New York City is a place I been / I was there one time with a travellin' band
So reads the second line of JJ Cale’s “Drifters Wife,” a rolling, deftly fingerpicked cut from his 1982 album, Grasshopper. “Drifters life is a drifters wife,” he posits, romanticizing in just six words a Kerouac-esque mindset which spawned a generation of trail songs and helped launch the Beats of the 1950s.
Cale’s song shares more than just a handle (and slightly uncomfortable lack of apostrophe) with the identically named restaurant that materialized out of a natural wine shop on inner Washington Ave just over two years ago. Spearheaded by husband-wife team Peter and Orenda Hale, Drifters Wife somehow maintains a balance between urbanity and homegrown American Primitivism, offering up some of the more satisfying, surprisingly honest bites to be found on the peninsula.
Make no mistake — this is juxtaposition by design, even if not originally planned in such a way. The Hales moved to Portland a few years ago from Brooklyn, having cut their teeth in Andrew Tarlow’s small empire of area dining establishments (fun fact: Peter is a founding member and drummer in the Brooklyn-based indie rock band Here We Go Magic). Shortly after, funky-fonted signage declaring “WINE” in all-caps block lettering appeared in one of the many vacant spaces at the base of the J.J. (coincidence?) Nissen building. The result was Maine & Loire, Portland’s first and only shop to focus primarily on natural wines—that is, wines made with minimal intervention.
Eschewing sulfites for wild yeasts, natural wine can sometimes sit in stark contrast to the carefully controlled Merlots and Pinot Grigios many people are familiar with. Though per-bottle variance, untamed effervescence and sometimes aggressive flavor profiles make certain natural wines difficult for some, others find these characteristics too enticing to pass up.
Drifters evolved out of Maine & Loire, which soon became “a wine shop within a wine bar.” What could’ve been hip to a fault quickly turned into one of the area’s more unique concepts, thanks in large part to Chef Ben Jackson’s frankly excellent food.
For someone who also happens to be a Brooklyn transplant, Jackson’s approach to working with what the best of what Maine has to offer ingredient-wise is impressive to say the least. Menus change daily and revolve around what’s available at the moment, be it locally raised lamb, foraged alliums or fresh-caught mackerel. Capping out at 10 or so items at any given time, they are always focused and worth ordering in full for a party of 3-4.
Flavors are often subtle, yet stand-out. A starter of pickled shrimp with celery root, remoulade and rye brings together contrasting notes of brine and earth for something so well-balanced it deserves to be a main course. So too does a plate of gold ball turnips, bacon and ramps, which tastes like what the “farm-to-table” movement has gone for but missed in so many area dining establishments over the years. Even a salad of mixed local greens is somehow tantalizing, set off by a dusting of breadcrumbs and a tangy shallot vinaigrette.
Mains — though on the small side for the price-point—are just as satisfying. Lamb with chickpeas and broccoli di cicco is cooked near-perfect and remains sinfully juicy throughout. Jackson’s half-chicken has become a staple item. With rotating accoutrements, its one of the better fowl preparations tasted in recent memory. Desert showcases an ever-changing take on malabi, a popular milk-based pudding hailing from the Middle East. Served on this occasion with cashews and a cara cara orange syrup, it’s worth a stop alone to cap off an evening in the neighborhood.
An excellent bottle of Le Clos des Jarres Insouciance — lively and bursting with complex red fruits—frames the meal exceedingly well and keeps on giving with each sip.
The biggest change to hit Drifters Wife in the past few months is a rather significant expansion. Now in the space which last housed Roustabout, Jackson’s cooking is no longer confined to a kitchen the size of a sedan backseat. Neither are diners, as the footprint of the room has tripled if not quadrupled with the move. The intimacy of the restaurant’s original incarnation next door has not been lost, however, and yes—it still feels like somewhat of a Park Slope conduit on a number of levels.
This latter sentiment may cause people to scream “pretension!” and wish for the earlier days of a much different Washington Ave. Drifters doesn’t feel quite as much like a Brooklyn invasion, though, as it does a natural extension of any area shaped by rapid development. It’s difficult and at the same time far too easy to blame any one set of actors for the larger issue of gentrification. What the Hales, Jackson and co. are up to seems quite genuine, solidifying Drifters Wife as a potentially lasting part of the neighborhood’s future.