Walk on the “Wilder” Side

The late playwright and author, Thornton Wilder wrote the play and subsequent film, “Our Town” about a fictitious New Hampshire Town – Grover’s Corners.  Portland’s Wilder Bar Cafe (known simply as “Wilder”) is not named after him, nor is the Wilder Bar in Fort Lauderdale, but I have a feeling, the Wilder Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire may be.

In an historic brick building

Nevertheless, Portland’s Wilder in an historic brick building, which has housed at various times a craft shop, tattoo parlor and stationary shop, on NE 30th and Killingsworth is definitely worth an outing(s) for the food, the beverages and the ambiance.

While we liked the last establishment we visited and posted on the blog – The Woodsman Tavern (https://thebeerchaser.com/tag/the-woodsman-tavern/), Wilder surpasses the former in all respects and our first two visits will be reprised multiple times in the future.

Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “……illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life.”  (Wikipedia)  And perhaps this theme, reflects the environment, décor and attitude of the staff in this bar opened in 2014.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Thornton Wilder

As examples, examine the following excerpts from several print media reviews:

“A homey little bar more interested in maple buttermilk pie, kale Caesar salad and a local-leaning tap list (only one of eight offerings wasn’t from Oregon) than in ethically iffy foie gras or distantly sourced seafood.”  (Rebecca Jacobsen 1/7/14 )Willamette Week)

Or this one, a month later, from Oregon Live (2/26/14) :

Yakuza, Beast, D.O.C., Cocotte(other Portland restaurants) have brought a steady stream of well-heeled Oregonians and visitors (to that intersection) but they’re not the sort of establishments likely to be frequented by their neighbors who have long awaited a pleasant, affordable place to watch the Beast-bound limos roll by. Wilder, a new corner bar with culinary ambitions, seeks a more local audience with a suave atmosphere and an inexpensive, if not exactly groundbreaking menu.” 

Meet bartender, Bertrand, an artisan!

So, what has made this small bar so attractive.  Well, the staff was wonderful.  On our first visit, Janet and I sat at the bar and started talking to the bartender, Bertrand.  He mentioned that he is a photographer and trying to move up the level of his craft by attending Pacific Northwest College of Arts.  The interaction among Bertrand, the servers and the cook was low-key and very positive and the customer service was A+.

One advantage of sitting at the bar, is the ability to view the essentially open-kitchen which was hopping and interesting to watch.  And the servers told us, “We love Colby.”  He’s one of the two cooks.  (After excellent meals on two occasions, we were also enamored with Colby…)  

Because seating is somewhat limited by the overall size of the establishment, we had to wait a bit on our second visit when we were joined by our daughter, Laura, and her husband, Ryan.

We hit right at dinner time and there were no unoccupied tables, but the servers were very accommodating and suggested we go for a drink to nearby Yukuza Lounge which has a great bar.  When we returned, our table was ready and our server was superb.

Bertrand was effusive about his cocktails and we had read about Wilder’s excellence in this category, so we tried both the Powers’ Punch (Gin, Combier, Benedictine, Dolin Rouge, Absinthe and Lime) ($9) and the Bourbon Sprawl (Whiskey, Pomegranate, Lemon, Angostura). ($9)

We hope that he continues his bartending when he graduates from PNCA, because besides photography, he is an artisan at combining distilled sprits.

When we returned we had two of the eight beers they had on tap – both from breweries we had not tried before – Royale Brewing, which is nearby in NE Portland and 54-40 Brewing in Washougal, Washington.  Wilder tries to feature Northwest beers on tap and they did a good job with these.

Wilder in the evening is pretty dark – candles on the table and minimal lighting – but it enhances the cozy ambiance of the bar, which is very attractive with slatted lath wood walls, exposed-beam ceilings and a dark wood floor.   With the limited capacity of the bar and the positive vibe from the staff and patrons, it creates an intimate atmosphere that is not easily found in Portland establishments.

Now, let’s talk about the food.  The Oregon Live article described their menu as “not exactly groundbreaking.”   The 2015 Willamette Week Bar Guide calls it accurately, “Elevated comfort food.”  Well, it may not be the most expansive menu you’ll find, with five starters and seven main courses including two outstanding salads, but the finished product from their kitchen is truly “elevated” based on our experience – admittedly limited, but check out some of the other comments below.

We split the hamburger and each of us had the large roasted squash salad with arugula and plenty of walnuts.  The burger surpassed our expectations and the meal, which was both excellent and filling was a total of less than $30 without tip ($11 burger and two salads $16).

Although social media reviews on the mussels, fried chicken, the white bean burger and the blackened chicken sandwich were also very positive, we ordered the identical meal when we returned and our companions had the kale and kidney-bean Caesar salad with their burger.   (They thanked us for the recommendation.)

Besides the newspapers, I try to look at a number of reviews from different social media sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon and Zomato to discern trends or identify specific strengths and weaknesses.   And while there were a few who had complaints about a specific food item, these two typify Wilder patrons’ sentiments:

“Fried chicken is the best! Burger is awesome!  Service staff are prompt, friendly and knowledgeable. Beverages are delicious. A gastronomic adventure to be enjoyed.”  Trip Advisor 2/27/17

And this from Zomato within the last six months:

Great drinks and one of the best burgers in town.  Wonderful ambiance and good service.  This is one of my favorite local community bars that has a real neighborhood feel to it.  Highly recommended.”

“One of the best burgers in town….”

I did chuckle because one of the only really negative (and almost hostile) reviews was from February, 2018, by a woman on Yelp who raged about the “control freaks” at Wilder because she disagreed with their policies – one was to comply with OLCC regulations and the other two seemed very reasonable.

What was humorous, is that she went ballistic after her three visits – each where she encountered these policies developed by somebody with a “sad, little mind.”   It obviously begs the question, “Why did you keep returning??”

She gave Wilder only one star which was a real departure from the guy on Yelp who only one month earlier stated, For the best burger and cocktails in town, I wouldn’t recommend any other space. If I could borrow someone else’s thumb, I would give this place 3 thumbs up.”

Co-owner, Raquel

The co-owners are Raquel Bournhonesque and Ben Preacher.   Raquel, shows on her Linked-in resume that she has been with Upstream Public Health and a community coach, health advocate and food enthusiast.

She and some friends formed Upstream as a non-profit to further health and equity advocacy issues.  It has done some great work in the public health arena. While with Upstream,  she worked on the unsuccessful effort to fluoridate Portland’s water in 2013.

Raquel happened to answer the phone when I called before Wilder opened on a Sunday with several follow-up questions for the blog.   She has an upbeat and affable personality and we had a nice chat.

In the six years since I started this blog, I have found that the owners of the small bars and breweries, for the most part, are entrepreneurs who have a passion about beer or food, risk a lot to make their dreams come true and then work inordinate hours to make it successful.  Raquel and Ben are typical and make one feel a lot better than, as a contrast, having a brewski at the Yardhouse in Portland’s Pioneer Square.

 

(See Beerchaser review on 4/4/16)  https://thebeerchaser.com/2016/04/14/the-yard-house-does-it-measure-up/

So instead of having a beer and/or a meal at The Yardhouse and adding to the profits of the same giant corporation that owns the Olive Garden,  you should enhance Raquel’s and Ben’s 401(k) by dining and drinking at Wilder.  Tell them Thebeerchaser sent you!

Wilder Bar Cafe               5501 NE 30th     Portland

 

 

 

 

The Woodsman Tavern Strikes a Chord

Thebeerchaser’s Tour of Bars, Taverns and Pubs has resulted in visits and reviews of over 200 establishments since its inception in 2011 – not only in Portland, but all over Oregon, the US and even a few in Europe.   Therefore, its logical that the Woodsman Tavern – a Portland icon, of sorts, would make the list.

That said, I try to avoid venues that are primarily restaurants with a bar as kind of an ancillary feature.  It’s not that these establishments don’t have good beer or cocktails or attractive bars.  They just don’t have the character and ambiance of a stand-alone watering hole, especially that evidenced in dive bars!

The McMenamin’s bistros generally fall into the former category although I have made a few exceptions.  Beerchaser visits to The Fulton Pub, the White Eagle Saloon and the St. John’s Pub were splendid.  These all, however, had historical significance or distinguishing features.

For example, The Fulton was the site at which Hammerhead Ale was originated (and I consumed my first beer with the late NW author and Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter, Brian Doyle) and the White Eagle is on the National Historic Register – its history is replete with tales such as a prostitute being murdered and it being haunted by ghost-like apparitions on the second floor.

Notwithstanding its title, the Woodsman Tavern is an example of the former category i.e. more restaurant than bar.   While our two visits were well rewarded, it had the look and feel of a high-end restaurant.  That said, let’s look at why it is getting great reviews – it has a new chef, an expansive menu of cocktails and whiskeys and the food – most notably, the fried chicken is superb.   (Note also that most taverns do not have a “chef” per se’.)

The Woodsman is also one of the few places that I’ve visited where the Oregonian’s food critic, Michael Russell has authored a detailed review.  (He’s probably never been in the Reel M’ Inn – twenty blocks down Division Street and also known throughout the Northwest for its fried chicken. According to one article, it fried up an estimated 52,000 pounds of chicken in 2016.  But it’s a completely different ambiance….)

The Woodsman is in an old building in Southeast Portland and has a bright and attractive entrance with classy dark wood interior.  When opened in 2011, it was evidently a hot spot in the Portland food culture – known for its high-end dishes such as roasted trout.

Eateries run in cycles.  Social media reviews until recently started trending negative on the food and service.   That appeared to change late last year evidently because one of Portland’s noted chefs, Doug Adams, temporarily took command of the kitchen and menu:

“Suddenly, the Woodsman Tavern is once-again among the hottest restuarants in town.”   (1/1/18 Review by Martin Cizmar of Willamette Week.) Adams made his mark at Paley’s Place among other restaurants and is waiting for a new restaurant in downtown Portland to open.

The Bar Itself

The dining room is separated into two large rooms with booths and tables.  The bar is a long L-shaped counter with about twelve stools at the back of the east section.

It has an impressive display of hard liquors and twelve cocktail options ($12) with names such as “Dog Will Hunt” and “Married in a Fever,” and includes their trademark “Old Fashioned.”

For the bourbon and whiskey connoisseurs, I counted 120 options on the menu ranging from a pour of Jim Beam for $7 to Wild Turkey Tribute 15-Year Bourbon that will set you back $180.  (Perhaps this is economic validation of the distillery’s 2011 ad campaign entitled, “Give’em The Bird.”)

They have a nice selection of wines and fifteen beers on tap including five by one of my favorite breweries – Block 15 in Corvallis.  On our first trip to the Woodsman when we had dinner, I had a pint of Block 15 Double IPA and on the second trip, where we just sat at the bar for drinks during Happy Hour, I could not resist a cold Rainier for $2.

The east side of the restuarant

Let’s get back to the food, which should be the guiding rationale for a visit.  I will talk more about the food critics’ reviews below, but The Oregonian stated, “For food fans, this might be Portland’s best sports bar.”

Since there are only two televisions over the bar – both with sporting events when we were there, I guess this is his subtle way of promoting the Woodsman’s Double Cheeseburger and implying that the food in most Portland sports bars, sucks! 

An outstanding starter

The side dishes are ala-carte and either $3 or $5 and the bucket of chicken was $19, so we started by splitting what is a boring option in most places – a wedge salad.  And while a little spendy at $11, it was wonderful (bacon, big croutons and superb blue cheese dressing!)

I love fried chicken – that’s how I persuaded my wife, Janet, to go with me to the Woodsman.  It was a late birthday present.   There was no question what I was going to order. And it’s a fantasy – your own metallic bucket filled with five large pieces.  I am appalled that I was so enthralled that I forgot to take a picture!

Now let’s look at how some experts describe this one of six entr’ees.  Martin Cizmar, who for the last seven years has been the Arts and Culture Editor at Willamette Week, is succinct, but on point.  (I am sad to see him leave the weekly this month.  He wrote great reviews of not only restaurants, but every kind of bar, tavern or brewery in Portland and always creatively captured the character of the place.  (He’s moving to Washington D.C. to write for an on-line publication.)

You should read his entire review of The Woodsman:  http://www.wweek.com/restaurants/reviews/2018/01/02/the-woodsman-tavern-is-entering-a-new-golden-age-under-chef-doug-adams/

Martin Cizmar – will be missed….but will still drink PBR (Photo courtesy of Willamette Week

He is a an outstanding writer and seems a lot less pretentious than his counterpart at The Oregonian:

“….the best fried chicken in town….(Adams’) ultra crispy recipe in which the honey is drizzled onto just out-of-the-fryer batter.”  (WW 1/1/18)

Now compare that to the more ostentatious description by Michael Russell:

“…..Adams’ fussed over bird , each crunchy piece wearing a shaggy brown coat reminiscent of a teddy bear’s fur, drizzled in honey and served with a clear glass bottle of hot sauce on the side.” (Emphasis supplied !??)

And not to get overly compulsive, but this one from a Thrillist ranking of the top 15 fried chicken places in Portland by Andy Cryza (9/2/15 – before Adams arrived…)  Woodsman was the top-rated option.  (Reel M Inn was #3.)

“…..Perfectly fried, with the juices locked into the premium bird, which is cut up into five generous pieces…..And the breading – occupying the zone between crisp and light – is kissed with a smack of honey which, when mixed with the salt, takes it into a danger zone hovering near meat-candy perfection.”

But if you don’t like chicken there are other worthy choices. I was able to persuade Janet, if I gave her a little bit of my chicken, to get the Double Cheeseburger ($16).  It was immense and the Canby, Oregon, Laney Family Farm’s beef scrumptious.  The fries were a perfect complement.

I described Michael Russell’s writing above as somewhat pretentious e.g. he started his review with the following: “…the restaurant has languished of late (last year) behind food that seemed to have lost its sense of place.” 

I changed my opinion – a little.  He was a little more down-to-earth when he wrote this about one of the Woodsman’s twelve starter options:

“Take the bologna sandwich.  It’s impressively thick cut of pink meat seared gently, surrounded by melted American cheese like fondant on a wedding cake and topped with sweet pickle on a sesame-seeded bun.  It’s a borderline obscene take on the classic….I’ve ordered it on every visit.” 

Fried chicken – “each piece wore a shaggy brown coat….”

At least he shied away from the toy creature analogy he made above with the fried chicken and didn’t compare the bologna to the Porky Pig stuffed animal he got at Disneyland……

And to affirm that this menu option may be worth the seemingly steep price ($12), let’s look at a non-foodie’s view – just your typical Yelp comment on 1/17/18:

“Now I know what you’re thinking, what the hell is in Bologna anyway, but this (sandwich) was freaking delicious.  I don’t know what’s in Bolgna, I probably don’t want to know.  But I’m on board.” 

Finally, while the bistro is also known for its chilled seafood and a seafood tower for $95 along with “Oyster Hours” all day Monday and from 5:00 to 6:00 on other weekdays, I loved our meal there because the food was good but also plentiful.  The picture below shows the box that we took home with our leftovers (It was filled and some of which survived to lunch the next day…) 

As another Yelp review who shares similar views succinctly stated:

“The food big.  Big food.  Platters….Reminds me of a place when I was a kid.  Logger means, man.”  (Yelp 1/15/18)

Most of the recent social media reviews are very positive although some question the prices especially since it is an ala-carte menus.  Another complaint which rang somewhat true with us on our first visit was the physical spacing:

“I don’t mind sitting at tables or booths, but why does anyone think that being 6 inches from a stranger is comfortable.”  (Yelp 1/14/18)

However, if someone is going to do a hatchet job on the Woodsman Tavern, they will have to come up with something of more substance than tables being a little too close.  Besides, you should check out their fried chicken……….

The Woodsman Tavern

4537 SE Division Street