It’s no longer the bustling gastro-pub serving a plethora of fried food but rather a trendy neighborhood eatery that offers fine-dining in a casual setting–fitting right into the Middle Street restaurant row.
Self-effacing to the point of being invisible might aptly describe the remnants of the old East Ender in its new guise. After three wonderful meals – two lunches and one dinner – starting on opening day (Monday, March 9) and as recently as yesterday, I found nary a trace left of the old East Ender, not even in spirit. It’s all new, down to the bathrooms and the wall paint. The downstairs room, which was chock-a-block with tables and chairs before, is more spare and functional. It was never a prettily gussied up restaurant – and it still isn’t – but is a rather comely, plain Jane neighborhood haunt.
Two-story restaurants are always a bit cumbersome. Downstairs is reserved for lunch and both floors are open at dinner. The second floor sports comfy booths and tables and a second bar. You still have to deal with those stairs, however, which on the way up for my battered tennis knees feel as steep as climbing the face of Mt. Kilimanjaro; and on your way down, if you’ve had too many of the restaurant’s craft cocktails, a cautionary descent is advised.
What gets me is why chefs/owners Bill Leavy and Karl Deuben kept the name East Ender. Was it for branding purposes? It’s not really a gastropub anymore, since the menu is more precious than pub-ish, though there is a semblance of pub food and plenty of booze to imbibe. It might have been called something like The Small Axe Café in memory of their food truck, which was the best one in Portland. Or perhaps something catchy like the Truckers or the Truck Stop could have been cute.
Regardless, they’re on terra firma in their own restaurant, two talented chefs who at the onset are serving great food.
Here’s what I’ve sampled so far: At my first lunch I thoroughly enjoyed the pastrami salmon tartine (French for open-faced sandwich and not a reference to the famous San Francisco bakery) on toasted rye. The salmon was house cured in the manner of pastrami and delicious with mustard seeds and a coating of a mildly spicy (horseradish) crème fraiche spread on the toasted rye. All the bread comes from Southside Bakery, which is owned by Josh and Katie Potocki of Café 158 fame and the Pocket Brunch series. The bread is wonderfully crusty, but perhaps one day someone will figure out how to import real Jewish rye from New York instead of passing off these effortless simulacrums.
It was served with a delicious salad of baby spinach salad dressed quite nicely in a vibrant vinaigrette. I felt that I needed a side dish to go with the sandwich. A vinegary potato salad? Not on the menu. Cole slaw? No. So I settled on pickled greens. This was a plate of mustard greens that were cured in vinegar and served with a frizzle of shallots. It was a mistake to order more greens on top of the greens already on the salmon plate.
At my next lunch I had to have the burger, made famous at Small Axe, a thick patty of local beef cold smoked and charred on the grill just right. This version did not disappoint, though at $14 it’s pricey. It comes lobbed with a shield of melted Stilton and a scrim of caramelized onions – mahogany-hued sweet onions slowly sautéed in balsamic and a touch of red wine. The burger is accompanied by excellent batter-dipped onion rings. For a $6 side, I also ordered the fries. We have a lot of good fries in Portland – from Duckfat to Nosh – and the East Ender’s are right up there. They’re not thin, crinkly frites, but rather thick wedges are deep fried twice, a method that produces a crispy exterior while keeping the interior utterly creamy.
The dinner menu is a concise list of appetizers, a few small plates and entrees. Dining upstairs at the bar I enjoyed an interesting take on beef tartare. Beautifully chilled fresh raw local beef was formed into a picture-perfect inch-thick patty topped with a spray of chopped chives, moistened with a ravigote, a classic emulsion of oil, egg and herbs. I would have preferred the classic pairing of a raw egg yolk to bathe the beef. The dish is made nearly into a complete meal since it’s served with two crusty fried potato spears, which the kitchen passes off as hash browns.
It’s a rich starter course and I was wise to follow it with a light entrée of roasted hake. Here it’s a wedge of fish, barely seared, set in a bouillabaisse-style broth with mussels and clams swept up in a very good aioli. The fish, though somewhat underdone, was exceedingly flavorful in its vibrant broth.
The list of other intriguing entrees include a spiced roasted hen with Brussel sprouts (the new kale); pork schnitzel with pimento cheese spaetzle, a side dish that’s also available separately; miso marinated black cod; a vegetarian dish of farro (a great grain under served in Portland) and grilled whole trout with the ubiquitous kale (the constant companion of kale is not completely dead yet).
For dessert I dug right into the ultra sweet crunch of a pineapple hand pie. Even for my indefatigable sweet tooth, it was an onslaught of sugar set in a rum sauce and topped with a soothing coconut sorbet. Still, I finished it off heartily.
I noticed a plate of profiteroles coming out of the kitchen and these looked too tempting to pass up on my next visit, which will certainly happen many times over since the new East Ender offers a light touch of inventive fare carefully conceived, a respite, perhaps, from too many complicated dishes served elsewhere in town.