Diaspora

REVIEW: Chef Gregory Gourdet's Kann Is Portland's Best New Restaurant, with Revelatory Haitian Cooking – Portland Monthly

Portland Monthly
921 SW Washington Street, Suite 750 Portland, OR 97205
Phone: 503-222-5144 • Fax: 503-227-8777
By Karen Brooks Photography by Thomas Teal September 21, 2022
Pictured above: Kann’s cooking embraces tradition but also detours in an
imagined Haiti, watermelon shaved ice over butterfish crudo to a beastial,
Haitian coffee rubbed short rib (front right). 

The doors at Kann open at 4 p.m., and it’s instant prime time. By 4:25, the house of Gregory Gourdet—celebrity chef and people’s champ—is like a daytime rave, packed and intense, popping with joy, uplift, and spice levels that can fog your ears. Sir Victor Uwaifo, the Nigerian legend who could play the guitar with both feet as well as his tongue, is on the sound system, sending shoulders swaying. Loud? By nightfall, conversation is full primal scream. It helps to know sign language here.
With Kann, opened in early August, Gourdet aims to put his family’s Haitian food culture on equal footing in a world that has ignored it. Smoke and wood fire, tubers and soursop, and the heat of the tropics make their presence felt. But the path is not simple or obvious. 
The crew (from left): chef de cuisine Varanya Geyoonsawat, chef Gregory Gourdet, sous-chef Hannah-Ruth Wilson, and pastry chef Gabby Borlabi
Image: thomas teal
You can find tradition here. That includes diri ak djon djonpaella-like rice, steeped in a tea of Haitian black mushrooms, an inky delicacy, then crowned in buttery lima beans. Fried plantains are insane, ripened the Haitian way, over days, until super sweet and black as midnight. They’re baptized in a deep fryer, turning crackly outside and custardy inside.
But Kann also detours into an imagined Haiti—dishes conjured with West African influences, Caribbean crops and rhythms, and Gourdet’s French cooking know-how and down-to-earth elegance. That might mean a starter of watermelon shaved ice glistening over butterfish crudo, with chile-flaming watermelon juice poured on top tableside, one of the year’s great inventions. Or a labor-intensive duck lacquered in tamarind and cane syrup.
It adds up to a new food language. Everyone is welcome to the table. Gluten and dairy are nowhere to be found. Oregon seasonality is celebrated. The woman-strong kitchen staff includes chef de cuisine Varanya Geyoonsawat, a Bangkok native. And booze-free diners are put on equal footing: half of the playful cocktails are zero proof, a commitment born from Gourdet’s own sobriety
Bottom line: One of the hottest restaurants in the country right now is a Haitian restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Kann is not just the best restaurant in the city—it’s one of the most important restaurant openings in America in 2022.
The ethos is Portland—my truth, my way. But the vision is global, cosmopolitan, a place that would be at home in Miami, London, or Manhattan. At its core, Kann delivers a great experience, backed by dynamic food. But it’s also a game changer for what it means to open up a restaurant in Portland. Kann augurs a new Portland, a changing Portland. It stands for what is possible.
Kann’s signatures include warm, fresh-baked plantain muffins and griyo, Haiti’s famed dish of twice-cooked pork sided by fried green plantains and spicy pikliz cabbage.
Image: thomas teal
My ordering advice? Get all the starters, wallet and stomach permitting. No misses here. Think Damian Lillard hitting seven consecutive three-pointers.
First up, warm plantain muffins, presented on a pink stone pedestal. On the side: a mind-expanding vegan butter whipped into a frenzy with epis, the peppers, garlic, and herbs that are the backbone of Haitian cooking. Meanwhile, the kitchen’s hot, salty, crisp-crackly akra fritters put a sexy swagger in … grated taro root?
Griyo, or “twice-cooked pork,” is Haiti’s national dish, often heaped onto large trays by street vendors. Kann gives it the Instagram-ready treatment. Here, intensely seasoned braised and fried meat is colorfully arranged alongside vinegar-banging pikliz, full of shredded cabbage and possibly dragon fire, plus bannann peze, thick cushions of fried green plantains. Eat it as Haitians do—a little bite of this, a little of that, all the flavors and textures jumping off each other.
Also: pay attention to the side dishes. Gems are here, including collards as you’ve never seen them, glossed in house peanut butter and coconut cream, then topped with the pop and surprise of whole pickled peanuts. Terrific.
Bigger plates get the smoke and live-fire treatment. The massive smoked beef rib, its sides rubbed in roasted Haitian coffee, is an homage to bestial glory, jutting bone and all. At $92, it’s a feast for three. On a recent evening, Damian Lillard took one down by himself. Whole fish boasts fantastically crispy skin, though the lake of olive oil was too much for me. Glazed duck, exquisite one night, is muted the next. Clearly, the kitchen is finding its rhythm.
The sleeper revelation is the cabbage entrée, a massive wedge, its leaves full of great char and chew, like blackened cabbage leather. A vibrant African-inspired pepper sauce pools below, and the smoky herring on top calls out to Haitian breakfasts. I’ve never tasted anything like it. “As a vegetable person, this is sublime,” wails my friend Ellen. “I’m sorry to all kitchens for not respecting cabbage.”
Beer is the perfect cooler in this company, though the list is small. Kann’s focus is cocktails, and I wish they were a little more luscious against the constant thrum of spice and thrash. Best so far: the Hearthfire, a tequila-fueled ear-warmer rimmed in tingly spices, and Grenadia, a zero-proof charmer of passion fruit drinking vinegar, vanilla, and star anise cordial. The wine list is considerable, with a dozen glass options and notations on winemakers identified as Black, queer, or women-owned. 
The dessert that blows my mind? Soursop ice, with little pockets of strawberry jelly and coconut curd buried inside. The spiced Haitian chocolate mousse sounds better than it is. But the charred banana tart is a fine closing argument, flashing a vegan, gluten-free pastry crust (no easy feat) and sided by guava-habanero sorbet teetering over peanut brittle. Oh, yeah.
General manager Damont Nelson doubles as Kann’s party host in one of the city’s most beautiful rooms.
Image: Thomas Teal
The setting for all of this is the swankiest room Portland has ever seen. The place looks right out of a TV show, and it’s not The Bear. A theatrically lit kitchen occupies nearly one-half of the space, complete with gorgeous built-in white oak cabinetry and a flaming eight-foot hearth. Gourdet is not afraid to show his taste for luxe. Every inch is custom-made. Plan to spend about $80–100 … if you can restrain yourself. Never has Portland, the mythical home of rebels and anarchists, so embraced a multimillion-dollar project.
The room fills with African families, off-duty chefs, hip-hop kids, musicians. Haitian diners are flying in from DC, Colorado, even Haiti—Miss Universe Haiti has a reservation. Some Haitian diners are quietly weeping with pride. Others are just eager to experience their cooking on a grand platter, a powerful testament to resilience against the backdrop of what is happening at home.
Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale, a late-night Kann regular, sums it up perfectly: “This is the dining hall in the Portland we want to live in. People of color, all ages, vegans, even white people.”
Don’t feel bad if you can’t get in. Getting a seat at Kann right now is like landing Blazer playoff tickets. Even Congressman Earl Blumenauer bragged to me recently that he has a reservation … a month from now. Apparently having a bike and pedestrian bridge named after you is not an instant ticket to a two-top at Kann.
Every generation, one or two places comes along that change the conversation. Thirty years ago, Greg Higgins envisioned a farm-to-table future and recruited like-minded chefs to the dream. In the early 2000s, Ripe Supper Club and Le Pigeon applied the spirit of punk rock to food and inspired Portland’s DIY movement. Kann clearly joined the club the night it opened.
Kann, 548 SE Ash St, kannrestaurant.com; IG: @kannrestaurant, @gg30000 
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