Just as executive chef John Conlin felt settled in to his role at the downtown Portland seafood restaurant Roe, the COVID-19 pandemic shut the restaurant down. The restaurant, perched on the mezzanine of the Morgan building, had no real outdoor space to turn into a makeshift dining room; its fine dining seafood prix fixe didn’t lend itself to takeout. So, like so many others, Conlin waited to return to the kitchen.
“I was the head chef at Roe for about two years, and I was really feeling like I was starting to hit my creative stride,” he says. “Benjamin Blank, the owner, really believed in my cooking and saw what I was capable of, so we thought about reopening it in my culinary wheelhouse, taking our time with it.”
So, instead of reopening Roe, Conlin and two other Roe alums — chef Wyatt VandenBerghe and sommelier Michael Branton — have taken over the space to open their own restaurant, Tercet.
Those Roe fans clutching their pearls can relax; Tercet won’t feel like a massive departure from the original restaurant. Some former Roe dishes have even made a reappearance on the latest menu, like a geoduck clams casino riff with speck and oyster mushrooms. However, the real defining element of Tercet is its emphasis on Oregon produce and foods, a shift away from Roe’s imported seafood and Japanese culinary inflection. Sure, Tercet will serve oysters, but ones from the Pacific Northwest; among the entrees, Conlin is swapping the big-eye tuna for Petrale sole. “At Roe, we’d get fish in from Hawaii, from Japan, from Australia — I don’t want to do that anymore,” Conlin says. “There are so many people here who grow amazing things, raise amazing things… We get a lot of tourists, staying downtown, and I want them to gain an appreciation for all of this stuff.”
The current menu also plays with flora and fauna found on land, as opposed to the heavy seafood presence at Roe. For instance, the current menu features an aged heirloom breed duck from Deck Family Farm, as well as a caramelle pasta dish with celery root and escargot. For dessert, a light whey sorbet, followed by a rich chocolate torte with a coffee creme diplomat. “Wyatt had this idea of walking around on the east side, smelling people roasting coffee, and wanted to recreate that,” Conlin says. “It has that sort of toasty, burnt flavor, he did a really great job with it.”
On future menus, Conlin is excited to play with some Oregon-raised meats, like Reister Farms lambs and guinea hogs raised just outside Hillsboro; he’s also particularly excited about the return of Dungeness crab season this winter. “All that time on the East Coast, eating those blue crabs, it was fine,” Conlin says. “But Dungeness, it has everything. It’s so amazing.”
Conlin took over as Roe’s head chef after opening chef, Trent Pierce, resigned. Conlin grew up in California, where his father owned a boutique produce shop. “Being Italian American I guess, it’s the stereotype,” he says. “We always ate really well.” He went on to cook for slow-food advocate Peter Hoffman at Savoy, and worked with Erik Ramirez (of the celebrated Llama Inn) at Nuela. “As a chef on the East Coast, I was constantly ordering things from here — the mushrooms, the salmon, fiddleheads,” he says. “I wanted to own a restaurant; that was always the dream.” Now, he does.
Tercet’s already sold out all of its seatings through the end of the year, excluding Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve; the restaurant will open up those reservations — as well as all of the January seatings — on Tock December 1.