On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a mind-blowing concept: a seafood-focused restaurant in Portland, Oregon. But half a year after opening, Ken Norris’s Riffle NW and its catch-inspired approach—bringing fish right out of nearby waters to the kitchen—have won over tightly denimed hipsters and food critics alike. We caught up with the chef to talk Northwest cuisine, how to score fresh scales and the future of food. Hint: it involves wolf eel.
MADE MAN: You could’ve opened a restaurant anywhere in the country. Why’d you pick Portland?
KEN NORRIS: I love outerwear. Just kidding. My wife and I were ready for a change from New York. Once here, we became fascinated by the growers, the savviness of the people and all the talented chefs. One year in, we found our spot on an amazing corner in the Pearl District.
In the future, what we eat will be better. You’ll see unusual things on menus, like our wolf eel—a prized fish that used to be brought to the medicine man of the village, way back in the day.
MM: Why’d you decide to open a fish-focused joint?
KN: We’re forty-three nautical miles from the coast and close to some of the country’s biggest ports, so it’s surprising that Portland has a void in seafood restaurants. I also used to work the line with Daniel Boulud in New York, always on the seafood side. To me, it’s the most elegant and romantic position in a kitchen.
MM: Let’s say we’re at the grocery store. Steer us away from fish sticks and toward an awesome, home-cooked fillet for our new pescetarian girlfriend.
KN: Approach the fishmonger at your local market and ask what’s fresh. Good fishmongers will have a selection that’s ninety-percent whole fish. Ask to feel the texture—if you press on it and the flesh bounces back, it’s fresh. The eyes should be clear, not cloudy. Peek behind the gills—it should be bright red inside. Ask that the fish be filleted. Cook it at home and serve with a complementary side dish like summer escarole or citrus horseradish coleslaw. For a really nice touch, fry the bones separately. We do that with our sole, and serve it with a sea urchin sauce. They’re crunchy and delicate, like potato chips.
MM: The spirits program at Riffle is white-based. Why?
KN: Well, Portland is known for dark spirits and pork. Since Riffle is a seafood restaurant, we focused on white, un-aged spirits, because they don’t overwhelm the delicate flavors on the plate. It all goes back to simplicity.
MM: Speaking of simplicity, your restaurant was built with lots of reclaimed materials…
KN: Yes, even the construction was all about exposing natural materials. Riffle was originally a warehouse, and its last restaurant covered up those bones. I helped pull off giant mahogany boards from the walls myself. We reclaimed some old Douglas fir dry docks and had them resawn. You can still see the anchor holes and rivet indentations. We also converted an old elevator into a dining room.
MM: What do you see as the future of food?
KN: There won’t be so much preaching. I would never write “fresh” on my menu—it’s implied. Even the brioche on my crab roll is homemade. I think we’re trending toward Lyon 100 years ago—you have the fruit stand, farmer’s market, bakery and butcher. The farming industry will improve. Even now, I can give $300 to one of my guys, ask him to give me his best and trust I’m going to get great stuff. Buying in season will be mandatory—there are no decent tomatoes in December. Because of this careful editing, what we eat will be better. You’ll see unusual things on menus, like our wolf eel—a prized fish that used to be brought to the medicine man of the village, way back in the day, as an elder gift. And we’ll learn to eat everything—head, tail, all of it.
MM: If our readers want to know more, is there an influential resource or film that you recommend?
KN: Yes. A documentary called The Cove, about the tuna-fishing industry in Japan. It’s shocking.