PURRING UP A HOLIDAY STORM AT MONTAVILLA’S THE COUNTRY CAT

Thank you to the small but very select group who helped me prove that it is possible to successfully hold a Restaurant Roulette dinner in the month of December (sadly, the previous dinner at Restaurant Murata was canceled due to lack of participation.) Last year, we didn’t manage any dinners during the dregs of 2006.

And much as I knew it would be, since it was so close to “THE HOLIDAY,” it was quite a fun and festive evening. We even had a new member, Paul, it’s just too bad he didn’t stay until we actually made it to a table. (Incidentally Paul, if you’re reading this, we were seated within five minutes of your departure, after some rearranging by the CC staff.IMG_0034.JPG

Until a little over 5.5 years ago, I lived for 13 years within long spitting (hissing) distance of where The Country Cat is located. When I first moved to the NE side of Mt. Tabor (Mt. Tabor ends at 75th, I lived on 74th,) Montavilla was still a generally rundown area; one of Portland’s oldest eastside neighborhoods, it was sadly in need of a bit of love and some new blood. Toward the end of my tenure in that ‘hood, however, things were looking up a bit. Ya Hala had opened up right next to the international grocery, and rapidly had a reputation for pumping out delicious Lebanese food and drawing in large early evening crowds, particularly popular with neighborhood families and young trendies on a budget. Finally, someplace new to eat besides the completely dubious Thatchers and the always good but totally heavy duty Flying Pie Pizzeria.

With all the booming new eastside neighborhoods beginning to jack-up the price of real estate though, those with new business ventures started to turn their formally blind eye toward previously unpopular areas like Foster, Woodstock, and then less than five years ago, Montavilla. I don’t know how many people over the last couple of years told me they like hanging around the Bipartisan Cafe (probably that Stumptown Coffee has something to do with it,) and it certainly is a morning and afternoon magnet in these parts. Earlier this year the owners of Flying Pie lovingly rehabbed what for years had been the Nickel Ads and an Oregonian distributorship into its original incarnation, The Academy Theater, a pizza brewpub similar in scope to the Laurelhurst Theater (although the Academy is much more eye-catching outside.) Longtime fixture Dickinson Drugs finally melted away to nothing, its old timey dingy space and postage stamp post office no longer serving much of anyone. Obviously Adam Sappington, a long time chef at Wildwood, was keeping his eye open for a promising space, and perhaps noticed all the new business moving into those funky old store fronts along Stark just north of 82nd. The theater is certainly a draw these days, and for once, parking has actually become a bit tight. The neighborhood is still a bit weird though, lumberyards, construction outlets, and equipment rental companies taking up most of the area between Washington and Stark on the south side of the street, and if you’re zooming along the east-going Washington St. toward I-205, you would never even know there is a burgeoning neighborhood one street over.

I was interested in visiting The Country Cat, however, since I read mid-year of its intentions to open a high-end restaurant in Montavilla, a place at that point was still sadly in need of a high-end anything. Passing through the neighborhood during the summer, I cruised up Stark one morning to see what space The Cat was going into, and was rather fascinated to see it was taking the drug store space across 79th from Ya Hala. The drugstore had been sorely outdated, even 15 years or so ago when I had gone in to buy a canister of pepper mace (in my unfortunately LONG GONE jogging days,) and it was a little hard for me to visualize an upscale eatery there, but they had already swanked-up the outside of their corner space, complete with big shiny windows and funky cat mosaic out front. I couldn’t believe how nice it looked, although the name still struck me as totally dorky (although the name The Country Cat is jazzed up quite a bit with the help of the fancy looking cat mascot logo.)

Once I entered the port-holed door (hmm, it seems like Ya Hala has a strange wooden door too,) on this nippy Solstice evening, I knew I was no longer going to be mailing letters in this place. The name may still sound somewhat bumpkin like, but there’s nothing hokey about this space, it’s all citified now, with black walls over by the bar serving as a chalkboard for the bar specials (a touch of Lauro Kitchen,) and deep rust and dark walls elsewhere. IMG_0028.JPGIt’s a nice space, if a bit small, and since our table wasn’t ready when I arrived, the three of us who were already there stood at the bar reading about the interesting items you could procure here, like house-made Beef Jerky by the pound, and egg salad sandwiches. Especially with the egg salad sandwiches, and the urban but homey atmosphere, I lamented the fact that the CC was not open for lunch, it would be a great lunch spot. Unfortunately in Portland, few of those really great places are open at lunch (maybe these owner/chefs don’t want to stretch themselves too thin?) but Ya Hala across the way does manage a lunch crowd, although it’s a much more modest sort of establishment. How many egg salad sandwiches can you really sell between 5:00 and 6:00 though? The egg salad sandwiches are a good indication, however, of the tricky mix of down home and upscale cuisine The CC tries to successfully balance in their still relatively new establishment (nowadays in Portland, a one month old restaurant is old hat.) They want to be like the little Inn out in the country which serves great comfort food (and where the owner cooks in his overalls,) but at the same time Mr. Sappington wants you to see that he came from a sophisticated background (Wildwood may not be what it was 10 years ago, but it’s always been upscale and fancy,) and that he knows his chops when it comes to cutting edge cuisine.

Around 6:45, the Country Cat was really jumping (okay, it’s not that big, but it seemed like it was operating to capacity,) and even trying to get the bartender’s attention to get a drink was a real challenge. Although pleasant, the bar area isn’t overly big, and while I was hovering, I seemed in everyone’s way. Brian kindly relinquished his seat to me (Brian’s no tiny flower, but he seemed better than me at dodging oncoming traffic,) but when the other three in our party showed up, room was lacking once again. For some reason, our reservation time had passed, but neither of the two larger tables seemed near to opening up for us, as there was much eating still going on (you gluttons!) About 10 or 15 minutes after 7:00, the hostess (??) came to express her extreme embarrassment over the “reservation snafu”, and offered us a couple of smaller tables where we could congregate and have a drink and if we liked, a complimentary starter to make up for the inconvenience of the situation. Our new person had decided to hit the bricks, as he just wasn’t prepared on this evening for waiting and a long drawn out dinner. We had decided to squeeze into a four top for our snack on the house, but then the hostess noticed that since there were now only five of us, if she stuck a chair onto the end of the nice woody booth for four, our wait for a table would be over. Let me mention at this point that the staff at The Country Cat seem like nice folks, and the aggrieved hostess and our waitress both did their best to make amends for whatever had happened with our table not being ready.

IMG_0023.JPGOf course Glenda classed everything up by starting with a glass of sparkling prosecco (they had no champagne, barbarians!) and I decided I would have a Mojito, as the mint reminded me of chopped mistletoe. Brian, already having had a mistletoe looking drink while waiting for everyone (A “Kentucky Housewife”, do you think he was hoping for Ashley Judd?), then had this gorgeous drink called a Mt. Tabor Sunset, which I probably liked looking at more than I would enjoy tasting, as it had a bitter component. Bev was really in luck this evening, as someone actually had Bacardi Gold for a change, and she and David finished off the bottle (Hey, I didn’t say it was full when we got there!)IMG_0022.JPG

Our complimentary starter was “Potato dumplings with caramelized pork cheeks and bourbon brown butter,” one of those melding of the classy and down home The CC really strives for. Although it’s totally one of those things I prefer not to really hear about, Mr. Sappington is now famous for butchering a whole hog every week and incorporating as many parts of each piggie into the menu as he can, and one of the entrees is a “Carlton Farms Whole Hog” which is described as a rolled belly, brined chop, and smoked shoulder. Doesn’t Adam realize that too many rolled bellies will give his customers rolled bellies? I don’t know, I’m not exactly famous for the healthy items I order at these RR dinners (tonight included,) but somehow a “rolled belly” even sounds too fatified and gluttonous to me. I did try a bite or two of the dumplings with pork cheeks, which definitely had a sweetish flavor due to the bourbon brown butter, and everyone seemed to like their taste. Imagine my surprise, however, to notice the next day that we had paid $10 for our complimentary appetizer. (Interesting business take, charge people for free stuff.) This is one downfall to my little RR dining slips, people tend to only pay attention to their little slips, and whether we came out with the correct total and tip, unless someone sharp like Tori is there, no one might actually reads the bill to see what we were charged for. Whoopsie! I’m pretty sure The Country Cat didn’t really mean to charge us for the thing two people had mentioned would be free (afterall, wouldn’t we get to select our own free starter if we had to pay for it? Although the dumplings were the most expensive starter.) I really do think it was a boo boo though. (And a crafty one at that.)IMG_0025.JPG

As five of us splitting a starter only ended up with a two bite morsel for each, we all decided on our own individual starter (beside the free one we paid $2.00 each for, that is.) No one selected the “Wedge of butter lettuce with green goddess dressing and a boiled egg,” or the “Comice pear and candied walnut salad with boiled dressing and dried fruit,” although that last one sounds really good, and I wish I would have gotten it. Glenda, always a big fan of slippery magenta objects, had the “Red Bulls Eye beet and tangerine salad with frisee and soft goat cheese.” She seemed happy with each bite. IMG_0027.JPGDavid went after the “Mixed salad of lettuce and herbs” with ranch dressing, and not only was it huge, but wonderfully tasty as well. Brian’s starter choice was the “warm smoked trout potato salad with toasted hazelnuts.” This was not your usual yellowy concoction, or course, but a lovely plate of potatoes and smoked trout that our friend Mr. O’Brien proclaimed excellent. (You know those Irish guys, they’re nutty for potatoes.)

Bev and I both honed in on the “King Fisher Farms vegetable and white bean soup with a cast iron cornbread popover.” As is often the case with me, I saw the term “white bean soup” and lost all interest in any other starter. I love a thick and hearty white bean soup, especially one that’s had the living daylights pureed out of it, or one with some yummy sausage like chorizo, but this was actually more like a vegetable soup with some white beans in it. The cornbread popover was cute and everything, floating in the center like a little “Hot Pocket” (thanks Adele, I’ll never get that image out of my head now,) but it wasn’t exactly the best soup I’ve ever had, a bit on the thin side and not exactly ingrained with overwhelmingly robust flavor. It certainly wasn’t bad or anything, just not my cup of tea (of course not, it’s a cup of soup you idiot,) and I think Bev enjoyed hers (who would really know, with all the buzzsaw and smacking noises I make while eating though.)

On that always dubious note, on to the entrees.

Unlike some fancy restaurants when your meat barely is accompanied by anything, most of The CC entrees came with adequate side dishes, so no one ordered any of the sides. If someone wanted additional sides, however, or liked the entree but not the side, for an additional $4 you could order a side of bacon braised collard greens, mashed potatoes, onion rings, sweet spice roasted squash, or parsnip apple mash (parsnips! eewwww.) Everyone seemed satisfied with the side dishes that came with their selection though, so no one partook. I think I’ve heard the onion rings are pretty good though.

Since there were only five of us, and four of us doubled up on entrees, let me first mention some things we didn’t order. I was pretty surprised nobody was tempted by the “Molasses and hickory smoked duck legs glazed in orange blossom honey with toasted almonds and winter vegetable ragu”, because I’ve heard it’s one of their absolute best things here, but other things were calling to us I suppose, although I do know a couple of people thought it over seriously. Also not selected was the “Grilled leg of lamb on scalloped potatoes,” the “Cornmeal fried Dover Sole with chopped vegetable salad,” the “Crispy pumpkin and sour cream crepes,” the “Wild mushroom and shellfish stew,” or the “Vegetable, grain, nut and fruit platter with roasted squash, warm red rice and pistachios, which also came with parsnip apple mash.” Obviously, quite a few things on the menu would have been suitable for the non-meat eater, a nice change, as many meat palaces are thriving in Portland these days.

IMG_0031.JPGOn this beginning of winter evening, however, everyone here at our table for RR this night was hungry to partake of our fellow earth dwellers, be they fish, fowl, or bovine. I got the impression that looking at an earlier menu, Bev had pre-selected the pan fried trout from earlier in the fall, but unfortunately that fishee and done swam away. Instead she decided to try the “grilled Arctic Char on a crispy fried hash brown cake (aah, that explains the ketchup request,) with meyer lemon rlish and sour cream.” I think like me, she had no idea what an “Arctic Char” was, but she said it was absolutely delicious.

IMG_0033.JPGAs for “Our Boys” on this night, they both heard the siren song (so what if a siren song is supposed to be from a fish, this is my story,) of the “Cast iron skillet fried chicken with a sweet cream biscuit & bacon braised collard greens,” now down to a mere $18 from its alleged over $20 perch from previous days. Our little buddy David is quite the fried chicken aficionado, and he never stops raving about the poultry swill at they ever scary “Pink Feather,” but even he seemed awed by the goodness of this particular de-boned chicken preparation. Brian too was in Chicken 7th Heaven, and also had high praise for the collard greens, cooked just to his liking. (And this boy knows collard greens, he put in many years down South.) I myself shared a bite of the the chicken, and it was quite delicious, incredible crispy and flavorful on the outside, moist and juicy in the interior. Almost a steal at $18, and the biscuit looked really good and homemade too. David and Brian were indeed happy campers in Cat Country.

Glenda, whose sophisticated and worldly palate always seems to cry out for the most unique selections at the dinners she attends, on this evening was tempted just like myself for The Country Cat’s special for this Friday, a “Grilled rib eye steak with fingerling potatoes,” unfortunately the most expensive item they had to offer this night at $26 (my holiday treat to myself, what can I say.) As one or two of you might know, as I think I’ve mentioned it perhaps a time or two, I’m a tad fond of beef. And when it comes to the ultimate in beefiness, there is really nothing so delicious and flavorful as a well prepared rib steak. (Basically just a slab of prime rib hacked off and cooked on its own.) As a modest working gal, I really don’t get to revel in the world of prime rib very often these years, and it really is an incredible favorite of mine, provided it’s still somewhat rare. This year I decided to forego the prime rib I often splurge on this time of year, and just concentrate on this hunk of meat that The Country Cat was offering, thus saving myself the 80,000,000 calories I probably would have consumed by the time I had eat the entire prime rib by myself over the course of a few days.IMG_0032.JPG

Was the Country Cat’s rib eye good? I should say so. The preparation, while somewhat simple, let the rich intensity of this most tasty cut of beef shine without being overwhelmed by too many contrasting flavors. The cut, quite fatty and well-marbled as a good rib eye needs to be, was slightly charred on the outside, making the edge fat crispy at the edges and really hard to resist. (I noticed Glenda resisted much better than myself, which is probably why she is RR’s senior member but still manages to eat us all under the table.) On top was some sort of pureed pesto concoction featuring strong elements of lemon, parsley, and other not delicately flavored herbs. Although not unusual like other steak favorites of mine at Toro Bravo and Autentica, it was still totally delicious, my only disappointment being the fact that my rare steak was closer to medium rare, an area where I am quite a stickler (I NEED MY BLOOD!!!) Other than that, however, it was very fine, a fact that Glenda herself wholeheartedly agreed with me on (and she was more tolerant of the slight overcooking than I was.) One strange note though, my “fingerling potatoes” were just normal potatoes cut into wedges. Who are they trying to fool here. I know a fingerling from a toeling from a regular potato.

As I mentioned, Glenda knows how to do a dinner right, and was the only one of us who managed to have a dessert as well. We were all stuffed to the gills, and couldn’t even think of having another bite, but Glenda managed to down an entire portion of “Spiced pear bundt cake with brown sugar glaze and egg nog ice cream” all by herself. Our Glenda is a tribute to eating. I just wished I would have managed to make it through an order of “Chocolate coconut sorbet with toasted coconut and macaroons,” but alas, that $2 worth of “free dumpling” had set me on the road to no return from the beginning of the meal.

Our mass opinion of The Country Cat? At least on this evening, it was a great place. The atmosphere was totally inviting, the service first rate (okay, first rate minus $10 in free-ness,) the menu hard to select from because it all sounded good, and the food preparation, delicious. And best of all, it was about 5 minutes from my house!!!! Seriously though, it was a really good dinner. David and Bev have been to oodles of dinners now, and DD proclaimed it the best food he’s had with the group so far, the only possible exception being Pok Pok (where the atmosphere sucked.) And to be fair, the prices are really are not at all unreasonable, considering the quality of the ingredients and the skill of cooking displayed.

So far the reviews for The Country Cat have been in the good to very good range, and my guess is that they’ve worked out all the bugs now and are humming right along, perhaps to greatness. So I hope they make it, Montavilla isn’t exactly a famous dining destination, and by the time we left around 9:00, the restaurant had emptied out considerably. It could have just been the weird holiday weekend, or the ebb and flow from the theater across the street around showings, or maybe a neighborhood crowd who likes to eat early.

We had a great time though. To paraphrase Glenda as we were walking to our cars, nice atmosphere, good company and delicious food. What more could anyone going out to eat want, except perhaps a pound of that housemade beef jerky?

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