This week we take a trip back across the Interstate Bridge to pay a visit to our friends in Vancouver, Washington! As we stop by one of the hottest restaurants in Downtown Vancouver, we are reminded of what Portland Metro Live is all about.
Although Vancouver, Washington remains very much its own independent community, it isn’t immune to Portland’s growing pains. Per a recent report, Clark County grew by an astonishing 9,054 residents from 2014 – 2015, a number sure to be even higher today.
As Vancouver grows, what once was a sleepy downtown has turned into a vibrant collection of businesses, restaurants and breweries. We return to Main Street, familiar territory from when we stopped by the Bleu Door Bakery six months ago.
Today, we spend some time at Willem’s of Main. Talk to many a food publicist or restaurateur in Portland and they’ll tell you the new word on the street is that Willem’s on Main is setting a new bar for fine dining in Vancouver.
A Pearly Exit
But first, let’s be frank, the word “fine dining” means something entirely different in Vancouver than it does in Portland, and we don’t mean that in a derogatory way, especially considering this humble writer is proud to call Vancouver home.
No, what we mean is that Main Street these days is better known for an abundance of sports bars, casual diners and Marijuana shops than it is for flights of culinary fancy and epicurean artistic expression. It was something that well-known Portland chef Willem “Paul” Klitsie hoped to change when he opened Willem’s in October of 2013.
After moving to Portland from the Netherlands in 1997, Klitsie opened the highly-regarded Fratelli in the Pearl District. “When I started, the Pearl was like Vancouver is now,” he says, “but it will take a lot longer for Vancouver to get to where the Pearl is today,” he finishes with a chuckle.
He also admits that it has been a bit of a struggle. “This is definitely a winter restaurant,” he says. “When it’s warm, people flock to the river and have lunch and dinner at restaurants that aren’t very good, but I guess the water is the attraction.”
Still, despite admitting that it hasn’t been an easy road to hoe, Klitsie calls his time here “rewarding” and admits that the Pearl “didn’t come up overnight.”
In fact, it was that “coming up” of the Pearl that forced Klitsie to head north. Things were mellow through the mid-2000s, then right around the time Portlandia came out, the metro area began to grow by record numbers. By 2013, the building Fratelli was in sold, and Klitsie decided the Pearl had gotten too expensive for him to try another venture in.
Klitsie had already been living in Vancouver for years, so bringing his version of fine food back to the Evergreen State seemed like a logical move.
“I was so tired of the traffic across the bridge,” he dead-pans.
Considering his pedigree, having mentored and worked with some of Portland’s all-star chefs, Vancouver should consider itself lucky that Portland pushed Klitsie’s deft hand back its way.
A Win for Vancouver
Klitsie realizes if he is going to do fine dining in Vancouver, it had better be done as simply as it is done well, which suits his style.
“I don’t do molecular gastronomy and my presentation is very simple,” he says. “I am all about the food that’s on the plate.”
With some truly ultimate comfort offerings to choose from, there’s no shortage of options for someone coming in on a cold, rainy winter night.
Although they have no bar – Klitsie admits Washington State charges more on permitting to have bar seating area – they do serve some excellent cocktails, which is the perfect place to start.
As a “Cocktail of the Month,” the Bergamot Kiss it won’t last long. Combining Bell River gin, lavender simple syrup, lemon juice and strong earl grey tea, it’s both refreshing and fragrant, with the lavender and strong earl grey balancing the flavor profile.
The meal starts with an arugula salad with farro, bacon, apple and buttermilk dressing. For a bit extra add a chicken confit. It’s a simple, unassuming salad; as straightforward as it is tasty.
The main entrée arrives with little fanfare, and needs none. It’s a dish that speaks for itself in almost every way. When Klitsie said presentation wasn’t super important to him, it’s obvious in this dish, and that’s okay.
A red wine reduction pools beneath mashed potatoes, a cast iron-seared 8-ounce New York strip loin and cooked spinach. While the potatoes, spinach and red wine reduction are all good, the steak steals the show. It’s a huge piece of meat, wrapped over twice onto itself, and cooked medium – just the way any self-respecting meat lover should want it. Tender, moist and juicy, without being overly fatty, it’s a near-perfect cut of meat.
Of course, a meal of this kind wouldn’t be complete without an equally impressive dessert. A wall of chocolate ganache towers over a perfectly formed scoop of hand-made whipped crème and a pear poached in red wine, cinnamon and sugar. As walls go, this one will leave you weeping.
Unsurprisingly, given the technique, Klitsie proudly admits to his partnership with Bleu Door Bakery, who provides half of his desserts. Considering his propensity for doing everything in-house, he calls this partnership a “really big step.”
Judging by the results, it’s a successful one. Willem’s on Main joins Bleu Door Bakery and others in bringing an air of elegance to Downtown Vancouver’s over-abundance of brew pubs and sports bars. Hopefully Vancouver residents understand how truly lucky they are.
Willem’s on Main is located at 907 Main Street in Vancouver, Washington. For hours or reservation information, visit their website at www.willemsonmain.com or give them a call at (360)258-0989.
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.