Framed against the steel crankwheels, lashing flames and radiant coals of the massive Infierno grill at Miller’s Guild, Jason Wilson resembles a legitimate Wizard of Oz.
The James Beard Award-winning chef looks as at-home in a butcher’s apron behind the 16-foot-long maple counter here as he does in the cozier confines of Crush, the coolly contemporary Madison Valley restaurant he opened with his wife, Nicole Wilson, in 2005. The Wilsons are partners again at Miller’s Guild, along with Jake Kosseff, operations director at Crush, and prolific Portland restaurateur Kurt Huffman.
That wood-gobbling grill is the focal point of this ruggedly chic restaurant and bar in downtown’s Hotel Max. The space was stripped to its masonry walls and rebuilt with artisanal wood and metal accents. Crown molding and clerestory windows are among the architectural flourishes. White tiles behind the granite-topped bar frame shelves of backlit wineglasses and casks of aging spirits that enhance many cocktails here.
It’s tempting to compare Miller’s Guild with Ox, a much-lauded Huffman-backed enterprise in Northwest Portland with a smaller Infierno grill. But Miller’s Guild is a flashier and more ambitious undertaking, not least because, as a hotel restaurant, it’s open from breakfast through dinner, seven days a week.
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The grill gets fired up by 11 a.m. Before then you can start the day with eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, biscuits and pastries, salads and heartier plates. The lamb cassoulet I so enjoyed — a smoky, marrow bean stew loaded with chunks of lamb shoulder leg and belly, cooked in the heart of the Infierno — just went on spring/summer hiatus.
Servers talk up the jelly doughnut. I was awed more by its size, and the startling magenta of the lemon-hibiscus glaze, than by the pastry, which was a bit tough. Give me biscuits slathered with honey butter and raspberry jam.
Pastry chef Traci Knight also crafts sumptuous desserts like cookie-dough cheesecake, chock full of chocolate and peanuts, and lemon chess pie with buttermilk-custard filling and a brown-sugar shortbread crust.
Dinner begins with her incomparable focaccia and a bowl of garlicky whipped lardo. Bread service, like the house-filtered sparkling and still water, is gratis, but you’ll pay premium prices for just about everything else you eat and drink here.
Appetizers start at $11 — too much for overcooked lamb and beef meatballs my fork couldn’t divide. But king salmon packed in a jar of crème fraîche was sublime, variously pickled, smoked and puréed, meant to be spooned over grilled toast.
Salads and vegetable sides are dual priced and designed for sharing. There was not a miss among those I sampled: charred whole radicchio smothered in a creamy Parmesan dressing; roasted cauliflower cloaked in cheddar and Gruyere; blooming, brittle fried Brussels sprouts with roasted lemon and harissa aioli; creamy-fleshed, fire-roasted sunchokes with curried yogurt.
Servers encourage sides, explaining the Infierno entrees are a la carte. But the meat and fish I had (all served sliced) weren’t alone. Roasted turnips and a gorgeous braised apple escorted a chubby Berkshire pork chop. Broccolini and spicy chickpeas with black olives and preserved lemon accompanied a stunning ahi tuna loin, seared rare.
Chopped beets embellished a lamb duo: a roulade of shoulder meat slow-cooked and finished on the grill, and a two-rib “rack.” The dish did not deliver the bang I expected for 48 bucks.
The top-of-the-line steaks here are Niman Ranch prime, dry-aged for 75 days. They weigh in at roughly 3.5 to 4 pounds. The rib-eye is $135; the New York $120. They look impressive as they cook, being mopped with “motor oil” — the heady mixture of fat and juices captured by the grill, a flavor-enhancer for many things here.
The 16-ounce choice rib-eye from Painted Hills at $62 was a big enough splurge for my budget. It was disappointingly lean and chewy, with a bitter watercress sauce. A Niman Ranch bavette steak (with tiny, crisp oven-roasted potatoes) was half the size, twice as flavorful and a mere $19 on the more affordable lunch menu.
Those “beefs” aside, there’s a lot to love about Miller’s Guild (including swing-arm lamps that customers can dim or raise above the black-walnut tables). But its price point may limit its audience. A guy sitting next to me at the counter one night looked at the menu then said to his companion: “Let’s have a few things here, then head up to Quinn’s for a sloppy Joe.”
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.