Bread & Brew: Former VQ stays true to its roots in new downtown digs
It's a major milestone, these days, for restaurants in Portland or anywhere to stay open for five or 10 years, or longer.
So when a restaurant grows to the ripe old age of 45, it's got something special going.
That was the case at the Veritable Quandary, or the VQ, as fans called it.
The iconic upscale establishment with a "Cheers"-like family vibe thrived at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge for 45 years until last year, when Multnomah County decided to build a new courthouse there.
Despite a valiant attempt to save the establishment, longtime owner Denny King ended up selling the building to the county, while loyal patrons bemoaned its loss.
Fast forward one year, and the VQ in November rose again as Q Restaurant & Bar, just five blocks away, where it still caters to many of its loyal patrons and employs much of the same staff.
In fact, it's a longtime VQ customer, Mazen Hariri and his wife, Katherine, who stepped in as an investors to ensure that the restaurant could be reborn.
"We've seen a lot of those familiar faces," says executive chef Annie Cuggino, who had led the kitchen at the VQ for 22 years before inhabiting its new space. "They come in, and it's been really heartwarming. They're so proud of us."
In its sleek, polished space — yet without the lush grounds outside — Q diners see a mix of old and new on the menu. They've kept the classics, including osso bucco, rabbit paté, seafood stew and bacon-wrapped dates.
Because there's more room in the kitchen, for a smoker and other implements, they've added a section of the menu to highlight veggie-centric dishes and smaller plates, many of them smoked.
"We want the place to be accessible," Cuggino says. "We love it when people come in and do some smaller plates, mix and match. They can spend as much as they want. We don't want to be snobby."
Dinner is the mainstay, but their weekend brunch is led by sous chef Victor Martinez, who has worked with Cuggino for at least 16 years, she says.
He's built a menu of authentic dishes from Mexico, such as a chicken and cheese-filled chile relleno, chilaquiles, a slow-roasted pork sandwich in the style of cochinita pibil, and heavenly cinnamon and sugar churros with a pot of warm Mexican dipping chocolate.
Some of the dishes work better than others, but several carry surprising depth, like the braised collard greens with housemade bacon and crispy cornbread.
A well-curated selection of local craft beers, wine and cocktails anchor each menu, especially at brunch, when the house bloody mary makes for a brilliant kick-start to the weekend.
While the 100-seat venue is large, it's split into distinct spaces for a cozy feel. The bar is bright and airy. Gold ash tabletops add a rustic touch, and a mix of stone, tile and wood accents keep the palate neutral, for good food, drink and personalities to spill over.
At the far end of the restaurant, a large wall of wine makes for a dramatic showcase. Diners can sit at the seven-seat chef's counter and give direct feedback to the people who prepare their food. And in the springtime, they hope to add a few sidewalk tables outside, and open the windows in the corner of the bar for a breath of fresh air.
This month, Q will kick off its farmer dinner series to highlight the restaurant's longstanding partners. The first is an intimate five-course dinner for 12 set for Friday, Feb. 24, with Patrick Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm, a second-generation organic farm that provides Cuggino with quinoa, garlic and potatoes.
Guests will get to hear about the farm's history, growing methods and crops. More farmer dinners will soon be announced.
"We're still carving out our new identity, but it is its own place," Cuggino says. "I think people want to feel special, and that's what we like doing. It's so rewarding when people leave happy. That's the reward."
Q Restaurant & Bar
Where: 828 S.W. Second Ave.