I ate for the first time on Friday at Portland’s Cafe Nell, and I’ve immediately elevated it to my Top Ten list.
Young chef Andrew Garrett is one of those adventurous souls who likes to push the envelope. I appreciate anyone who is willing to take measured risks, and Garrett is a prime example.
From the time I sat for dinner in the rustic-feeling Northwest Portland restaurant, until I finally pushed myself from the table three hours later, I was assaulted with new flavors, with new combinations of textures and spices.
As I often do when dining out of town, I asked the chef to cook for me. In this case, Garrett diverged from his everyday menu and expressed his own creative genius. Indeed, I was at the mercy of a culinary master. This was my seven- (yes, seven-) course meal:
* Fresh shrimp, poached in Pernod, served atop fennel “three ways,” sauteed in garlic, basil and caramelized onions.
* A wonderful cream of chanterelle soup. Garrett does his own mushroom foraging in the forests around Vernonia.
* Smoked lamb belly (yes, you read that right) on caramelized Brussels sprouts. Fatty like pork belly, yet melt-in-my-mouth tender, the lamb and sprouts were perfect complements.
* Halibut smoked stovetop, with lightly pickled, halved grapes. The fruit added a little extra moisture to the delicious fish.
* Beef short ribs generously glazed in espresso and chipotle chile, served on white-corn grits. Wow.
* Columbia River sturgeon with yellow squash and a creamy risotto of chanterelle and cauliflower mushrooms.
* Red velvet cake with blueberries and crushed pistachios. A light finish to an amazing meal.
A native of Sonoma, Calif., Garrett worked as sous chef behind Chris Israel at Bruce Carey’s 23 Hoyt before taking the reins of Cafe Nell when it opened in September 2008.
Owned by Vanessa Preston, Cafe Nell is located at the corner of N.W. 20th Avenue and Kearney Street. Longtime Portland foodies may recognize the French bistro-style space that once was occupied by Hurley’s and, before that, the Cafe des Amis.
Both of those restaurants were good. This one is better. 503-295-6487, http://cafenell.com