Back in March, when coronavirus started to shut down restaurants across Portland, chef Vince Nguyen — who had opened his first restaurant, minimalist tasting menu spot Berlu, in June — decided to try a bento box style takeout option. It didn’t last a week.
“I decided after the first day, it was just all too soon,” Nguyen says, four months later. “The right precautions hadn’t been taken, it just wasn’t safe. We ended up doing it two more days and then we stopped.”
Instead, Nguyen has been playing around in his own kitchen, waiting, brainstorming. When he realized that coronavirus wouldn’t be subsiding anytime soon, he decided to come back — but instead of going with a casual takeout model, the way many fine dining spots across the country pivoted, he would instead try to figure out a way to create a takeout tasting menu.
“What separates a tasting menu’s food from other restaurants is the delicate nature of it; that doesn’t lend itself to takeout,” Nguyen says. His solution: prepping food 95 percent of the way, letting customers plate dishes themselves at home and, in some cases, finish up dishes with a quick sear or a few minutes in the oven. Customers pre-order two-person, eight-course meals, with instructions, for $85; on Wednesdays, Nguyen releases an instructional video via Instagram, showing diners how to sear proteins, plate dishes, and time things out. Then, customers can either pick up their dinners on Saturdays or nab one of the very few delivery slots, dropped off by Nguyen himself.
The restaurant’s first takeout menu has the benefit of being a summer menu; that means many of the dishes are served chilled anyway. A starter of cucumber juice with fig leaf can basically just go in a glass; a tomato-and-beet dish should just be scooped out of a container, dotted with lavender, and finished with tomato water. Most of the dishes on the menu — crab with chanterelles, grapes, and basil; bay shrimp with corn and pickled rose — just need to be assembled on a plate. The only dish that ends up getting “cooked” is a seared albacore loin, thrown in an oven for three minutes or fewer.
Nguyen’s thought is that, by allowing people to plate the meal themselves, the dishes will maintain their integrity, not wilting or collapsing or growing soggy in a takeout box on the drive home. Plus, he thinks people generally enjoy the process of plating as a creative outlet. For instance, last month, the chef did a one-night fundraiser for the Black Visions Collective, offering a takeout bún chả and donating 100 percent of the proceeds to the Black justice organization. “Even the bún chả, people were transferring into very nice bowls and plates,” he says. “They wanted to make it as elegant as possible.”
Another hurdle for Nguyen has been packaging — he has felt particularly hesitant about going with the to-go model, worried about the increase of takeout packaging’s impact on the environment. Instead, Nguyen will be packaging the full meal in reusable takeout containers from the sustainable takeout app Go Box; he’ll be absorbing that cost, but hopes that customers return the containers to Berlu or any of Go Box’s drop sites. “I’m putting a lot of trust in the diner,” Nguyen says. “I think my clientele are the kind of people that are... more willing to do something like that — return a container.”
Berlu at Home begins this week; orders can be made on Tock.
• Berlu [Official]
• Order Berlu at Home [Tock]
• Berlu [Instagram]
• New Minimalist Fine Dining Spot Berlu Opens June 13 [EPDX]