Eating at Berlu is a trip, in the grooviest sense of the term.
Chef Vince Nguyen elevates fine dining to the astral plane: delicious, mysterious, stylish without pretension, invariably thoughtful and focused. But it's not just the food that makes this one of Portland's best new restaurants. A meal here is a fully formed experience, where everything from the music to the restroom plays a part.
Nguyen's cooking falls into the "new Nordic" category, meaning the abundant produce on Berlu's $80 nine-course tasting menu—maybe the most reasonably priced in town—arrives at its seasonal peak from a short radius around Portland. Evolving from the minimalist, vegetable-centric focus of his earlier pop-up venture, Jolie Laide, Nguyen doesn't shy away from serving animal products, either as a dish's central component or an embellishment. Each course features a captivating mix of complementary and contrasting tastes and textures—some familiar, others less so—augmented by a handful of subtle technical touches Nguyen picked up during stints under Matt Lightner and Justin Woodward at Castagna, at Noma in Copenhagen, and as sous chef at Coi in San Francisco before heading back north in 2015.
Aside from the food preparation station in one corner, the comfortable 18-seat dining room is nearly all white, undecorated and almost chilly. But the unadorned environment serves to accentuate the ebullience of every plate. Each presentation is a work of visual artistry, bursting with bright, sometimes psychedelic colors.
On a recent late summer menu, the proceedings commenced with a measure of chilled watermelon juice with a few drops of bay leaf oil floating on top. The effect was bracing and palate-opening, the look reminiscent of a heavy-water light show slide from the 1960s. As Ken Kesey would say, at this point, diners were either on the bus or off. On my two visits, no one was looking to jump.
The next highlight was a small bowl of orange: bright, slightly dehydrated chunks of carrot and peeled cherry tomato in a pinkish puddle of nectarine tea, with bits of vivid green marigold leaf strewn on top. More artistry points, plus flavors that were sweet, tart and vegetal.
Next came a ring of ground pink shrimp topped with tender, pale golden and purple-pink artichoke petals, the ones you have to dig all the way to the center to extract. Inside the ring was a deep emerald pool of fig leaf oil. A test tube of warm mussel broth, jade-colored from an infusion of parsley puree, accompanied the dish, with instructions to pour it inside the ring before consuming. The visual delicacy and muscular brininess of this course was a deft study in multisensory contrast.
Skipping to the final savory dish, Nguyen offered Marion Acres organic chicken in two parts. The first act was a tangle of pulled chicken breast meat intertwined with similarly gnarled threads of shiitake mushroom that arrived with another vial of warm, rich and tangy chicken broth for a semi-DIY soup course. It's awe inspiring that something so simple could at once be immensely seductive and powerfully flavored. The second chicken course was a triangle of what could have been a deeply burnished chunk of barbecue bird—a clever illusion accomplished with caramelized charred onion glaze—accompanied by shiso leaves stuffed with chicken hearts and shishito peppers and grilled lettuce leaves filled with crispy-skinned wing meat. Another simple stunner.
The mood throughout was assisted by a playlist of interesting but unobtrusive tunes curated by Nguyen himself, the music tracking the arc of the meal with uncanny precision. One number, by the band DeVotchKa, played somewhere after the midpoint of the meal, mimicking that moment of an acid trip just beyond the peak, when the return to earth is first discernible.
Nguyen comes off as an intensely serious sort, friendly but reserved, even as he plates each course, describes it and helps serve. But he has a wild side, as reflected in the restroom, which he designed—a jarring audio-visual tribute to David Bowie, with themed wallpaper, strategically placed mirrors, and an interview segment with the Starman himself playing over a speaker.
Berlu is the fine-dining counterstrike against the unrelenting wave of comfort food, counter service and bus-your-own that dominates contemporary Portland restaurants. For many, that may rate a big shrug. But for those who still value traditional hospitality, remarkable cooking, and a meal that entertains as much as it nourishes, Berlu is a rare and important newcomer.
EAT: Berlu, 605 SE Belmont St., berlupdx.com. 6:30 pm seatings Thursday, Friday and Sunday, 5:45 and 8:30 pm seatings Saturday.