10/17/2012 – This restaurant is now closed.
There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, “ongepotchket.” meaning something that is excessive or overly baroque. In his “relaxed lexicon” of Yiddish, Leo Rosten tells a joke which perfectly illustrates the word. Fleishman, an art collector, buys a painting much admired by his friend Meyerson. It consists of a large black square with one white dot in the center. A year later Fleishman buys another work by the same artist, this one a large black square with two white dots. Meyerson, urged to see the new acquisition, regards the new work with suspicion: “I don’t like it. Too ongepotchket.”
Maybe I’m too much like Meyerson the fussy purist, but since ongepotchket could well be another name for fusion cooking, I’ll try to see whether the term applies to a new restaurant that traffics heavily in such culinary eclecticism. Kin, a recently opened restaurant in the Pearl, is assiduously devoted to two versions of ongepotchket-keit: the pile-up and the incongruous. As an example of the first, here’s a description of a single dish: roasted pork loin on crisp risotto with root vegetables, lentils, and manchego and kale in caramelized onion sauce. And of the second, here’s a brief listing of some dishes from the menu: Chinese sausage steamed bao, seared emu with cranberries, quail with bok choi and gnocchi, and duck confit and duck-maki sushi.
In other words, where exactly are we?
Call it the new globalism if you will. And since the cooking at Kin can occasionally be quite good, it may be unnecessarily irascible and excessively traditionalist of me to complain about the potpourri effect. Perhaps the best way to enjoy one’s visit to Kin is to imagine you’re taking a quick ecumenical tour, or at least an Asian-Western one. There’s no question that the plates at Kin can be picture-perfect, camera-ready bursts of aesthetic glory. Kevin Shikami, the restaurant’s owner who arrived in Portland from major chefly stints in Chicago, is painterly, or sculptural in his presentations. The problem, however, is that the culinary universalist syndrome can easily create disorientation, and make you wonder about the direction of the kitchen, its tendency to create a menu that often seems more a matter of whim than of a carefully thought out idea put into action. Perhaps the quintessential Kin dish is a sautéed breast of duck with ginger and roasted squash, with sushi of duck. Regardless of the repeated motif, the sushi seems like an afterthought rather than part of a coherent concept.
As for that emu, it must be a first on local menus; emu is one of those curious animals indigenous to Australia, a flightless bird close cousin of the ostrich, and a source of similar-tasting red meat. (For mythology buffs, an Aboriginal myth holds that the sun was created when someone threw an emu’s egg into the sky.) Kin serves several slices of the gamey meat backed by either caramelized apple or caramelized pear and a bit of goat cheese. The result is a rather nice meaty salad and a satisfying autumnal way of beginning a meal.
Kin tries its hand at pastas, but while some have a complex and well orchestrated assemblage of ingredients such as the floppy ravioli filled with duck meat and garnished with the peppery dry salami known as soppressata (the excess appears again in the melange of kale, a puree of sun choke, and wild mushrooms), other pastas are oddly incongruous. So, a bowl of “agnolotti” swimming in gravy are nothing like that vaunted Piedmont pasta. Kin’s have almost no stuffing other than a thin wipe of squash, with more of that kale on the side; moreover, the “agnolotti” seem not much more than thin flaps of dough rather than artfully shaped envelopes (the best agnolotti for my money are crescent shaped). Again there seems to be a plethora of ingredients—duck confit, kale, shallots.
Another disappointing dish proved to be a risotto—far too wet—decorated with Oregon black truffles, an ingredient notoriously lacking in the intense flavor of the Piedmont white truffle; indeed the Oregon truffles provide virtually no distinct flavor. And again, too much is going on: argula, chanterelles, caramelized onion broth, and the soppressata—each a perfectly fine element, but when piled together focus is lost. And I want to know what agnolotti and sushi are doing on the same menu. No references to Marco Polo, please.
I welcomed the anticipation of a soup of celery root—an underutilized vegetable—but once again I experienced a let down for its over-starchy texture and its blandness (at the very least it needed a bit of salt); somehow the accompanying green salad made me think of an ordinary lunch of soup and salad. Another starter, hamachi ceviche, is done reasonably well, though it needs a bit more zip to it. The drawing back of flavor intensity seems endemic to Kin. When I have a Jones for ceviche, I know I’ll head to Andina.
There’s some redemption in the entrees. The short rib braised in red wine is fabulous—at last a dish to crow madly about. It’s a late fall/winter enchantment, and I loved the slight fatty edge to the meat, just enough to yield a delectable richness, while the ragout of root vegetables sounded a complementary earthy note to the Painted Hills beef. Though the menu listed purple sweet potato as the accompaniment, a fine puree of white potatoes arrived instead, creamed to ambrosia with a ton of butter. A double lamb dish of loin and sausage, complemented with garbanzos, preserved lemon, and harissa, is executed with proper Maghrebi savvy. But the abrupt shift in cuisine gave me that “if it’s Wednesday it must be Morocco” feeling.
A couple of fish choices reveal the restaurant’s persistent unevenness. Miso-glazed black cod is nicely succulent (though I have to say that delicate fish, like dim lighting, will make anyone look good); Kin gives the cod an Asian treatment, steeping the fish in the sweet-fermented seasoning, chili, ginger, and soy. But then another cod known as red bandit (actually a Pacific rockfish) is unremittingly dull, bathed in a bland coconut milk curry, as if the kitchen were reluctant to frighten American customers with the vibrant flavors of Thailand.
The desserts are satisfying, to be sure. I especially liked an apple-pear tart with a pistachio crumble on top, turning the dish into something less like a tart than an apple-pear Brown Betty, the nuts echoed in the pistachio ice cream. And if you’re in a blustery weather state of mind, you might like Kin’s pumpkin bread pudding, replete with seasonal cranberries and ginger, all juicy and runny with syrup and maple syrup ice cream.
What does it feel like to be here? The restaurant is thoughtfully decorated, on one wall a dramatic sculpture of vines, on another cylinders of stretched material over more vines concealing soft lights that illuminate the space with a certain elegance. There’s a prominently placed bar, though there was absolutely no action at it during each of my three visits. In fact, on two of those occasions my party was the only one in the entire restaurant. Bigger crowds will inevitably heat up the sadly empty, echo-y room and make things feel warmer and cozier, but for the moment there’s a slight chill in the air. Perhaps if Shikami decides exactly what he wants Kin to be, they will come. His talent is real, and his ambition is evident. But Kin’s menu and mission need some serious rethinking in order to create a more coherent identity, one which does not rely on a bit of this, a bit of that.
Right now, I count a half-dozen white dots on the black square.
Food: B minus
Address: 524 NW 14th Ave.
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Happy Hour Tuesday-Friday.
Noise level: Few people were there during any of my three visits, so it was hushed as a tomb.
Credit cards; reservations.
Appetizers: $7-$14; entrees: $21-$24; desserts $3-$7.
Wine list: modest but nicely chosen list mostly from France, California, and the Northwest; a range of prices from $22 to $95, more of them at the lower end.
A full bar, with a specialty of vodkas. Who would not want to try some with names like Dry Fly, Hot Monkey, Mud Puddle—all distilled in the Northwest?
Tartare of Tuna with fresh pickles and won ton crisps 12
Hamachi Ceviche in Yuzu Vinaigrette with chili, ginger, sweet onion, shiso, daikon, basil and cucumber 12
Steamed Buns with Chinese Style Pork Belly, spicy nappa salad and fresh herbs 9
Seared Local Emu with grilled tart apples, arugula, fennel, celery root, toasted hazelnuts and goat cheese 11
Roasted Sea Scallop on hop lava braised turnips with chanterelles, house cured bacon and spinach 12
Sunchoke Soup with grilled rare Chinook Salmon, pickled chanterelles, watercress, truffle oil and leek cream 11
Roasted Quail with Duck Ravioli, chanterelles, roasted garlic, kale, shallots, manchego cheese and truffle oil 19
Cattail Creek Farms Roasted Lamb Loin, leg of lamb and grilled lamb sausage with fennel, caramelized onion, garlic, kale, polenta and smoked tomato chutney 21
Tails and Trotters Farms Pork Loin on risotto with chanterelles, kabocha squash, celery root, leeks and goat cheese in red wine reduction 22
Grilled Chinook Salmon in soy-yuzu glaze and miso glazed cod with spinach, scallion, ginger, chili, sesame and unagi dumplings 23
Sauteed Breast of Duck with duck confit ramen, poached farm egg, spinach, ginger, scallion and sesame 23
Braised Painted Hills Beef Short Ribs in red wine sauce with carrots, parsnips and potato-onion terrine potato 21
Rustic Apple-Pear Tart with pistachio ice cream and sawtooth lavender 6
Caramelized Banana with puff pastry, chocolate creameaux, peanut butter ice cream and brittle 6