An alarm went off on my phone just before noon on Nov. 2, a pinging reminder to log into my computer and compete with several thousand people for one of the toughest tickets in America.
No, I wasn’t hunting for Taylor Swift tickets (though if you have an extra, don’t hesitate to reach out). Instead, I was seeking entry to Kann, celebrity chef Gregory Gourdet’s wood-fired Haitian restaurant, which opened in August after years of anticipation in Portland and beyond.
I had visited a few times already, nibbling on tender pork between sips of strawberry-red spritz at the bar one night, trading bites of coffee-rubbed beef rib for some herring-draped red cabbage with neighbors at the chef’s counter on another. But so far, I had gotten in by gaming the system — lining up before the doors opened at 4 p.m., refreshing the reservation site hourly, snagging a solo seat at the counter after the early rush subsided.
This was the first time I had played by their rules.
The first reservation I found had already been scooped out from under me by the time I clicked on the “Reserve Now” button. I had to give up a second due to a conflict with my wife’s work. First prime-time hours, then whole dates vanished like a bridge crumbling in some fantastical action movie — I leaped to secure two seats at a communal table, and landed them. By the end of the hour, most of the more than 4,000 reservations released that day were gone. The experience was humbling.
Portland has seen busy restaurants before. Reservations at Nodoguro and Langbaan have historically disappeared the day they’re announced. But those are intimate restaurants serving multi-course menus once or twice a night. Kann, by contrast, turns over each of its 80 seats — not to mention a private dining room and downstairs cocktail bar — several times a night.
In other words, Kann is unlike any restaurant Portland has seen before. And it’s one that, if you care about Portland’s food scene, past and present, you should make the effort to visit, at least once.
If you’ve spent much time in Portland, or happen to be a “Top Chef” fan, you’re probably aware of Gourdet, and might even know his backstory. Born in New York City to Haitian parents, Gourdet honed his trade in Manhattan’s hard-charging restaurant world, working most notably at the Thai-influenced restaurants of influential French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. In 2008, Gourdet moved to Portland, where he took a job at downtown Asian fusion restaurant Saucebox and, after years of drug and alcohol abuse, eventually embraced sobriety.
His profile began to rise at Departure, the 15th floor restaurant at The Nines hotel, with decor inspired by luxury travel and windows looking out over city roofs toward green hills and snow-capped mountains. Atop the old Meier & Frank department store, Gourdet was installed as chef de cuisine, tasked with developing an international menu to match the stylish decor. From there, deep runs on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef: All-Stars,” guest judging appearances and an emissarial role on the show’s Portland season and an award-winning cookbook helped cement his celebrity.
I’ll admit to not loving Departure. Save for some tasty lollipop chicken wings, the dim sum didn’t speak to me, while a Korean bibimbap “elevated” with wagyu beef, koshihikari rice, and other Japanese ingredients — seemingly ignorant of the ugly history between the two nations — could have said less. Service could be absent, or worse. And I never vibed with the Miami lounge look (though I know people who did). Fans might cite the many vegan options, creative desserts and popular Peking duck month, while noting that not every Portland restaurant should be decked in reclaimed wood, and they would have a point.
I bring that up that not to take a belated potshot at Departure, but rather to set up my bonafides. As a sometime skeptic of Gourdet’s earlier work, I can honestly say that, though Kann might not live up to the loftiest expectations created by its early press — including being named America’s best new restaurant by Esquire in November, an unprecedented honor for Portland — it’s definitely worth your time.
In this era of scrappy pop-ups and revolving-door restaurants, Kann looks like a million bucks. Maybe two. Dressed up in white and gold, with a pops of color from two works by artist Peter Gronquist, including a painting inspired by the Caribbean sunset, the dining room could serve as an Elven kingdom cafeteria in Amazon Prime’s “Lord of the Rings” show. One night, I overheard Damont Nelson, the sharply dressed general manager, joking with another staffer that a certain accessory was rose gold, not gold. That’s an attention to detail worthy of Jeff Bezos’ flaming eye.
But the excitement around Kann is also a tribute to Gourdet. The chef, who is Black and gay, has emerged as Portland’s best-known and most important chef, a surprising and welcome turn for a city that has spent the pandemic wrestling with its racist past. That includes Portland’s restaurant industry, where opportunities and funding have traditionally been granted to white chefs and white chefs alone — all six of Portland’s previous James Beard Award winners are white. Gourdet will likely change that soon.
Four years ago, Departure was the first place I tried Gourdet’s early essays into Haitian cooking. The event, which lasted nearly five hours, doubled as an announcement of his intentions to open a restaurant of his own, focused on the cuisine of his youth. The pacing was slow, but the timing was right. Across America, Black chefs were turning their attention to the African diaspora, building on scholarship to trace the path of ingredients and recipes from Africa to the Americas via the slave trade.
During 2019′s Feast Portland festival, Gourdet shared a few of those same dishes — and a stage — with some of the most prominent Black chefs in America, placing his twice-cooked griyo pork and chicken rubbed in epis — a Haitian marinade with African roots typically blending garlic, onions, citrus and herbs — in conversation with dishes ranging from West Africa to the American South. Two years later, a new version of the menu popped up at Kann Winter Village, a temporary restaurant that Gourdet and his team opened in a fleet of American Express-sponsored yurts.
Read more: Gregory Gourdet sets magical scene with Haitian dishes served in yurts at Kann Winter Village
Two years of pandemic delays have given Gourdet and chef de cuisine Varanya Geyoonsawat plenty of time to refine recipes. Over several recent meals, almost everything had improved on its previous pop-up incarnations. The griyo pork, once dry, is now juicy, with tender chunks spooned next to other totems of Haitian cuisine — avocado, fried green plantains and just enough pikliz, the spicy Haitian pickled cabbage, to tie everything together. From an early disappointment, it’s now a statement of purpose.
That epis, a frequent marinade, gets whipped here into an airy, plant-based butter for spreading onto warm, pleasantly chewy, surprisingly fluffy plantain “brioche” muffins, all served on a pink porcelain stand. Along with the pork, these muffins, shockingly good considering the lack of gluten and butter, should start every meal.
Rice is another essential. Both the diri ak djon djons, turned black and earthy from a Haitian mushroom tea, and the fluffy jasmine with its velvety red bean puree, are excellent. And I’m a fan of the akra, crispy taro fritters nestled on a pool of parsley remoulade, the edges fried into a brown latticework cage surrounding a creamy interior that reminded me of — deep cut here, forgive me — a vegan take on bitterballen, the Dutch fried gravy balls (funnily enough, Heineken, the most common bitterballen pairing, happens to own Prestige, Haiti’s most-popular lager, sadly not distributed to the West Coast).
Another staple, fried ripe plantains, were hit-or-miss in the early going, sometimes tender, sometimes firm, sometimes mild, sometimes spicy.
You can eat your way through most of the menu without even remembering that Kann is entirely gluten and dairy free. During my first meal, it only dawned on me once, when pondering a lack of flakiness in the crust of a salt cod patty.
Meat, fish and vegetables tend to be spice-rubbed, bathed in smoke in the wood-burning hearth, laid atop seductive sauces and finished with bright pickles and herbs. Depending how heavily you invested in crypto, the beef rib could be a reach at $95 (don’t trust the staff when they say you can finish it solo; it’s enough for three at least). Though not quite as jiggly-tender as the best Texas brisket, it’s definitely delicious, with a magnificent spice rub built around Haitian coffee. It’s also a valuable trade chip should you happen to find yourself next to neighbors eager to share.
Read more: Portland’s 25 best new restaurants of 2022
On the opposite end of the price spectrum, pescatarians and vegetarians will be happy with a hunk of smoked red cabbage under a curtain of glistening herring or the cauliflower in a sour coconut cream spiced with habanero ($16), a close cousin to the Scotch Bonnet frequently used when recreating Haitian dishes in America. The epis-brine chicken ($35), impressively smoky and tender in its own right, paired well with pickled plums. Fans of Departure’s duck will flock to Kann’s version ($56), a rustic leg and breast doused in cane syrup, pineapple and tamarind. If it all seems a little too sweet, you can’t say you haven’t been warned — Kann takes its name from the Haitian creole word for sugarcane.
Cocktails, from assistant general manager Erica Namare, are divided into full- and no-proof sections, and swim in similarly sweet, tropical waters. The bracing Clear Sailing is a martini variation made with sherry and Haitian rum, while the hearthfire is a spin on Portland’s favorite cocktail, the spicy margarita, made with tamarind and jerk spice. Wait, what’s that bright pink cocktail floating through the dining room? It’s either a hibiscus spritz or the frez, an N/A watermelon and strawberry shrub to which Haitian rum can be added. Desserts, from pastry chef Gabby Borlabi, who also developed the muffin recipe, might include a soursop shave ice, a pineapple upside-down cake with rum raisin ice cream (dairy free, naturally) or a charred banana tart with a thin, impressively gluten-free crust.
So what’s not to like? Not much! And some things have already improved since my first visit. I found the butterfish crudo, a crowd favorite, a little too cold under its shock of watermelon shave ice for the flavors and texture of the raw fish to shine through. The uneven plantains, a time-intensive dish requiring fruit ripening on a month-long cycle, have since left the menu. Ditto for the branzino, a whole fish overwhelmed by its smoky crust that’s since been replaced by salmon. Without butter, the cod patty crust probably won’t get much flakier.
And unlike his wellness-focused cookbook, Gourdet’s cooking here leans rich, even by restaurant standards. From rice to greens to meats, most dishes are finished with a healthy glug of olive oil. With some bites, oil can be the first and last flavor you taste. Add in fancy French restaurant levels of salt, sugar and fat — a legacy, I suspect, of Gourdet’s time with Vongerichten — and you’ll want to book a few extra hours at the gym after a visit to Kann.
After one recent meal, a friend visiting from Los Angeles described eating at Kann as “revelatory,” a sentiment echoed frequently in the national press. I haven’t had that “aha” moment here, perhaps because I’ve eaten Gourdet’s food so many times, in so many different settings. Or it could be because, on my visits, dishes were delivered without much explanation. (Did we mention this is a busy restaurant?) When the pacing is right, you might learn that the creamy collard greens with their whole pickled peanuts were inspired by a traditional preparation carried by enslaved West Africans to the Caribbean. That’s fascinating, and worth a deeper dive.
Will any of this matter to someone curious about Kann, visiting for a special occasion or traveling in from out of town, grinning at having grabbed that table for four right out from under my nose? Probably not.
And to take an even bigger step back, Kann cannot be separated from its context, with a mission that seems worthy of support. Gourdet has publicly pledged to hire a diverse staff and pay them well. And it’s undeniably uplifting to see the food of Haiti, a nation with a history of poverty and violence, ravaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters, placed on a pedestal this pretty — literally, in the case of those muffins. That’s doubly true in a city with so few Caribbean restaurants, and none approaching Kann’s level. It’s easy to see why (most) critics have been floored.
Put aside the early hype, focus on the restaurant itself, and there aren’t many places in Portland, old or new, that I would recommend eating at before Kann right now.
But first you have to get in.
Kann is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday at 548 S.E. Ash St.; 503-702-0290; kannrestaurant.com. January reservations will go live on Resy at noon on Dec. 2. If you miss out, Gourdet suggests using the site’s “Notify” function to receive alerts about cancellations, and tells me that showing up at 4 p.m., when they are at their busiest, isn’t actually a good strategy.
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