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Rostra rating: 4
Here is a working definition of culinary cojones: declare that your restaurant serves “The Best Thai Food in Portland” when you are located half a mile from Pok Pok. It is important to state up front that this claim is not without merit. Farmhouse Kitchen chef/owner Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang earned his spurs in the mighty San Francisco gastrosphere, winning a Michelin Bib Gourmet designation last year.
Chef Saengsawang has chosen Portland for his second Farmhouse location and sited it squarely in Andy Ricker’s backyard just for good measure. Pok Pok, meanwhile has crossed the culinary chasm from bib to one star with Chef Ricker’s Brooklyn outpost (Michelin has yet to publish a Portland guide, which might actually be a good thing). So while this proxy award battle may give Pok Pok the edge, the real question, and one that MagoGuide is happy to consider, is how does Portland Farmhouse measure up against Portland Pok Pok.
The short answer is that it is too early to tell since Farmhouse Kitchen has been open less than a month and the Pok Pok/Whisky Soda Lounge duopoly entered cash cow status some time ago. But it is high time to dispense with derivative accolades and start eating.
Our first meal at Farmhouse Kitchen can be summed up as great food somewhat marred by glitchy service. Although we made reservations, the place has been mobbed since its May 1 opening, we found the front of the house a bit chaotic. We were given two different menus (one was regular and one was vegan) by a young man who informed us that he was a “food curator” and not a server. Translation: he was very helpful in explaining and expounding on the menu items we queried him about, but over several attempts to take our order (which he did not write down), he failed to get it right. Also, the drinks side of things was very slow throughout our meal. Fortunately, Sarah, who is a server, showed up, wrote down our order, straightened out our curator’s mistakes, and got us the dish we had originally ordered at no extra cost. She could not, however, make any headway with expediting our orders at the bar, but she did apologize for us going beerless during the latter part of our meal and did not try to foist said brewskis on us after the plates had been cleared. Note to Chef Saengsawang: lose the curator and let Sarah be Sarah.
The food, however, fully made up for the service inconsistencies, which are only to be expected less than a month after opening in almost any restaurant.
Neua Nom Tok rolls: grilled Snaked River Farm wagyu beef wrapped with mint, cilantro, cucumber, and served with a cilantro lime vinaigrette. These were great small bites of rich beef melding nicely with the mint cilantro double hit and a small bit of heat in the cilantro lime vinaigrette that enhanced the cool textural notes from the cucumber.
Ahi scoops: pan seared sesame encrusted Ahi tuna stacked on cucumber, seaweed salad, crispy yam, dill, lemongrass, and chili lime. A sushi-like dish bursting with flavor, decent heat, and very interesting textural contrasts from the sweet crispy yam flakes, neutral cucumber, and salty seaweed. My only complaint is that these wonderful morsels were served as somewhat awkward shooters. Since the server suggested that these were one bite experiences, perhaps large flat spoons (a la Toro Bravo’s spherical olives) would make the ingestion mechanics more facile?
Pad Pad: sautéed red curry paste, lemon grass, galangal, krachai, onion, and bell pepper. This was a food curator miscue. We had ordered Pad eggplant with crispy pork belly and got this dish instead. His loss, our gain. The pork belly paired nicely with the stir fried veggies, but the real star of the show were the white pepper clusters, which rendered a subtle heat that supported the dish’s rustic flavor profile. Sarah assured me that some diners ate the pepper berries and I found them quite interesting–in small amounts they added crunchy textural heat notes to the rich meat and sauce.
Pad eggplant with Thai basil, garlic, and fresh chili. The curator’s unintended consequences also worked in TeamMago’s favor. This was an amazing veggie dish, redolent of Thai basil, that did not need any pork belly to shine. The eggplant was silkily rich in contrast to the rest of the veggies that were quite firm and crunchy– even the thinly sliced zucchini.
Panang Neua: slow braised bone-in beef short rib in a Panang curry served with grilled broccolini, bell pepper, onion, fried Thai basil, and blue rice. This proved to be the longest short rib I have ever encountered, and if it is not Chef Saengsawang’s signature dish then it should be. An amazing braise, unctuous and spicy with just a little bit of tooth. Cooking the grass fed beef on the bone is key to developing a depth of flavor that can stand up to the thick and robust curry sauce. Panang Neua is also the perfect platform for the famous blue rice that lived up to its reputation. It is derived by steeping little blue butterfly pea flowers (dok anchan) in water that jasmine rice is subsequently cooked in. One server explained that butterfly pea flowers are identified with Thai royalty, and indeed the rice was a purplish blue. The rice was perfectly cooked by the way. The grilled veggies supplied textural and flavor contrast to the beef, while the fried Thai basil leaves (liberally sprinkled over the rib) made the dish pop.
While the bar could use a little can of whoop ass with respect to getting clients their drinks before they age in place, MagoGuide cannot fault their tap choices. In addition to Singha (a draft rarity), they were pouring Portland’s own Commons Farmhouse and Breakside IPA, both of which choke just fine with spicy Thai dishes. The cocktail list had several unusual entries. I was intrigued by one composed of Singha on the rocks with a shot of Thai whisky. The wine list is short but covers most of the bases for a Thai restaurant.
Bottom line: Farmhouse Kitchen may not be the best Thai restaurant in Portland, but it is great competition for Pok Pok, which could use a little complacency deconstruction. Based on a single visit to Farmhouse Kitchen, we have high hopes for the future as the front of the house catches up to the kitchen and the menu evolves. We will definitely be back to Chef Saengsawang’s new Portland Thai contender, and who can stay away from Pok Pok for very long either? But our motto at MagoGuide (which I just made up) is We Review, You Decide. Treat yourself to delicious comparisons as this culinary contest shapes up over the next six months. ปล่อยให้เกมเริ่มต้นขึ้น