Portland, Oregon, is recognized around the world as a foodie town. New restaurants and food venues open weekly, sometimes daily, making it difficult for established restaurants like Southpark Seafood to rise above the din, even when their new Executive Chef, Ryan Gual, is cooking up some of the freshest, most creative seafood dishes in town.
Southpark Seafood, located on the beautiful park blocks in downtown Portland, has been around for decades and has a reputation for serving fresh, sustainable seafood. The restaurant’s convenient location near theaters like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall has made it a favorite place for before- and after-theater noshing. More recently, 37-year-old Ryan Gual has taken over the reins as executive chef and the young culinary creative has completely revamped the menu, emphasizing smaller plates and innovative recipes using fresh, local ingredients.
Gual says, “There are plenty of places in town where you can get a good piece of salmon and a crème brulee. I want to do something different from that; something more exciting.”
And that’s exactly what Chef Gual is doing. One of the changes he’s made is that everything—from the bread to the sauces, croutons, pasta, pickled vegetables, smoked fish, and even the crackers—is made in-house. He insists they use products from local producers and the restaurant has partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and Portland Seafood to ensure the seafood they’re using is sustainably caught. He’s also instituted pre-fixe “Copper Top” chef’s dinners, where up to eight guests sit at a copper bar and watch the chef prepare a multi-course meal for them ($85 pp; $35 for wine pairing).
New Small Plates
RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I recently visited on a busy Friday evening to explore the restaurant’s new small plates menu and we were impressed. Despite it being a “dark night” for the largest theaters, the place was bustling. The restaurant’s open kitchen, large, street-facing windows, and modern, wood-dominated style offers a modern ambiance with a comfortable vibe.
We turned our palates over to veteran waiter, John, to lead us through the menu and he proved more than capable. We began with two fish/meat boards loaded with delicately smoked steelhead ($6) and trout ($7); two cheeses (creamy Gorgonzola prelibato from Italy ($7) and firm yet silky Bethmale from France($7)); flavorful and smoky Thai sausage ($6); and a small chicken roulade ($7) that resembled chicken quiche. The boards were served with house-made “everything” crackers, which were light and airy, and a variety of pickled veggies and marmalades. With a cocktail or their delightfully spicy, but not overly sweet warm apple cider (non-alcoholic), you could easily make a light, pre-theater dinner out of a couple of these tasty boards.
The house-baked focaccia served with perfectly soft butter is deliciously different—delicate and light with a crispy crust and a sprinkling of sea salt that had us returning again and again to the bread basket.
Next came a selection of fresh oysters. I told waiter John my preference for small-to-medium, sweet bi-valves and he brought us six perfect oysters ($16) served on ice—two each of Penn Cove from Fanny Bay; Kusshi from Deep Bay, B.C.; and Shigoku from Samish Bay, WA. These super-fresh specimens were served with a red wine migonette and freshly grated horseradish. Editor Anne Weaver commented, “These are some of the best oysters I’ve ever eaten.”
Then it was onto some of Southpark’s signature small plate entrees, starting with the octopus, rings of chewy octopus braised tender with chili oil, and served with a fresh salad of watermelon, arugula, mint and crispy shallots on top. The octopus, unlike any of this species I’ve ever eaten, was super tender with an almost meaty texture. The flavors were rich and complex with the chili oil lending a bit of a kick that lingered on the tongue and the greens and watermelon adding a fresh lightness.
When waiter John insisted we try Chef Gual’s shrimp toast ($14) we were both imagining a 1960s version of baby shrimp in mayo on melba toast. We were pleasantly surprised with the big, chunky fried bread topped with a single large fried shrimp and a fresh salad of Thai basil, cilantro, creamy Thai chili remoulade, black sesame seeds, and a smelt. The dish, one of our hands-down favorites, was a textural and flavor adventure–satisfying crunch from the bread and shrimp and creaminess from the remoulade coupled with great acidity, bright herby flavors of cilantro and basil, and subtle saltiness from the smelt. A couple of these shrimp toasts would make a perfect meal.
Another surprise—and another favorite—was the Albacore tuna tartare ($14). Usually tartare is served as slices of raw fish, often with some kind of sauce. This tartare came finely chopped and topped with tiny dollops of avocado and crema, minced green onion and jalapeno, and sprinkled with tiny black tobiko eggs and shaved cured egg yolk. The delicate tuna was uber fresh and all the toppings added hints of flavor, richness and creaminess that elevated this dish from good to extraordinary.
The scallop tortetelloni ($18), made with crab cream, preserved lime, herbs, and black garlic, was rich and satisfying. Each tortetelloni was a little package of heavenly flavor and texture cooked to perfection with just the right amount of “tooth” to the fresh pasta. The sweet, fresh flavors of crab and scallop were accented with the subtle acid of lime and the earthy sweetness of black garlic.
Squid ink linguini ($17) was a jet-black pile of fresh pasta made with rich uni butter, chives and tarragon, and bottarga salmon roe. While this earthy pasta wasn’t my favorite, Editor Anne Weaver loved the deep ocean flavors.
Southpark is known for their salmon and you can order fresh salmon here even when it’s not in season locally. While I normally don’t order farmed salmon, their King salmon ($25), sustainably farmed in New Zealand, proved surprisingly rich, moist, and tasty with a subtle smoky flavor. It was served with vinegary Kim chi fried rice.
By this point, we were stuffed beyond comfortable, but waiter John thought we should experience the chocolate board, a selection of tiny servings of chocolate marshmallows, chocolate flourless torte, espresso cream, chocolate custard and chocolate cookies. And, he was right, the dessert board was fun with tasty, creamy desserts. Served with a cup of deliciously-rich coffee, it made the perfect end to an incredibly satisfying meal.
Real Bottom Line: Southpark Seafood has achieved a solid reputation for serving fresh seafood. Now with a new, young chef, they’ve launched into smaller plates that allow diners to experience more fresh, sustainable seafood dishes with creative twists.
Chef Gaul has a light, delicate hand, deftly combining flavors and textures in ways that elevate classic dishes into new and delicious experiences. Whether you choose one or two boards or a few plates for a light meal or go “whole-hog” like we did, we know you’ll be satisfied with what’s coming out of this creative chef’s kitchen.– Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor, realfoodtraveler.com, Photos by Anne Weaver, Editor, realfoodtraveler.com