Honoring Mothers

A maternal atmosphere pervades Mother’s Bistro & Bar. The décor is rustic and homey, and the mugs entreat you to
“call your mother.”

Chef Lisa Schroeder is not trying to make you feel guilty; she simply wants to envelop you in the delicious world in which she grew up. The child of a Jewish single mother who owned a tiny restaurant in Philadelphia, Schroeder was reared on a diet of matzah ball soup, chopped liver and roast chicken. Her mother was especially renowned for her vegetable soup, which contained flanken and beef bones, and diners clamored for her chopped liver and brisket.

“My mom ran The Little Spot in Philadelphia,” recounts Schroeder. “It was about as big as Portland’s Blue Plate – that’s about three booths and six stools. She was a single mother, and she supported her two daughters – and her own mother – by cooking.”

As a young woman, Lisa Schroeder entered the business world, but her mother’s recipes stuck with her. A lifelong passion for food transformed into a deeply cherished wish to open her own restaurant. Schroeder entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, at the age of 35. She would go on to eat and prepare the finest cuisine in Paris and New York City, but what she really desired was to honor her mother’s memory by serving her brisket recipe on Jewish holidays.

Schroeder imagined a restaurant that was not in Manhattan, but it wasn’t until she found love in Portland that her vision coalesced. In 2000, she found a large, high-ceilinged space downtown, installed a picture of her mother at the entrance to the kitchen, and the rest is history. For the past 12 years, diners have flooded her dining room, finding a winning combination in Schroeder’s emphasis on reasonable prices and high-quality, local ingredients. Schroeder enjoys preparing Jewish favorites with an Oregon twist. At Passover, she uses her mother’s recipe for gefilte fish but swaps Pacific Northwest salmon for the pike and whitefish.

The chef developed a newfound appreciation for local ingredients upon her arrival in Portland.

“When I moved here, what was so amazing was how many Oregonians eat of the terroir. They’ve been eating locally forever; they were locavores before it was fashionable. In Burgundy, France, they have coq au vin – Oregonians are just like that. They drink pinot noir and pinot gris, eat marionberries, hazelnuts … I learned to eat and serve local from the people of Oregon.”

At the same time, Schroeder is not of the “extreme foragers” camp. “No matter how many new restaurants there are that serve ashes on a plate, or a piece of wood, or a pine needle, that’s not what brings people back for a meal, day after day. Our guests want perfectly made mashed potatoes, six-hour pot roast and food made with love. I make the food that people in Portland want to eat.”

Schroeder finds many ways to honor mothers at her restaurant. She has constructed a play area for toddlers at the window. “People come to Mother’s with babies,” the chef explains, “and I see that Mom has to hold the baby. I got the arms – I offer them! I’m known to carry babies around; we are not called Mother’s for nothing.”

The chef also features a Mother of the Month with recipes from that mother’s nationality.

Diners who want to celebrate Mother’s Day by brunching at Mother’s Bar & Bistro will find a variety of tasty, stick-to-your-ribs items like eggs Benedict, frittatas, lemon poppy seed pancakes, waffles with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, homemade cinnamon rolls, and smoked salmon scrambled with eggs, cream cheese, caramelized onions and dill. For readers who won’t be able to join Lisa Schroeder this Mother’s Day, the chef has graciously included her prized recipe for crunchy French toast. “Every mother deserves breakfast in bed!” she opines.

Mother’s Bistro & Bar is located at 212 SW Stark Street. For reservations, call 503-464-1122.

    Mother’s Crunchy French Toast

Makes 4 servings; six 1-inch-thick slices

If I had to pick one breakfast dish that’s our signature, this would have to be it. People come from across the country wanting to taste it. The recipe has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and is requested over and over.

French toast goes by the name pain perdu in France, which translates as “lost bread.” It’s a recipe created to save stale bread from being “lost” to the garbage by soaking it in eggs and milk to get it moist and tender again, and frying it up. Although you can certainly use whatever stale bread slices you have lingering in the fridge (except something strong-flavored like rye), you’d be missing out on the wonderful richness that fresh challah provides. A roll in cornflakes adds a wonderful, addictive crunch.

4 eggs
¾ cup heavy cream
¾ cup half-and-half
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Pinch ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups cornflakes (see Love Note 1 at right)
1 loaf egg bread (challah),
sliced into 6 one-inch-thick slices (see Love Note 2)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (divided),
preferably clarified
Powdered sugar (optional)

1. If your pan isn’t big enough to cook all the French toast at the same time, preheat oven to 200°F. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, cream, half-and-half, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and vanilla.

2. Place cornflakes in another larger bowl and crush with your hands until pieces are small (but not like bread crumbs) and somewhat uniform in size. Place a rimmed baking sheet nearby to hold the prepared bread.

3. Dip a slice of bread into the cream mixture, immersing both sides (saturate it, but do not let fall apart).

4. Dip the slice into the corn flakes on both sides, pressing to adhere the flakes; set aside on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining slices.

5. Place a griddle or wide (preferably 14-inch) sauté pan over medium heat for several minutes. If using an electric griddle, set the heat to 350°F.

6. Sprinkle griddle with a few drops of water; they should bounce around before evaporating. If they sizzle away quickly, the heat is too high. If they just sit there and slowly steam, the heat is too low. When griddle is properly heated, add a tablespoon of clarified butter for each piece of French toast and tilt to coat the pan.

7. Add prepared bread in an even layer. Cook until golden on one side, about four minutes. Pick each toast up with a spatula and put ½ tablespoon butter in their spot. Flip the toasts onto the butter to cook the other side, about four minutes more. Repeat with the remaining slices of bread. Serve immediately or keep warm in oven until all the French toast is cooked.

8. Cut each piece of bread in half diagonally to make triangles. Arrange like shingles on serving plates, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired and serve with softened butter and maple syrup.

Love Notes:

1. Challah (pronounced hall-uh) is a slightly sweet, eggy Jewish bread that’s becoming increasingly common at gourmet grocery stores and bakeries. Many bakeries carry it only on Fridays for Shabbat. If you can’t find it, substitute any soft sweet bread, such as brioche, Hawaiian bread or thick slices of Texas toast.

2. Clarified butter is important for this recipe because it allows you to cook the French toast at a high enough heat to get a proper sizzle going, ensuring the toast stays crunchy. If the butter isn’t clarified, the milk solids will melt and impart moisture that can impede crunchiness. And when the solids inevitably burn, they’ll impart a burnt flavor to the food.

Food and travel writer and jazz pianist Kerry Politzer is a recent transplant from New York. She greatly enjoys the Portland food scene. She has written for WHERE Traveler, IN New York and Dessert Professional, and she publishes a blog on the Portland-NYC culinary scene, The Rose and the Apple.

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