Life sometimes goes in cycles. Let me explain.
In the early aughts, I lived in Southeast Portland. I was going to school and developing persisting habits, among them a breakfast ritual: coffee, eggs, potatoes, hot sauce, more coffee, fresh bread, jam and a New York Times.
Against numerous competitors, the most reliable, satisfying breakfast in the neighborhood was at Utopia Dessert and Coffeehouse, on 33rd and Belmont. Utopia had a clear, efficient and limited mission: breakfast and lunch, cooked with care, delivered with finesse and closed by 2 p.m. Though there were flourishes, the Utopia stopped short of fancy, pretentious or twee. At the time, it was exemplary of Portland, before it became a parody.
Utopia was opened by Joanne Perkins, who later brought Connie Calcagno aboard while the establishment transitioned to a cafe serving breakfast and lunch. Perkins was the chef and kitchen manager, while Calcagno ran the front of the house. The pair sold the cafe in the 2000s. (Utopia closed last year. Blame New Portland.)
Toward the end of 2017, another successful female restaurateur, Lee Vance, opted to move on. In search of the next chapter, Vance shuttered the Blackbird in Manzanita. One of only two restaurants I’ve awarded five stars, the Blackbird, which elevated locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, was a great loss — not just to Manzanita but to fine dining on the coast at large. Few restaurants taste so much like the place we live.
When the Blackbird space became available, Perkins and Calcagno saw the potential and couldn’t resist. Of course, they knew exactly what it takes to make a breakfast joint hum.
Yolk opened this spring. Trading flickering candles for oodles of natural light, the tastefully sleek, airy and modern interior has undergone minimal renovation. It turns out to be every bit as idyllic for breakfast as it was for dinner.
Like Utopia, Yolk does breakfast and lunch and closes at 2 p.m. Yolk also does plenty of eggs, pancakes and home fries, and bakes hearty bread from scratch. Hey, if it ain’t broke …
In fact, a pair of dishes from Utopia — the Baja and the Bacavao scrambles — are reprised at Yolk. I had the Baja ($13) — with chorizo, onion, tomato, cilantro, salsa and sour cream — and it took me right back to Southeast Portland.
And while reinvention is not, in this case — the case of breakfast — necessary, my favorite dish at Yolk is an innovation.
First, Yolk’s Huevos Rancheros ($13) trade tortillas for cornmeal cakes. The just-grilled cakes aren’t the only change that makes theirs livelier than your average Huevos Rancheros. Instead of blankets of greasy melted cheese, Yolk-style prefers crumbles of dry, salty Cotija. And in place of lardy refried beans, Yolk opts for lean black beans. Though there’s less fat, Yolk’s version, with a dark, peppery ranchero sauce, has plenty of velvety richness in its runny yolks and avocado. And here, the brightness of the salsa has more room to shine. Yolk’s Huevos Rancheros are a silky, fresh ecstasy.
As great as the Huevos Rancheros are — and, really, I could go for a plate right now — there are few valleys against Yolk’s many peaks. Excellence is the norm.
Topped with an egg, the Corned Beef Hash ($14) — with bell peppers, onions, potatoes, garlic and basil — features a house-made corned beef. A “touch” of cream acts as a secret weapon, making the sinewy and supple corned beef tantalizingly luscious.
The Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($10) are cozy and balanced. Two dollars more gets them packed with marionberries, and I can’t imagine them without that gooey, tart-sweet infusion.
While breakfast is served all day, there are a few lunch-y options, like salads and sandwiches. I had the Lamb Burger ($17). On a fluffy bun, the stout, juicy, hand-pressed patty was cooked an impeccable medium rare and generously dressed with soft feta cheese, lettuce and loads of very sweet caramelized onions.
I was equally taken with the accompanying cheesy waffle fry, which encases a tater-tot center inside an irresistible crispy cheddar cheese crust. It’s ingenious.
Everything I tried at Yolk was thoughtfully conceived, carefully executed and wholly satisfying. From atmosphere to service, Yolk is flawless — an expertly piloted, well-oiled machine.
That stems from Perkins’ expertise in the kitchen and, in the foreground, Calcagno, zooming around the dining room, often in shorts, never wasting a step. Yolk is in very capable hands.
Which is about all one could’ve asked for when the Blackbird closed. Yolk is not only a worthy successor, but another women-run business to boot.
This story has been updated from an original version that incorrectly said Calcagno, not Perkins, was the founder of Utopia and implied Yolk is primarily Calcagno’s project.