Restaurant Roulette Recombobbled – THE DINING REPORT
Belly Timber – Welcome To 2008 With A 1850s Vibe
Okay, okay, I take it back. About three weeks ago, I wrote that that the environs of the Hawthorne neighborhood are not for me. I still am not overly crazy about Hawthorne itself, like the rude people who just stroll out in front of your car like it is their God Given Right not to be run over by your vehicle, whether or not you technically have the right away by law. Main drag Hawthorne, forget it. The Sunnyside neighborhood, just north of Hawthorne, however, what a magical sort of place. I say this because after our most recent RRR (Restaurant Roulette Recombobled) dinner at Belly Timber, Pam and I took a short stroll, about two square blocks, directly behind the restaurant, just next to Sunnyside School, and saw such great old houses, I could stroll here for hours. Sure, I totally love impressive neighborhoods like Laurelhurst full of those elegantly maintained Craftsmen Bungalows with their wonderfully designed gardens and flower beds. This Sunnyside neighborhood though, what a fascinating collection of funky old Victorians (and older) with their imaginative and often whacked-out paint jobs. Many of the yards aren’t as fancy, but the collection of houses themselves, quaint and almost awe-inspiring. Way to do it, Sunnyside!
Okay, on to Belly Timber. I was feeling a bit cocky after our Restaurant Elite dinner at Lauro, as the few people I notified about it happening said yes immediately, and I never even got a chance to send out a regular R.S.V.P. The Belly Timber dinner brought me back to the harsh realities of current hard times, though, as well as reminding me of those divided interests people have during the summer months, as I could barely gather enough people together for this dinner. Sure, the four people I finally cajoled to join me were first rate, but it’s always rather embarrassing when you originally reserve a table for 10, and end up with five people. I don’t think the restaurant was really to blame, although totally new, the Belly Timber menu is relatively impressive, most prices are “reasonable,” and who doesn’t want to have a meal in a interesting old house? Several people were out of town, out of the country, on their way out of town, attending concerts, or economizing, so five of us was it.
I said much about the Belly Timber space two reviews ago, when I went to the pre-opening, so I’m going to try to keep my remarks minimal in this area, at least as minimal as I am capable of (no comment.) When Pam and I arrived at Belly Timber we were actually the last ones to get there, as only 17 minutes earlier we had left the Airport Way Home Depot after an important but time consuming errand (but one with a fun surprise, as we ran into wayward RR members Tori and Dave, unaware we were even having a dinner that night, who were stocking up on gorilla glue. So if you want to hang out with Tori and Dave, just remember, Airport Way Home Depot.) I guess we didn’t have to hurry so much, as I don’t think Belly Timber would have given out table away, as we were the only people there at 6:30. Owner Michelle welcomed us by actually remembering me from the pre-opening party, and we proceeded to our table, exactly where Pam and I had sat last time, in the metallic sage room in front of the restroom hallway. I noticed some photos on the wall that I had not noticed last time, and Pam thought they were new (we had commented that the space was a bit austere previously.) The photos were pretty modern black and white things though, and as Jody commented on, didn’t really add much to the Victorian vibe. Those lovely little stained glass windows were glowing though, and my favorite, over the bar, was radiating beautiful illumination with the summer sun shining through from the west.
The waitress was very nice, and solicitous, which I suppose isn’t that unusual when you are the only people in the dining room, but she seemed awfully nervous. She was very enthusiastic and loved all the food and every drink on the menu though, so while perhaps her opinions weren’t completely discerning, she had an answer for ever question that came up (there were a few queries, as the Belly Timber menu has some unusual items they serve (cuttlefish, bivette steak, lovage, what the hell?)
Jody, Rod and David had been there long enough that they all had drinks going from the bar, the most interesting being a Sangria thing that Jody gave me a taste of, very cool and refreshing. Pam and I both decided on an Orange Martini (I guess they ran out of interesting names, an unusual combination of Indio Blood Orange vodka, grand marnier, apple juice and orange bitters. Pam liked hers, but I was relatively neutral about mine, the consistency reminded me of some of those weird martinis they have at Bartini that I never really enjoy, sort of syrupy rather than icily refreshing.
The menu has been slightly tweaked in the 2.5 weeks that Belly Timber had been open, but I already had an idea of what I was having, although I was still wavering a bit on my starter. One thing that I find really great about the Belly Timber menu is the fact that all of the entrees can be ordered as half servings, so you can create a pretty reasonably priced dinner by selecting a couple of the smaller sizes plates. The waitress had commented earlier that all of the portion sizes were on the smallish side, so to keep in mind that when you had a half portion it might actually be half a portion that wasn’t too large to begin with, but when the smaller sized items came, they seemed plenty generous.
We were brought a nice little baguette, some butter, and some mysterious dehydrated something or other powder to sprinkle on the top (I think the waitress might have said beet. Last time it was dehydrated carrot sprinkles.) We were also each brought a free complimentary nosh of some elaborately piled mini cracker (about 1/4 of a Dorrito,) with some tasty fish (halibut gravlax perhaps) and other food doodles on top. Yummy, and probably filling after 10,000 pieces, but I appreciate anything free, so there you go.
Pam and Jody thought the soup of the evening sounded yummy, vichyssoise, and nowadays, especially with such a fancy name, a bargain at $5.00 a bowl. As I’m sure all of you know, vichyssoise is a fancy name for cold tatter soup, and since it had been a very hot day, 87 degrees, having a featured soup that is chilled was probably a real selling point. Although the waitress had made the comment about the servings being on the modest side, when the bowls of soup arrived they were gigantic, and I was pretty sure by the consistency, probably filling.
Why is it when you want to taste someone’s soup, there’s never a spare spoon? I seem to remember when I was a young misbehaved squirt, and we went out to dinner, there was always a complete line of silverware on the table, 1-2 forks, knife, spoon. Nowadays, it seems like there’s never a spoon unless you order soup or ask for one, especially in good quality restaurants (and B.T. had nice quality silverware, by the way.) I suppose it keeps costs down, not having people soil unnecessary silverware which then needs washing, and this is certainly important conservation wise, and smart water usage, but several times during recent dinners I and others at dinners have wished we had silverware that just wasn’t there at the time, especially during soup and dessert. Sure, you can always ask for it, but that really can take too much time and effort.
I say this because people were offering tastes of everything, including soup, and it’s really hard to taste someone’s soup without a spare spoon. I guess you could pick up their bowl and take a big slurp (David’s idea,) take and drag a digit through their bowl (umm umm,) or remove your shoe and use that as a dipping device (but it was sandal weather, and those make poor ladles,) but it really would have been nice to have an extra spoon or two. Jody was offering tastes of vichyssoise, and I really wanted to try it, as that’s one of those classy things you’re always hearing about but never actually taste (like Baked Alaska or Cherries Jubilee.) I finally resorted to taking a poke with my fork at her liquid, as I believe did David with Pam’s soup, so I did get a small idea of flavor. It seemed nice and creamy, and I thought I detected a garlic overtone, but I must have poked the wrong part of the soup, as Jody said the overtone was salt, as the soup was good, but a tad salty. Pam seemed very happy with hers, (she told me later she absolutely loved it) although she actually salts apples for god’s sake!
Rod had something stuffed inside something else for his starter, but all the heat over last weekend made my brain blow a fuse, so what it was, I have no clue at this point, and Pam could not remember either. I know it was something unusual to be stuffed though, I’m almost certain it was a vegetable of some sort that you don’t usually cram things inside off. Wait, wait, now I know, it was stuffed collard greens. (That’s what receipts are for.) How you’d stuff those suckers I have no idea. I think he found it good though, as I don’t remember him spitting any out under table or putting a hex on the cook. David, obviously going all out in his weirdness, seemingly still smarting from all my chicken scolding, had the cuttlefish starter, a very daring move in my book, as cuttlefish look nothing like chickens. The actual description was Grilled cuttlefish, kohlrabi, capers, endive and warm bacon vinaigrette. I was actually one of the few at the table who knew about cuttlefish (a squid-like creature,) as I remember seeing them all over Northern Italy, usually served in squid ink for a truly scary looking dish. I’ve also noticed cuttlefish at a few restaurants around town over the last year or so. I’m not sure if David knew what cuttlefish were before he decided to order them, maybe he was just in an affectionate mood (after all, there’s nothing like a cuddly squid-like creature for some good lovin’.) He also had a nice ramekin thing full of high quality olives and other pickled treats which I thought quite full of yumminess, as he generously passed those all over the place.
I had the small portion of the Bivette Steak as my starter, served with sorrel and sliced fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter, after all, when do I not have steak in some form? This was the same item Jody selected for her second course. Before I came to the restaurant I had been planning on having this same starter with skirt steak rather than Bivette steak, but for some reason B.T. has now started to serve this dish with the more unusual cut of beef (the waitress explained it’s a tender, well marbled part of the shoulder. Where will restaurants end their search for the most obscure cut of meat? I did think the Bivette was a nice cut though, as tender and well marbled are always good for me, and my portion was expertly cooked to rare. I did find the whole affair a bit salty though (Jody and I were on the side of the table where salt was raining down from the ceiling it seems,) and I’ve learned over time that fingerlings are not my favorite potatoes, people never cook them to a point of softness, and I’m never keen on overly solid potatoes.
While we were gobbling various eats, a few more people stumbled into Belly Timber, two or four maybe, which made me feel a bit better. I think when we came in a couple of people were in the outdoor seating area, because you know how it goes in P. Town, non-hurricane, non-snow, or non-drenching rain, and people want to sit out on the patio, even on a busy street, across from an apartment building being refurbished, and even if a beautiful (and cooler) Victorian house waits inside, empty.
Except for David and I, who didn’t seem to have appetites affected by the heat, everyone else decided that two small plates would be enough to get them by. Pam, always a lover of beets, had the Beet Salad with greens and fromage blanc in red wine vinaigrette. She thought it was delicious, although perhaps a tiny sprinkle lacking in salt. Jody, after the hearty potato soup, still managed to navigate her way through the half portion of Bivette Steak that I had tried for my started. I think she found the quality good, but like me, found a bit too much salt present. David, experiencing a day similar to mine where he had not had an abundance of food before coming to the restaurant, had the full sized portion of the Pan Seared Halibut with wild rice and Maine shrimp with fennel and basil seeds. Many times when we lunch and dine with David his opinion is relatively neutral, unless it’s some great chicken, but he was full of praise for his entree on this evening, and it was certainly the prettiest plate of food that made its way to our table this evening. Nicely composed without looking like a culinary student’s art project.
I had decided when I went to the pre-opening event at Belly Timber that as long as it was still on the menu, the Orecchiette pasta (little ears,) with rabbit sausage and rapini would be my entree this evening. I’m certainly not a person who will seek out rabbit, especially after it really gave me the hops one time when I ate it on Mallorca, but I love good sausage, especially mixed with pasta, so I thought it would make a nice change from my usual meaty main course, Rod also had the half portion as this entree, and told me he found it good. It was certainly fine, although the rabbit sausage was ground up quite small, so the flavor was relatively neutral, and the sauce wasn’t overly zingy or full of wonderful cheese flavor or zesty spices, so the overall taste was good, if not amazing or great.
The dessert menu at Belly Timber is quite small at this time, a coffee dessert, a chocolate cake and peanut butter dessert, and polenta pound cake with fresh berries and house made mascarpone. Pam loves polenta, so was anxious to try the pound cake, and since I was in a mood for dessert, and this sounded the most palatable of the three, we both ordered this. After making some comment perhaps a tad too loud that everyone could have a taste if we had more silverware, more implements appeared, so everyone had at least one bite. The pound cake was certainly a bit grittier than usual because of the corn meal, less sweet than is typical, and not overly moist, almost more corn bread like than pound cake like. Pam thought the whole thing delicious, but it wasn’t really a favorite of mine, as the pound cake was a bit on the dry side, and I never do well with tart berries, which is why I rarely eat berries. The mascarpone was also tangy instead of sweet, so I’m sure that while berry lovers and people who don’t mind desserts that aren’t very sweet would like this, it made me pucker a bit more than I enjoy doing during dessert.
Later, when the other three had left and only Pam and I were lingering to use the restroom (which can be a bit tricky to get into, as they only seem to have one stall on the ground floor, but it’s a really nice, full scale restroom,) Michele, the co-owner, came over to ask me how things had gone, and to get the blog address again, as I had posted an entry on Belly Timber earlier and she wanted to look at it. I made reference to the fact that things seemed to be starting out a bit slow, patronage wise, but Michele didn’t seem too worried, as she said they had made it a point to start out really quietly, with no advertisements, as they wanted to get the bugs worked out before they started going full scale. She said they had started posting some ads that week, and thought more people would start showing up after that. Michele and partner Tara already have one successful restaurant, Equinox, on the Mississippi strip, so we’ll assume they know what to do to get a restaurant going in the beginning. As it happens, I had eaten at Equinox just the Friday before, finally making it on to that highly sought out patio, and it seemed like they were doing fine, considering the current “recession” we are unfortunately in the midst of. Equinox and Belly Timber strike me as complete opposites concept wise though, Equinox always seems to modern, so trendy, and in the beginning was totally fusion crazy, although these days it’s calmed down to a much more pleasing form of cuisine, still interesting, but not jarring in the combinations it offers. Belly Timber is more stately and refined, the menu still full of interesting ingredients, but more NW driven with occasional European flourishes. Our general consensus was that Belly Timber has many strong points, the intriguing menu, a slightly lower price point than the average “upscale” Portland restaurant, nice people owning and running the place, and a wonderful space. It does seem that the breaking in period was not totally over when we went there, though, that was the main complaint a couple of us had, the recipes were good, but the salt level was a bit high in a few of the dishes. That’s an easy fix though. So whether you like the name or hate the name, Belly Timber is completely worth checking out, even if it’s just for a drink and a half plate or two, you’re sure to get an interesting cocktail and some well thought out food in this wonderful old house.