Portland’s mom lives at 212 SW Stark Street. She makes what you’d expect your mother to make, but in wonderfully unexpected ways. The matron of Portland’s ultimate comfort food is Mother’s Bistro and Bar owner and executive chef Lisa Schroeder.
Schroeder has spent the past fifteen years introducing willing Portlanders to mother’s food the way they wish their moms made it. Originally from Pennsylvania, early on she had thoughts of being a doctor or lawyer, and perhaps for the better, she wound up doing neither.
“I was working at Weight Watchers as the products and licensing manager, but all the while I was cooking on the side, reading about food and thinking about food,” she explains. “I was at my thirteenth hour trying to get people to buy stuff they didn’t need and I said to myself that life’s too short to spend it not doing what I love. I cannot spend the rest of my life just being in an office, coming up with numbers and budgets and marketing plans,” she emphatically finishes, a notion many of us have had probably more than once.
After leaving her job at Weight Watchers in 1992, Schroeder went to cooking school, graduated at the top of her class, and went on to hone her skills in such noted eateries as Lespinasse and Le Cirque in New York and Moulin Des Mougins in France. It was these experiences that shaped the deliciously well-apportioned meals she serves today.
“There I am in these 4-star restaurants throwing vegetables away just so that I can make a perfect square on the plate!” she exclaims. “I thought to myself then and there that I would not do that at my restaurant. That’s a crime against the universe.”
This philosophy goes into everything Schroeder does at Mother’s Bistro. “One of my key points is that I want to cater to everyday people,” she says. “I don’t want to cater to just the elite or rich. Value is mothers. This is what a mother would do. We get the best possible product we can for the best price and cook it with all the love that we can. Everything’s from scratch, nothing comes from a can, and everything’s homemade.”
Making sure she’s serving the best product she can means using locally sourced Carlton Farms pork and Cascade Natural beef. When it comes to taste and quality, price is not an issue, but Schroeder makes sure you won’t feel it in your wallet.
“One time I was getting a pitch from a dairy company who wanted me to try their butter,” she says. “I tried it next to the butter I was using and I couldn’t ignore the fact that one tasted totally like milk and the other was just…” she pauses, lifts her hands and shrugs with an “eh.”
She wound up paying a dollar more for the better butter, but soaked the cost. The method behind this decision is what drives the mouth-watering goodness that’s served at Mother’s Bistro. “We clarify our butter to cook our eggs,” she says matter-of-factly, as though that’s something we all should do. On second thought, maybe that is something we all should do.
For those of you hoping that Chef Schroeder will grace another establishment with her culinary talents, you had a four-year window from 2006 to 2010. “After I had Mother’s for four years I got the second restaurant itch syndrome.” She pauses, stares levelly at me and says “I don’t think there’s a restauranteur that doesn’t get it.”
For Schroeder, the itch would only go away in the presence of some seriously fine Italian fare. “I’d been living here and couldn’t get a chicken parmesan to save my life,” she says exasperatedly. “So, I said to myself if nobody’s going to do it than I have to.”
Four years later the perfectly capable Mama Mia Trattoria would be sold off for what she put into it, a casualty of the time and effort it takes to run two restaurants.
“It was like having a second child,” Schroder dead-pans. “There’s no savings of energy at all. I realized that life was too short and I couldn’t spend every waking moment working. Besides, Mother’s was always the dream. I needed to focus on this and polish the apple,” she finishes with a smile.
And polished this apple is. Mother’s Bistro exists on a principle that we can all understand, but executes it in innovative ways. “In my final stages, when I was working on my business plan,” Schroeder says, “the epiphany came to me to have a mother of the month. We’ll tell her story and have some of her dishes on the menu!”
This idea now bears out on Mother’s M.O.M. archive, where dozens of moms are featured. Moms such as Tieonna Brown, who moved to Portland when she was four years old after her father retired from the military, according to her biography on the site.
Miss Brown’s contribution to her monthly entry was a delectable three egg omelet filled with avocado, fresh tomatoes, bacon & cream cheese, and served with roasted red potatoes and a buttermilk biscuit. Can’t you just hear your mom yelling to you that breakfast is ready as you’re woken up with the smell of spices and the sizzle of bacon?
On another month you could have had Portland native and featured mom Julie Barker’s Redfish Palermo, a red snapper baked in parchment with sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta cheese, extra virgin olive oil, roasted fresh fennel, artichoke hearts, ouzo, fresh oregano & basil, served with creamy lemon polenta. These are meals your mom makes the way a world-class chef would make them.
Mother’s Bistro is composed of two parts, one the restaurant and the other The Velvet Lounge. Both spaces are elegant without being overt, just as mom would have it. From the beautiful chandeliers to the stained wood accents and juxtaposition of colors, it’s a place as comforting as home.
After celebrating 15 years in Portland, Schroeder is staying put. After all, one can’t go without a mother’s food. “I love Portland,” she says. “In fact, my daughter moved to Portland and I’ve got four grandchildren here, so this is definitely home. Portland has been very good to me.”
Recognizing the opportunities afforded her by the rose city, Schroeder has responded in kind, supporting community groups and advocating issues from equal rights to the virtues of wild salmon environmental preservation. She was recently chosen by the Oregon Commission for Women as a Woman of Achievement, a notable honor.
So the next time mom is away, or if you’re away from mom, but still want the delicious cooking only she can make, make your way to downtown Portland and let Mother’s Bistro fill the void.
Mother’s Bistro, located at 212 SW Stark Street. Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For menu information, visit their website or call them at 503-464-1122.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. 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.