Black Sheep + Market on West 39th Street has the makings of a neighborhood favorite
It’s a great relief to eat a simple, well-prepared meal that isn’t trying to impress the neighbors. I’ve grown tired of restaurants “elevating” classic dishes, an inane descriptor that seems to be industry shorthand for “putting a short rib on it.” I’m ready to bring them back down to earth.
Enter Black Sheep + Market, the second restaurant for Chef Michael Foust (who opened The Farmhouse in the River Market) and his partners Vincent Parades, Ryan Wellfort, and Marty Enslein.
Black Sheep opened on West 39th Street last September in the former home of Thai restaurant Aep (and before that, Thomas). From the beginning, it felt like a sort of defense against the cranks using “farm-to-table” as a synonym for Portlandia hipsterdom. Sure, the restaurant has exposed brick, dark wood, and a rooftop patio lined with string lights. There’s a chalkboard wall with the day’s specials and a list of local farmers and ranchers. Succulents are involved. But the food at Black Sheep is a little less expensive and a little more familiar — enough, perhaps, to placate the cranks.
The grilled cheese sandwich was just that: classic, kid-friendly toast, well-buttered and well-browned, clamped around cheddar cheese that oozed like it was auditioning for a Kraft commercial. The enormous buttermilk pancakes — thick and fluffy as cotton — were a similarly straightforward comfort. The richest offering might be the biscuits and gravy, which are cribbed from The Farmhouse’s menu (a half order makes a hearty meal). The skyscraper biscuits had a crisp crust and soft mantle, with enough structure to withstand the deluge of savory country gravy. All three dishes can be ordered at any time of day; if you like breakfast at 8 p.m., you’re in good hands here.
Sometimes the simplicity of the menu backfires, spotlighting blunders that busier flavors or presentations might mask. I adore The Farmhouse’s grits, but the grits at Black Sheep were undersalted. The “French toast sticks” conjured visions of drive-through dunkers but were just…ordinary pieces of egg-sogged French toast. And a chipotle chicken quiche had a flaky crust and a brisk pepper burn but was cold in the middle.
My favorite entrée was a plate of shatteringly crisp fried catfish with a deceptively light-tasting breading. The fish was flavorful on its own but excellent dunked in the house hot sauce, which reminded me of a spice-gussied Louisiana style. I ordered a little ramekin of that sauce on the side for most of my other meals.
My only gripe with the catfish was the side of fries, which arrived the appetizing color of toast but the limp texture of Wonderbread. The “house ketchup” served alongside was a tangless marinara in search of a mozzarella stick. (To be fair to Black Sheep, house ketchups are rarely any good; they’re the “Is Pepsi OK?” of condiments.)
The house salsa tasted suspiciously like that ketchup — sweet and anemically acidic. But I didn’t need it to enjoy a juicy slab of hamsteak with farm-fresh fried eggs and a flour tortilla. Ditto the breakfast burrito, a hearty and well-proportioned mix of scrambled eggs, peppers, and potatoes, coated in a satiny cheese sauce and nestled alongside tender hashbrowns. I can think of few other dishes that fly so close to the sun, indulgence-wise, without tasting rich or heavy.
The prices are right for the restaurant’s approachable ethos. Most meals here fall in the $6 to $12 range, and portions are generous. Two of the most expensive dishes on the menu are the meatloaf ($14) and pot roast ($16) specials, which rotate frequently. The beef meatloaf I sampled was frosted with a pleasantly abrasive smoked pepper sauce but was a bit too dry (I recognize that the words I’m about to write are supremely unappetizing, but: I prefer a more gelatinous loaf). The meatloaf also arrived with an unintentional garnish: a wee green caterpillar that had been roasted along with the meatloaf veggies (RIP). I did not eat the caterpillar.
It would take a small arsenal of caterpillars to turn me off the collard greens, which are unequivocally the best side on the menu. Black Sheep serves both vegetarian and “carnivore” versions, but order the latter if your diet allows. The collards were cooked down amid tender morsels of pork and chubby coins of carrot until the greens were perfumed with meat and almost caramel-sweet. A whole strip of thick, crisp bacon was plated alongside, making the side filling enough for a meal.
The rotating specials (check the chalkboard) are often more intricate than the menu mainstays, allowing Foust and Co. room to experiment with new ingredients. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a creamy baked pimento dip and a deviled duck egg dressed with crunchy commas of housemade beef jerky.
The cocktails, too, are a bit more complex and priced accordingly. The Spicy Mary ($8) was a thin-bodied bloody and Spicy In Name Only. I preferred the Rosemary’s Baby ($13), which mixed botanical gin, rosemary syrup, and CBD. I don’t know that the CBD made much of a difference, but the drink was saucy and smooth with soft citrus flavors and a luxurious rosemary nose.
My favorite cocktail was the Solstice Margarita ($12), a clean-lined blend of cucumber, sunny jalapeño, and lemon. The drink was a fresh-tasting summer quencher with a subtle heat that didn’t detract from the smooth and sweet.
Nondrinkers have solid options here, too. Black Sheep’s menu currently has two spirit-free drinks billed as “mocktails” (and priced about $5). The Refreshinator was an attractive lilac-color with the nostalgic taste of a glass of purple Kool-Aid after a muggy bike ride home from the pool.
But the lavender chamomile soda was one of the most interesting drinks I’ve tried this summer. A cold snap of citrus woke up the chamomile’s sleepy sweetness, while the lavender added a slight squeaky softness. The only description on the menu was, “It’s delicious!” I agree.
Drinks are slow out of the bar right now, which is notable when the ticket times for food are so short. But I suspect this is more an issue of understaffing than inexperience. Black Sheep has all the right ingredients: friendly service, cozy vibes, and simple, unfussy food. With a few menu tweaks, it could become a reliable neighborhood favorite. The repeat customers I saw across my visits suggest it already has.
Black Sheep + Market
1815 W 39th St
Monday–Thursday: 9 AM–9 PM
Friday–Saturday: 9 AM–10 PM
Best bet: Order the fried catfish with a side of collards regardless of the time of day. Your drink’s a sauceless (and faultless) lavender chamomile soda.