Some cooks are flop, others are grinders.
Strutters love to be on TV, working in the gleaming white dining room, and talking for the foodie elite. Mills prefer to work on the line, cook great food, and smile discreetly as empty plates return from the dining room. There is, of course, some crossover. But in case of choice, take the grinder each time.
Eric Van Klee, Head Chef at Arden Restaurant & Wine Bar, Custom Mill. The food he makes there since 2019 is unique and attractive. He’s always present in his tiny, unequipped kitchen, cooking up his heart. Despite Van Kley’s supernatural skills, little has been heard of the joys of the Arden Dinner. this is embarrassing.
Van Klee came to Portland from Michigan, the middle child of an itinerant French scholar of history and a housewife with a degree in journalism. He eschewed higher education himself in favor of a kitchen hand life, starting as a dishwasher in high school and learning the ropes from an “old school kitchen wacko” who would sometimes break dishes on the floor just because he could.
To fill his spare time, Van Kley began a “meditative” relationship with guitar at the age of 14. And he still plays morning and evening, every day, on his set of Fenders. Although his focus has changed over time, his passion has always been jazz.
“It is determined not by a particular set of rules or boundaries, but by the sum of its many moving parts,” says Van Klee.
He jokingly refers to his cooking style as “jazz cuisine,” but it’s no joke.
In Portland, Van Kley developed an impressive resume, beginning with the Gotham Building Tavern, before moving on to Le Pigeon and Little Bird, where he spent nearly five years each. He worked closely with Gabriel Rucker during all three of those stints before coming out on his own.
Van Kley’s independent venture, where he debuted in Jazz Kitchen, was Taylor Railworks. There were no limits to what might appear on the plate there. Fans adored chile crab, a dish better known in Singapore than Portland. of butter fried chicken, WW Reviewer Matthew Korvag stated, “Chicken is herbs and marinated in a blend of curry and mint much closer to Mumbai than Memphis.”
Sadly, Taylor only lasted from 2015 to 2017. Its poor location, odd design, and improvisational global approach was as baffling to some as it was inspiring to others. The lockdown still haunts Van Klee. He admits, perhaps very easily, “I went out a bit with some dishes, and it fell on my face.”
After a few short-haul gigs, Van Kelly fell for Arden. The menu wasn’t the strong suit at the Pearl District wine bar. It is now.
Some free-form numbers from Taylor’s days are absent from Van Kley’s Arden playlist. However, he and the many Taylor alumni who now work with him aim to “keep it fun”. Commonly used ingredients include nuts for crunch, chilies for a behavioral streak, and plenty of bold, umami-charged ingredients like mushrooms, cheese, and cured small fish.
Menu items rotate, but among the modern appetizers, the best stars are creamy burrata, crunchy fried mushrooms, pine nuts, and a shower of grated La Marotte sheep’s milk aged cheese topped with shoyu vinaigrette ($18). It is a carnival of textures and flavours.
Trying to pick a second course is crazy. Go for decadent duck livers garnished with sweet, smoked panca chile aje and smoked shoyu over tagliatelle, surrounded by whipped ricotta, with shavings of Parmesan on top ($17); Morel mushrooms and ricotta cheese in a Parmesan-infused broth ($17); Or add an extravagant new menu: morels, green onions and asparagus drenched in a rich, buttery straccino di Crecenzo with a layer of French black truffle shavings ($27)? If your answer is ‘all of the above’, you win.
The entrance section may not be as robust as the previous dishes, but that’s impressive, especially given that Van Klee and his crew are handicapped by a small four-burner stove, no flat grill, no big fridge, and a toy-like deep fryer. Duck lovers will adore the dish for two that includes sautéed leg and thigh, and seared breast, plus the miso-wrapped kale in a pastry crust ($49).
In addition to the main sections of the menu, there are side offerings galore, ranging from togarashi-marinated marcona almonds ($6) to foie gras torchon with chala bread ($19), as well as desserts. Wine remains a set draw, too.
Your best bet for conscious or indecisive value is the Fixed Chef Prize, which is four courses shared by the table for $65 per person. Add wine pairings for another $45 per person.
Visit Arden soon and enjoy the bounty of a professional mill that has clearly found its groove.
Eat: Arden, 417 NW 10th Ave. , 503-206-6097, ardenpdx.com. 5-9 Wednesday – Saturday.