In the winter of 2010, chef Aaron Barnett and sommelier Joel Gunderson opened a French bistro on Southeast Clinton called St. Jack. The restaurant served house-made pate and steak frites, magnums of Champagne circulating the restaurant now home to Jacqueline. St. Jack is now something of a grand dame of Portland dining, an Eater 38 stalwart celebrated for its glamorous plates of seared foie gras or caviar with brioche.
More than a decade later, Gunderson — who went on to become a wine buyer for more Chefstable properties, as well as a sommelier and partner at Coopers Hall — looks back on those days with gratitude. “We joke that I talked him into moving to Portland, and he talked me into becoming a sommelier and opening a restaurant with him,” he says. “That really pushed me to get into wine seriously.”
Starting tomorrow, October 26, Gunderson is getting the team back together. The sommelier and chef will open Heavenly Creatures on Northeast Broadway, pairing Burgundy and Provence blancs with Camembert on potato chips or scallops with saffron vinegar.
Heavenly Creatures is taking over the Nightwood Society space, now a 20-seat restaurant and wine bar with a private event space in the back. The food menu is not meant to be as extravagant than what can be found at St. Jack; instead, visitors will find snacks like young yellowtail tuna on toast with smoked mussel tonnato, or grilled Iberico pork with anchovy and lavender. “This is drinking food for us,” Gunderson says. “It’s these beautiful combinations that also have this comfort food register.” No dish may be a better example of such an ethos as a Camembert “Cheez Whiz,” served alongside Tim’s potato chips and dehydrated jalapeño dust.
Wines will be available as glass pours, shelves stocked with take-home bottles available for onsite drinking with a $15 corkage fee. Many of the wine list options come from small-scale and hard-to-find producers that rarely appear by the glass, including Jean-Marc Pillot of Burgundy and Pedro Parra of Chile; Gunderson is also excited about the Clos St. Magdeleine blanc that will be on the glass list when Heavenly Creatures opens. “Little over a year ago, as I started buying, purposefully stocking stuff away, I kept saying, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a heavenly creature,’” he says. “We can pour really good wine without being fussy about it.”
The space, designed by Jena Gray Gunderson (Gunderson’s wife) with the help of Buildstable, is meant to feel cozy and lightly midcentury, with coral-pink-and-white-speckled tables and a curved bar. The team wants to capture the relaxed nature of natural wine bars in Paris and Barcelona: Refusing to compromise on quality, with an open, warm nonchalance.
“I remember reading this essay collection of Seamus Heaney’s, The Redress of Poetry, and you could just tell he had this deep enjoyment of what he was talking about,” Gunderson says. “Poetry can be this high-brow thing, but he didn’t see it that way; he just really loved it. That’s sort of how I feel about wine. I want to cultivate this enjoyment around these things. That’s part of enjoying it — drawing people in.”
Heavenly Creatures will open October 26 at 2218 NE Broadway Street.