BJ Smith has made a career of solving problems no Portlanders knew they had.
To grow his empire of popular Smokehouse barbecue joints, the Indiana native put a glammed-up spin on the roadside dive, eventually thawing the hearts of irksome transplants who claim wherever they're from is the only place to find "real barbecue."
Smith's Vancouver outpost, Smokehouse Provisions, is still going strong. But a stint on Season 14 of Top Chef and the death of his mother inspired the chef to put the business on the back burner and seek more answers to questions few had asked.
In the case of his latest venture, Smith gives extensive thought to what an upscale Polish restaurant would look and feel like in New Portland. He gave Smokehouse Tavern on Southeast Morrison Street the boot and replaced it with a sparse homage to his late mother, Delores, the restaurant's namesake.
Aside from the 10-foot-high flamingo mural, the void of familiar kitsch is likely to be whiplash-inducing for Smokehouse regulars who've grown accustomed to dining in a rococo Reconstruction Era fever dream. It's a counterintuitive move at a time when every restaurant appears to be testing the limits of just how many plants, paintings and photographs they can tastefully employ, but Smith effectively channels an eccentric Polish vibe regardless.
To that end, the hypothetical customer Delores appeals to is somewhat of an anomaly here. Portland is not a place where people get in fistfights over the last everything bagel or express frustration over appropriate mustard options. But we do have enough transplants from regions where those kinds of conflicts arise regularly who can understand what Smith is going for. His aspirations are best embodied in the menu's subtly brilliant side items, like the Parker House roll, a fluffy rectangular bun covered in everything-bagel seasoning and served with a side of herb cream cheese topped with roe ($14).
If it's a rich, fatty indulgence you seek, this is exactly where you want to be. A quintet of duck confit pierogis come accompanied by duck ham and foie gras ($17). The entree section of the menu brings Smith's considerable chops with smoked proteins to the fore. The dry-aged rib-eye with a coffee rub and potato purée ($29) is the closest you'll get to the craftsmanship that put Smokehouse on the map, but the salty, smoky, lightly sour flavors common in traditional Polish dishes have just enough presence to feel like a true statement of purpose rather than an abrupt adaptation.
The smoked kielbasa with Brussels sprout sauerkraut ($15) is a considerable flex of Smith's Smokehouse days as well, but the multidimensional tang and astringency of the housemade yellow mustard shows Smith has done his homework. If you've got a little old Polish lady in your life, this is guaranteed to put a smile on her face.
The cocktail menu brings some old-school vodka drinks into the 21st century. What's likely to become Delores' signature cocktail is the Valentina ($13), essentially a vodka martini made even more luxurious and over the top with the addition of a foie gras-stuffed olive. The Finishing School is more subtle, a lemony vodka cocktail chased with a hint of savory rosemary. There is admirable imagination behind grain-based drinks like the Hotel Cortez (Buffalo Trace, Amaro Meletti and port; $13) and the Cat Nap (Mason Rouge V.S. Cognac, caramelized orange honey and lemon, served hot; $12), but they need a bit more dialing in before they can top the extra angle of their clear counterparts.
All in all, Smith has a lot of good ideas and plenty of room for tinkering. The prices may be a bit jarring for folks from the East Coast or Rust Belt who are used to copping potato pancakes and pierogis on the cheap from the steamer case of a creaky old deli. But that may be the wrong way to look at it. Delores is an attempt to upgrade Old World food for the extravagant tastes of New Portland. With that kind of ambition, a few misses are to be expected, but Smith knocks it out of the park where it truly counts. His mother would certainly be proud.
EAT: Delores, 1401 SE Morrison St., 503-231-3609, delorespdx.com. 11:30 am-2 pm, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday.