—in an immersion of chili butter. No one from the Deep South would recognize this version, but they would be foolish not to power it down anyway. For vegetarians, a cauliflower steak with hazelnut romesco ($24) is among the mains. And pescatarians have ample options. For appetizers, there is a fish crudo with leche de tigre (on one visit the fish was hamachi, on another big eye tuna, each $16) or a powerhouse grilled scallop tostada ($17) with trés Texas accents of tomatillo, avocado and cilantro. Rainbow trout ($28) has been an entree staple since opening.
There is a dessert menu, but other than the ice cream (double scoop $5, triple $8), the offerings seem incongruously fussy. Instead, wander across the Woodlark lobby and visit Abigail Hall, a bar reminiscent of a favorite auntie's parlor, for a post-prandial drink. It's also operated by Adams and his business partner, Jennifer Quist.
The only serious concern about Bullard is its pricing. For about the same cost per piece as that delicious rib, you could buy a round-trip flight to Texas and bring back a dozen like-sized bones from the stellar Black's in Lockhart. Tellingly, the prices of many menu items have jumped around since opening. But Bullard may just reflect the new reality of sit-down dining in downtown Portland, especially with a menu reliant on top-quality ingredients. The captive, expense-account clientele at a hotel will probably pay the freight. Time will tell whether locals ride along.
EAT: Bullard, 813 SW Alder St., 503-222-1670, bullardpdx.com. 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-3 pm and 5-11 pm Friday, 5-11 pm Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday.