When it opened in 2011, the Woodsman Tavern epitomized the Portland aesthetic. It was the era of plaid flannel, mustache wax, country ham and oil paintings of rugged landscapes. A time when the city's standard-bearing band played bouzoukis and made concept albums about forest creatures. The Woodsman's signature dish was a whole skin-on roasted trout, which seemed like the perfect dish for its time and place.
A lot has changed since. We now live in the era of imported white Danish plastic furniture and luxury sweatpants. The city's most successful band, Portugal the Man, makes pop music that's heavy on bass and synths. The city is obsessed with poke bowls and Asian dumplings.
Adams spent the summer fishing—literally—before Woodsman owner Duane Sorenson talked him into temporarily taking over his Division Street clubhouse. The Woodsman's previous chef, who had not been informed of the Stumptown founder's plan in advance, shuffled off to the Buckman Public House, and Adams set about putting his stamp on this once-great tavern, which had fallen from culinary relevance and made up for it by hanging TVs showing football games.
The main takeaway from three visits? Doug Adams is really good at cooking food.
The Texan came up under Vitaly Paley at Paley's Place, and salvaged his first spin-off, Imperial, which opened with a poorly conceived menu of deep-fried rabbit and duck meatballs. Quietly and quickly, Adams has done something similar at Woodsman, fixing the fundamentals and adding the sort of artful twists that turned Imperial into our 2015 Restaurant of the Year.
As at Imperial, the first thing Adams did at the Woodsman is fix the fried chicken. Under the previous regime it had a dry, thin batter that flaked off into the bottom of the bucket. I think Adams makes the best fried chicken in town, and he's brought his ultra-crispy recipe in which honey is drizzled onto just-out-of-the-fryer batter.
Adams has made similar refinements across the board. The side of macaroni and cheese ($5) is now extra cheese with Tillamook cheddar, with a crunchy hat of biscuit crumbles. The ham-braised collard greens have been boiled down perfectly, getting a meaty punch from the bones of the country ham and retaining the faintest note of bitterness. A side of delicata squash with whole toasted pecans, flaked aleppo pepper and thin ribbons of maple syrup is toasty, sweet and crunchy in the right places.
Adams' Southern-inflected tastes pair well with a revitalized cocktail menu under bartender Daniel Osborne, a Teardrop Lounge veteran who came on in February. Osbourne added equal refinement to his bar list with off-the-radar drinks like an Old World Belief #2, mixing coconut-toasted Appleton rum with campari, amaro and vermouth—adding sweet richness to the old-school Boulevardier. But the Woodsman classics remain well attended to, including the trademark house whiskey blends on their old fashioned and "four letter word" Manhattan.
The more casual corners of Adams' new food menu have also fared well. Adams is a master of classic comfort food, making a super creamy pimento cheese dip with Duke's mayonnaise and pickled jalapeno ($10 with hot, soft pretzels for dipping) and a mean double cheeseburger ($16, but, sadly, served with fries that were far too salty on our visit).
But it's when you get into that often-disappointing realm of "elevated comfort" that his work really stands out from the crowd. Take the baked cauliflower steak ($14) that was pleasantly smoky from being roasted in a charcoal Josper oven relish of roasted red pepper, and crunchy thanks to crushed cashews boiled in chile oil.
Or take the trout ($24). When the Woodsman opened, the whole trout with crazy water was a big hit. And then, oddly, it was gone. When Adams mentioned he was taking over the Woodsman, he got a lot of requests to bring it back. He developed his own recipe instead, gently grilling the whole fish in simple lemon brown butter and serving it with herb-heavy potatoes.
It may be even better than the recipe from the Woodsman's heyday, managing the odd feat of simultaneously making me nostalgic and satisfied.
Like the return of waxed mustaches and leather suspenders, the Adams era is likely to be short-lived at Woodsman. In the meantime, slip on your finest designer sweatpants and have yourself a night.
The Woodsman Tavern, 4537 SE Division St., 971-373-8264, woodsmantavern.com. Monday-Friday 5-9 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9 am-9 pm.