Doug Adams, the chef behind one of downtown’s hottest new dining rooms, doesn’t describe Bullard as a celebration restaurant. Still, meals there feel celebratory: giant platters of meat, piles of tortillas, old-school steakhouse dishes like carpaccio and baked Alaska. Adams is right, however; as royal as it looks arriving on a platter, split and well-garnished, one of the Top Chef alum’s star dishes is a plain-old smoked chicken with guacamole.
“I just try to cook the food that I like to eat, and my favorite meals are when I’m with a bunch of friends and I’m sharing,” Adams says. “A good downtown restaurant should have a great pork chop and a great bird. It’s hard to do simple dishes well.”
The restaurant, while long anticipated, is still new, exactly two months old. Its first review came out Tuesday in Willamette Week, in which notorious curmudgeon Michael C. Zusman gives the restaurant a rare thumb’s up, writing “Bullard’s one-of-a-kind menu is both conceived and executed to the high standard of a laser-focused stand-alone establishment, a feat all the more remarkable given the many opportunities for distraction during its two-and-a-half-year slog from announcement to reality.” He likely won’t be the only critic to deliver a review; Portland Monthly’s Karen Brooks has been spotted in the dark dining room on more than one occasion. All the while, photos of its hulking beef ribs, its loaded carpaccio, and humble chicken continue to reappear on Instagram feeds at an alarming rate.
Everyone has a theory for why Bullard resonates: It’s incredibly personal, one of Adams’ first opportunities to speak alone as a chef. The menu’s ability to incorporate his Texan heritage with an Oregonian mentality has charmed Portland, a city that loves culinary out-of-towners (Paley’s Place, Mae, etc.). Adams breaks rules like other local legend Gabriel Rucker, serving shrimp and grits on a block of polenta and piling carpaccio with cheese and flakes of fried potato. The dining style alone feels both new and familiar — any given meal is centered around large-format plates, allowing diners to eat with their hands, ripping tortillas and pinching pickled peppers for DIY tacos. It’s messy and refined, casual and festive, Texan and Oregonian, and its deafening buzz isn’t going away anytime soon.
Below, take a look at the dishes that encapsulate what defines Bullard. Adams is still tweaking and changing dishes — its pork belly, for instance, just got a twist, and the chef just swapped alba truffle for candied ginger ice cream in his root beer float — but these dishes will likely remain as stalwarts as Bullard ages.
The beverage program at Bullard is handled by Daniel Osborne, a Teardrop Lounge and Expatriate vet. In general, Osborne and Adams wanted the menu at Bullard to focus on classics, with various versions of old fashioneds and whiskey sours. The set of picklebacks is a nod to the Woodsman Tavern, where the two worked before it closed last year: A flight of three comes with Henry McKenna bourbon and spicy turmeric pickle juice, Krogstad Aquavit and Scandinavian spiced pickle juice, and Banhez mezcal with charred corn and smoky pepper pickle juice. “Bullard is high-brow and low-brow,” Osborne says of his picklebacks. “I wanted to take something that’s often gross to people and elevate it.” Pickled peppers appear on plates, as well; Adams uses a combination of jalapenos, fresnos, and sweet Walla Walla onions preserved in apple cider vinegar, mustard seed, and turmeric.
Adams’ carpaccio is likely one of the menu’s best examples of his culinary background: He learned his carpaccio fundamentals while working at the now-closed Metrovino and Imperial, but his version is a far cry from either of those restaurants’ dishes. The carpaccio starts with Mishima ranch wagyu eye-round, which is rubbed with salt and pepper and cold-smoked for 30 minutes. It’s topped with thin sticks of slow-fried potato, which is tossed in dehydrated tomatillo husk for “funk,” in Adams words. It’s finished with freshly shaved smoked cotija, as well as a few fresnos and jalapenos quick-pickled in lemon juice. “A downtown restaurant should have carpaccio. There’s something so classic about it,” Adams says. “The more I started playing with it, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to do a straight-up Tex-Mex dish.”
Shrimp and grits
While Bullard is known for hearty meat dishes like its beef rib and pork belly, the restaurant’s shrimp and grits is an underrated, small-ish plate that exemplifies its iconoclastic style. Instead of using a bed of soft grits, Adams rests his shrimp on a brick of Bob’s Red Mill polenta for textural contrast — “polenta is so Portland,” in his words. The standout is its chile butter, which uses ancho, pasilla, and guajillo chiles as well as smoked garlic; the restaurant is heavy on the smoked aromatics in most dishes. The shrimp are seared with that butter and white wine, as well as a dose of lobster stock for body. The grits act as a sponge for the butter.
San Antonio Chicken
Although any of the restaurant’s plates “from the smoker” are prime examples of what Bullard’s about, the restaurant’s San Antonio chicken remains one of Adams’ favorites. “I really wanted a smoked bird in this restaurant,” Adams says. “I loved the idea of a dry brine and a super flavorful guajillo marinade on it. It reminds me of the pollo asada places in Texas.” The chicken is dry-brined for 24 hours, before it’s marinaded with rehydrated guajillo chiles, garlic, fish sauce, orange juice, and lime juice. The birds are smoked low and slow, before they’re finished in the broiler for crackly touches of skin.
Like almost all of the restaurant’s smoker dishes, the San Antonio chicken arrives with pickled peppers and house flour tortillas. The tortillas are a recipe developed by Adams and his chef de cuisine, Ricky Bella. “They should have a little chew,” Adams says. “It’s a balance of the fluffiness but also enough chew that it doesn’t feel like a flatbread or super flaky.” An ideal bite includes a touch of the chicken, a smear of guacamole, and a pickled pepper or two, wrapped in one of the restaurant’s tortillas. Nothing fancy — just a simple dish done really well.
• Bullard [Official]
• With Bullard, Transplanted Texan Doug Adams Finally Gets to Prove He’s for Real [WWeek]
• All previous Bullard coverage [EPDX]