February 2008

THE DINING REPORT- TABLA Delightful Dinner Served in Forced Isolation

IMG_0136.JPGNot counting these reviews, which usually take me FOREVER, mostly because of my own bullheaded notion that if I just keep writing and writing, someone will eventually pay me by the word, the hardest thing for me about “the management” of Restaurant Roulette is making the reservations. Depending on how popular the restaurant is, or how “hot” it currently is, I always try to make sure I’ve made a reservation at least 10 days in advance, sometimes more. I have to use my “judgement,” though, to decide how many places I should make the reservation for, especially at a time when almost no one has RSVPed. I have a couple of people who, the minute they see a restaurant they really want to go to is on the upcoming roster, RSVP, and that’s great, because I always know I will have at least a couple people for these dinners. Aside from this, it’s all one big guessing game. During the mid-portion of last year, a table for 10 or 12 was usually pretty easy to fill, but towards the end of this year that dropped off again (WHERE did you guys go to???) and now it’s all a big crap shoot.

I always try to listen to clues at the dinners, people saying “I’ll probably do _________, or there’s no way I’d miss _________ . From what I had heard earlier, I thought I would probably manage 10-12 for Tabla, as many people mentioned they might go to this one at dinners we’ve recently had. So I guessed at 12, sort of a midrange number that easily goes up or down a couple of people. Tabla said they had a private room for larger parties that held up to 14 and would place us there, and I thought that sounded good, as often when we are in the middle of crowded restaurants we can’t hear each other without shouting, or we get a bit too boisterous and get shameful stares.

This dinner I was off by quite a few people, there were only seven of us, but this might have been due to people having nice dinners out with their sweethearts the day before. As I always do when the reservation goes down by more than one person, I did call the restaurant and change the reservation to seven the day before. IMG_0138.JPGTabla left us in the private room though, and since they aren’t really that big a place, this might have been the only table they had that would hold seven without stealing numerous two and four tops. I mention this because at least a couple of people were disappointed when Tabla didn’t move our smaller congregation back out into the general dining population, but it was really my fault, for originally thinking we would be a larger group and would need a bigger area. There probably wasn’t much Tabla could do to accommodate us at 7:00 on a Friday night when all the other tables were reserved or being used. And I really didn’t think the private room was bad compared to that awful subway station that serves as Pok Pok’s upstairs dining area, this room was classy, and for once, everyone could hear everyone else’s radical and dangerous political rabble-rousing, and everything else we were talking about during this dinner (we were a group of very like minds.) (more…)

The Dining Report – BEAST – Take This Food and Like It!

First of all, before I get to my usual endless written wanderings, there are a few other subjects I would like to spew forth on –

After our dinner at Lovely Hula Hands, I actually had a pleasant email from Sarah, at aforementioned restaurant, telling us they appreciated our appreciation of their place, and elaborating a bit on their dining space. It turns out the second floor of their building is a dining area of approximate size to the dining room on the ground floor, so they actually have double the capacity I thought they did, and probably when patio months roll around, close to triple the space. So please don’t resist going there because you might be afraid they don’t have room for you, they are certainly busy at peak times, but from what I’ve witnessed in most of these revitalized North/Northeast dining areas, most of the popular places are. So thanks Sara for illuminating me on that, and for acknowledging Restaurant Roulette’s tiny and weird contribution to the Portland Dining scene.

Another thing I wanted to mention, which I’ve been thinking about lately, is the fact that while many PDX restaurants still seem quite busy, I’ve noticed that over the last 6 months or so, I’ve generally had a much easier time getting our group in at more desirable dining times, like 7:00, rather than the 8:00 or 8:30 that seemed to plague us a year or so ago (or course I realize I should not touch this subject with a 10 ft. pole, as it could lead to a sudden reversal of fortunes.) I do tend to wonder, however, if this is a sign that Portland has become so over-saturated with excellent places to eat, that even many of the really great places that we visit now need as many patrons as the can get these days, with Portland’s gigantic thriving dining scene sprawling all over tarnation. Just something to ponder, something good perhaps for groups like ours, but bad, perhaps, for the health of a lot of good restaurants in Portland, especially many that are not viewed as the “hot” places of the moment.

But speaking of “hot” places of the moment, on to Beast ….

One reason I suppose I started with the subject of restaurant over-glut is because at least at this point in time, Beast, already making a name for itself, still isn’t too difficult to get into, small though it is. I knew there were only 30 seats available, all at communal tables, with two main reservation seatings, 6:00 and 8:30 (or so,) and I did call around nine days in advance, but this was plenty of time to reserve the spaces I needed. It was nothing like the ordeal that Adele went through tying to make a reservation at the similarly sized Le Pigeon. It could be that Beast is still quite new, and Le Pigeon is heading into its second year, and has been nationally recognized. But the two restaurants do have many parallels, with daring young chefs, similar spaces, and French tinged menus. On a basic level, Beast seems more expensive, with its fixed price menu ($45 for 5 courses, $52 for 6.) It’s also perhaps scarier, as you must eat what they put before you, or not eat, but I thought a great deal about Le Pigeon while I was eating at Beast, and wonder if Beast will make a similar upward trajectory, especially after a relatively glowing review in the A & E a couple of weeks ago.

I rather like novel approaches to dining, and I must admit I found the idea of “you pay a relatively high price, and you eat what we want you to eat, or you eat nothing” rather intriguing. It’s a bold idea, especially coming from a well-regarded chef whose entire world and reputation was seemingly imploded over the last couple of years, and especially in Portland, where quality dining and the choice of wonderful restaurants is now a given. I was also a bit scared by the proposition, as I’m famous for being close-minded about meats and their by-products I don’t want to eat, things like lamb, veal, and foie gras. And Beast has already made a name for serving a great deal of these items on their meat-centric menu. But I like to think Restaurant Roulette is not only about having great food, and unique conversation, but very importantly, about stretching one’s dining boundaries. So prodded by an insane little voice in my head (always the loudest in there, it seems,) and our most ardent diner-out and fine food lover, I decided a special dinner at Beast was in order. It’s true, not too many people took the bait for this dinner, there were only three people this outing, (with three unfortunate cancelations,) but what this dinner lacked in quantity, it whole-heartedly made up for in quality, it was a great dining experience from beginning to end.


The Lovely Hula Hands Metamorphosis, from Pepto-Bismol Pink to Shades of Children’s Aspirin Orange

What was the first really successful restaurant to be located along the “rejuvenated” Mississippi strip? I wasn’t really an initiate at the beginning, but surely one of the first had to be Lovely Hula Hands, which technically in those days wasn’t even on Mississippi, it was on Cook just a little leap and bound off the far south end of the Mississippi strip. In the early days, the original Lovely Hula Hands was a place that those ‘freeway people” were always asking about. IMG_0101.JPGYou know those “freeway people”, the ones who are constantly stuck in the gridlock of I-5 on the Portland side of the Columbia, who suddenly look around and start noticing things besides the car in front of them that barely moves, things like that strange little bright pink house on the east side of the freeway just north of the Fremont Bridge, or that blazing holiday house that you can see for miles, located right off of Interstate (The Queen Anne Victorian Mansion on N. McClennan.) You have to be pretty eye catching for those “freeway people” to notice you.

But notice that bright pink house they did, and that was the first I had heard of Lovely Hula Hands, in those beginning days of 2003. I found the name confusing though (I’m sure I was the first one ever, or since,) and as I’m not an I-5 gridlock traveler, wasn’t familiar with the house and thought it was some kind of Hawaiian take-out shack or something. I did know it was reputedly tiny and pink though, with decent food and a big line up to get in. I was sure it was one of those places I would love to have lunch, but of course it was never open at lunchtime, none of the places I really want to eat lunch at serve lunch (you cruel restautanteers!)

IMG_0103.JPGAnyway, by going practically at their 5:00 opening time, which was what was necessary to get into the original Lovely Hula Hands (from here out, largely referred to as LHH,) I was able to actually squeeze into the place for a dinner around three years ago. In the bathroom were photos showing how the owners had lovingly rehabilitated an old dilapidated turn of the century house into their quaint little restaurant. A sweet labor on their part, and while the place was certainly cute, it was a bit too Aunt Edna’s parlour for my tastes, I’m not really an overly big fan of Pepto-Bismol pink when used both inside and outside, and everywhere else. Plus, I think there might have been some flowery wallpaper in places, and I just don’t handle wallpaper well, especially light wallpaper, so that made me a tad un-easy. But it certainly was not unpleasant in any way though, I just wouldn’t want to live there, which is always a sign that I like a restaurant’s decor, I think of sneaking in late at night and setting up residence.