Occasionally, we’ll find ourselves at a near total loss for words. Oh, sure; I can generate 500 words detailing my opinion on the merits of patting buffalo wings dry before deep-frying, as opposed to breading them or smoking them. That kind of writing comes easily. But sometimes, every so often, a meal will come along that seems to defy description, where it seems difficult to figure out what it is we can really add to the experience. It was following the first bite of our starter at Bresca, three perfect, plump dates lightly stuffed with softly-spiced chorizo and Gorgonzola cheese, when Jillian and I sat staring dumbly at one another. What followed was a four course meal that, we knew, would be difficult to appropriately convey through a computer screen. I’ll do my best to explain.
The first thing that is surprising about Bresca is its size. Occupying a storefront barely wide enough to fit a front door, stepping off the cold December streets into the soft, intimate embrace of Bresca is immediately comforting. Various shades of warm brown paint cover the walls, and there are bottles of wine and cast-iron squirrels holding tealights everywhere, giving the room a faint, flickering glow. The room is just large enough to hold, at best, eight tables; on this night, the room feels even smaller due to a large party of older gentlemen, clearly all very old friends, who have combined several of the small butcher block tables into a large buffet that fills the middle of the dining room. We were seated in the window next to them, and the sound of their conversation and WWII-era joke-telling only made the room feel that much warmer. (All you really need to know about these jokes are two of the amazing punchlines we overheard, which included, “Because I saw a billboard that said, ‘Drink Canada Dry!’ and ended with, ‘Well, I guess you’re not a cork-sniffer,’ delivered in a thick Maine accent. I’ll let you fill in the rest.)
The room is small enough to be capably presided over by just two people: a waitress and a runner from the kitchen. The service is exactly right for the room; not just attentive, but genuinely caring. When I learned that the restaurant serves only wine and beer, our waitress didn’t direct me to squint fuzzily at a beer list that I couldn’t make out in the back of the room, instead simply asking me what I liked, and choosing for me appropriately. She also offered a few words about the menu, including the seemingly newly-common advice about how the menu is designed to be eaten in several full courses. In other restaurants, it’s a trend I find somewhat overbearing; I like it when a restaurant designs its menu with thought to how one course relates to the next, but at the same time, I’ve been to a restaurant before. I kind of know how to do it. I know you want me to order a bunch of things. I’ll do my best. What can seem like nagging when handled indelicately, though, came across in this instance as helpful, good advice from a waitress that seemed genuinely interested in making sure we had the best possible experience, and for once, I appreciated the note.
It was after our first bite of chorizo-and-gorgonzola stuffed date ($8), that we realized we were in for a special couple of hours. The dates were perfectly bursty, with just a hint of heat from the chorizo and the tartness of the Gorgonzola balancing the nearly overwhelming sweetness of the soft flesh of the dates. We cut each date in half, chewed slowly, and stared at one another across the table, uncertain of what to say next. We followed this small starter plate with a first course, a salad made with snails cooked in garlic butter, tossed with smoked red wine sausage and croutons, and topped with a fried quail egg ($12). The yolk of the tiny fried egg was just barely set, allowing us to break it over the salad and combine it with the vinaigrette that covered the leafy greens. It was a preparation that makes me feel like I suddenly “get” escargot; these snails were served out of their shells, and were positively drenched in butter, with a snap and an Earthy quality that made them seem almost more like wild mushrooms. Combining a few of them on a fork with a bit of sausage and freshly-made, crunchy crouton made for an exquisite single bite.
I ordered a second of the “large format” bottles of Portland Lager, and our main courses were served soon after. I chose the braised beef cheeks, served with sautéed mushrooms, seared brussels sprouts, in a pool of creamy polenta ($28). The beef was simply divine; lazy food writing would dictate that I describe it as “fall off the bone” tender, which makes no sense in this context since a.) Cheeks don’t have bones, under most circumstances, and b.) I am pretty sure I have seen this phrase used to describe the boiled baby back special at the 99 Restaurant, and the fact that these two meals could exist on the same planet makes no sense to me at all. The braised beef cheek was so tender as to barely hold its shape on the plate, the fatty tissues so completely dissolved that the supple, slow-cooked meat gave way completely at the slightest pressure from a fork. The polenta, an accompaniment that I normally don’t care a thing about, worked with the red wine to make a sort of sauce for the whole dish, with the brussels sprouts bringing a freshness and crunch that I really enjoyed. It was a “close your eyes” kind of dish. The kind of dish that proves that, when in doubt, ordering an animal’s face is a deliciously safe bet. The kind of dish where I didn’t leave a “politeness bite” remaining on the plate, instead hungrily devouring every inch of what I was given with a spoon.
Jillian: I’m supposed to be writing about cod, and maybe I can. Dining at Bresca strips you of all that which is extra and ultimately distracting; you need nothing but the thing, the food, itself. So, have you heard about the cod? A firm fleshy piece of fish so beautiful it could have been served simply with salt and pepper and you would be struck dumb. But it wasn’t. It sat (proudly) on a bed of toothsome grains, and I’m truly embarrassed that I can’t remember what it was. Farro? Fregula? I just don’t know. Anyway it was profoundly great, with a hint of a curry, a few little wild mushrooms and sweet potato bits. This was the daily fish special ($28) so I can’t even look it up. I just know it was incredible. It’s the kind of dish that makes me realize, really realize, how limited I am in writing about food. I can’t properly identify what was on my plate, describe how it was prepared, or speak to the level of skill required to perform such a high-flying feat. All I know for sure is that this stuff is good. Very, very good.
At this point in the meal, we were overcome with the satisfying fullness that only seems to come from eating many, many dishes of remarkable food, slowly, and measured out over time. We knew, though, that a trip to Bresca without sampling dessert would be a wasted effort, and so we reached deeply within ourselves to soldier on, in spite of our ever-growing bellies. We shared Bresca’s widely-revered buttermilk panna cotta, served in giant bowl of passion fruit broth, topped with strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, with a scoop of floral orange blossom white pepper sorbet ($9). Its acclaim is well-deserved. We were, for at least the sixth or seventh time that evening, struck completely silent by what sat in front of us. The buttermilk panna cotta, still holding the shape of the form it was set in, was a solid only until it touched our lips, liquefying instantly in our mouths into cool, luscious sweetness. The sharp acidity of the intensely fruity passionfruit provided an outstanding contrast, as did the surprising, mysterious warmth of the white pepper sorbet. It’s a palate-confusing, wondrous dish, that made me feel refreshed, lightened, and as though I had never, ever tasted dessert, ever before that moment.
Jillian: Eating at Bresca last night, I felt like I needed an entirely new vocabulary, a reinvented syntax to describe what is happening to you with food there. Normally I wax on with all the poetics of an eighth grader with a thesaurus about how a restaurant looks and feels and makes me feel and how I look whilst seated in it, and while Bresca has all that sexy stuff going on, it’s rather unimportant, or beside the point. The point is after my first bite of saltyspicycreamysweet date I didn’t feel the need to eat anywhere else, perhaps ever again. I don’t want to ferret out the merit of middlebrow Thai or waste time, money, or calories on seafood that isn’t superlative. My usual language doesn’t apply. You could call the starter that we shared unctuous, but that adds syllables of separation where none are needed.
Bresca wasn’t one of the first restaurants we tried in Portland, primarily due to its good reputation; we knew that it would always be there, and that we’d have plenty of time to circle around and get to it eventually. You should not make that mistake. Go, now, for the panna cotta, one of the single finest dishes I have yet tasted in Portland; it’s reason enough to get you in the door. We feel foolish for having waited so long, moronic for having wasted so, so many low-expectation dinners in restaurants that weren’t Bresca. It may be the only restaurant you need. We knew dinner there would be a special event; what we didn’t expect was that James Beard award-nominated chef Krista Kern Desjarlais would create one of our most memorable dining experiences to date, offering imaginative, exquisitely-prepared, expertly-balanced dishes that would tease us, delight us, and set an entirely new standard for what a meal out should be.