The scent of freshly caught Chinook salmon, being delicately smoked on top of a cedarwood plank, is enough to make anyone tap into their inner otter tendencies. Throw in a pot of of butter clams, plucked just a few hours ago from the pristine water a few feet away, gently bubbling away in a cauldron full of white wine and chorizo on top of smoldering alderwood, and you may wonder whether you've died and gone to the highest grade of seafood heaven.
But this isn't heaven: You're just chilling at The Schooner Restaurant & Lounge in Netarts Bay, Oregon, an un-touristy, rainforest-lined piece of the Pacific Northwest coast. If you are a fan of seafood, you are about to have one of the most memorable meals of your life, but you would have never guessed it by the look of this humble seafood shack.
I am standing next to its chef and founder, Tommy Flood, on the restaurant's patio on an extra-dreamy and sunny Thursday afternoon. Taking very deep breaths of the salty, piney air mixed with the haunting aroma of cooked seafood, I can't seem to get my eyes off of that salmon, which is wrapped with braided leeks to ensure it stays moist.
Flood then carefully unwraps a corner of that nine-pound fillet as if he were untucking a small child to give me a peek of its rosy flesh. "It's about ready," Flood says, going by the opaqueness of the fish.
He serves me the biggest slice imaginable—as is. No potatoes, no salad, no veggies. Just salmon. My inner otter is unleashed.
What brings me to Schooner's is a desire to get to know what exactly constitutes the Pacific Northwest style of preparing seafood, a style that doesn't get as much love as the lobster rolls and fried clams of the East Coast. Naturally, this is a task that requires me to consume my body's worth of clams, crabs, oysters, salmon, IPAs, wine, and cider—the building blocks of Oregon's coastal cuisine.
I have been to the usual suspects of Oregon's coast: Cannon Beach, Seaside, and Rockaway Beach. But for some reason, it has taken me way longer than it should have to make the 90-mile commute from downtown Portland to Netarts Bay. (I will admit that I was completely starstruck when I drove by Jacobsen Salt's harvesting facilities on the way to Schooner's, by the way.)
It turns out that the answer to this question is a whole lot simpler than I thought. The Pacific Northwest cooking approach doesn't really have any signature items. Instead, it is a constantly evolving cuisine that values things like menu sourcing transparency, and it completely reflects personal relationships with local fishermen and farmers. Lastly, it is a cooking style that mandates that you do more than just tune in with nature.
In a nutshell: It's technique-driven, stubbornly fresh seafood with Portland-level ingredient consciousness.
For Flood and his restaurant, this means having to go with the flow and change the menu on a whim if your salmon-monger calls you and tells you that they only caught four fish today and it's not worth the drive for him. "You can't just go with a big-box retailer here because people will know the quality difference right away," Flood says to reinforce this sentiment. Another example is how Flood communicated with Nevør Shellfish Farm, a local oyster farmer up the bay, to secure a couple dozen butter clams, a type of slightly chewier clam native to the area that was once only used as bait. This wasn't Flood's first choice—he wanted razor clams—for the menu today but you wouldn't be able to tell by how amazing it tastes. "Netarts Bay is bountiful with seafood, but must not be overfished. The locals respect this." Maybe this is why the Oregon coast is sometimes called the people's coast, and why the fish that Flood uses for his fish and chips is black rock cod line-caught by the local dory boats.
This approach trickles down to everything else on the menu. Flood only buys cows from 4-H farms in Oregon. "Only two people touch my salad greens—my farmer, and me," he says. Flood also talks to his "egg guy" every week to find out the state of eggs for the following week. When you are the restaurant, you can see this Oregon-style dedication to food for yourself on a board by the kitchen that lists the suppliers they work with. To date, 80 percent of Schooner's menu is sourced within Oregon.
With this amount of steadfast dedication, I don't understand how Oregon-style seafood has gone this long without getting the national attention that it deserves. Oh well, that just means more butter clams for me and the locals.