If we're all headed for Restaurant Apocalypse 2017: Trump Edition, you wouldn't know it looking at chef Vitaly Paley. The Paley's Place founder is going yuuuge.
First with Imperial restaurant at Hotel Lucia—our 2015 Restaurant of the Year, full of honey-and-spice chicken and a happy hour that reigns supreme—and now his palatial new seafood spot Headwaters at the storied Heathman, Paley has been laying out a wildly ambitious vision for what hotel restaurants can be, serving chef-centric, locally sourced, scratch-made high-end fare on a grand scale our city rarely delivers.
At Headwaters, Paley is also trying to build the opulent seafood palace our ocean-adjacent river town has somehow never had. And to do it, he brought in the chef who's come closest to succeeding—Ken Norris, whose sometimes frustrating, often brilliant Pearl restaurant Riffle NW managed to change the way our city thought about octopus before folding too soon in 2013.
Headwaters, which opened in October, wears its ambitions with big-boy swagger in the old Heathman restaurant space. In that airy, light-filled room, the dominant feature is an imperious colonnade of massive stone columns leading past an endless open kitchen to imposing 20-foot wall sculptures in which splintered wood is hammered into the shape of the sea.
But monuments weigh heavy on empires, and the seas are fickle. In four months and three visits since it's been open, the 'Waters has been a little bit choppy. The restaurant is home to one of my favorite plates of food I've had in months. But it has also been home to missteps bizarre for chefs and restaurants of this caliber—like a hemisphere of beautiful but near-brineless oysters in which multiple $3.50 shells were so sloppily shucked they contained pieces of shell the diameter of a dime.
But Norris, like Cthulhu, is godlike with tentacles. That tender, grill-charred and wine-brined Spanish octopus—a revelation at Riffle in 2012—is back in a different variation here served up with prosciutto sausage ($18), and it is deeply and warmly welcome. The soft sheets of octopus carpaccio ($7), meanwhile, were an impressive feat of protein pressboarding under niçoise relish, with shapes of sucker and tendril embossed into the tender sheets like fossil into limestone.
But the best thing at Headwaters was a thick steelhead fillet served with squid carbonara ($28). Beneath steelhead cooked to melting pinkness with skin crisped to crepe-y perfection, the pasta in the carbonara has been subbed out for squid rings of tenderness equal to that of an al dente noodle, bathed in egg and peppered with rich guanciale lardons. It is surf-and-stream heaven, the stuff of celiac wet dreams.
But amid the breadth of Headwaters' ambitions—brunch, lunch, dinner, catering and weekend Russian tea service—some menu items were a little on the skids. A $14 burger is so lost inside its towering potato bun it becomes a chore. A $10 bowl of Pernod-spiked "dockside" chowder—mixing clam juice with the day's fish bounty—came on a bit oversubtle and floral, free from the deep reptilian-brain comforts that chowder has come to mean in the Oregon consciousness. The sushi-priced but roundly excellent bites of mustard-kippered salmon ($8), sturgeon "pastrami" ($9) and—dear Lord—buttery smoked sablefish ($6) come with matzo crackers so crunchingly thick and hard that each reverberating bite became hilarity at the table, leading me to eat the herring spread with silverware.
A tiger's milk scallop ceviche ($10), meanwhile, was highly under-acidic—a situation not helped by the additional fat of avocado cubes bolstering an already fatty-sweet meat—and a $5 uni shooter came on like a party foul. Back at Riffle, those uni shots were brilliantly coddled by egg yolk as textural ambassador, but here the urchin is a huddle of briny gak at the end of a bracing tomato-water flood.
With Headwaters' pedigree and prices, these flaws matter. And yet, the grand ambitions still seem possible, because what's good at Headwaters is quite simply as good as it gets. On the menu next to the scallop ceviche, a Polynesian-flavored yellowfish ceviche ($6) was lovely in its sweet acidity, while the bright caviar on that butter bread seems to have come from champion breeding stock.
But for now, I've got two words to go with that octopus and squid: Seafood. Tower.
Even in an Oregon midwinter that's prime time everywhere nearby for oyster and Dungeness, the quality of the sea proteins at Headwaters was impressive to the point of stunning, assuming those mis-shucked oysters were a bizarre fluke.
The mini-tower ($45, with the large going for $86) is a cornucopic, double-stacked pagoda of all things that crawl and creep and scoot along the sea's briny bottom, a geyser of shell bringing forth prawns, scallops, mussels, clams, uni and oysters at least six-deep (although mine had eight). The Dungeness was shelled, shredded and touched with a little lemon—a civilized courtesy I was surprised to find myself so grateful for. The prawns were psychedelically bright and cooked just to the point of tender translucence, with no hint of brine. The smoked-mussel shots were a bloody-mary-sauced piece of fishhouse whimsy.
If you're supplementing with veggies, feel very safe with a vadouvan-curried cauliflower ($15), whose attendant broccoli sauce brings back childhood mixed-veg nostalgia alongside warm spice, and the caramelized Brussels sprouts ($8).
Among drinks, the best deal is by far an $8 boulevardier taptail that's $5 at happy hour. The rest of the cocktail menu is a bit wild-style, but the apple-cardamom-vodka Sweater Puppy ($10) is a go-to on the lighter side, while mezcal-smoky booze bomb Rained Out ($11) and a bourbon-Bonal Heel Clicker ($12) are great among the darks.
Desserts were in flux among visits—a thunderingly deep Sexual Chocolate ($11) Devils' food mini-cake is now sadly gone, but a new blood orange mascarpone cheesecake ($8) was a world in which richness is all and all else recedes into memory.
EAT: Headwaters, 1001 SW Broadway, 503-790-7752, headwaterspdx.com. 6:30 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 6:30 am-midnight Friday, 8 am-midnight Saturday,
8 am-11 pm Sunday.