In certain ways, eating the salads at North Albina restaurant Sweedeedee kind of feels like eating an issue of lifestyle magazine Kinfolk. Piles of root vegetables arrive in gorgeous, earth-tone-glazed ceramic bowls, dropped at tables with little vases of flowers and water in stout glasses. The actual components change all the time, based on what’s in season, but they often involve some sort of chilled, previously roasted vegetable, dressed in some esoteric vinegar and a minimum $35 bottle of olive oil. Generally, there’s some sort of crunchy element — usually a nut, like hazelnut or pistachio — and before it’s served, someone at the counter removes a block of some hard cheese and grates perfect little petals on top. Watching these impeccably dressed servers shave cheese feels reminiscent of that scene in the Bear, where Ayo Edebiri says she worked at a restaurant where all she did was zest.
These salads — and, in certain ways, many items on the menu at Sweedeedee — feel less made and more curated, a combination of four or five high-quality ingredients that you should be able to replicate at home, but somehow never can (my hypothesis as to why: that $35-plus bottle of olive oil).
On paper, Sweedeedee’s salads should be an exercise in aesthetics, minimalist food dependent on fancy pantry staples. But what can I say — it works. The produce is always better than what I can find at the farmers market. The olive oil tastes the way you imagine all olive oil should taste, but barely any do. The cheese is always just a touch nutty, to play off whatever crushed nut is also in the picture.
I am, to an extent, skeptical of simplicity when it comes to cooking ideology, which has historically taken an outsized — and, at least partially, racist and classist — role in what we consider good food. Sometimes, foods described as “simple” or “refined” or “clean” really just mean “bland” or “pretentious” or “so health-conscious it sucks all the joy out of the original ingredient or dish.” This issue is especially pervasive on the West Coast, where people can develop a dogmatic loyalty to Alice Waters-esque locality in a way that diminishes any other style of cooking. But the people who can do simple food well have an understanding of how to really saturate something with flavor, sans bells and whistles.
Sam Smith, who helped reopen the restaurant post-pandemic, is one of those chefs — people saw it at Tusk, where he previously worked, but that is perhaps even more pronounced here, with an element of culinary breeziness that is really hard to miss — or dismiss.
The new(ish) Sweedeedee retains much of the energy of the original restaurant. Yes, it still has a great pastry case full of pretty tarts and cakes; yes, it still serves a lovely breakfast that can accrue a wait. But those salads — an addition after the restaurant reopened — have become the real draw. Stopping by for a happy hour glass of wine and a bowl of golden beets, Solange’s A Seat at the Table spinning behind the counter? That’s the Kinfolk-esque world I want to live in.