Chris Israel is an old friend and enterprising culinary freestylist recently nominated for a James Beard award. His newest venture, Grüner, explores the Alps, the Black Forest and all manner of obscure root vegetables and hard-wrought, herby, nearly-medicinal liqueurs and apertifs. On any given afternoon, you can watch Chris’ team in the midst of hours of preparation for that evening’s ingredients, prepared from scratch, before your check is delivered to the table in a tiny old book. It’s a nice place, and we got a chance to chat with Chris about it while he was staying at Ace New York during the James Beard Award events.
Grüner is one of our favorite places — you’ve said you hope to “create an audience for this underloved cuisine,” and you seem to have succeeded. How do the local food culture and resources influence your menu? You seem to steer clear of gimmicky takes on the Alpine meets Pacific Northwest angle.
Portland’s food community is filled with excellent purveyors and passionate farmers whose offerings inspire chefs like myself to consider the possibilities.
I want my menu to tell a story so I try to imagine the similarities between the Pacific northwest and the Alps.
The beauty of what you offer at Grüner is that it’s specific enough to create a sort of culinary fetish, in a place that is dark and dreary enough, often enough, that people are always in the market for a new food obsession. Has Grüner provided some kind of extra satisfaction for you beyond Zefiro and Saucebox, for this reason?
Yes. I knew that Grüner would be a harder sell and to watch it become successful has been rewarding. German & Austrian food isn’t inherently sexy like Italian or French.
You’ve been nominated for a James Beard award — a pretty enormous honor. Tell me about how the team of people who work with have led you to this point? Who has influenced and inspired you, and who supports you in the day to day?
Besides my mother & grandmothers, I would say my experience working at Square One restaurant in the 80’s under chef & author Joyce Goldstein was my biggest influence for food. There I watched, learned and tasted the regional cooking of the Mediterranean and the rest of the world over a five year period. The menu there changed every day so it was an enormous undertaking which was very successful. I was drawn to the sense of theatre and the fluid dynamics of an ace team of talented people enjoying what they were doing. I like to create a full experience so I’m concerned with every detail — graphic design and architecture have always been important to me and history, ephemera and links to the past. Day to day, my support team is my partner Jason, my chef de cuisine Jake Sheffield — we’ve worked together for a number of years — and my GM Yaduki is my godsend.
Last time I was at Grüner, the communal table in the back of the dining room was entirely devoted to making what looked like fresh ravioli and sausages — the ravioli was this mesmerizing tide of golden ribbons. It’s making me want to walk over and beg at the back door for some right now. What’s it like to keep the balance between running a restaurant efficiently and remaining devoted to this kind of human, handmade and authentic element of food?
I think of Grüner like a ship — it’s small but every element relates to the next so there’s no wasted space or movement. That, combined with the feeling that I don’t have to worry about who’s steering the boat means I can relax a bit more and think about the menu, which allows me to respond to the season quickly, capture the moment through tastes and textures.
The Grüner menu explores the alpine regions of Europe — who devised the spirits menu and cocktails, and how do you hope this contributes to the whole experience?
Our original bartender Shane Firstein created some amazing recipes using spirits from Germany, Austria, Croatia and the Czech Republic (our geographical boundaries also include countries on the Danube river which starts in the Black Forest and ends at the Black Sea. He thought about classic drinks and how they would be interpreted using these different but similar ingredients. The drinks were created to express a mood or feeling — we had a drink called “The Monk’s Path” which imagined what a Carthusian monk’s walk might have felt like in the forest on a warm spring day. These are the monks that make Chartreuse which is an incredibly floral and herbal liqueur.
Our original wine goddess and GM Dana Frank put together our amazing wine list and also contributed to our beginning menus.
Where are you spending your downtime in NYC?
I’ve been hanging with old friends, eating and celebrating at spots like Fatty Cue, John Dory, Buvette, Torys and ABC Kitchen. Also The Met and Cooper-Hewitt and even got to see Oregon Symphony rehearse at Carnegie Hall before I left for Paris & Strasbourg.
Please settle this once and for all — is the food better in Portland?
After spending two weeks eating in New York and Europe, I would have to say yes — the quality of ingredients and the value our smaller metropolis offers is unbeatable.