In a town where it seems like every new restaurant tries to do something more fancy and innovative than the last, is there still room for simplicity? While some chefs reach for the sky in creating evermore fancy and somewhat unrecognizable culinary masterpieces, others are striving for something with greater cultural purity; something with roots.
This is where Laura Rhoman and Muscadine enter the picture. Opened almost exactly two years ago, Muscadine aims to bring simple, well-done southern flavors to the great Pacific Northwest. There’s no nitrogen-infused ice cream balls or beet salads to be found here; just simple, well-done southern comfort food.
From South to North
When she initially opened Muscadine, Rhoman knew she was entering a crowded market. Portland has no shortage of stellar southern cooking restaurants to choose from. Still, she was undeterred.
“I used to open restaurants for other people, their concepts. I’ve worked in a lot of fine dining restaurants, run five kitchens and opened around fourteen restaurants.” she says. “So this was the next logical step.
Located on NE Prescott, another one of Portland’s up-and-coming neighborhoods (which ones aren’t?), Rhoman chose the location for Muscadine because she had been frequenting a bar next to the space for “a long time,” as she puts it. When the location opened up, it just made sense to take it over and pursue her southern-fried dreams.
“We spent six weeks remodeling and getting everything up to code,” she explains. “Since then, everything’s been great.”
Despite Muscadine’s diminutive size – seating capacity sits at around 40, including the bar – the kitchen serves up some truly huge flavors. Speaking of the kitchen, the fact that Rhoman is able to create such big food in such a small space is impressive in-and-of itself.
“I’ve worked in small kitchens,” she says. “Here, we improved the storage and made things as efficient as possible. There’s very little waste because we go through things so quickly and the batches are so small.”
Although she may refer to her product in “small batch” terms, the end result is anything but small. Big, bold flavors, rich colors and appealing textures grace every plate. Did we mention there’s nothing at all small about these plates?
Small Room, Big Flavor At Muscadine
The first dish up is appropriately called the Country Captain. Rhoman makes the dish with what she calls “low country curry,” an Indian curry adopted by South Carolinians in the 18th century. Perfectly cooked grits form the foundation for a heaping mound of low country curry, two over-easy eggs, sour cream and smoked apple jelly. Not only is it utterly filling, but the juxtaposition of sweet and savory combine for explosive flavor. The chicken curry is unlike any other curry we’ve tasted, but no less delicious.
Rhoman’s food philosophy contributes to some truly authentic dishes. “I try to let the ingredients shine,” she says. And shine they do.
Their brightness is apparent in the meat plus three dish. Wild Copper River salmon croquettes join collard greens, Sea Island red peas, creamed corn, green tomato tartar sauce, local blackberry jam and a warm, fluffy biscuit. Nothing fancy here, just solid, well-cooked goodness. Could you ask for more on a single plate?
We would like to take a moment to highlight the creamed corn. Without a doubt, it’s some of the best we’ve ever had. It’s fresh, crunchy and, as Rhoman puts it, “I don’t cook the shit out of it.”
You’ll find no mushy stewed corn here. Rhoman sautées the corn with onion, garlic oil and butter until it begins to sweat. She then sifts in two tablespoons of flour au grit and a proprietary amount of half-and-half. After five minutes of simmering, it’s the kind of creamed corn that would – hate to say it – put your grandma’s to shame.
Beyond some truly amazing creamed corn, what makes this dish even more impressive is the sourcing. Like almost every other Portland chef in existence, Rhoman prides herself on sourcing her food as locally as possible.
“All our meat, dairy and about seventy-five of our produce is local,” she says.
The other twenty-five percent speaks to the level of authenticity you’ll find at Muscadine. Rhoman is making southern food, after all, so sourcing from the south is pretty much required for some ingredients.
“There is no substitute for white lily flour for the biscuits and it’s not sold west of Texas,” she explains. “And the red peas are grown in Georgia.”
Rhoman has managed to pluck family-recipe dishes from her Southern roots and imbue them with a distinctly Pacific Northwestern sensibility.
Along the way she manages to find nifty new “Left Coast” way of putting finishing touches on traditional dishes and beverages. Delicious libations are not left out as a lemon and blackberry gin arrives. It’s simple and refreshing, with lemon juice, blackberry liqueur, gin and a few local blackberries.
While it’s a bit of a travesty with food this good, Muscadine only serves breakfast and lunch, though they do serve dinner a couple times a month, usually on Wednesdays. Dinner information can be found on their website.
Named after a grapevine species native to the southeastern and south-central United States, Muscadine shares the traits of its namesake. It has a distinct flavor and is full of delicious goodness.
To partake in some of said goodness, stop by Muscadine for breakfast, lunch, or the occasional dinner. Muscadine is located at 1465 NE Prescott Street in Portland, Oregon. For menu or hours information visit their website www.muscadinepdx.com or give them a call at (503) 841-5576.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.