Oba! logoIn the nine years since it has opened, Oba! has always been a model of consistency in the Pearl. It has never changed ownership. The chef, Scott Neuman, has been there since day one, as well as its NuevoLatino menu. The prime rib, queso fundido, and coconut prawns are some of the most delicious items prepared on the Portland dining scene. The happy hour in the bar is one of the best values in town, and is always packed, as well as the outdoor seating in the summer, and the dramatic dining room all times of the year. In the dining area, I have never had bad service, and for some reason the waiters always seem to be tall, dark, and exceedingly good looking. And the bathrooms have always been too small to handle the crush of beautiful people huddled there waiting for those elusive two stalls (and whatever you have in the male equivalent.)

I’ve always loved Oba!, both because of its dark and surrealistically lit dining room, and it’s “NuevoLatino” menu, which according to its website touches on the cuisines of the Caribbean, Cuba, South and Central America, Mexico, and the American Southwest. These are all dramatic kinds of cooking, and most are among my favorites in the world. Although I have eaten many happy hours in the bar in recent years, it has been almost five years since I have dined in the full table luxury of Oba’s! restaurant environs (most of the happy hour tables are tiny,) but having been away five years, I must say, little at Oba! has changed during that time period.

As the founding mother of Restaurant Roulette, I try to be a somewhat decent hostess and arrive on the early side of the reservation, especially if new faces are coming. Traffic isn’t always on my side however, and having gotten stuck in several delightful traffic bottlenecks over in the Lloyd District and Rose Quarter before crossing the river, I arrived with less than 10 minutes to spare, and already 10 RRers waiting in the lobby for my arrival (yes, I WAS the one who recommended people not getting behind schedule with parking the way it is in the Pearl.) Of the 28 or so people I regularly email about RR activities, the regulars generally fall amongst three groups, my early days members (Michael and Geri, hope to see some of you other old timers soon,) my middle distance members (Marnie and Leo, Tori and Dave and hopefully sometime again soon, Frank and Grace,) and all you great new people that have given RR such fun times and flavor recently (David and Bev, Pat and Regis, Erica and Larry, Julia and Christina, and sometimes Jody too.) I mention this because things have evolved so much since RR got started again in February that one of the great middle-distance regulars, Dave, and his friend Danny were standing alone when I finally arrived, not realizing that the large cluster of bodies 10 ft. from them were all current RR regulars.

From a strict head count, this was our largest gathering ever, there were 14 people at our table. As a semi-honest sort, however, who likes things like semantics, I must mention that while the official amount of bodies at our table was 14, only twelve of those people were “official” RR members, out of towner Danny being a good sport and joining Dave for the evening, and Pat and Regis’ daughter, Jennifer, joining us after a cancelation early in the day left us with an empty seat at our table. Jennifer was our official seven degrees of separation member for the evening, as it turned out she and Michael had attended the same high school in Texas, which really was an incredibly unlikely coincidence. (Please don’t tell me Mr. Bush went there too. Did he even go to high school, or did he have someone else study for him?)

Well, at least I wasn’t THE LAST people/person to arrive, that award goes to our always transportationally sensible friends Marnie and Leo, who decided not to drive this time, although I never heard whether this was out of worry about Hwy. 26 being closed at 11:30pm, or out of the desire to really tie one on later in the evening (that was pretty endearing Leo, the way you kept ordering those gastly Mojitos (2 or 3) forgetting that you already had a nearly full one at the table, and just how lousy they were.) Although I am a total cell phone hold out, I had to admire the way Erica tracked their step by step progress when they were waylaid by a slow MAX train and as they made their way step by intrepid step from the transit mall (do we still have one of those?) to the Pearl. And Leo, how many Mojitos did you have along the way (just a thought, after seeing the way you were brandishing Marnie’s powder blue floral purse all evening long.)

And speaking of mojitos, they seemed to be a popular libational trend at the dinner table, there were plain mojitos, mango mojitos, pomegranite mojitos, passion fruit mojitos (sour!) not to mention magaritas and glasses of fine wine, all being pased around and sampled by most everyone. As always, Oba! started things off with wonderfully chewy bread with Chipotle garlic butter, and several people threw bugetary caution to the wind (pretty hard not to do at Oba! these days, this place has gotten EXPENSIVE!), and had starters of the delicious coconut prawns with jalapeno-citrus marmalade, seared rare ahi tuna, crab cakes, ceviche, or one of Oba’s! interesting salads. Oba! has always made great small plates, and these can actually be sampled in the bar at less than half price during happy hour.

Since our table was so large (although dwarfed by the gigantic loud birthday group behind us,) it was hard for me to keep up with all the conversational trends that were flowing back and forth, even though I was seated somewhat mid-table. There seemed to be much talk of basements at this dinner, both of the moldering home improvement type and the huge basement where one could take guests and wack them over the head with a shovel type. I seemed to be at the ruder end of the table (how could it be any other way?) where that always fun and frolicksome foursome of Erica, Larry, Marnie and Leo entertained us all night long with crazy laughter, obtuse but still frightening drawings of small animals (those prairie people,) and covert but observable hand gestures. And is often true at RR dinners, both because of the size of our table and the volume in the rest of the dining area, at least 1/2 the conversation tends to be misheard and misunderstood, always to high comic affect (it’s VOLVO!) All of the women at our end of the table, while oggling the gorgeous waitstaff, were if firm agreement with Marnie when she stated that Oba! was a place easy on the stomach and easy on the eyes. (Now we know why Marnie’s blog is SO enjoyable, with keen commentary like that.)

Of the entrees ordered, the prime rib seemed the most well received, particularly Leo’s Gaucho Cut, which had a slightly different preparation than the standard Prime Rib, and which Leo generously shared around the table with all comers. The Ancho Pepper crusted Ahi Tuna with Yellow Pepper Coulis made several people happy, although one diner proclaimed it “overly peppery” (could it perhaps have had something to do with the Ancho Pepper?) I was told the Halibut with Tropical Salsa was good, but a bit on the light side, and the Shrimp and Scallop Tamales seemed an artistic preparation, and were said to be good. The Mesquite-Grilled Flank steak with blue cheese crumbles I ordered was decent, but perhaps not up to the exceptional standard of some of the flavorful pork dishes I have had in the past at Oba!. Entertaining, however, was the presentation of my perky asparagus spears, thrusting out of my pile of poblano mashed potatoes, their horizontal nature upsetting my seatmate on the left in the extreme, so thank you, Marnie, for letting me point my jutting green giants in your direction (adventurous girl!) The roasted Butternut Squash Enchiladas with toasted walnuts were given the thumbs down as both bland but spicy, too sweet (the squash, perhaps,) but excessively grainy (the accompanying quinoa salad perhaps? There’s nothing as annoying as a grainy grain.)

As the portions were relatively large, few desserts were ordered, the exception being three servings of the Oba! stalwart, cinnamon chocolate volcano cake, which I noticed was now served in a portion about 1/2 the size it was nine years ago. Okay, so something has changed at Oba!, prices and smaller desserts.

It’s true, over the last few years my attention has been drawn away from Oba! to some newer restaurants. For one thing, the place is always so packed with “the beautiful people” that I often feel like a dairy cow come to graze when I’m in their midst. And it has gotten horrendously expensive. Those issues aside, however, Oba! is still a fine restaurant, a showy and always interesting place to dine, and I would still recommend it at any time to anyone looking for a intriguing meal on the somewhat more expensive side (and there is that happy hour.) I’m glad to see that while a multitude of Pearl bars and eateries have come anf gone, Oba! remains Oba!, gorgeous, always fashionable, and never less than exotic.

Afterwards, Dr. T., who had missed out on dinner at Oba! because she was off saving lives (or pushing pills, or giving enemas, or something heroic,) met quite a few of us at the oddly decorated “The District”, a somewhat newish bar in the Pearl next to Vault Martini. Ornithologically challeged, rusted antique birdcages full of strange nests and burning melted candles, fiberglass hot pink lit candelabras, ornate crystal chandeliers, and large swoopy velvet curtains on concrete walls were just some of the unusual “decor” in this packed space full of 20 and 30 somethings. (One reason it was so crowded, the gigantic horseshoe bar that took up 3/4ths of this establishment’s square footage.) As is common in some of these too trendy to actually exist watering holes, the drinks were lousy and relatively weak, but still cutting edge expensive. Leo, our eternal optimist, ordered the three previously mentioned mojitos, took one sip, and promptly forgot this and ordered one or two more, all which were still at our table, barely sipped, when we left “The District.” Tori actually acquired a drink she enjoyed, a cucumber margarita, but hardly got more than two sips after everyone had to taste (I found it a bit like drinking one of the great salt lakes, but what do I know?)

Even though the drinks were weird and substandard at best, and our butts were in permanent pain-lock (six of us sitting on a bench for three,) as usual the conversation made it all worth while, although most was shouted over the loud throbbing music that was seemingly the same song played for an hour and a half. Leo and Larry, both in a frisky mood, livened things up plying their new found trade as male mimbos, picking up men, women, and drinks indescriminately. Leo, later deciding too many of us were still conscious, generously bought all willing victims a shot of tequilla, with which we toasted RR, and then headed off into the night, another successful and lively dinner under our belts.