Some chefs are strutters, some are grinders.
Strutters like to be on television, work a dining room in sparkling whites and schmooze the foodie elite. Grinders prefer to work the line, cook great food and discreetly smile as empty plates return from the dining room. There is, of course, some crossover. But given a choice, take the grinder every time.
Erik Van Kley, the chef at Arden restaurant and wine bar, is a dedicated grinder. The food he has been making there since 2019 is unique and compelling. He is almost always present in his tiny, underequipped kitchen, cooking his heart out. Despite Van Kley’s preternatural skills, few have heard about the joys of an Arden dinner. This is a shame.
Van Kley came to Portland from Michigan, the middle child of a traveling French history scholar and a homemaker with a journalism degree. He eschewed higher education himself in favor of a kitchen hand’s life, starting as a dishwasher in high school and learning the ropes from “an old-school kitchen wacko” who would occasionally break plates on the floor just because he could.
To fill his spare time, Van Kley began a “meditative” relationship with the guitar at age 14. He still plays morning and evening, every day, on his collection of Fenders. Though his focus has shifted over time, his passion has always been jazz.
“It’s not defined by a specific set of rules or boundaries,” Van Kley says, “but by the sum of its many moving parts.”
He jokingly refers to his cooking style as “jazz cuisine,” but it is no joke.
In Portland, Van Kley has developed an impressive résumé, beginning at Gotham Building Tavern, before moving on to Le Pigeon and Little Bird, spending nearly five years at each. He worked closely with Gabriel Rucker during all three of those stints before striking out on his own.
Van Kley’s independent venture, where he debuted his jazz cuisine, was Taylor Railworks. There were no limits on what might appear on a plate there. Fans adored the chile crab, a dish better known in Singapore than Portland. Of the buttermilk-battered fried chicken, WW reviewer Matthew Korfhage declared, “The chicken is herbed and spiced with a curry-and-mint combination that’s a lot closer to Mumbai than Memphis.”
Alas, Taylor only lasted from 2015 to 2017. Its location was poor, the layout odd, and the global, improvisational approach was as confusing to some as it was revelatory for others. The closure still haunts Van Kley. He concedes, perhaps too easily, “I got a little out there with some dishes, and I fell on my face.”
After a few short-term gigs, Van Kley signed on at Arden. The food menu had not been the Pearl District wine bar’s strong suit. It is now.
Some of the more free-form numbers from the Taylor days are absent from Van Kley’s Arden playlist. Still, he and the several Taylor alums who now work with him aim to “keep it fun.” Commonly used ingredients include nuts for crunch, chiles for an attitudinal undertone, and plenty of bold, umami-charged components such as fungi, cheese and cured tiny fish.
Menu items rotate, but among recent appetizers, the best stars blobs of creamy burrata, crispy-fried mushrooms, pine nuts, and a shower of grated, earthy aged La Marotte sheep’s milk cheese dressed with shoyu vinaigrette ($18). It is a carnival of textures and flavors.
Trying to select a second course is maddening. Do you go for the decadent duck liver ragù embellished with sweet-smoky aji panca chile and smoked shoyu over tagliatelle, ringed by whipped ricotta, with Parmesan shavings on top ($17); morel mushroom and ricotta cappelletti in a savory Parmesan-imbued broth ($17); or the extravagant new menu addition: morels, spring onion and asparagus immersed in a buttery, rich and gooey stracchino di crescenzo cheese fondue with a layer of French black truffle shavings ($27)? If your answer is “all of the above,” you win.
The entree section may not be as powerful as the preceding plates, but this is a quibble, especially knowing that Van Kley and crew are handicapped with a small four-burner stove, no flat-top grill, no walk-in refrigerator, and a deep fryer that looks like a toy. Duck fans will adore the platter for two that includes confited pan-fried leg and thigh, sous vide pan-seared breast, plus miso-creamed kale in puff pastry shell ($49).
In addition to the main sections of the menu, there are ample side offerings, ranging from togarashi-spiced marcona almonds ($6) to foie gras torchon with challah toast ($19), plus desserts. Wine remains a definite draw, too.
The best bet for the value-conscious or indecisive is the chef’s prix fixe, four courses shared by the table for $65 per person. Add wine pairings for another $45 per person.
Visit Arden soon and relish the bounty of a career grinder who has clearly found his groove.
EAT: Arden, 417 NW 10th Ave., 503-206-6097, ardenpdx.com. 5-9 Wednesday-Saturday.