After courses of chilled watermelon juice, grilled chicken hearts, and almond milk dumplings, chef Vince Nguyen, founder of the pop-up Jolie Laide, ends dinner service at his soon-to-open fine dining spot Berlu with “fruit on a cute plate” — a little sweet thing he makes for his girlfriend most mornings. “It’s a statement of intent — we’ll treat you the way I treat my loved ones,” he says, sitting in the starkly white, shockingly tiny restaurant weeks before its opening.
Nguyen is wearing what looks like expensive sweats, somehow cozy and chic, which fits his persona: he speaks softly, pausing to consider his words, focused on getting things right — “You don’t have to be loud to be impactful,” as he says. This portrait will be no shock to those familiar with his pop-up and career, built on supremely refined, minimalist plates: Nguyen is an artist with a perfectionist’s streak and some underlying eccentricities, from roasted garlic hiding in his dessert courses to the David Bowie wallpaper lining the bathroom’s walls.
After months of delays (as expected with new construction), Berlu will open June 13 in Modera Belmont, with $80 tasting menus exploring a new age of Pacific Northwestern cuisine. Similar to the other big-deal fine dining opening this year, Erizo, Berlu serves local meats and produce with crafty thoroughness; for instance, a single chicken, raised in the nearby farming community of Helvetia, arrives in five different preparations, grilling thighs glazed with charred onion and lime leaf alongside the hearts, with a chicken skin condiment and poached chicken breast. Oregon bay shrimp gets some pep thanks to Oregon-grown ginger leaf, and squid tentacles and tubes are split into two different preparations — the tubes cooked in a charcoal stock with sorrel and snap peas, and the tentacles in a smoky pork escabeche with strawberries, fava beans, and marigold. Still, not everything is quite that intricate — Nguyen loves his simple potato cooked in beeswax, which brings out its floral notes.
Nguyen didn’t grow up eating beeswax potatoes or almond milk dumplings — as a child, the chef ate a lot of TV dinners and fast food, with his dad working two jobs. He had planned to become a pediatrician until a summer job at a catering company steered him toward fine dining — he dropped out of his pre-med studies, started culinary school, and was quickly working at the Michelin-starred restaurant Providence. The chef hopped around the world, from the kitchen at the world-famous Danish restaurant Noma to Portland’s own Castagna, before beginning his pop-up, Jolie Laide. The pop-up became a hit quickly, with bewildered praise from Portland Monthly and Willamette Week — the latter called it “one of Portland’s most singular dining experiences.” Nguyen, on the other hand, just remembers the interpretive dancer he hired to dance in the middle of the meal, something he seems to feel he’s outgrown. “I’d love to do that stuff now, but there’s a maturity [to Berlu],” he says. “That’s why everything in here is so clean — but we still have the bathroom.”
Berlu will have timed seatings for reservations, which Nguyen likes — he wants control over the mood, thinking through things like the music and the placement of blankets and pillows under the seats on cold days. The meal starts with a set of snacks, with Billie Eilish playing in the dining room over things like chilled watermelon juice with bay leaf oil and potato puffs filled with fermented potato puree. The plated courses introduce dishes like the chicken and the squid, as well as a pine nut sorbet with horseradish and zucchini cooked in a rice stock with bone marrow and toasted lavender. Then, almond milk dumplings, lovage salads and frozen rose and rhubarb curd roll out of the minuscule, two-person open format kitchen as Devotchka plays over the speakers. Finally, Nguyen sends folks out with his fruit on a cute plate. “Berlu pulls from the French word herluberlu, meaning a ‘strange or eccentric person,’” Nguyen says. “I want [diners], through dinner, to better understand me.” If the plate doesn’t tip them off, the bathroom certainly will.
• Berlu [Official]
• Berlu [Reservations]
• Jolie Laide’s Minimalist Cuisine Puts the “Beautiful” in “Beautifully Ugly” [WWeek]