SOLE dining at Fife in Portland, Oregon

July 9, 2009 update: Fife restaurant closed in May. According to OregonLive, chef Marco Shaw closed the restaurant so he could move to North Carolina, where he plans to start a new restaurant and establish a farm to supply food for the restaurant. Portland Food and Drink has an e-mail from Shaw about the closure.

I recently spent a few days in Portland, Oregon. Before the trip I didn't do any serious restaurant research, but my negligence was not a major problem, thanks to a set of pamphlets published by Urban Living Maps that show the locations of shops and restaurants in various city neighborhoods, along with short descriptions. The description of Fife Restaurant in the Beaumont Village brochure made my decision simple: "New regional American cuisine. 'Local, Organic, Sustainable'" After a quick check of their online menu for vegetarian options, I made a call for reservations.

Fife: An American Place

Fife RestaurantThe Fife website includes statements about the owner's philosophy and sourcing practices:

We work almost exclusively with small farmers all of which are within 100 miles of the restaurant. We pick most of the seeds for the produce that is grown for us and we are able to specify the diets of most of the animals that we use. This relationship that we have with our farmers and ranchers allows us to bring to you the best of each season and of each day. The menu changes every day, a necessary byproduct of working with these small farms.

I like this approach for a few reasons: it connects the kitchen to local farms, it offers the possibility of produce varieties that fit the chef's style instead of the usual varieties, and it is tuned to the seasons and the region. Innovative ways to connect diners to the farm would also be useful. Perhaps a map (like the one on the menu at the Highwayman pub in Lancashire, UK) or a listing of the farm name (like at San Francisco's Slanted Door, which unfortunately does not list the location of the farm) could show diners where their meal originated. If a restaurant was ambitious, a "Farm List" that profiled some of the farmers who provide food for the restaurant could be included with the menu or in the wine list.

When I picked Fife Restaurant based on its claim of local foods, it was a leap of faith. It is easy to pepper a menu with words like "local" and "sustainable," but certification of these claims is uncommon. A recent editorial in Willamette Week Newspaper looked at the use of the words "sustainable" and "organic" on restaurant menus, consulted the chefs of Fife and Wildwood, and offers some ideas. Willamette Week also had a Q&A with Marco Shaw, the chef and owner of Fife, in which he reveals plans to certify the restaurant with Oregon Tilth, the organic certification agency in Oregon (which will cover the organic part of the menu, but not the term local).

The Meal

Before I describe the meal, I should note that this was my first visit to the restaurant.

The restaurant consists of a single room with a high ceiling and warm and comfortable colors, punctuated by original art hanging here and there (including in the restrooms). An open kitchen lines part of the back wall.

Our server was very knowledgeable about the menu. I asked quite a few questions, and when she was unable to answer, she tried to find the answer among the other staff members. With such a helpful server, I should have asked more questions: Where did the tomatoes in the rabbit dish come from? Were they canned last season? Does the restaurant have any animal welfare standards for their suppliers? How do they define "local"?

The bread was from a locally famous bakery (Ken's Artisan) and was delicious: crispy crust, good elasticity, a diversity of holes. One of the starters was a salad of greens with shaved carrot salad, a functional entry into the "green salad category." The other starter was a more unusual salad of roasted radish and grilled broccoli with a creamy and pleasantly sour dressing. The radish didn't scream "roasted" to me, but still tasted good. The grilled broccoli had a nice smoky flavor.

The vegetarian entree was a pair of patties made from quinoa, lentils, arugula, some binding agents, and seasonings atop a bed of sauteed wild mushrooms. It was tasty, but a little dry — I would have preferred it with a sauce, perhaps a reduction of red wine and wild mushroom stock. One of my companions had chicken in a mild chili sauce, the other had rabbit in a tomato sauce with spinach dumplings. They were both happy with their choices.

The dessert menu seemed less seasonal and local than the main menu, with plenty of chocolate, tropical fruit, and other exotics. The item I ordered — a rhubarb-strawberry tart with orange sorbet — seemed a few weeks ahead of the season, but it's possible that some of the fruit had been frozen or otherwise preserved. Whatever the case, rhubarb and strawberry is a knockout combination: sweet and sour, soft and textured. The bright flavors of the orange sorbet were a pleasing addition to the combination.
The dessert menu itself had ears of corn as a watermark, which in my post-Omnivore's Dilemma state I found somewhat ironic for a SOLE food restaurant. But then again, corn is an American food (first domesticated in meso-America several thousand years ago) and is not inherently unsustainable (unsustainable corn growing practices also seem to be an American specialty).

All in all, it was a delightful night out. If I return to Portland someday, I'll be sure to put Fife on my "to dine" list, especially if it is summer or early fall, when I imagine that the menu explodes with flavor.

Portland has quite a few restaurants that claim to serve SOLE food, including Wildwood and The Farm Cafe. Jen Maiser described some of them in her post about 72 hours in Portland over at Bay Area Bites.

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