The Dining Report –
Equinox – A Tiny Group In A Sea Of Noise

As someone who lives a relatively far piece North, often when I want to travel across town to far NE/North Portland, I take Fremont. Fremont as a general rule is a pretty nice street, it goes nonstop all the way from NE 92nd to just below the Fremont Bridge (imagine that), and although traffic bogs down at a few intersections, that wacky nightmarish junction in Rose City Park where it crosses Sandy at 72nd, and no one knows which way to go or who has the right of way, across 33rd where masses turn to go to gentrified hot spots like Alberta and Killingsworth, and at MLK where the short signal bogs everything down. But I like traveling Fremont, it really does go through many of the nicest neighborhoods on the Eastside, Rose City Park, Beaumont-Wilshire, Alameda, then stately Irvington. What long-running street can beat that for prestige from end to end? Even after it crosses MLK it goes some interesting places, through historic Boise-Elliot and right across hip and happening Mississippi, where every young artist and musician now wants to live if they aren’t already living around Alberta.

I only mention all of this because of the peculiar drive home I had last Friday after the RR dinner at Equinox, almost every car in front of me was either a complete hazardous menace or a spectacle in its own right. And all on Fremont. As I left the restaurant and headed south along Mississippi I immediately was trapped behind the last vehicle anyone ever wants to travel behind. The particular version of total road nightmare was an early 70s Toyota truck, already barely roadworthy, sitting about four inches off the ground because it was totally loaded with a massive pile of every article under the sun, and traveling about 15 mph. I didn’t see where it pulled out of, but my guess would be it was some local junk hauler who maneuvered away from the Rebuilding Center, taking every single item deemed unsaleable, and now stacked about eight feet high in this rickety old truck and barely confined or corralled in any way. I chanted to myself, please don’t turn on Fremont, please don’t turn on Fremont. Naturally, it turned on Fremont. There’s nothing like creeping along at 12 miles an hour behind a teetering behemoth of trash, faster moving traffic backing up at the tail end of your vehicle, while you worry what heavy object will soon coming flying off the pile, through your windshield, that in turn unenabling you from ever writing crowd pleasing and enchanting reviews like this ever again.

Luckily this ordeal of the open road would turn onto MLK after about a mile, where I’m certain it was an even more popular obstacle to flowing traffic. Afterwards, speeding up to the legal limit of 25 felt like breezing along the autobahn at breakneck speed. The next traffic curiosity I was to endure, shortly after I journeyed from Irvington into Alameda, a flashy, newer model silver Mercedes sedan that made a left turn at the traffic light at 24th onto Fremont in front of me. I could see white hair inside, so I know the occupants were well off older folks. What, I’m sure you wonder,  is unusual about a new model Mercedes full of elderly rich folks in an area like that? Well, actually, nothing at all, except for the purse positioned on the roof above the driver’s side door. Somehow, I just know it probably wasn’t really supposed to be there. So I desperately wanted to catch up with this car at the next traffic light, and alert the occupants that perhaps it might be a better idea to carry their valuables inside the car, rather than flailing around in the breeze over their heads, or at least, be there when the purse flew off, so I could grab it and have a windfall of riches (just kidding, really. A handsome reward would have been nice though).Alas, however, this was not meant to be, as these up-in-their-years sorts seemed to have no concept of what a speed limit is, and were buzzing down residential Fremont at about 45 miles an hour. As I too was driving a finely crafted piece of German engineering ?? (via Mexico), had I thrown all personal safely and law abiding nature aside, there was a remote chance I might have caught them eventually (for example, if they had run out of gas), but when they made a right turn on 33rd, headed toward Grant Park or Laurelhurst, I just gave up the pursuit and let any possible fame and fortune escape into the moonlight. That purse must have been loaded with big bucks, or heavy jewelry, or gold bullion or something I need though, the way it was riding out those fast turns the car made without flying off.

Road problem number three materialized in front of me somewhere around Beaumont-Wilshire. I don’t know who these geniuses were, but someone should probably explain to them that a minivan with the back hatch open is not an appropriate vehicle for hauling a one acre fence full of lumber down a busy street, especially when it sticks out the back end about three feet and has no sort of danger flag attached. They finally pulled into a Hollywood Video, but who knows if they made it home after that before the joys of exhaust poisoning entered their system. Generally the back end of enclosed vehicles are enclosed for a reason.

It was just not a good night for tooling along Fremont.

That being said, it was a good night for an RR dinner, although judging by the percentage of non-attendees on this evening, not too many in our group agreed. We were a whooping three this night, yet another illustration of the roller coaster nature of our interesting little group, one evening seven, two weeks later twelve, two weeks after that, three. We were a good three though, and I thank my two co-dinees, Lynne and Michael, for actually showing up (I was a tad worried for a bit, sitting alone at the table for about the first 15 minutes, something I never do well anyway, not me, the long-lived Queen of Social Paranoia). I appreciated their company though, although my social skills were somewhat hindered by the fact that I had been sick for three entire weeks, first having something akin to mild bronchitis, that not at all kindly morphing into something related to a sinus infection. I was relatively certain I was not infectious, however, not having any traditional cold symptoms, and not managing to make anyone at my workplace sick in three working weeks of close contact. As I had been for two weeks though, every time I opened my mouth I was all about coughing, coughing, coughing, so thank you Lynne and Michael for at least trying to follow my conversational stream amongst all the gasping and hacking. As for the rest of my RR members, see what fun you missed, dining with someone displaying all the charm and composure of a victim in the final throws of TB. But enough about me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me………………….

I’ve always liked Equinox’s space (okay, that’s about me too), although I’ve never officially sat on their ever-in-demand garden patio. I still haven’t, as overnight the weather had changed from Indian Summer to Webfoot Winter, rain, cool temperatures, and thunderstorms being the order of the day and evening. Inside Equinox is all cozy fall colors, warm wooden tables, industrial heating pipes, and gigantic ceiling beams. Although the dining room is a relatively traditional  rectangular area, the bar and open kitchen are both set off at weird angles at the far end of the room. It’s always dark but welcoming, the sort of place where everyone at the table fights over the candle to read the menu once it gets dark outside. In fact, until we had ordered, Lynne and I were fighting over that one tiny candle like it was an anonymous marriage proposal from George Clooney or Johnny Depp.

Adorable similes aside, the evening was a bit off-putting, this only because I am so used to the RR table being one of the largest in the restaurant, and here we were, at out little four-top, adding up to only three, while to the right of me there was an extremely loud multisex table of ten, and behind Michael there was a glum looking bachelorette party of at least 18 young girls, all looking about as happy as a woeful basset hound in a staredown with a clinically depressed Shar Pei. As Lynne pointed out, these girlies did not seem to be having a good time, maybe they were dreading their upcoming jaunt to Darcelle’s for a bachelorette party full of god knows what kind of liquor induced debaucheries (hey, I was young then). Or maybe each and every girl had at some time made out with the bride to be’s husband to be, and didn’t know how to tell her. Whatever the case, there was no overflowing of joy at this table, and considering the size of the group and the flowing cocktails, they were pretty quiet, which was an immense blessing, as the acoustics in Equinox are lousy, and the three of us had to speak loudly just to hear each other.

I have to hand it to Equinox though, despite that the fact that the place was packed (much of it due to the weather closed patio), the service was very good, and once ordered, every item appeared extremely swiftly (if only Ivan had been at this dinner). The waitress was pleasant, informal but still professional, friendly, enthusiastic, and basically on top of things the whole evening. The place seemed to have a good vibe, like people enjoy working there.

Equinox has always had great cocktails, and in the time I had been alone at the table waiting for the rest of “the group” I had changed my mind a myriad of times, trying to decide what would be my libation (sadly, no Mr. Martinez’ this evening). I had finally settled on a “Garden of Eden”, a light and refreshing cocktail comprised of Crater Lake Organic Vodka, muddled basil, cucumber, and lime, with a sugared rim. It was very nice, rather like a liquified liquor salad. Having been under the weather for three weeks and still in recovery, I had naturally headed straight towards the hard stuff, but both Michael and Lynne had gone the lighter route, selecting red wines and beer.

I’ve never been overly sure what I felt about the food at Equinox, because I often feel fusion for fusion’s sake leads to confusion of ingredients and on the plate and on the palate. And Equinox is certainly a fusion restaurant, melding styles of many cuisines into one menu (and sometimes one dish). Another similar fusion restaurant that I also have these contrary feeling about is Wild Abandon on Belmont, a cute and funky little place where food is well prepared but sometimes just too weird. The waitress explained to us that Equinox had just changed their menu last week, with the coming of fall, as they do with every seasonal equinox (okay, I admit, I thought that was pretty clever). And I couldn’t help but notice, Equinox seems to be coming into its own these days, although the menu was still very creative, the dishes no longer seemed so jarringly weird, entree items, while often unusual, sounded like they were more likely to compliment each other rather than clash and overpower one another. A definite improvement in my book.

As it seemed like a good idea to get things rolling before the two big groups ordered, we each selected a starter and had them appear at the table quite promptly. Lynne decided on a large bowl of “Calamari Tempura with Harrisa Dip” which she kindly shared with all of us. I thought it was very good, although just a tiny bit greasy, the harrisa dip seemingly being some sort of tangy aioli situation. Michael liked the squid inside more than the ample breading, but he and Lynne both appreciating the fact that the breading was crunchy but the squid not cooked within an inch of its rubbery life like happens in many calamari preparations. It wasn’t perfect calamari, but quite good. Michael selected for his starter the “Horns of Diablo” (I always knew there was something shady about this guy), which the menu describes as “roasted peppers stuffed with shitake and potatoes, over roasted corn creme”. I don’t know about the rest of the dish, but the bites of roasted corn creme I had were delicious, and Michael seemed pleased with it. I selected “Insalata Equinox”, which was described as “grilled mission figs, apples and peanuts in spinach and field greens tossed in balsamic lemon vinaigrette”. As my right sinus cavity has been compacted with goo for about two weeks now, my taste buds seem a tad off depending on what I eat, so I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my salad was zingier than I could taste, but it seemed like a nice mixture, although the figs struck me as closer to dried or caramelized than grilled.

When I mention that the food moved right along once we ordered, I was not kidding, and the entrees actually came when we were only two-thirds done with the starters. I’m sure the kitchen was just trying to keep in front of the hoarding masses, however, so I can forgive them this imperfection. I know Lynne forgives them, as she practically got up on the table and cheered the arrival of the prompt food, having been at many of the bigger and later dinners where you don’t get anything substantial until somewhere in the wee hours (unless you’re in Spain, then it’s still too early to eat). On this night, we had our entrees by around 8:00.

Not to slight what Lynne ordered as an entree, it’s just that I don’t totally know what it was, so can’t fully describe it, as it was a special, and I’m lacking the necessary documentation. I know it was two butternut (?) squash enchiladas covered in mole, however, and it was large enough that she took half of it home, and that she liked it. Michael, somewhat disappointed that the menu had just changed with the season, as he had picked out the cedar plank salmon from the summer menu on the website, selected the “Autumn Pillow” (I thought he was looking a bit sleepy, but it could have just been my company, we know how that puts people to sleep). The hearty “Autumn Pillow” was described as “puff pastry stuffed with grilled wild mushrooms (do you hear that, Tori?), baby spinach, caramelized shallots, rosemary and marscapone, with roasted shallot balsamic rouille” (not that again!). I had a bite, and it was rich indeed, and consequently, Michael also took home half of his entree. (Incidently, when I first typed this I had camelized shallots. There’s nothing worse that camelized shallots).

Me, being me, had no food to take home (and the last time I did, I left the doggie bag on the table anyway). I was seriously contemplating the nightly special of “ravioli stuffed with pancetta, carmelized onions, and smoked mozzarella”, but was just not happy with the sauce, listed as a spicy red, when this dish called out to me that it needed a clear butterish or cream sauce. Consequently, I instead selected the “Yakima Basin Sirloin” which was “oven roasted New York sirloin over parmesan potato puree with cabernet green peppercorn reduction”. This seemed to be when I noticed how out of wack my tastebuds were, since instead of carbenet green peppercorn reduction, all I could taste was a marinade of charcoal starter fluid (I think it was the green peppercorns). And although my steak was prepared much too rare for both of them (in other words, fine and dandy with me), both Lynne and Michael each had a taste and assured me they actually tasted a wine and peppercorn reduction, not Kingsford lighter fluid. We all agreed that it wasn’t exactly a prime cut of meat, being quite tendony, which might have added to their worry over the degree of doneness, as it was relatively hard to cut because it was an odd piece. I’ve had worse steak though, and probably would have enjoyed it more had I been able to grasp an inkling of it’s real flavor. The potatoes were fine though, and tasted not a bit of gasoline or kerosine.

As the only dessert glutton present, I ordered the “Mississippi Mud Kitten” which was a thick peanut butter/ dark chocolate mousse with a giant dollop of whipped cream on top and a homemade cookie jabbed in the middle. Lynne,  primarily tasting the chocolatety flavor of the mousse, gave it a definite thumbs up, while Michael, who keeps insisting he really doesn’t like dessert much, except at breakfast time, gave it a so-so review. I liked it well enough, and tasted equally flavors of chocolate and peanut butter mousses (mice?), but was appalled by the big honkin’ spoons they gave us to eat it with. I am a delicate flower, with a tiny mouth (really) and inserting this gigantic spoon into my oral orifice reminded me of associations of choking on one of those delightful dental molds full of that slimy pink goop. Next time Equinox, delicate little dessert spoons please.

Overall, I believe it was a good meal. I really think since its inception, Equinox has made leaps and bounds towards good consistent food, rather than just being one of those cool Mississippi hangouts it seemed like in the beginning. The cocktails have always been excellent, the quality of the food is catching up, and the staff seems nice. And the prices really aren’t bad. The first couple of times I went to Equinox I thought everything cost a few dollars more than it should (which seems to be a problem with many of the restaurants along this particular dining strip) but in the interim the prices on Portland menus have skyrocketed, and now Equinox seems very reasonable by comparison, most entrees between $12 and $20 dollars (my steak was $18). And they do have that great patio. Well, maybe next Indian Summer.