Executive Chef Sara Woods leads the charge in both the kitchen and the design, and she's brought a stable of female talents along.

By Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson
November 06, 2019
John Valls

What's better than finding a restaurant with incredible food? Finding one that's also beautiful. Each week our editors spotlight one of the most stunning eateries around the country, showcasing how inspired interior design can enhance the dining experience. Follow along with Dine + Design to see where we go next.

The nickname "Stumptown" has aged well in parts of Portland. Once used to describe the city's landscape after it had been ravaged by the timber business, it now serves as a reference point for the décor at places like Vaux, a seasonal contemporary restaurant opened inside Canopy by Hilton Portland Pearl District hotel in August.

"We're trying to draw the outdoors in, because it's such a defining characteristic of Portland," says Vaux's Executive Chef, Sara Woods, who worked with the design team to incorporate ample amount of plants into the décor, alongside metals in brass and rose gold tones, warm woods, and leather. "This is Portland, the Pacific Northwest, and it's gray a lot, so we wanted something that was very comforting and cozy and warm, and green," she says. Soft surfaces are covered in fabrics from the iconic Oregon institution Pendleton Woolen Mills, who pull inspiration from Native American designs and Pacific Northwestern patterns, shapes, and colors you'll find in the landscape, Woods explains. "It's very geometric...it feels very of the space and of the land."

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And though Portland at large served as her muse—both for the décor and the menu—it's the city's arts district that helped drive home Vaux's industrial vibe. "When we were deciding on the restaurant design, that was always forefront in our mind: This is not just the Pacific Northwest, not just Portland, but the Pearl District. Before it was the arts district, it was warehouses. [We thought] how do we bring in that industrial and artistic personality and point of view?"

To start, Woods and the design team commissioned custom art from gallery owner and Vaux neighbor Elizabeth Leach. Leach not only curated all of the art in the hotel's public spaces—primarily composed of original pieces by local artists—but the prints in every guest room as well. "The goal is always to be local, to be a reflection of the neighborhood that we're in," Woods says.

Another goal: "To make it a space where nothing is too heavy or too delicate," but rather, a very even balance of each element, she adds. That comes through in the menu as well, which, at its heart, is rooted in a traditional French technique (the focus of Woods' training). "I try very hard to hit that balance of refined, but not overly delicate or dainty."

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One of Woods' favorites is a braised short rib served with crispy spaetzle, parsley, and pickled shallots. "It's perfect for that rainy Portland winter, but it's not completely a guilty pleasure," she says. Keeping the dining experience at Vaux approachable also means that there are always at least two staples on the rotating menu: chicken in some form, and a selection of pizzas, including one topped with prosciutto, red onion, and arugula. A late-night happy hour—from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.—offers an opportunity to throw a few unexpected dishes like Cuban nachos into the mix, while shining a spotlight on "bar maven" Hayley Miller's creations, including perennial favorite La Perla, her take on a spicy margarita sweetened with Jacobsen's hot honey.

Unlike the décor, it's hard to distill the essence of Portland into one or two quintessential notes or dishes, "because it's grown so quickly in the last 10 to 15 years," Woods explains. "You have people from all over the country and the world coming in and bringing their influence." There is, however, smoked salmon—"that's a huge deal here, going back to the first nation of people who really pioneered smoking salmon in the U.S.," Woods notes—the wine and beer list, which is all made in Oregon, and Vaux's tuna (find it in the tuna salad and tuna melts), which comes from a local purveyor who buys an entire year's worth of Oregon albacore catch from one fisherman, cans it, and sells it to the restaurant. "Most of the rest of the country doesn't know this, but Oregon albacore is a phenomenon. People go nuts for it...we eat it as crudo, it's beautiful seared, it's this really amazing product that doesn't really travel outside of the state—probably because we eat it all," Woods says.

She herself became somewhat of a local phenom when she took the helm at Vaux, becoming the only female Executive Chef at a downtown hotel in Portland. "It's a really great city to be a woman in this industry," she says, reflecting on her decision, like many other chefs, to call Portland home, and revealing a local secret that, unlike the tuna, is starting to make its way well beyond state lines.

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