You know, it does my heart good when I see a chef drag himself out of the kitchen, like a prehistoric, reptilian creature evolving before your eyes, stand up on his two hind legs and make something of himself. Chefs and cooks are, without a doubt, the hardest working people in the hospitality industry; but what a terrible price they pay for spending all day reducing pots of veal stock into a thimbleful of exquisite demi-glace, or figuring out new ways to flavor a dish. They rarely see the light of day, they aren't paid especially well for their trouble, they don't have the faintest idea who is leading the American League standings, and the turnover in their business is horrific, as is the failure rate of new restaurants.
It makes me glad, then, when a guy puts away his whites and toque and comes out to the eating side of the restaurant with some success without selling his soul to the devils of over-commercialization, Food Network stardom, new ventures in Las Vegas and both coasts, cookbooks and gushing autobiographies. In this case, I refer not to Wolfgang and Mario and Charlie and their ilk, but to Adam Berger of Portland, Oregon. He owns two terrific restaurants, Tabla and Ten-01, which opened in 2003 and 2006, respectively, and judging by the quality of the food and the enthusiasm of local patrons, it looks like he'll continue to run them for many more.
Adam fell in love with good, simple, regional Italian food when he landed jobs cooking in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1997, where hand-cut pasta is often dressed with just a little olive oil, good cheese and shavings of white truffle when you can get your hands on them. One place had a brick oven, where he learned how to bake breads and roast meats. He brought all this to Tabla, which offers three-course Italian menus every night for the great value of $24. In May, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the restaurant, the pasta dishes will be sold for just $5 each. This includes the single best thing I've eaten this year, a handmade ravioli filled with creamy cheese and a poached egg atop a lovely, light butter sauce. I recently ate the same thing at one of the star chefs' restaurants in L.A., and it wasn't nearly as good and cost $19.
At Ten-01, the fine-dining level goes up several notches as San Francisco-based chef Jack Yoss was lured by Berger to Portland last year to oversee a menu of roasted quail, fresh local fish, a braised pork belly wrapped in bacon that is blissful, and Yoss's signature cauliflower-onion soup. Ask to see their wine-storage room and you'll get a sense of how passionate these guys are about making great food: It's full of hanging meats and sausages that the chefs cure in-house, including a wild boar prosciutto that I ate last week that is nearly worth the price of a trip to Portland in itself.
To all you chefs out there, the Guru raises his glass in salute. Now get back to work; it's almost time for dinner.