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.
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.
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.
Michael’s Beef & Sausage Combo — Wet
Perhaps Clint Eastwood’s sleeper Gran Torino was overlooked by the Oscars for non-PC exchanges like this:
Barber Martin: There. You finally look like a human being again. You shouldn’t wait so long between hair cuts, you cheap son of a bitch.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah. I’m surprised you’re still around. I was always hoping you’d die off and they got someone in here that knew what the hell they were doing. Instead, you’re just hanging around like the duop dego you are.
Barber Martin: That’ll be ten bucks, Walt.
Walt Kowalski: Ten bucks? Jesus Christ, Marty. What are you, half Jew or somethin’? You keep raising the damn prices all the time.
Barber Martin: It’s been ten bucks for the last five years, you hard-nosed pollock son of a bitch.
Walt Kowalski: Yeah, well keep the change.
Barber Martin: See you in three weeks, prick.
Walt Kowalski: Not if I see you first, dipshit.
PC or not, though, it has a certain authenticity. And I’ve lived it at Michael’s — just substitute the racial slurs for political rants.
Last time I was in, Michael saw one of his regulars sit down and he emerged from the kitchen to announce to the entire room that Obama was taking our country down the road of Nazi Germany. In between bites, the regular responded that Michael must have heard that from his buddy Rush Limbaugh while he was selling him oxycotin. Another customer across from me got up in disgust, moving to the other end of the restaurant. A lady from behind the counter came out to tell Michael to, “Shut up and go home,” while another customer started going off about how it was Bush who was the Nazi.
There was thumping of chests and busting of balls, but it was all for show. I’d heard about Michael’s rants, but never really seen one. I always assumed that he was a bit of an asshole, but worth putting up with for the food. Now I think it’s just a wonderful schtick from another place and another era — a welcome anachronism in a blue collar neighborhood undergoing a lot of change with the addition of Le Pigeon, Biwa, Simpatica, and Noble Rot.
And if you can’t handle the schtick, get the food to go, because they make some great sandwiches.
La Calaca Comelona’s mole verde
Cinco de Mayo isn’t much of a holiday in Mexico. But say “Diez y Seis de Septiembre” — the date of Mexico’s independence — to the average American and you’ll get blank stares. So Cinco de Mayo seems as good a time as any to highlight the set of six midscale Mexican restaurants in Portland offering their own take on Mexico’s regional and traditional dishes: Autentica, La Calaca Comelona, DF, Nuestra Cocina, Taqueria Nueve, and La Vanguardia.
A Note on Authenticity
Americans have become accustomed to cheesy Mexican restaurants with gawdy decor. Who hasn’t ended up at a birthday party, the honoree strapped into a sombrero only slightly smaller than the table, an oversized, fluorescent margarita in front of them while a band of mariachis sing feliz cumpleanos, happy birthday, or some especially noisy equivalent ending with whistles and ay-ay-ays? What’s funny is that this isn’t an entirely inauthentic Mexican experience. It may be a caricature of Jalisco culture, but it’s based on something real. You can fly down to Guadalajara right now and see much the same thing.
So what’s a gringo to do? Enjoy what’s put before them, for one thing. It’s difficult for any of us to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, even Mexican-Americans who may only know their own region’s food, may not be familiar with current trends, or may just have bad taste. I’m in the Yucatan right now, for example, and on every little cocina economica’s menu (and these are the restaurants where most Mexicans actually eat) is spaghetti. The most popular street foods are hot dogs and hamburgers.
The six restaurants in this report vary in their commitment to Mexico’s traditions. But that will be a secondary concern for me and one that I’ll try to comment on here and there, but won’t affect my judgment of the restaurant. You can decide for yourself how important authenticity is. It’s enough for me that all of these restaurants are working with a Mexican culinary palette, making dishes that are ostensibily Mexican. I haven’t included Oba, for example, because its menu, while having many Mexican dishes, also has Caribbean, Central and South American influenced dishes. I consider it more Nuevo Latino, grabbing from all Latin American cuisines.
Sorry for the tangent, but the issue always comes up when discussing these places. On to the food…