Eugene’s latest dining hot spot has an unlikely inspiration: your grandma’s recipe book
By Aaron Ragan-Fore
Teetering at the top of a painter’s ladder, Brendan Mahaney was plastering the dining room ceiling of his new restaurant recently. When someone walked through the front door and asked for the owner, Mahaney’s first impulse was to shout for someone else. “Hey, wait,” he thought to himself. “That’s me.”
Even after notable stints as a chef at some of Eugene’s finest eateries, including three years each at Marché and Red Agave — with El Vaquero, Chanterelle and Soriah as résumé line items, for good measure — this is the first time Mahaney (whom EW profiled in Chow! in April) has been able to make that claim. With his new venture, simply called Belly, Mahaney aims to produce “reassuring” and “direct” cuisine that goes for under $20 a plate.
|Brendan Mahaney and Ann Marie Bragger, rear, with Belly’s staff
Belly opened last week, on Independence Day, in the 5th Avenue spot formerly occupied by Penelope’s Mediterranean Cuisine. Mahaney’s shorthand ways of describing Belly’s fare are “rustic European” and “old-school farmhouse cooking,” but to expand a bit, the enterprising gourmand encapsulates his approach as “applying classic French and Italian techniques and practices to the food in the Northwest.”
A special event menu scribbled in marker and taped to the wall a couple days before opening demonstrates Mahaney’s intent, running the gamut from the elemental — “salt cod fritters” — to the elevated — “pork confit and cherries.” The list is even rounded out by something called “mushy zucchini.”
“We hope to be an exciting but unpretentious place. No linens. Paper napkins,” explains the restaurateur. “Leave your snooty attitude at the door.”
Mahaney, an advocate of a “snout to tail eating” philosophy that uses as much of the animal as possible, constantly experiments with new ways to prepare those bits of the beast usually deemed unpalatable by Americans. “We’re going to attack the pig from different directions,” he explains, citing spreadable pig’s feet and tripe as an example.
Mahaney’s ceiling plastering, and all the other elbow grease that has gone into converting the Penelope’s dining room, has paid off. Matching his themed cuisine, Mahaney and friends have converted the space into nothing so much as the interior of a barn straight out of Provence, with gleaming white walls and exposed brown columns and rafters.
“Two months ago I had a lease in my hand for a spot up in Portland,” the chef confides. But the lure of putting his stamp on the strip across from Eugene’s own 5th Street Public Market proved too strong. “It’s a cute location,” says Mahaney. “I’m looking forward to joining my neighbors,” including the nearby Café Lucky Noodle and El Vaquero.
For all his attention to recreating the details, both culinary and architectural, of the Old World, Belly actually had its inception in the New. Just last year, Brendan and his fiancée Ann Marie Bragger were living in Baja, Mexico, where they had relocated to serve as personal chefs for a wealthy family. When that gig fell through, the couple opted to stay in the area, rented a little house and started planning. “We read, twiddled our thumbs, ate tacos and planned a menu for four months,” says Mahaney.
Somehow the image of Mahaney living in Mexico, producing a European menu intended for a restaurant in Oregon (a restaurant where Bragger is now general manager), makes perfect sense for a chef unafraid of introducing his community to “a rich and varied sensual life.”
“And food is part of that, right?” Mahaney asks rhetorically. “If you eat the same thing every day, you kind of think the same thing every day.”
Mahaney doubts Belly will have a problem attracting diners, even with its unorthodox (for Eugene) fusion of barnyard flesh and Northwest fresh. “There are people that are going to eat steak Dianes for the rest of their lives, and they have many restaurants to choose from,” he says. “If you’re looking for a comforting boneless, skinless chicken breast, we’re going to disappoint you.”
Belly, 291 E. 5th Avenue, is open 5:30 pm – 9 pm Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 pm – 10 pm Friday and Saturday. 683-5896.