The Woodsman Tavern
4537 SE Division St., Portland OR 97206 (map); 971-373-9264; woodsmantavern.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A simple but too-expensive burger with a contrivance that flat-out doesn't work: cheese curds in the patty instead of on top of it
Want Fries with That? They come with the burger, but they're usually undercooked
Prices: Griddle Burger, $12
Notes: Burger only served at brunch
Expectations are the bane of restaurants and the people who frequent them. We all know (and probably have lived) the story: food enthusiast reads a glowing review of an establishment or hears about a killer meal from a close friend with similar tastes, visits said establishment, and is inevitably let down by the results that failed to live up to the hype. It doesn't always happen that way, but often enough a restaurant will prove unsuccessful in meeting these perhaps-unattainable expectations.
The brainchild of Stumptown Coffee owner Duane Sorenson, The Woodsman Tavern offers diners a gorgeous eating space, all dark woods in the booths and mountainous landscapes covering the forest green walls. Former Olympic Provisions (another recipient of a "Best New Restaurants in America" list, this time from Forbes) chef Jason Barwikowski helms the kitchen here, which is getting a lot of praise around town for its seafood and shellfish.
Eyeballing the description of the Griddle Burger on the menu, the corners of my mouth crept steadily up into a dopey grin: Tillamook cheese curds, pickles, and mustard, that's it. No excess greenage or potentially clashing ingredients, just the basics. Granted, cheese curds aren't found on the average burger, but this is still cheese we're talking about here. I balked at the $12 price tag but figured if they could knock it out of the park with so few components, it'd be worth parting with a dozen greenbacks.
Long story short, this was no home run. The burger I was served was completely fine but nowhere near close to one worthy of breaking the $10 barrier.
For starters, you may have noticed from the photo heading this review that there are no cheese curds on the burger. That's because they're blended into the patty itself. Okay, I thought, maybe this will be like those cheese-filled hot dogs I loved when I was a kid. A gooey, cheesy surprise awaits me inside! Nope. Aside from a single delicious patch of griddle-crusted cheese on one side of the patty (see photo above), there was no visual confirmation of the presence of the curds anywhere on or in the burger. Not only could I not see the cheese, I couldn't taste it, either.
The patty, one of the most marvelously tender ones I've eaten lately, lacks a strong beefy presence. No one I asked at the restaurant knew what cuts of beef are used, and none of my e-mails were returned, so for now it seems they're keeping that information under wraps. I do know that while the patty is seasoned with salt and pepper, its flavors are curiously muted. Perhaps the inclusion of the cheese curds is responsible for dialing down the overall beefiness. Conversely, it's possible that the cheese curds are responsible for the patty's incredible tenderness. Regardless of the texture, the meat should be more flavorful than this.
What does come through loud and clear, however, are the mustard and pickles. In fact, the acids in this pair completely dominate the burger. The Woodsman Tavern's Griddle Burger perfectly illustrates why it is just as easy to go overboard with mustard as it is with ketchup. There's not even a tremendous amount of mustard here, but it's enough to cloak the beef almost totally in a veil of that familiar "yellow" bite of French's or Gulden's. If the beef had come across more assertively, this wouldn't have been as much of a problem. As for the pickles, they weren't anything special, bringing a strong vinegar profile to the burger and little else.
Best part of this burger? The bun, actually. It's studded with sesame seeds and has a very nice chew to it, along with a mild buttery presence. This could hardly be called a juicy burger, so the bun had no trouble holding up to its relatively small payload.
Fries were a big letdown. A little longer in the fryer might have saved them, but as served to me they arrived anemic and limp. At least they were decently salted. They came with a ramekin of mayo and sriracha, and mixed together it made for a palatable but overly spicy fry sauce that won't be giving ketchup a run for its money anytime soon.
For all I know, The Woodsman Tavern may very well be one of the ten best new restaurants in America as GQ says it is. It's just painfully clear that the burger had little to do with achieving that accolade. (Full disclosure: I've only tried the weekend brunch, which is the only time the restaurant's burger makes its appearance on the menu.) I think the obvious solution here is to get the curds out of the patty and put them where they belong: on top of the meat. Then cut the price by four bucks. As it stands, there's an outpost of Little Big Burger not seven blocks away serving a $3.75 cheeseburger that blows this one out of the water.