The fortuitous tale behind this dynamic—and delicious—food-and-drink collaboration
by Andrew Collins
Cathy Whims had been a finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef Northwest” award multiple times. She’d garnered glowing praise from national food magazines for her sophisticated east-side restaurant, Nostrana. But as of five years ago, one culinary dream had still eluded her. “I’d always wanted to open a great pizza restaurant,” she says.
Then one night in 2011, noted bar consultant Ryan Magarian stopped by Nostrana. “Ryan just has amazing talent and dramatic flair,” Whims says. “He’d wanted to own a place, and I’d been thinking of doing my own pizza— we just started talking, and soon a great space in the Pearl became available.”
Whims called acclaimed restaurateur Kurt Huffman, of the highly successful ChefStable group, and the rest is history: Oven & Shaker (1134 NW Everett St, 503-241- 1600) has become a favorite Portland dining and drinking destination. And now the three of them are building on their story, having opened a new venue, Hamlet, around the corner with a global artisanham theme conceived by Oven & Shaker chef de cuisine Jun Robles.
“We succeeded in making a really fun place for people to come and relax, and I feel like we did it with a lot of authenticity.”
In contrast with her other restaurant, Oven & Shaker takes a whimsical approach to dining. “I tend to be more scholarly and serious about food at Nostrana,” she says. “Here we just wanted to open a fun bar, and we wanted the pizzas and the rest of the food to reflect Ryan’s playful cocktails.” Take, for example, the Maple Pig pie, which has an apple-butter base, slow-roasted pork belly, Frenchstyle sliced ham, and a maple-mascarpone topping—it’s a nod to the bacon maple bar at Voodoo Doughnut. “It sounds kind of out there,” says Robles, “but it works.”
In this high-ceilinged, inviting space with large skylights and beautifully weathered, reclaimed wood throughout, the food is imaginative, but it’s also consistently excellent. Robles and Whims mention the spicy salami pie, finished with local honey, as another fan favorite, as well as the street-food-inspired starters, including Sicilian-style arancini (with wild mushroom risotto, smoked mozzarella, and tomato ragù) and the buffalo mozzarella plate, with hazelnuts and fig jam.
A specialty from the lunch menu, which you probably won’t see elsewhere in Portland, are the Pugliastyle wood-oven pocket sandwiches, called puccia. Whims got the idea to serve these after trying—and thoroughly enjoying—them at a food truck in Austin, Lucky’s Puccias. “We already had the oven, and we had this great dough—it just made sense,” she says. Robles recommends the meatball puccia, with provolone and “tomato butter no. 3,” made from a recipe Whims learned from her studies in Venice with the late, great chef and cookbook author Marcella Hazan.
The wise diner will save room for dessert. “We make our gelato in-house,” says Robles. “We always keep some classics on the menu, but we change things up seasonally. In summer you’ll see flavors like avocado, sweet corn, and strawberry-balsamic.”
With Oven & Shaker drawing a loyal following and Hamlet attracting plenty of buzz, Whims sounds both appreciative and satisfied. “I’m happy,” she says. “We succeeded in making a really fun place for people to come and relax, and I feel like we did it with a lot of authenticity.” •
by Kathleen Bauer
He calls it “the Big Box of Awesome.” Co-owner and Oven & Shaker bar chief Ryan Magarian is referring to the culinarily blessed quadrant bounded by NW Everett and SW Morrison Streets, between 10th and 13th Avenues. “You’ve got the tightest grouping of amazing, delicious concepts, from bars to restaurants, of anywhere on earth right now,” he says. “World-class places that people in other cities and other countries are aware of.”
And he should know. This local boy from Portland’s West Hills went to Sunset High School, earned a degree in political science from the University of Oregon, and then headed to Seattle where—en route to becoming an internationally renowned spirits and bar-program consultant—he was mentored by chef Kathy Casey and cocktail historian Robert Hess, the person, he says, “who really helped me change my thought process—from seeing the job of bartender as being about alcohol delivery to it focusing more on creating an alcohol experience. That was a shifting point in my life.”
“You take spirits and fresh, raw ingredients and—through a change in temperature and dilution— create an entirely new and hopefully delicious culinary experience.”
With this new focus and a keen eye for what works in the spirits industry, Magarian worked with House Spirits distiller Christian Krogstad to develop the distinct flavor profile of Aviation Gin. He’d been “kicking tires” with ChefStable restaurateur Kurt Huffman, on the lookout for a new place he could call his own, when it occurred to him that pizza and cocktails would make a memorable combination. A fortuitous meeting with chef Cathy Whims, who’d long wanted to open a pizzeria, inspired the team to create Oven & Shaker.
He describes what he does at this Pearl District hot spot as “liquid cooking.”
“You take spirits and fresh, raw ingredients and—through a change in temperature and dilution—create an entirely new and hopefully delicious culinary experience,” he says, adding that his goal in naming and creating drinks is to put a smile on customers’ faces. He cites the Pepper Smash as an example—it’s a revaltory blend of fresh mint, anise-flavored aquavit, lime juice, maple syrup, and the juice of a yellow bell pepper. “I want it to be fun, and I want it to be uplifting,” he says of his cocktail methodology.
It’s an approach he’s repeated at Hamlet, his new collaboration with Whims and Huffman. Magarian’s bar program emphasizes cocktails based on whiskey and fortified wines like sherry, madeira, and port.
He feels that building a restaurant with a James Beard–nominated chef like Whims represents “a quantum leap forward for Portland’s bar community. I hope that it will catch on in the industry,” he says, “and that more bartenders will team with great chefs, not just as a consultants or head bartenders, but in authentic partnerships.” •
Be sure to check out Kathleen Bauer’s expanded story and interview with Ryan Magarian, at her engaging field-to-table-focused blog, Good Stuff NW.
by Andrew Collins
“It’s really a drinking food,” says Cathy Whims about ham, that delicious edible that will play a starring role in Oven & Shaker’s porky new follow-up production, Hamlet (232 NW 12th Ave, 503-241-4009), which opened in a natty space just around the corner in early May.
Whims and business partner Ryan Magarian had long been aware that during the busy dinner rush, lines sometimes form outside Oven & Shaker. “It just seemed smart to open a place where customers can wait,” says Whims. The idea is that you stop by Hamlet for craft cocktails and snacks, and then continue on to the main restaurant for dinner—but Hamlet’s creators are perfectly thrilled if you decide to stay there for the evening.
At Hamlet, you’ll have access to some of the finest hams in the world. Whims is just back from Iowa, where she visited the famed pork producer La Quercia, and right out on the bar in the new place customers can admire a beautiful Italian slicer. “The finest hams are cut with a hand-cranked slicer,” says Whims, “so as not to burn the fat. We want the fat to melt in your mouth, not in the slicer.”
Chef Jun Robles, who studied at highly acclaimed restaurants in northern Spain, says Hamlet’s tapas-style menu will also include fresh mozzarellas, pickles, bocadillos, and other salty snacks. The stunning space with an L-shaped burnished-copper bar and striking large-format Portuguese tilework seats 40.