To begin with, some non-related food notes:If you like to try somewhat unusual drinking establishments, check out Thatch, the ultimate Portland Tiki Bar experience. The place is on NE Broadway, between 27th and 28th, and has been open going on 9 months. The atmosphere is like floating away in your dugout canoe and coming upon some wild hut full of wacky Polynesian decor that serves really stiff drinks. My favorite interior decoration, the brightly colored blowfish lights, but this place is decked out in the extreme with every South Seas touch you can imagine, waterfall by the door, carved tiki statues, walls made of spears, and a bathroom so cute and tropical you might want to live there, if only the rushing water sound could be an ocean lagoon outside, not a flushing toilet. The menu is relatively small, mostly pu-pu’s and things you can sizzle at your table on a little hibachi, but the crab rangoon dumplings are really good, although a bit expensive at $10.00 for four pieces. Mai-Tais are the featured happy hour drink, $5.00 until 6:30, and they are strong. The music is somewhat crazy. This is a slightly wacked out, but sweet little place to have a drink and a nice little snack.Also, a note on Toro Bravo, visited recently after a foot thrashing 3 hour Ikea mission. I once again found the food and everything else wonderful. Particularly fun, sitting at the kitchen bar and watching the chefs do their stuff. The young woman churning out the small plates and desserts was particularly nice, explaining things to us, and watching everything being prepared made me want to order one of each. Once again, the Smoked Coppa Steak was to die for (it’s actually smoked as a roast, grilled whole, then sliced into steaks when it comes off the grill), and this restaurant has vaulted into my top five in a hurry. The staff is friendly, the atmosphere is great, and as most of the small plates are a decent size, it’s a good value. They’ve also revamped their air conditioning, so on this summer evening I wasn’t even hot sitting across from a flaming grill. I love this place!

Also, for anyone who has not heard, Assaggio did go out of business the week after we had our dinner (after all, once RR has dined there, what else is there for a restaurant to look forward to?). I am quite sad, they were very special in their glory days. The space is scheduled to reopen in mid-September as a new entity, this time with Olea’s original chef at the helm.

There were nine of us signed on for dinner at 23 Hoyt, although one of us mysteriously never appeared. Julia, Julia, where did you go?

As has often been the case over the last couple of months, we welcomed a new face to our humble group, Glenda, surely setting a extremely high mark for any other member of Restaurant Roulette to attain, most stylish figure to ever grace our table. Glenda, yet another San Francisco exile (most of my exiles from the Bay Area still love their wonderful town, it seems they just can’t afford to live there), set a quiet tone at the dinner, but I’m told she had some intriguing experiences during her career as a librarian in Europe, and I could tell just by looking at her, she certainly has enjoyed her share of fine cuisine and spirits in her day (who else in RR has ever been classy enough to order champagne?) So I look forward to seeing you again and talking with you further at upcoming RR dinners, Glenda, and hearing some of those wild librarian tales!

It seems that sometimes I lose sight of the fact that NW Portland really is our loveliest neighborhood. Sure, parking has got to be the most nightmarish in P-town, but for a sense of upscale Portland at its historical best, a stroll down just a couple of the early alphabet streets between 24th and 21st can be totally breathtaking. Nowhere in town is the turn of the century elegance so evident, nowhere else is there house upon house upon house of grand design and careful renovation, each seemingly larger than the other as you begin the ascent up toward King’s Heights. And commercial though it is, NW 23rd is still a joy to visit (unless you are driving there, of course), especially in the evening when the trees are bathed in tiny white lights and the sidewalks are packed with people bustling everywhere, small outside cafes crammed with people and dogs, even those “street urchin” types seem more benevolent peddling their poverty on 23rd.

Just like the majority of the neighborhood, NW 23rd and Hoyt is an exciting, bustling intersection. Befitting this fact, the corner space occupied by 23Hoyt is an impressive one, it’s hard to believe this space was originally a Coffee People. The restaurant seems huge when you enter it, probably because the floorplan is made up of a long rectangular area, and the eatery is made even more impressive by an additional dining area on a second story balcony. The entry into the restaurant seems a bit unorthodox however, since instead of having the traditional podium, desk, or other object where the host or hostess stands and the reservations are kept, 23Hoyt merely has a longish table where people come dashing up to you to find out if you really have a reason for being there (on a Friday night, an obligatory reservation). The whole space oozes good taste though, from the pastel walls to the blondish wood tables to the subdued lighting, this is a eye pleasing, pretty place.

The masterminds behind 23Hoyt are some of Portland dining’s biggest names, Bruce Carey and Chris Israel. People loved their long gone Zefiro, always spoken of, in hushed and reverent tones, as Portland’s first really sophisticated big city bistro. Their third partner in Zefiro, Monique Sui, went off on her own to open the critically praised Castagna, Zefiro closing on a whim and Chris Israel (and I think Carey behind the scenes) going off to open trendsetter’s favorite Saucebox. Israel eventually lost interest, and went off to cook in New York, Carey opening Bluehour.

After Coffee People and whatever else, the corner spot at 23rd and Hoyt was revamped, and the renovated space made its fine dining debut as a place called Balvo. Unfortunately for Balvo (and its chef, Carey protege Chris Balvo) no one seemed to like the space, the cuisine, or the name, and it was a tremendous failure. Bruce Carey, I believe having partial ownership of Balvo, sensed what a dog Balvo was turning into, so the space closed after too long, to be totally re-thought as a new upscale restaurant. Chris Israel was lured back from his other projects, and 23Hoyt was born.

Since it opened, I believe around last year’s winter holiday season, most things I have read about 23Hoyt have been positive, especially about the interior and the quality of the cooking. Most critics had it among the top three restaurants that opened in Portland in the last year, Le Pigeon and Pok Pok usually fighting for #1, and 23Hoyt falling in right behind them, at least according to local dining experts (sad but true, I’m generally not grouped amongst these people, although we all know I should be. Yeah, right. And for my money, however, I think Toro Bravo deserves to stand tall amongst the likes of any of these establishments).

But enough of this Portland restaurant scuttlebutt, and back to the evening at hand. The interior of the restaurant has a good layout, a nice sophisticated bar area with a baby grand for the live music they have here on certain evenings, then a few marble steps up to the main dining room, which was very busy, but due to sensible table arrangement, not feeling crowded. We were led to the second floor seating area, something that pleased me, as it seems like I never get to eat upstairs anywhere, and shown to our table, which was of a decent size, but pushing it for our group of nine (luckily we ended up with only eight, so the table seemed a bit less crowded, although elbow room was at a premium on the sides). The seats had to have been Medieval torture devices masquerading as wooden chairs, the shape was weird and they had several uncomfortably placed wooden bars on the sides that were both back and side jabbing. The unusual thing about our table, it was one of only two or three that had this gigantic dripping wax ceramic candle holder on it. Although it only held one big candle, the girth and height of it were gianormous, and as it was perched off-center at the South-ish end of the table, it was mainly an impediment to seeing folks seated opposite to you. We contemplated moving it to less populated areas of the table (a somewhat scary thought, as it looked like it weighed 10,000 pounds), but finally the waiter asked if we would just like it removed, and everyone agreed it was a good idea, although we then lost our status as one of the few weird candle tables.

As for the waiter himself, I liked him quite a lot, professional, friendly, helpful, and young. (Oh, did I forget to mention nicely handsome, in a Liev Schreiber sort of way). In fact, all of the staff and service at 23Hoyt are great, and professional, it seems like a well run place, as it should be, considering the owner’s track records.

One disappointment with the “total dining experience”, however, the restrooms were just plain ugly, almost unfinished looking in fact. I got an inkling this would be so by the hallway leading to various staff areas and the obligatory two unisex toilet entries, plain white, no embellishments, ugly metal doors, it looked like a basement where cleaning supplies were kept or something. This place has much to learn from places that feature restroom areas with atmosphere, Bluehour, Roux, Toro Bravo, Equinox, The Doug Fir Lounge, all these places make a trip to the toilet a pleasure (????). (Other places sharing 23Hoyt’s Boring Toilets Hall of Shame, Russell Street Ribs, Pastini in NW and Irvington, and Montavilla’s Ya Hala [scary, scary, scary, and boring]). Inside 23 Hoyt’s “facilities” plain white walls, white sink, and a big gold plated rooster perched precariously on the wall. I’m told the second restroom stall was the same, the exception being a big black leather “fainting couch” (I suppose if you pass out from boredom once you see the actual restroom). This place charges $27 for like 6 slices of lamb, can’t they afford to invest a few bucks so the unisex toilets and hallway don’t resemble a Chevron Station restroom? What’s the deal with that?

The second disappointment, no specials, just the exact summer menu posted on their website. And no beef on the menu, in any form. What exactly was I doing here? I had actually viewed the menu earlier and made somewhat of a decision on what I would have, but I still suppose in the addled recesses of my mind, I thought some beef would materialized from somewhere, anywhere, be it a special or whatever.

During the “cocktail hour”, mostly wine, the aforementioned champagne, and much flowing rum at the Southern end of the table, we had all tucked into the nice plates of extremely thinly sliced sourdough bread. Nowadays sourdough bread is a rarity in Portland, but I seem to remember reading that this sourdough was a resurrection from the Zefiro days, and everyone seemed pleased gobbling up a multitude of slices smeared with the accompanying butter. Although I myself am never a fan of the sour, (myself aside, of course) bread included, I still managed to chomp up at least 2-3 pieces, because sour or not, I am always a fan of high-end bread. This bread consumption, plus my earlier pu-pu (I swear, I only mean the crab ragoon at Thatch), convinced me that I could manage skipping the extremely high priced starters and just concentrate on an entree item, and if anything was particularly notable, dessert.

Everyone else was interested in starters, however, some people wisely deciding on two starters, thus forgoing the even higher priced entrees. For the starter-starters, the Caesar Salad preparation looked similar to the one which is famous at Carey’s other dump, Bluehour, this version having the now common unchopped spears of Romaine. David and Bev kindly shared a bite with me, and while I thought it was good enough, for me it’s hard to believe people go around charging $10 for 2-3 leaves of lettuce with a smattering of dressing and some nice croutons. Pam seemed quite happy with another $10 salad, Beet, Endive and Avocado Salad with Goat Cheese, Toasted Almonds and Sherry-Cumin Vinaigrette. Brian looked liked he had the Mixed Greens with Radishes, Croutons and Vinaigrette, which I noticed was very pretty, and cost a mere $8 (at Toro Bravo, for $8 you can get a first class salad that feeds four). Glenda had what looked like a Caprese Salad, but as I didn’t see that on the menu, I don’t know what it was. Adele had delightful looking Seared Sea Scallops with Lime Buerre Blanc and a Sweet Corn Ragout with Peppers, Onions, and Cilantro. For some reason I think I became distracted by the other end of the table at about this time though, and I never heard if she enjoyed them or not.

For second courses people had many different things. Two people, Glenda and Aruna had the Wild Mushroom Risotto with Chantrelles, Porcini and Herbs. The portions were extremely small for $11, one scoop, and both women agreed that while the mushroom flavor was very good, someone had not stirred enough water into the risotto at the end, so it was somewhat dry and slightly hard. Pam had the Zucchini-Ricotta Gnocchi with Basil, Butter, and Parmesan. The serving was ample for $10, and it looked really good and I heard no complaints from Madame Macready. Glenda selected the Oregon Rabbit (did someone check its ID?) Hindquarter Braised with White Wine, Mustard, Crimini Mushrooms, Bacon Lardons and Pearl Onions, with Buttered Egg Noodles and Rabbit Sausage. (Yeah, bacon will put the lard on.) The poor bunny had a very petite hindquarter, and while Glenda said it was good, it wasn’t great.

Brian selected the Grilled Free-Range Chicken with two Georgian Sauces – Walnut and Spicy Blackberry – and Adzharian Style Green Beans Tossed With Yogurt, Saffron, Cinnamon, and Herbs. What in the world is Adzharian Style, and if it’s so obscure, should you really be preparing green beans in that style? Brian said the chicken was good (also, not great), the sauces were somewhat scarce, and the sweetish saffron puddle on the green beans was verging on over-powering. Mr. DD’s face dropped to the floor when he saw the portion of Grilled Oregon Leg of Lamb he was getting for $27, the aforementioned six or so small slices. The meat was also rare almost to the point of rawness, and while he enjoyed the Olive Tapenade and Provencal Gratin of Zucchini, Eggplant, Onions, Peppers, Herbs, and Breadcrumbs, he would have enjoyed it even more if the whole thing was prepared as a double portion.

Bev and I had entree overlap, both of us selecting one of the larger portioned items on the menu (Brian had also gotten a sizable amount of chicken), Sauteed Carlton Farms Boneless Pork Chops with Plum Chutney, Crispy Onions, Sugar Snap Peas, and Yukon Gold Potato Puree. Bev and I disagreed on the Yukon Gold Potato Puree, while I thought it was fine, she thought it was similar to wallpaper paste. (Is there something wrong with a steaming bowl of good old fashioned wall paper paste?) We both agreed that the Crispy Onions were probably the best thing we had had all night, with not an iota of grease to be found. I think Bev found the two decent sized pork chops acceptable, but I was rather discouraged by the sauteing preparation, my chops were somewhat overdone, juiceless, and extremely plain, lacking all sauce, and any flavor that might have arrived if they had been grilled. I also found the Plum Chutney too sour and lacking in enough spicing to add anything to the pork.

As this was an evening of classy beverages, Brian selected a glass of Tawny Port for his dessert (doesn’t he know Vicks 44 cough syrup is similar, and more economical?) I was let down by both the selection and costs on the dessert menu, so decided to forgo all. In fact the only dessert I found even vaguely interesting was the Chocolate Trio, but at $11 it was too rich for my tastes (yes, I made a dessert funny). Most of the desserts were Italian in nature, somewhat austere and fruit oriented (and cost around $8), and my fellow diners seemed to share my lack of enthusiasm (and/or were tired of all the high prices) so only one dessert was ordered, the previously alluded to Chocolate Trio, by our little Aruna, who had actually had a very small dinner and had room left to indulge.

I suppose if anything was worthy of its expensive tab, it was probably the Chocolate Trio, which was actually comprised of three decent sized desserts. Aruna was extremely generous, and although it was originally a struggle to find excess silverware, she shared all three with any and all comers (and naturally I was a comer, three times). She actually insisted I take the first bite of the chocolate mousse, and I can tell you, it was excellent, an opinion shared by Adele to my right (and if a chef doesn’t know quality, who may I ask does?). Also incredibly yummy, a small chocolate tortlett with some sort of rich toffee like layers. The least popular seemed the tall and skinny flourless chocolate muffin affair, but even so, I could choke down one or two for breakfast any day of the week. Aruna liked all three, and with our “generous help” she ate every bite, a challenge some assumed she would not accomplish, based on her petite frame. I’ve seen this girl eat before, however, and i know for certain her eyes are not bigger than her stomach.

Almost everyone seemed in agreement, 23Hoyt is a nice place, and the menu is interesting, but the preparation and serving size of most of the dishes just isn’t worth it. It’s okay, but far from outstanding. The starters seem better than the entrees, but when the average starter is $11, they should be bordering on great. Someone earlier had told me they were really excited to try this place (come on, fuzzy old noggin. I think it was Adele) as they had had one of the best meals of their life at Zefiro. To be honest, I don’t think anyone had the 50th best meal of their life on this night. Which is really too bad, the service was great, especially the individually itemized bills, and although it was late when we left, the bottom floor of the restaurant was jumping with the piano tinkling and the jazz singer crooning, things that are nice when you are lingering around the classy bar area, but which had also made the later part of the dinner conversation a bit of a struggle on the second floor.

I heard several people at the table say that they would probably never be interested in dining at 23Hoyt again, an opposite ending to our dinner a month earlier at Olea, an establishment of similar food motivations and dollars spent, three people that night told me they would be eager to return there again. Maybe it’s just that Olea has a couple of years under its belt now, and 23Hoyt is not yet a year old and is still working the kinks out, but considering that 23Hoyt was pretty packed on this Friday, while Olea had been only moderately busy a month ago, I would say that people are probably visiting the wrong high-end Mediterranean inspired restaurant. If only they could move Olea up to beautiful NW 23rd, I’m sure it would be packed too, every fine dining establishment we had passed in the neighborhood had been packed to the gills. I guess these poor folks who live in this area have to eat somewhere.

Next on our schedule

Probably a no reservation night, let me know you are coming!

Friday, September 14th

Encanto – 5225 N. Lombard. The Cuisine of New Mexico. I don’t know tons about this restaurant, except it’s nearly in St. Johns, but several people in RR who are familiar with the cooking of New Mexico practically ordered me to put this on the roster, soon. I’m not protesting too loudly having to add it, as it’s allegedly Portland’s only totally New Mexican restaurant, and that alone makes it fascinating enough that I want to go there. They don’t have a website to check out, but supposedly the chilies are flown in from New Mexico and red and green chili sauces are the thing that make it great. The green chili stew is their signature dish, and other popular items include sopapillas and wonderful enchiladas, some served with an egg on top. Supposedly no gloppy cheese, raw onions (okay, I’ll try not to hold those things against them), or cilantro (yeah!!!!). Also, great tequila based drinks. We’ll be shooting for around 7:00, I’ll let you know for sure when I find out if there is any way to wrangle a reservation.