Your next hamburger might be cooked by a poet. Or perhaps by someone who thinks like one.

Someone like Nicholas Nappi, executive chef and co-owner of Black Cow Burgers in Portland’s Old Port neighborhood. He may not be a writer by trade, but when he reflects on his own style of cooking, he’s all about the poetics of experience.

Recently a chef de cuisine at Local 188, as well as a cook at Eventide and Hugo’s, he views the creation and planning of meals as puzzles like the ones poets face when they build interlocking phrases and stanzas.

When it comes to more upscale, refined cuisine, “it’s like trying to write a sonnet, where the language of the dish is very flowery. You could have fava beans in three applications just to hold up a protein that’s the star, but maybe the interesting part to me might be a saffron gelee. I have to solve that problem to bring it all together,” he said. “Whereas with something like a cheeseburger, the definitions that people understand are very strict. It’s just a bun, cheese, condiments. It’s like writing a haiku.”

There’s more to Nappi’s analogy than he realizes. The brevity of Black Cow’s menu – it spans around 13 permanent items, depending on the season – creates a tight, metrical form and structure to the meals that emerge from the kitchen. Keeping the restaurant’s menu focused is smart, in part because it means that diners can quickly grasp the restaurant’s overarching theme: nostalgic takes on classic burger shop food prepared from scratch.

The menu’s narrowness also reveals Nappi’s confidence. Long, rambling menus are for restaurants that don’t understand their strengths, their customers or their culinary perspective (and sometimes, all three). Paring things down makes a clear statement that you know both what you’re doing and what diners want to eat.

But a tight menu also leaves nowhere to hide. When your restaurant offers a dozen or so dishes, every single one must be unvaryingly great. In the end, the confidence of concision must be backed up by rock-solid execution.

Unfortunately, over the course of two recent visits to Black Cow, that is not what I found – at least, not consistently. I sampled everything on the food menu and seven of the restaurant’s cocktails and soda-fountain-inspired beverages, sometimes ordering the same item twice to see how it changed from day-to-day.

Desserts were very good both times. In particular, the lush-and-custardy, house-made ice creams in the peanutty Tin roof sundae ($7), which my guests and I ordered with scoops of chocolate, peanut butter and vanilla, as well as the banana split ($7) with peanut butter, vanilla and banana ice creams. I’d happily order either again, especially on a hot day, when eating something cold while looking out of Black Cow’s picture windows onto Post Office Park seems like an ideal way to make it through a muggy afternoon.

Later, when I sampled the banana ice cream in one of the restaurant’s intentionally thin milkshakes (all $7), I lost the subtle banana flavor entirely. But it’s hard to fault a milkshake, especially when its cousins, the peanut butter and chocolate shakes, were both excellent, with just the right amount of milk to keep them loose and slurpable.

As much as the shakes achieved exactly the right texture and density, the tomato soup with smoked ricotta ($7) needed some work. One my first visit, the soup was as thick and viscous as over-churned soft-serve. I stuck a knife into the center of the too-sweet, lukewarm concoction, and there it remained, unmoving and embedded like a plastic Excalibur for the next hour. Fortunately, on my next visit, the soup was much more fluid, with a fresh tartness and fully expressed smoked ricotta flavor.

“With something like a cheeseburger,” says chef Nicholas Nappi, “the definitions that people understand are very strict. It’s just a bun, cheese, condiments. It’s like writing a haiku.”

Salads were similarly hit-or-miss … mostly miss. The best of the three was a pleasant iceberg lettuce wedge salad ($10), drizzled with a tangy bleu-cheese dressing and strewn with pink pickled onions, toasted bread crumbs and discs of shaved radish. Less impressive was the fried chicken salad ($11) – a slapdash affair with chunks of a leathery fried chicken patty mixed into chopped iceberg lettuce and drowned in honey-mustard dressing. But the worst of the bunch was a pickled salad ($8) featuring more iceberg tossed with sweet ranch dressing and a giardiniera-like assortment of harsh pickled cauliflower, fennel and cucumber. It was a sloppy, soggy mess that soaked through its paper serving boat within 10 minutes.

Some of that sharpness should have found its way into the tartar sauce that accompanied the under-salted, panko-breaded fish sticks ($8) that my guests found too greasy, and which tasted like stale fryer oil.

So too, my first experience with Black Cow’s french fries ($5). They were cooked to a dark and brittle texture and seasoned with just the faintest implication of salt. On my second visit, however, the fries were pretty fantastic: fluffy and hot inside, crisp outside, and well-seasoned. They tasted like an upgraded version of fast-food, just as Nappi intended.

Inconsistent frying was also to blame for two very different bowls of Brussels sprouts in smoked mustard vinaigrette ($8). The first time, they were bitter, blackened and interred in a wilted mound of limp red onions. When I ordered them again, they were espresso-brown and balanced nicely by still-crunchy pickled onions that lent a sweet-tart buoyancy to the dish.

On that second visit, I also tried two of Black Cow’s homemade sodas – both summery and refreshing – an allspice-forward caramel spice soda ($3) that tasted like seltzer haunted by the ghost of a bittersweet chai latte; and a floral, electric-yellow mango-saffron soda ($5) with reddish threads of Spanish saffron bobbing in the tingles of effervescence.

Yet when it comes to drinks, cocktails are where Black Cow really shines. That makes sense when you recall that the restaurant is the reincarnation of Sonny’s Bar and Lounge, a Latin-esque cocktail bar that both establishments’ co-owners, Jay Villani (Local 188) and Garry Bowcott, shuttered last December 31st.

Take the Murtaugh ($12), a sophisticated sipper (named for a Danny Glover character) that layers maple, cream, lemon and smoky mezcal. Or the When Doves Cry ($10), a bittersweet and ferociously peppery cocktail made with Campari, grapefruit, ginger and chili-infused tequila. Both are exceptionally good.

And what about the sandwiches and burgers? The answer probably won’t surprise you: It depends.

The fried chicken sandwich ($9), made with the same deep-fried, all-thigh patty used in the chicken salad, was tough and a little bland both times I sampled it. The Slushburger ($8), Black Cow’s much drier version of a sloppy joe, was crumbly and a little greasy, even though my guests and I loved the sledgehammer blows of umami it delivered with every bite.

Then there’s the only vegetarian sandwich option on the menu: a grilled cheese ($6). Before I tasted it, I figured it was just a cop-out, a cheap substitute for the conspicuously absent veggie burger. But it turned out to be my favorite of them all, a grown-up riff on a kid’s snack featuring a potent mature cheddar melted between slices of crusty, golden-toasted English muffin bread.

Food prepared in the fryer, such as the fish sticks, was inconsistent.

Sadly, my experiences with the hamburger ($6) and cheeseburger ($7) – both baseball-sized sandwiches slathered with mustard and Crystal hot-sauce mayonnaise, then stuffed to toppling with lettuce, house-made pickles, and onion – were mixed. During my first visit, the all-brisket patties were overcooked and rubbery. Just a few days later, they were pink, tender and juicy enough that I needed the exceptional butter-enriched potato roll to catch the dribbles as I ate.

“This feels like a practice run … like a rehearsal,” one of my guests said as we scraped excessive mustard off our cheeseburgers. I had to agree. Three months into its run, the contours of the fine restaurant Black Cow could be (and should be) are visible, even if major problems with consistency force you to read between the lines just to see them.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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