Kin Opens in the Pearl

With new Portland restaurants opening faster than my weary fork can cry uncle, it took us a few weeks to come round to former Food & Wine Best New Chef and Chicago transplant Kevin Shikami’s new Pearl District eatery, Kin, which quietly opened on NW 14th Avenue nearly a month ago.
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Sitting in the pristine dining room last night, we deliberated aloud if kin simply meant family, or if it was an unfamiliar foreign word or a cryptic acronym, but front-of-the-house guy Chris Cooper–who worked with Shikami for years at his famous eponymous Chicago restaurant–set us straight; it simply means family, and was pulled from a Shakespeare quote during a brainstorming session in a beautiful redwood forest, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

After relishing every bite of what was a truly delicious, memorable and convivial meal, I’d say one touch of Shikami’s steamed pork belly buns made our whole table kin–we shared three orders of them between the four of us before the night was over. Thick smoky slabs of Chinese-style pork belly enveloped in pillowy housemade wrappers, which we crammed with fresh cilantro, mint sprigs and spicy Napa cabbage salad before dragging them through the inky smear of hoisin sauce alongside–these are not to be missed.

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We only had two orders of the duck confit ramen, a dish that actually brought the table to silence for several looong minutes, which is a lifetime for this ravenous group. A clump of perfectly cooked ramen noodles played island in a dark pool of intensely rich broth that was redolent of ginger and chili and deepened by Shikami’s use of grilled duck bones in the making of the stock, beneath a coil of bright green pea shoots and a flawlessly poached, scallion- and black sesame seed-sprinkled farm egg. Floating in the broth, soaking up its savory goodness, were hunks of duck confit so supple it nearly melted in our mouths.

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Even in food-obsessed Portland, it isn’t every day that you see ostrich on a menu, but considering that the next ingredient in the ostrich dish was Viridian Farms strawberries, the last of the year, our server told us mournfully, we were sold. The delicately seared medallions of mild, dark-red bird meat were accompanied by slivers of sweet strawberry and shaved fennel tossed with shallots and ginger. (On a side note, ostriches are pretty fascinating when you research them. They haven’t got gallbladders, they like to dine on rocks, their huge eggshells can be used as water jugs, they do NOT bury their heads in the sand, and they are one of the few birds with a retractable “copulatory organ,” an 8-inch one, no less. May that tidbit serve you well at Pix’s next Gastronomical Trivia Night.)

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We’ve never met a dish with the word “morels” in it that we could resist, so the Risotto of Morels was next–creamy arborio rice crowded (in a good way, not a Portland brunch line at 11am on Sunday kind of way) with smoked sweet onions, dandelion greens, and tiny green peas still sporting the stem that had not so long ago attached them to their pod. Creamy dollops of goat cheese and buttery slivers of manchego dotted the dish, and a hint of truffle oil imparted a musky earthiness that sent the sulking truffle-hater among us running into the arms of the Tuna Tartare, a tongue-tingling version laced with wasabi and tiered with brittle won ton crisps, then surrounded by hoisin doodles and knots of exquisitely flavorful paper-thin house-made pickles. Apparently this tartare has been Shikami’s signature dish for nearly two decades, and according to Food & Wine magazine, it’s the dish that made him famous. We were told at least three times by our server Michelle, Chris, and Kevin that this was the one dish on the menu that probably wouldn’t change–everything else will come and go with the season and ingredient availability, Portland-style.

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Since we’d eaten fish, birds, and barnyard creatures thus far, next up was the rabbit, or rather, the rabbit’s leg, which was slowly braised in a thyme and Aviation Gin-infused stock, then served over soft billows of polenta and goat cheese with more morels and fresh peas. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this dish were the carrots–they were unreasonably good, sweet with a hint of citrus, an effect Shikami explained he achieves by cooking them down in a broth of honey, lemon, ginger and thyme until every last bright orange carrot cell is saturated with flavor.

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Shikami, a sweet, humble fellow who lights up as he talks about his food, closed his Chicago restaurant to take a break from relentless, grueling 80-hour work weeks, and for a year he and his wife traveled Europe and Southeast Asia, where he soaked up exotic flavors and techniques to refresh his repertoire. Cooper, who had moved to Portland some time before, spun tales of the quality of life and bountiful, high-quality product in Portland, and after a visit during an unseasonably mild and beautiful April 2009, Shikami was sold.

Shikami’s pace may have slowed a bit since his frenetic Chicago days, but he’s still essentially a multi-tasking, one-man show in his new Portland kitchen, trolling the farmers’ markets daily for fresh ingredients, breaking down just-arrived Cattail Creek lambs, and doing just about everything else in the kitchen but the dishes. When we asked who the pastry chef was, we were told it’s…Shikami. Any doubts we may have had about his ability to do it all were quelled by the arrival of a flaky shortcake bearing a cloud of sweet Viridian Farms strawberries in an ethereal lemon cream, accompanied by a vivid quenelle of scarlet strawberry sorbet and a puddle of brightly tart lemon curd. The chocolate tart consisted of two slabs of ganache layered with caramel-entangled pecans in a cookie crust, and a scoop of rich chocolate sorbet. The Banana Creme Pie was accompanied by a banana sorbet that tasted so strongly of a black-ripe banana, we itched to go home and bake banana bread. All three desserts were blessed by the moderate use of sugar and a diminutive $6 price tag.

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The restaurant is in the compact, loft-like space that once housed Holden’s Bistro, in the midst of the tree-lined stretch of NW 14th between NW Glisan and Hoyt. The decor is sparse, with glossy bamboo floors, neat rows of tables and a couple of deep cozy booths, art pieces that resemble a big twisted brown twig and twisted brown twigs with sails, and light fixtures that appear to be sprouting leaves. An L-shaped bar occupies the Northwest corner, and a huge roll-up door opens onto the street, letting the summer breeze ruffle the cilantro garnish and twig sails.

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The happy hour menu looks impressive, although poorly timed for working folk (weekday happy hours that end at 5:30pm will always be one of my top three pet peeves, just behind restaurants with no happy hour and people who don’t like to share their pork belly buns) with drool-inducing items exclusive to happy hour–grilled Malaysian-style chicken wings, Vietnamese spring rolls with grilled bulgogi and papaya, Asian pastrami sliders, and corn and coconut wontons, all priced between $4 and $6.

The restaurant’s cocktail list featured five signature drinks, including the aptly named Sun-break–”Portland’s answer to the Dark & Stormy,” the Bee-Bee–jasmine-infused honey and green tea with Ransom Spirits’ Small’s Gin and J. Witty organic chamomile liquer, and the Machito–vodka, Thai basil, fresh lime, and roasted green-chile agave nectar. The wine list is heavy on French and Oregon whites, and has a nice selection of mostly Oregon and Washington reds from the Willamette and Walla Walla wine regions. Bottles range from $20-$78, and the 10 wines by the glass range from $7-$12. I had the Siltstone 2009 Pinot Gris with dinner, a full-bodied wine with a strong floral nose and citrus tones which paired very well with a range of dishes. There are also three high quality sakés, $11-$14 a glass, and a carefully-curated beer list.

Despite the cascading rush of new restaurants vying for Portland diners’ attention, diners like me who wish their bellies weren’t getting so rotund and their wallets so flat, based on our first impressions, Kin is well worth your rapt attention. The duck confit ramen, the soft, satisfying pork belly buns that might be my new quintessential comfort food, the delicious and expertly executed $6 executive chef-made desserts, the welcoming staff, and the mystery of the sailing wall twigs–experience it all for yourself someday soon.

Kin * 524 NW 14th Ave. Portland * 503.228.4546 * www.kinpdx.com * Happy Hour Tue-Sat 3:30-5:30pm, Dinner Tue-Sat 5:30-10 pm * Limited reservations accepted