Out of all the restaurants in Bruce Carey’s stable, Clarklewis might be the one with the most fabled history. It’s well known Clarklewis in Portland was at the forefront of the farm-to-table restaurant movement in Portland long before it was cliché.
Originally opened in 2003, Clarklewis played the standard bearer in farm-to-table food all the way up through its decline a few short years after it opened. By the time it was purchased by Bruce Carey in 2007, Clarklewis was a shell of its former self. As Carey told us last December, “I knew what it needed to firm the foundation.”
Settled in a large, non-descript converted warehouse building on the Willamette’s east waterfront, Clarklewis is easy to miss. Unless you happen to notice the large Clarklewis sign on the door, you might not know it was there. Once inside, however, the restaurant is unmistakable.
Large racks of firewood lead right into the long, narrow dining area. The open kitchen, with its large fire pit, bustles with activity. A bar set across to the far end of the room. The entire east face of Clarklewis is composed of large glass panels. Natural light shines down into an industrial, yet elegant space.
Once he took over, Carey set about crafting a menu that relied on Italian and French influences, while not infringing upon the restaurant’s theme of seasonal, fresh, sustainable farm-to-table food. In fact, this would end up a common theme in all of his restaurants.
Clarklewis’ menu changes daily to accommodate the needs of the season. At the helm masterminding those changes is Executive Chef Zach Capoccia. Still sporting a look that could just as easily put him at the concert or skate park, his casual appeal hides a deft culinary hand.
After graduating from the Kitchen Academy in Sacramento, he went on to intern and eventually get hired on at the famed Kru Japanese Bistro. There, he worked with Bill Ngo, who, as Capoccia puts it, “taught me a great deal about technique and respect for the product you use.”
Before landing in Portland, Capoccia worked in a number of great restaurants, blending together techniques used in southern, Asian, wood fired and farm-to-table cooking. A number of influences combined to help him bring his own creations to life; creations that are variations on a theme of something you wouldn’t expect.
“I generally begin with the protein and build around that,” he explains. “Browsing the farmer’s market is a very good tool for inspiration.”
Part of being sustainable includes utilizing as much of the animal as possible, a sentiment Capoccia hasn’t forgotten. “We receive a whole lamb once a week, which allows us to utilize the whole animal in many different ways,” he says. “For me, I enjoy knowing that we are paying respect to that animal by not wasting anything.”
If part of paying respects includes taste and presentation, respect as been paid. The fire-grilled Reister Farms lamb arrives in succulent red slices fanned out across a bed of dirty couscous, while a butternut squash and preserved lemon salad settles in pool of citrus lamb jus. The sweet tang of the salad provides the perfect complement to a perfectly cooked piece of lamb.
Part of paying respect to the animal also involves where it comes from and how it’s treated. Capoccia is quick to point out that all of the proteins served at Clarklewis are locally farmed and harvested.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the appetizer, a trio of local Netarts Bay oysters in a half-shell dressed in white wine and chicharones. As with any Oregon or Washington oyster, the meat is large and succulent, and left un-drowned out by Capoccia’s preparation.
At Clarklewis, that seafood is a major theme is without a doubt. The Oregon Steelhead with roasted fingerling potatoes, rainbow chard and lemon buerre blanc is a reminder of that. As anyone in Oregon will tell you, there’s something wonderful about local, fresh-caught fish from the waters of the Pacific Northwest. The buttery Steelhead flakes apart under your fork’s assault and tastes just marvelous scooped up with a bit of blanc-soaked chard.
As you make your way through the meal, Cappocia wants to make sure your libation gland isn’t left out. Expect the bar to offer up a good set of innovative creations alongside timeless classics. Since there’s nothing as classic as a perfectly cooked piece of lamb or fish, a simple Clarklewis Manhattan might accompany the evening. Temperance Trader bourbon, Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters combine for a smoky finish, with just a slight bit of tang.
Once the drink is done, one must always leave room for the final presentation. After all, no respectable new American French or Italian meal is complete without dessert. This time, it’s the buttermilk panna cotta with Huckleberry compote, candied ginger and a citrus sugar scone. As with any panna cotta, firmness and texture are key. This version gives way with little jiggle, and melts into a creamy texture once it hits the tongue. The scone is soft and flaky and provides a neutral foundation for the richness of everything else on the plate.
Such creations provide excellent examples of the power of local products when utilized by an experienced hand. Watch Capoccia as he whips up seasonal variations from the large open kitchen, where he describes it as being “center stage.”
It won’t be long before you realize that being center stage is something Clarklewis knows a little bit about. Having blazed the farm-to-table trail, it now sits comfortably at the apex of a tradition it helped create. Clarklewis offers itself as a valuable member of Bruce Carey’s stable of restaurants.
Clarklewis is located at 1001 SE Water Avenue in Portland, Oregon. They are open for lunch from 11:30am to 2:00pm Monday through Friday, and for dinner from 5:00pm to 9:00pm on Monday through Thursday. On the weekends they stay open an extra hour until 10:00pm. A Monday through Saturday happy hour runs from 4:30pm to 6:30pm. For more information, they can be reached at 503.235.2294 or you can visit their website at www.clarkewispdx.com.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.