Dame may be the most wonderful, underpublicized restaurant in Portland.
The intimate Italian meals served at Dame nourish the body and elevate the spirit. Its chef, Patrick McKee, is an exemplary talent, leader and human being; the kitchen and floor staff reflect a constructive culture; and the food is simply superb. Regulars—and I include myself here—know all of this, but many remain unaware.
Backstories can be overblown, but McKee’s directly illuminates Dame’s allure. McKee, now 52, has long been a presence in Portland restaurant kitchens, honing his craft for a decade under mentor Vitaly Paley. McKee had a reputation as your typical work-hard, play-hard hotshot. But then life changed.
McKee got sober in 2017. As all of us recovering alcoholics know, opportunities abound for personal and professional growth after one’s sobriety date. Yet, tests of humility, strength of character and sobriety itself invariably await.
Professionally, McKee bounced around after he left Paley’s Place, failing at first to find his niche. At home, he was gifted three beautiful children, but his son Henry died suddenly on March 27, 2019, at age 14.
The predecessor to Dame was a pop-up called Estes + Dame, a conjoined reference to McKee’s Italian mother’s surname, d’Estes, and the existing wine bar, Dame, run by Jane Smith. McKee had barely fired up the burners in February 2019 before Henry’s death. Even as he anguished over his lost child, McKee didn’t drink and continued to host weekly explorations into his maternal heritage cuisine. Whether he was Henry’s spirit on his shoulder, McKee’s formidable skills, or the recipes he was able to pry out of his mother, Estes found an audience.
In fall 2019, Smith and McKee joined forces to create a full-fledged restaurant. In mid-March 2020, COVID shut down the planet just as Dame found its groove. Within days, on the first anniversary of Henry’s passing, McKee penned a reflection straight from the soul and addressed it to his son.
“I’ve stayed sober through staggering loss, our family is more together than ever, and I continue to get stronger as I learn life without you,” he wrote. “Your leaving taught me more about myself than I’d ever learned, and that a community can help build you back again. I literally felt like I had burst into a million pieces that could never be put back together, yet somehow, they are, perfectly, just not in the same way.”
Perseverance through community has been doctrine at Dame. In a trade notorious for its brutal grind, shitty pay and resulting transience, Dame’s crew has mostly stuck around.
“We pivoted immediately to takeout and just kept going,” Smith says. “It bonded our team. We were able to keep people employed and the business could stay afloat.”
Outdoor dining soon followed, despite hiccups from fragile tents, fussy heaters and extreme weather. In July 2021, Dame resumed indoor service, retired takeout and saw business thrive.
In October, an employer-paid trip to Italy for the crew was a timely community-building experience and a chance to research and recharge. Prioritizing a work-life balance is part of Dame’s ethos, which is why the restaurant will continue operating four nights a week. McKee is certain a shorter work week leads to happier, more productive employees. After at least a dozen visits, I’m convinced the uncommon ethic at Dame translates to exceptional service and joy expressed on every plate.
When you go, order pasta, the high-water mark of McKee’s creativity and the skill in his kitchen. Typically, a half-dozen pastas are made fresh daily, and every dish is the product of painstaking flavor-building technique. Servings are generous, but order ravenously; these pastas are virtuoso performances.
Though the offerings change, a family-rooted rabbit pasta is customary. The most recent iteration, braised rabbit and ricotta cavatelli ($24), is a stewlike combination of shredded meat, basil, leafy greens, garlic and bits of rendered guanciale supporting the fresh cheese-enriched scrolled pasta. The base of “brothy goodness”—Smith’s menu description—is a multilayered extraction from bunny bones and braising liquid, sofrito, herbs, and broth left over from the previous batch. Its depth is mesmerizing.
Squid ink pasta ($27) is another menu staple. McKee extrudes bucatini, shaped like hollow spaghetti, that is black and briny from generous use of the ink. The dish is unabashedly hot chile. Another complex broth begins with seared lobster and prawn shells deglazed in brandy. More flavor comes from colatura (Italian fish sauce), fresh lemon juice and pomodoraccio, half-dried oil-cured tomatoes. Pan-seared prawns complete this striking ensemble.
Other pasta preferences that should be enjoyed during high spring: flat, half-inch-wide tagliatelle noodles lightly coated in basil-hazelnut pesto ($18); oozy goat cheese and egg raviolo ($26); black pepper and grana padano-kissed cacio e pepe ($17); and a creamy pasta-ish risotto, with morel and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, plus truffle butter ($28).
There are plenty of inspired dishes at Dame that aren’t pasta. A simple but substantial square of focaccia ($7) is dark golden on the outside and absorbent within, perfect for mopping plates. Two can share the Caesar salad ($15), with or without a thin slice of culatta ham tented on top, or indulge in wagyu beef carpaccio showered with shaved foie gras ($16).
Leave room for dessert. Pastry chef Gabriella Martinez left República to join the Dame team. Her sweets are as euphoric and technically refined as McKee’s pasta. The most compelling recent menu items are the three-layer chocolate mousse cake ($10) made with Ecuadorian dark, milk and white chocolate and gelatin, presented in an audacious pool of bone marrow caramel; as well as the cannoli sundae ($9), which incorporates cannoli ingredients into a baseball-sized scoop of ice cream.
If you do Dame right, you will depart stuffed, with leftovers, but gratified to have been a part of something virtuous beyond the food itself. Coming back soon. You never know what hurdles lies ahead of you.
EAT: Dame, 2930 NE Killingsworth St., 503-227-2669, damerestaurant.com. 5-10 p.m. Thursday-Sunday.