Apparently I’ve started a tradition. Clarklewis began my Dining Month Portland reports last year. I hadn’t realized it, but I hadn’t been in since. As with Tabla, it tends to be a place I think about when I think about pasta and I don’t think about pasta very often. But I could do a lot worse than returning to Clarklewis which has been a sold restaurant through multiple owners and multiple chefs.
Dining Month Portland is back — now in its second year, a reincarnation of the 25 for $25 from a decade ago. Many of Portland’s best restaurants (and a few, frankly, that I wouldn’t even consider going to for free) offer three course meals for only $25. Last year, I went to five different spots during the first five days and I’ve decided to do that again this year, starting with Tabla.
I’ve always enjoyed Tabla. It’s one of Portland’s best values. I’d probably go more if I ate pasta more, but being on a perpetual low-carb diet — or at least telling myself I am until a delicious dessert gets plopped down in front of me (or until blackberry season) — usually precludes a visit. But I wanted to get back. Since Ten-01, its sister-restaurant closed, there’ve been some changes in staffing.
Three weeks ago, the Oregonian’s editorial team decided, apparently, that the Portland area restaurants and shops most overlooked and in need of promotion by their paper were Shari’s with nearly 100 locations, Taco Time with over 300 locations, Old Spaghetti Factory with nearly 40 locations, and Dutch Bros Coffee with over 150 locations. They also featured Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen, the only non-chain — an old school steakhouse that’s been around since the end of World War II. The author of the story, Lee Williams, questions why it’s been ignored by foodies. He wonders why a place serving a 72 ounce steak wouldn’t get more notice. The owner offers an idea:
“A lot of the time, just because of our geographical location — we’re not downtown, and trendy, so we’re not on radar screens,” says Dave Sayler, 41, of why foodies tend to ignore Sayler’s. Dave Sayler is part of the third generation of Saylers to run the family steakhouse.
“Foodies don’t like anything big,” Dave’s father Gene, 65, says with a laugh.
You won’t find pommes frites, charcuterie or lobster foam here. Sayler’s is steak. And chicken. Lobster tails. And prime rib.
Enough people have attacked the ridiculousness of Williams’s portrayals of foodies in Portland that I’m not going to repeat that here. (Although, dude, pommes frites is just French for fries and, yes, they have them.) However, Sayler’s and Williams’s comments do show a basic misunderstanding: it’s not that foodies don’t like big food, it’s that we prioritize quality. Given two items of equal quality, we’d be overjoyed at a large portion or low price. Duh. (In fact, my favorite steak in town is the 2 lb porterhouse at Nostrana. Its unusual size doesn’t bother me at all.)
Sayler’s other point, though, does have more than an inkling of truth. Being downtown, in the Pearl, or in one of the trendy neighborhoods in North, Northeast, or Southeast Portland has its advantages. There are clearly foodies, such as myself, that go out of our way to explore the outskirts and promote restaurants off the beaten track. Hell, if anyone asks, I always say my favorite restaurants is El Inka in BFE Gresham.
But I often complain as restaurants I love disappear that Portlander’s aren’t willing to drive 15 minutes out of their way for great food. So maybe Sayler has something here. Maybe he’s a victim of snobbery and geographical distance. Only one good way to test that: eat there. So that’s what I did. In the same day, I ate at both El Gaucho and Sayler’s, then followed those meals the next day with a visit to Laurelhurst Market. I ate a ribeye at each. Following are the results.
One of the first true fine dining meals my wife and I had after moving to Portland over a decade ago was at Paley’s Place. I still remember little touches like that they offered an amuse bouche, that they folded my wife’s napkin for her when she got up from the table, and that someone held the door for us as we left. The food was good, too. We’ve kept it on our rotation of special occasion restaurants ever since.
When trying to decide on an appropriate finish to my five-day Dining Month indulgence, Paley’s begged to be chosen. Other than a couple visits to the bar for burgers and small bites, it’d been years since my wife or I had been — basically since Kenny & Zuke’s opened — an egregious oversight. To have an opportunity to return and eat a meal for only $25 seemed too good to pass up.
When Ten-01 opened, it was broadly savaged. I never went under its original chef, but the most charitable reviewers seemed to think it was trying too hard, too clever by half. Then Jack Yoss took over the kitchen, comments rapidly improved, and less than a year later Ten-01 was named restaurant of the year on Portland Food & Drink. After making the restaurant one of Portland’s top tier dining destinations, Yoss left to travel the world. Benjamin Parks was brought in to mixed reviews. It’s always difficult performing under a shadow of success. The expectations are too high. Personally, I had an excellent meal under Parks and was disappointed to see him go.
I’d only been in for a burger and some charcuterie under their current chef, Michael Hanaghan, so when I saw Ten-01 was part of Dining Month Portland, I put it at the top of my list. It ended up being one of the best fine dining meals I’ve had in months.
I was excited to see that Lincoln was on the Dining Month Portland list. Lincoln is part of the concentration of quality restaurants and retail spots around North Williams and Failing. It’s really one of the best barely-more-than-a-block stretches of food in Portland, headlined by Pix, Eat Oyster Bar, Tasty n Sons, Ristretto Roasters, and, of course, Lincoln.
Lincoln is the fanciest of the bunch, though entrees average around only $20, and the room has a modest elegance; a guy could be at home in anything from a polo and dress shorts to jacket and tie. Besides being the fanciest, it’s also the most local and seasonal restaurant in North Portland. It’s a sign of chef-owner Jenn Louis’s pedigree with over a decade of experience in Portland’s kitchens, including locavore luminaries like Wildwood.
If I’ve had any complaint in the past, it’s been that the food has a tendency to be rather restrained, one layer of flavor short of perfection. But that’s part of their philosophy: the ingredients in their natural goodness. And execution has always been good, so I was more than happy to get an excuse to return.
I’m using Dining Month Portland not only as a good way to get three course meals for relatively cheap, but also as an excuse to return to restaurants I’ve liked in the past, but haven’t been to in a while. I always liked Vindalho, but Chef David Anderson left Vindalho last spring to re-open Genoa. I hadn’t been since. One friend told me he had a bad meal there after the change. But every restaurant takes time to get its feet under them with a new chef. I wanted to see for myself.
June is “Dining Month Portland”. Over 40 restaurants, some of Portland’s best, are offering three course meals for only $25 every day they’re open. No catch. If you remember the days of 25 for $25, here they are reborn. Make sure you check out the PortlandFood.org thread where contributors have been posting some of the menus.
I loved the old 25 for $25 promotion and am glad it’s back. I’ve decided to visit a different restaurant on the list the first five days of June and report on my meals here. Hopefully it will encourage you to make use of the great deals as well. I decided to start with Clarklewis.
Trends can go one of two ways: either they get absorbed into the culture at large as just something people do, or they become tired — a gimmick — something that people used to do, or worse, something that people do and most wish they wouldn’t. One of the hottest trends in fine dining over the last decade has been “molecular gastronomy” — the use of food science to create new ways of using ingredients and forming dishes.
While the trend has mostly passed by Portland, when it has shown itself at restaurants such as Lucier or Rocket, it has largely been derided both by press and foodies (even by some who actually tried it). We are Portland. We brush our teeth with Tom’s and cure our erectile dysfunction with acupuncture. Foam is something that non-hipsters put on their face to shave with. We don’t want our food “processed”. At least that’s the lesson most seem to have taken from the well-funded failure of Lucier (and to a lesser extent, Rocket).
The latest attempt at bringing molecular gastronomy to PDX came when Castagna changed chefs, hiring Matthew Lightner, who spent a year working at Mugaritz, one of Spain’s (and the world’s) most notable avant-garde restaurants. Castagna, owned by Monique Siu, was born of Zefiro, the restaurant that has been Portland’s culinary touchstone for two decades. It helped define NW Cuisine in Portland as something simple, about the ingredients, not the technique or presentation, nearly the anti-thesis of molecular gastronomy.
I finally ate at Castagna under Lightner for the first time this last week. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I heard that it was a more “restrained” form of molecular gastronomy, that the high profile techniques were used, but in a less obtrusive fashion.
I don’t think I would call what Lightner is doing at Castagna truly more restrained, but I do think it is different, an evolution of molecular gastronomy that might just bridge the gap from something trendy to something that chefs just do.
Following is my full report on the meal (with lots of pictures, of course).
I was one of the few stalwart fans of Lucier, perhaps the only real attempt in the last decade at creating a destination restaurant with luxurious food in a luxurious setting in Portland. My meals were always good with moments of brilliance. But the soulless monstrosity meme was established before the restaurant had even opened. I believe that largely colored the opinions of many of those I otherwise respect on culinary matters.
However, two people from the kitchen seemed to get uniform praise: Kristen Murray, the pastry chef, and Gregory Denton, the sous chef. Kristen Murray has since returned to her former employers’ other restaurant, Fenouil, while Gregory Denton helms Metrovino, possibly the most under-appreciated fine dining restaurant in Portland right now. Metrovino is housed in the former space of another (formerly) under-appreciated restaurant, DF. (You’d think that Lovejoy had a moat filled with alligators or something, given Portlanders’ unwillingness to consider the second half of the alphabet truly part of the Pearl. Just because it’s on the other side of the tracks, doesn’t mean it’s the other side of the tracks.) The food at Metrovino fits the Portland aesthetic well, much better than Lucier did, probably. It’s more restrained with technology and technique, plus there’s a stronger emphasis on renewing old world foods and methods. Expect things like sweetbreads, marrow bones, house-cured meats, house-cured fishes, and tripe to make frequent appearances on the menu.
So when I saw there was a goat dinner with Gabe Rucker splitting chefly duties, I knew that I’d be scraping together the cash and getting on bended knee to beg my wife for permission to go. Ironically, while I love what both Rucker and Denton do with less-used cuts of meat and offal, these two also gave me two of my best meals in my month long vegan quest. But I had no doubt they’d do even better with goat and I wasn’t disappointed.