It is a hot Saturday night, but Chef Marco Shaw looks cool and composed. From my seat at the counter I am literally three feet from the cooks; the heat from the stoves is enough that I move my wine bottle to the side to keep it from getting too warm. For 90 minutes I sit and watch how Marco runs his restaurant, and can’t help but be impressed, for while he is making sure the kitchen functions smoothly, he seems to be aware of everything in the large open dining room. His eyes rove the tables, peppering wait-staff with questions. “Has your table gotten their bread? Have you taken their order? Only two more halibut!” Someone scurries to the back room, and a moment later, new menus with a different fish are delivered to the front door. “I don’t want anyone to anticipate an entrée only to be told it isn’t available”, he says.
Despite the heat, I love the counter at Fife. It is an education in how a kitchen should be run. No one panics; everyone is calm and collected no matter what is thrown at them. Even though tonight is a full house, they never seem to be in the weeds. I am amazed that three people can serve up such quality food so quickly. Someone orders a buffalo steak which comes with a side of potatoes. A grill chef quickly grabs the spuds out of a drawer, and begins slicing before tossing them with a bit of herbs and oil, and sliding them into the oven. When they are served, you can tell nothing has been precooked; side dishes are not a second thought here. They are crisp on the outside, but wonderful and extraordinarily light on the inside; they may be the best potatoes I have ever eaten. I ask the chef where they are from, and get a quick dissertation on local sources, and the characteristics of each farm’s produce.
Throughout the evening, it was obvious they could hear most of what we were saying about our food. What made it so great? They all cared. When a friend commented to me that he wasn’t thrilled about one side, the chef quizzed him for more information. “What don’t you like? How do you think it could be better?” He nodded and rolled his eyes. “I made it as an experiment this morning, but it didn’t come out quite the way I wanted.” As dishes went out I could see Chef Marco watching for diner’s reactions as they took their first bite. From the counter perspective alone, I am sold.
Opened in 2002 on Fremont in the awakening Beaumont district, Fife is a carnivore’s paradise, heavy on fish and game, always a few thick steaks available – a place where “American food” rules. The choices frequently include buffalo or venison. If your party includes a vegetarian, he may be put off, though there is a selection of salads and one vegetarian entrée. If that isn’t enough, and you ask nicely, Marco will work with him to create an entrée he will enjoy. Menus literally change daily, depending on what is seasonal and available; ingredients are organic and sustainable. Some selections from recent menus include:
Cold cucumber and basil soup $6.00
Roasted beets with crinkled cress, blue cheese toast and chive oil $6.00
Crenshaw melon and basil salad, lemon zest, and almonds $7.00
Butter lettuce with hazel nuts and lemon-roasted garlic $6.00
Hanger steak with bell pepper ragu and potato haystack $20.00
Braised pork shoulder with baked apples and cayenne spiked grits $19.00
Chinook salmon with English peas, mint and seafood cream $18.00
Buffalo tri-tip steak with grilled Walla Walla onions and asparagus $18.00
Garlic horseradish-crusted cast iron chicken with charred tomatoes $17.00
Buffalo New York steak with red cabbage and mashed potatoes $22.00
Dungeness crab-stuffed Oregon cod with green beans and saffron $21.00
Pork chop with smoked bacon, fingerling potatoes, and Swiss chard $19.00
Lamb loin chops with turnips, carrots, rosemary, and tomato puree $19.00
Razor clams with sautéed vegetables and peppercorn butter $17.00
Black quinoa with fennel-marinated onions and oyster mushrooms $16.00
Rib eye with horseradish mashed potatoes, morels, and spring onions $20.00
The wine list is well thought out and very reasonably priced, broken down into categories by characteristics, i.e. “Medium-bodied, easy drinking, fruit rich reds”; easy to read. Fife frequently has bottles not often seen in Portland, and the wait-staff are very familiar with the selections.
A signature appetizer is crab cakes. Chesapeake blue crab is flown in fresh and it shows. They come to your plate dressed in minimalist attire with a robust crab flavor ($8.00). Willapa Bay oysters on creamed spinach are flash-fried and have a lovely briny taste ($6.00). A large selection of salads is available; all fresh, local, organic ingredients ($6.00). The Crenshaw melon and basil salad with lemon zest and almonds is inspired. Individually, the components are nothing special, but when you get a bite of each ingredient together the effect is marvelous. I would have never guessed.
Entrees are large and rarely disappoint. Cast iron chicken is always on the menu. Seared on the stove and finished in the oven, it arrives juicy with crispy skin. Most recently, it had a garlic-horseradish crust that brought conversation at our table to a halt. Don’t miss the buffalo steak, if you haven’t had it before. On a recent evening, it was perfectly cooked, medium-rare, and very tender with just a hint of gaminess that made it stand out from your standard steak. Lamb is usually on the menu. They get it from SuDan Farms and honor the meat by cooking it quickly to just the right doneness, letting it speak for itself. Even people who don’t care for lamb may like this dish. It is subtle in flavor, not as strong as you may expect, and melts in your mouth. I had it served with summer squash, cauliflower, and mint puree for $19.00.
A pork shoulder is not the lean flavor-lacking cut you tend to get most places these days, but has flavor-loaded layers of fat and a wonderful crust. It comes on a bed of greens with a light and fluffy watercress potato pancake ($19.00). A nice salmon fillet achieves synergy, sprinkled with fresh mint, under a silky seafood cream sauce.
Desserts, under pastry chef Danielle Pruett, have slipped a bit from where they used to be, but are showing steady improvement. Most of the time they succeed. Try the white, milk, and dark chocolate pate. A trio of sorbets is loaded with just-off-the-vine flavor. Cheesecake is silky velvet, always showcasing produce of the current season. Here is a partial look at some of their rotating desserts, all are $6.00:
Domestic cheeses with nuts, crab apple mustard and toast
Warm apple crisp with apple sorbet
Pear shortcake with maple-cinnamon cream and caramel
Bailey’s Irish Cream crème brûlée with almond tuile
Lemon pudding cake with wild huckleberry sauce
Coconut crème pie with golden plum sauce
New York style cheesecake with Republican black cherry sauce
Blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream
White, milk and dark chocolate pate with raspberry puree
One has to remember when dining at Fife, that Marco Shaw pays homage to American food. Southern influences are scattered throughout the menu. Though sides and desserts can be very complex, most of the dishes let the basic flavor of the ingredients shine through. This is not necessarily cutting-edge cooking, but when I’m in the mood for this type of food, Fife will be my destination.
3 out of 4 stars:
Phone: (971) 222-3433
Address: 4440 NE Fremont St, Portland, OR. 97213 Google Map
Hours: Tuesday- Thurs. 5:00-9:00, Fri-Sat 5:00-10:00