Diaspora

Kann is Portland’s 2022 Restaurant of the Year – OregonLive

Chef Gregory Gourdet tastes food in the open kitchen of his Haitian restaurant, Kann, in Portland on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.Vickie Connor/The Oregonian
Open Kann’s glossy, leather-bound menu and you’re faced with the western outline of the Caribbean Island that the Spanish called La Española. The indigo-colored image is meant to orient you in Haiti, the country that inspired chef Gregory Gourdet’s extraordinary new wood-fired Southeast Portland restaurant. But it’s also reminiscent of the hand-drawn maps found at the beginning of fantasy novels.
Unless you walk in blindfolded, you might think this is by design. At Kann, our 2022 Restaurant of the Year, Gourdet has built a fantasia, with white walls, gold and cobalt blue accents, abundant house plants, a painting evoking the Caribbean sunset and a James Turrell-esque LED inset glowing from the high ceiling. Fizzy pink cocktails sail through the room on golden trays. In a time of roving pop-ups and bootstrapped restaurant openings, it’s the most impressive dining room Portland has seen in years.
But there’s more to Kann than looks. Behind the chef’s counter cutting through the room, Gourdet and his team conjure a near-mythical vision of Haitian cuisine, with dishes traditional and imagined alike charred beautifully on the kitchen’s roaring hearth. Here, taro root fritters, braised-then-fried griyo pork and soursop shave ice make a persuasive argument that Caribbean food deserves as much respect from Portlanders as French, Italian, Japanese or Thai.
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Consider the spicy collard greens in peanut cream, a preparation brought to the Americas by enslaved West Africans. Consider the diri ak djon djon, a bowl of tender rice and lima beans tinted black from an earthy Haitian mushroom tea. Consider the clairin, the small-batch Haitian rhum that deserves to be talked about alongside mezcal. Consider the beef rib rubbed with a blend of Haitian coffee and spices, smoked until the edges form a shimmering bark, sliced on the bone and showered with pickles and herbs. Kann creates a world where Haiti didn’t just give us the very concept of barbecue — “barbacoa” being a Spanish transliteration of the native Taíno word — but innovated a modern Caribbean meat-smoking tradition that’s the envy of the world.
Since opening in August, Kann has become the most heavily decorated restaurant in Portland history, praised by the New York Times the month after it opened, named America’s best new restaurant by Esquire in November and currently cleaning up with local awards (including this one). A James Beard win — for Gourdet as the best chef in the Northwest — or two — for Kann as America’s best new restaurant — could follow next year.
Gregory Gourdet's Haitian restaurant, Kann
Gourdet’s many fans might connect the menu map with the chart work mural of fantasy islands wrapping the dining room at downtown’s Departure, where Gourdet worked for a decade while making deep runs on “Top Chef.” Only this island is very real. It’s the place his parents were born, where he lived briefly as a boy, and home to the flavors that inspired Kann. For a country with a tragic history often beset by disasters both natural and man-made, the restaurant’s recent accolades have given Haiti a chance to appear in headlines that don’t involve hurricanes or coups.
The awards are a recognition that Kann, the latest Black-owned restaurant to trace the roots and branches of the African diaspora through its cuisine, has effectively nailed its ambitious goals. But they’re also a tribute to Gourdet, who is Black, gay and, after watching his star rise like a rocket, now Portland’s best-known chef. And he did it as a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, a region that has not always celebrated — or given equal opportunity to — non-white chefs. (Still, is it a little funny that New York critics had to fly to Portland to be blown away by Haitian food? Perhaps.)
With such unprecedented success comes impossibly high expectations for those able to navigate the restaurant’s cutthroat monthly reservations drop. So let’s break the spell for a second: Kann is a real restaurant, not a fantasy. Don’t expect perfection. The room might look like a fancy Copenhagen restaurant, but at its heart, Kann is more rustic than typical Michelin-star bait, with habaneros by the handful and herbed oil by the drum. It’s loud, impossible to get into, and service and spice levels have varied in the early going.
But Kann has also improved each month. On a recent return visit in December, dishes that weren’t working — the stodgy salt cod patty, the inconsistent plantains — were gone. The skinny, ashen sea bass too, replaced by a big hunk of fatty salmon charred mid-rare and laid in a meadow of edible flowers. Major upgrade. Gourdet seems to listen to criticism, when appropriate, and react swiftly, an impressive trait in an ego-driven business. (His love of salt, sugar and oil — a legacy, I suspect, of his time working at the New York restaurants of French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten — is probably here to stay.)
Gourdet could have opened a Haitian version of Eem, the Thai-Texas barbecue mashup that was our 2019 Restaurant of the Year, only with Scotch Bonnets instead of Bird’s Eye chiles, and Kann still would have been a hit. We’re glad he shot the moon, if only for the akra, the taro root fritters fried to a gorgeous brown latticework. And for the surprisingly fluffy plantain muffins with their plant-based butter whipped with the aromatic Haitian spice blend epis. For the meats marinated in that same epis, then given a gorgeous char on the hearth. And for the stunning soursop shave ice with its grape jam and coconut cream. (And here is where we mention at last that Kann is entirely gluten- and dairy-free.)
The entrance to Kann, our 2022 Restaurant of the Year.Vickie Connor/The Oregonian
During an early November visit, after I happened to spot a reservation online for one, I squeezed into the long chef’s counter next to a couple whose joy was impossible to ignore. He was from Trinidad, but lived in Toronto; she was a Seattleite with an aversion to gluten and dairy. We soon traded bites, a few slices of my beef rib in exchange for a piece of their epis-brine chicken and a splash of sparkling rosé. But the murmurs of delight didn’t begin until I ordered the pineapple upside down cake, and offered to share.
It’s illuminating to see a restaurant through someone else’s eyes. A meal at Magna last year with an old friend helped me see the value of the community chef Carlo Lamagna had built, and further appreciate the food, solidifying that restaurant as our 2021 Restaurant of the Year. And here were two people for whom Kann was practically tailor-made.
For her, Kann was a rare chance to indulge without worrying about after effects. For him, nostalgia was at play: The sweet pineapple cake and its coconut-based rum raisin ice cream reminded him of desserts he had eaten in the Caribbean growing up. Dessert turned a meal they were clearly enjoying into one they might never forget.
They weren’t concerned about Kann’s larger meaning, its impact on Portland’s restaurant scene, or whether there might be another couple waiting outside for their seats. After finishing the cake (with my blessing), he asked for another scoop of ice cream, then dug in with a moan.
What to order: Akra, plantain muffins, griyo, peanut greens and diri ak djon djon to start. If you’re in a group of three or more, tackle the tender smoked beef rib and its $95 price tag. But the kitchen also showers love on less expensive mains such as epis-brine chicken, grilled red cabbage and herring or the cauliflower in sour coconut cream. If there’s still room, pineapple upside down cake; if not, soursop ice.
Details: Kann is open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday at 548 S.E. Ash St., 503-702-0290, kannrestaurant.com
Read more:
Portland’s best new restaurants of 2022
Kann is unlike any restaurant Portland has seen before
Portland’s Kann named America’s best new restaurant
An expert’s guide to getting into Kann, with or without a reservation
Kann, ‘Top Chef’ star Gregory Gourdet’s first restaurant, aims for late spring opening
— Michael Russell; mrussell@oregonian.com
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