Located just off I-5 in northeast Portland, Mississippi Avenue is a little out-of-the-way but definitely not under-the-radar. Record shops, comic book stores and independent art galleries and boutiques vie for the customers living in any of the tall new high-rises that line the street. In the middle of it all sits Quaintrelle, a long, narrow space which offers fresh, local and seasonal fare made by chef Bill Wallender, formerly of Ava Gene’s and Little Bird Bistro.
We take our seats beneath colorful, detailed prints of the very produce that Wallender will be cooking for us this evening. During his time at some of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in Portland, the chef has built up relationships with many Oregon producers such as Baird Family Orchards and Eat Oregon First. Many local producers bring him small quantities of seasonal produce, which means that the menu undergoes nearly constant tinkering.
“I try to get deliveries as frequently as possible, in as small amounts as possible,” Wallender says when he stops by the table to say hello. “It’s rare that we go a day or two without printing a new menu.”
Dinner starts with cocktails made by bar manager Camille Cavan. Her recipes have the same emphasis on fresh, local ingredients as Wallender’s, and are often made with his input. In spite of the fact that today’s Prohibition Punch contains five kinds of alcoholic beverages — Eldorado white rum, Gran Classico bitters, Amaro Montenegro, orange syrup and sparkling brut, along with lemon juice — it is tart, light and sweet and goes down disturbingly easily.
Cavan also meticulously curates Quaintrelle’s beer and cider list, which include a diverse array of table-friendly selections. The Roman Beauty cider from acclaimed Salem, Oregon, cidery EZ Orchards strikes my eye, as does the Belgian Strong Blonde from pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River. The wine list, curated by sommelier and general manager Matt Hensel, is equally thoughtful and much more extensive, focusing on wines from the Willamette Valley, the Columbia Gorge, the Columbia Valley and Applegate Valley.
Dinner starts off with a dazzling array of appetizers. A crisp and fluffy tempura batter encases slices of tetsukabuto squash, broccoli and maitake mushrooms, drizzled with pecorino cheese and chile honey. Tender wild mushrooms and stinging nettles lie on a bed of chèvre on toast. But the real star of the starters is the raw beef, tender and sliced thin as paper, topped with purple sprouting broccoli, crisp toasted peanuts and the clean, herbal bite of horseradish.
For the second course, the light, fluffy and irresistible fluffy sheep cheese dumplings are served with trumpet mushrooms and radicchio. The sheep cheese is seasonal, available only from March through August, and procured from local purveyor Black Sheep Creamery in Chehalis, Washington. A salad of beets, sesame, watermelon radishes, cashews and baby greens is the perfect palate cleanser to the main courses.
The lamb shank with squash, aleppo pepper, dried olives and mint is intimidatingly attractive, a pile of colorful and delicately stacked slices atop a tender shank with a crisp crust. The ling cod with borlotto beans, leeks, fennel and manila clams is delicious, but I also could have made a meal just from a side of spicy, pungent kimchi mayo served along with the savory, smoky Brussels sprouts and celeriac.
At the moment, Wallender also makes the desserts — the best of which is the rich, dense olive oil cake, served with lemon curd, huckleberry compote and pistachios. Cavan suggests having mine with a Melpomene, and in a minute a delicate, flowery cocktail arrives at the table. Made with Campari, byrrh, orange blossom water and bubbles, it is the perfect ending to a wonderful Wednesday meal.