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Dan Straub – Constructing Flavor
Taste is everything to Dan Straub, chef and owner of the neighborhood restaurant, Soluna Grill, on NE Fremont in Portland’s Beaumont Village. Dan’s journey is a long and winding one that began in his parents’ kitchen and flowed through the teachings of various chefs on a myriad of cuisines. Dan is one of the most well-rounded and friendly chefs that you will encounter. He can cook up almost anything with ease, and you’ll know what Dan craves when you see it on the menu at Soluna Grill.
As a chef, what is important to you?
Flavor is the most important thing for me. I don’t make dishes just because it’s there. There’s a difference between a radish picked within a day versus a radish picked a week ago, even though it’s been kept crisp in a fridge. There are these flavor nuisances that most people may not notice. I strive daily to have fresh ingredients to achieve these nuisances—that makes all the difference in taste.
Is there a classification for your cuisine?
Honestly, I just go for taste. I try to make my food approachable. For instance, our meatloaf. I never thought I’d ever put meatloaf on a menu. My first version was a Kobe beef meatloaf. We used to serve Kobe steak, and it had a lot of fat trimmings. This fat provided such good flavor, so, I blended it with some chuck. The Kobe meatloaf was really, really good. Since we discontinued the Kobe steaks, I had to change the meatloaf to three other meats. Chuck or veal short rib, veal and pork. Even with the change the meatloaf is still a customer favorite.
How do you decide what to put on your menu?
It’s as simple as what I’m craving at the time. That is what ends up on the menu—until I get tired of it. As you see, my attention span is very short. My menus don’t have any true theme, but if you looked over three months worth of menus you would see what I was craving to taste.
Besides taste, what else do you consider when menu planning?
I like flavors that dance in the mouth, you know, that are playful. To me a dish has to have several components. There are textural differences—you got the crunch, the fresh and the soft middle. I want every bite to be different, not like the sameness of let’s say, spaghetti with marinara sauce, where every bite is the same. It just becomes something to fill your stomach. I like flavor components that can built upon, and as I said, that just kind of dance in your mouth a little bit. That, and I love spice.
What is currently on the menu that dances in the mouth?
One of the more popular things is our Kahlua pork. It has a coconut jasmine rice that’s smothered with a long braised pork shoulder and then mango slaw on top with a little bit of sweet soy. Each one of these has good individual flavor, but when you can fit them all in one piece on your fork, it’s a nice combination.
One of my favorite soups is the butternut bisque, and a lot of people serve butternut squash soup. This one I have, I serve it with a crispy bacon spaetzle and some buchis and sage oil, and all those flavors work well together. It’s simple; I’m not trying to come up with some weird ingredients. If it sounds weird on the menu, then you just have to try it to understand it. It’s pretty straightforward.
Where does your passion for food come from?
My mom, and my dad too. They both love to cook. However, they each had their own approach. My mother always followed the recipes exactly, while my father was always trying something new. My earliest memories, when I was about four years old, are of helping my mother in the kitchen. I usually stood on a chair, stirring whatever was in the bowl in front of me. My dad—they just both want to be gourmets—but he was more of the against the grain kind of guy. He was always tweaking the ingredients. From my mom I got the structure of how to make something, and then I got the creativity from my dad.
We were always entertaining; we were always cooking. My parents did a lot of entertaining. Our house was always filled with people. For tea parties or dinner parties, it was always about the food. The neighborhood flocked to us. My pals would ask, “What are you guys having for dinner?” Because at their house they would be having macaroni or Hamburger Helper for dinner. It was crazy at school—everyone wanted to trade with me. My dad made the most incredible sack lunches. I’d only give up half the sandwich for some junk food from my friends.
My mom was way ahead of her time. In the 70’s she was making Thai food and sushi before there were Thai restaurants and sushi bars. So, before the age of ten I had this early exposure to exotic tastes that stays with me. All that was a great foundation for being a chef.
After leaving your parents kitchen, what was next? Did you go right into culinary school?
It was probably my 2nd year in college—I was twenty years old, I was majoring in whatever, and it hit me… What am I going to do with my life (laughs)? It was like, okay, what I’m studying now is not what I do want to do and it was at a point of my life where my parents had divorced. It made me think, what makes me happy? And the one thing that I realized was that if anything, I can stand all day and cook. I had already been working in a restaurant, so I knew what it takes. That’s when I enrolled in culinary school.
During culinary school, were there any instructors or types of cuisine you favored more than others?
I was curious about all cuisine. When I graduated from culinary school, my instructors gave me some great connections. I bounced around to a lot of restaurants—I was young and single—I could do that. Through my network I just put it out there: “I just want to work 2-4 weeks at any given place,” and so I spent a year just bouncing to a vegetarian place, to seafood restaurants, fine dining, a sushi bar, and just picking up as much as I could in a quick amount of time.
Besides your parents, do you have any specific mentors that have influenced your life?
Well, I won’t say “mentors” in cooking. I’ve taken a little from every person in my life. It hasn’t all been chefs. From various chefs I learned cooking, I learned technique, I learned the ABCs of what it takes to put something on the menu, to lead a kitchen. But honestly, some of my best influences have been my interns that worked for me, or line cooks or even servers, or even customers. The younger people with their attitudes about why they’re in it, now that refreshes me. When you’re in one place 12 hours a day, five or six days a week, you have to push yourself to stay interested. These young refreshing attitudes come in, reminding me of why I do this. And I see a little bit of me in the intern, wanting to learn, and their eyes are wide open and they’re just a dry sponge and all you want to do is just spray it down with moisture. And even the servers; there’s the servers. They might be part time students or they’re just lifers. They all have these wonderful attitudes, they just love people and love working in restaurants. They’re not returning to the table frequently just because they’re told to, they want to make sure their table is taken care of.
How about chefs that influenced your ideas about cooking?
My first real influence was Ben Barker at Magnolia Grill in North Carolina. I had eaten at his restaurant when I was twenty while visiting with my parents who were living in North Carolina. That is when I first decided I want to be a chef—as a career. I was fortunate that he took me on as an intern. I learned a lot from him. Ben was the guy that went to the farms every morning. He was the Alice Waters of the East Coast, so to speak. He does amazing things. I was a young punk, and he was an established star. He treated me with kindness, he kicked me in the butt; he saw something in me and gave me a shot. If it wasn’t for the way he reacted to me, I probably easily could have gotten chewed up in this industry. As a mentor, he was the first, and has had the greatest influence on me.
How did you know what you wanted when you opened this restaurant?
I had my own catering company, and I was making sushi at people’s homes while I was looking to open my own place. I intended to open in a breakfast and lunch neighborhood. The location was extremely important—not a strip mall, not superbly extensive—and I wasn’t finding that. I wanted to find a place close to where I live, to my vicinity. I could go far away to find that, but where I lived it was it really hard to find.
And one of my best friends that I grew up with, lived here, told me of this restaurant. I got this phone call, “Hey, this place down the street from me that we used to go to is closing. What do you think? Come check this out.” And that was a Sunday phone call, and I was up here two days later and saw this place and met the owner here. That was in April. By July, we bought the place.
I had a hard time convincing my wife to drop everything and follow a risky business, but this place had all the elements I was looking for. It had a good feel in a great neighborhood. I think that Beaumont Village is probably Portland’s quintessential neighborhood. Every couple of blocks that you go to, it’s completely different from the one you just came from and I love it. I was pretty easily sold, and it superseded the weather.
Where does the name Soluna Grill come from?
It is a blend. It comes from my business partner. He and his wife have two twin daughters with the middle names Sol and Bella Luna. That’s how we got Soluna.
Isn’t that Latin for sun and moon? Does having a Latin name influence the restaurant?
Not really, since our menu reflects my influence which is from cuisines from all over the world. Remember, before, I was making sushi…
Before you moved here what had you heard of Portland?
Besides the rain? My longtime friend and now business partner was always sending me mushrooms and truffles from Oregon. He is always talking about Portland and how wonderful it is here, that it was becoming a food mecca with all these chefs flocking here with new restaurants and even food carts. It’s just one of the things I’d heard but never paid much attention to. But I was intrigued.
Since Soluna is a neighborhood restaurant, you must have a lot of regulars?
Yeah. Since Beaumont Village is right in the middle of two major residential neighborhoods, we have a lot families and a lot of kids here. People like to walk to our place. I’m fortunate that they’ve supported us so well. We love engaging with our customers. With the open kitchen, people come up and say hi while they are going to their table. So I am constantly waving, showing off my chicken fingers. Because we have such loyal customers, we like to keep them informed of any special events or menu changes. So we ask our customers for their e-mails, so we can send them our newsletter.
What are your plans? Opening more restaurants?
No. I am very happy with what we have here. But, when you run a restaurant, it becomes harder and harder to know what the latest trends are today. Cuisine is always changing, chefs are doing some amazing things. If I could, I would love to go to all the great restaurants in Portland and work at least a week there. It would get the juices flowing to see how other chefs do things. That’s why I love Portland. Chefs have more freedom here to do what they want to do, whether it’s a good concept or not.