Personal touch

Bresca’s chef expands on her pastry heritage
April 11, 2007 11:27:43 AM
SMALL SPACE: Big tastes.

In larger cities a new restaurant will open and get some buzz, and when you first visit you wonder, “what used to be here?” That doesn’t happen much here in Portland. When we walk into a new place we remember what came before. This makes it all the more impressive that chef/owner Krista Kern has created something so unexpected in the little space next to the police station on Middle Street — former home to Joxie Eats, the Eatery, and the ill-fated Café Troika.

In New York they deal with small spaces like this by cramming in as many small two-tops as possible, rearranging them as necessary for larger parties — you often sit as close to your neighbors as you would if you had come with them. Bresca has taken a different approach — with just five tables of various sizes — that affords a little intimacy and seems to embrace its size rather than treat it as an obstacle. The lights are low, candles abound, and the decoration is tastefully limited mostly to flowers and unframed photos.

The small size enhances Bresca’s other strengths. Bresca has a personal feel, with just one waiter in the front (which can mean a bit of a wait to order) and one or two chefs in the back. The food also feels like a genuine reflection of a particular personality — while the cuisine leans toward Italy, it also offers unexpected combinations of flavors and ingredients. Kern has a background in pastries, first in Maine, then New York, then Las Vegas. Pastry chefs face the most complex negotiation between the familiar and the experimental of anyone in food, and that experience seems to have translated to her approach as executive chef.

This was best on display in the agnolotti. The soft, palpably fresh packages of pasta were filled with a sweet mixture of pumpkin and chestnut and sprinkled with a slightly tart balsamic. What made the dish outstanding however was the subtle and rich chicken liver sauce, which balanced the sweetness with a flavor you rarely find in pasta. The dish, like all pastas at Bresca, was available in an appetizer portion, which seemed fortuitous to us since it was so very rich.

There were other very good and unusual dishes to start the meal. Shaved Brussels sprouts with Parmesan and toasted walnuts was just a bit bitter and not overdressed. Dates stuffed with chorizo and a little Gorgonzola combined strong flavors effectively. Braised black kale came with a halo of pancetta cooked crisp so it tasted like a heavenly bacon, a soft-boiled egg, and a surprisingly good charred bread that seemed to have been sprinkled with fine black particles like it was cinnamon and sugar.

As is often the case, the entrees were not quite as impressive as the appetizers. But since the first courses were so good this was not a big problem. The lamb loin chops were tender and rich with fat. The pea shoots on top conveyed the essence of pea so effectively that they rendered the pea risotto under the meat superfluous. Balsamic glazed quail was nicely prepared, as was the incredibly creamy polenta. The Italian sausage was not the most exciting part of the dish. The rib eye steak was very good, but the bread salad it was served with left us a little confused.

Given Kern’s background it is not surprising that the desserts were nice. My favorite part was the house-made ice creams and sorbets in odd flavors — especially a spicy white pepper and orange flower sorbet. It came with a buttermilk panna cotta that was so creamy it makes the typical version seem like milk-flavored Jell-O. The ricotta beignet compared favorably to the ones available at Duckfat down the street.

Bresca is nothing like what has occupied that space before, and its distinctive cuisine should help it stand out in the crowded Portland restaurant scene. It’s a bit more expensive than Ribollita a few blocks away, but offers a more interesting menu and nicer atmosphere. As time passes Kern might wander farther from Italian cuisine, which was her first step away from pastries in Las Vegas, and give her creativity still wider berth in that little space.

Bresca | 111 Middle St, Portland | 207.772.1004 | Visa | No hard liquor

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