Upscale pizza

    Why go to a restaurant with crappy service? Because the food is that good. If it were the other way around, we probably wouldn’t bother – unless your shrink was booked.

    Your ego will not be massaged at Ken’s Artisan Pizza, but nobody here seems to care. With patrons stumbling over one another just to get a taste of the pies coming out of the wood-fired oven, the space-cadet service and not-quite-thought-through atmosphere must be of little concern.

    And rightly so, as nearly everything that emerges from that oven tastes divine.

    Ken learned the art of bread baking in France and it is apparent with just one bite of crust. Fragrant and nutty with a kiss of smokiness, it is that contrast of chewy and crispy that is so elusive to the dough masters in pizza joints all across town. Is that why they call it artisan? Who knows?

    No pepperoni to be had here. No big loss either. The lightly spicy soppressata is sliced thin, crisping up from its brief visit inside the super-hot oven. You’ll smell it across the room, and it may just be the best pie in the city.

    At $10-12 a pie, they are just the right size for one person, with just enough fresh mozzarella and a very basic tomato sauce. Try any pizza with arugula, a peppery green that has been tossed in a splash of olive oil and put on your pie right before it comes to the table. Wrap the crust around it and, voila! You have gotten your roughage for the day.

    Even if you eat all your pizza, you should have room for a starter. The wood-oven roasted-vegetable plate featured a stuffed poblano chile with rich but simple tomatillo sauce, a fresh shell bean bruschetta (otherwise known as toast) and roasted eggplant with a texture so silky it was almost like custard. All benefited from local, fresh tomatoes full of that height-of-summer flavor.

    The other appetizers are solid, but not remarkably different from other Italian kitchens around town: proscuitto and melon, Caesar salad and a fresh tomato salad. Stick to the menu items from the oven – the high heat caramelizes the natural sugar in vegetables, yielding a sweet, toasty flavor, seducing even the vegetable hater.

    As Ken’s has only been open since July, one cannot expect perfection in all areas. Fully competent most of the time, a server on a recent visit missed a pizza order and failed to notice when only three of four diners were eating. After 10 minutes it was clear the server was not aware of her oversight. With nothing to eat, the customer waved down the server and the kitchen saved her butt and quickly prepared the pizza.

    Other elements of the service and atmosphere feel like they were not given enough time and energy before opening. The bartender asks simply, “What would like to drink?” forcing the customer to ask to see a menu. The server station and register is set upon a low folding table shrouded in a dark tablecloth and looks haphazard and flimsy.

    A design studio was hired to put the space together, but “she had a baby, and we’ve been waiting a long time for certain things to be finished,” a server said.

    Lovely-looking desserts are propped like an afterthought at the end of the bar. A beautiful free-form tart is housed precariously on a miniscule folding table, mere inches from disaster every time a chair is pulled from a table.

    Speaking of dessert, you would be better off heading to Ken’s bakery, where the dedicated pastry chef turns out a luscious, tart lemon tart or chewy-nutty macaroons in her sleep. The peach and blackberry crisp here was bland and boring.

    Hopefully, the buzz will die down and allow Ken and his cohorts to catch their breath and finish what they have started: a neighborhood place serving one of Portland’s best pizzas.