THE DINING REPORT – TREBOL

GREAT FOOD, TEENY TABLE

As I’ve said before, I love Mexican food, and high-end Mexican is some of my favorite cuisine period. Portland is blessed with quite a variety of very good high-end Mexican restaurants, all having their legions of fans. DF, and Taqueria Nueva are loved by many, and in my opinion, Autentica, and Nuestra Cocina pump out some of the best South of the Border eats in town (in fact, as far as I’m concerned, Nuestra Cocina has some of the best food of any genre in Portland.) I had assumed before we visited Trebol, on N. Albina , that the menu would be somewhat similar to the other four places I just mentioned, a combination of Mexican preparations and good quality ingredients melded together to create some really delicious food. In some ways, however, Trebol is a whole different animal (for one thing, a very natural, organically based animal.) But more on that later (yes, that’s one of my stock phrases, as my reviews always have much more, and much later.)

Looking at the Mapquest map on their website, I got the impression Trebol was way the heck away from anything, and took a route there that made me believe that, all the way down Alberta. After leaving the restaurant and going a few blocks south on Albina, though, I found that once you go through a traffic light a take a tiny jog, you are actually in the heart of the Mississippi “entertainment district.” (But where did Mississippi go? It’s a weird meandering street, to say the least.)

IMG_0210.JPGThis section of Albina where Trebol is at looks like it is ripe for the picking, the acclaimed coffee place Albina Press has set up digs about a block from here, and the block or two around Trebol looks like it could be the next 30th and Killingsworth (afterall, you have to start somewhere, and look at what that intersection has become.) It was pretty obvious, from looking at the outside of Trebol, this space was not built to be a restaurant, it must have originally been a small warehouse or other such industrial space, or perhaps a mechanic or repair shop, but they’ve done a nice job with the building. Trebol classes the entire block up with it’s dark green stucco with wood accents.

The inside is really pleasant too, although somewhat modestly furnished (see my comments on the booths/tables later. Yes, already a second “more later,” this could be a complete nightmare,) IMG_0208.JPGI really liked the feel of the place, classy, cozy, and a favorite of mine, spotlessly well maintained and exceptionally clean and polished looking. The dark orange walls with the giant mirrors create a similar Spanish hacienda feel to the vibes I get at Toro Bravo and the “decorations on overdrive” of Casa de Matador (what is it about Mexican and Spanish decor and mirrors?) and any touch of gloominess is abated by a big wall of windows and yellow paint along the front area. Cute little local fabric artwork hangs on the walls (check out this big water tower from down the street!) and the concrete floor has an exceptionally painted and polished look for concrete. The bar is really nice, with a gigantic wall of liquor with a slidey ladder to reach it all, and a large television showing vintagely tacky looking black and white movies in Spanish. A great place to hang out for a couple of happy hour snacks and some yummy cocktails.

IMG_0207.JPGYes, our friend tequila is prominently featured on these premises, as it should be a any good Mexican eatery. Like many, many, many people, I have a love/’hate relationship with tequila, largely due to my first or second trip to Mexico, and my unfortunate sojourn of worship at the porcelain fixture of flushing (hey, at least it was only once in four trips down Mexico way.) So I generally keep my tequila intake at a modest level, especially as there is nothing that gets my reflux burning like citrus laden margaritas. But as they say, when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans, just not that Mexican that orders the $35 margarita they have mixed in with all the $7 ones ( think they called it the Millionaire Magarita. That would be a big boo boo, ordering that baby by mistake, especially if you got reflux on top, to boot.)

At Trebol, there is a large menu of reflux inducing margaritas, as well as other interesting cocktails featuring various liquors beside tequila. Pam, who I’ve never seen turn down a margarita, actually decided to have the red wine Sangria de Trebol. (I think she was still recovering from that margarita at Ikea. There’s nothing like pickled herring and a good margarita.) She gave me a slurp, and this particular Sangria seemed more of a sangria mojito hybrid, full of mint, and I must say, really refreshing and complex. IMG_0196.JPGAfter much debate over which drink would most likely leave me with 2 sq. centimeters of my esophagus unseared, I decided I would attempt the margarita tamarindo, which was really good, and almost soothing on the way down, although so tasty it was hard not to slurp it all up in a hurry (which was basically what I ended up doing.) Generally when I am presented with a wide array of interesting drinks, it’s hard for me not to sample, but I liked this particular drink well enough that my two drink consumption was limited to tamarind margaritas. More of a traditionalist, our friend David had a couple of Cadillac Margaritas, and only mentioned 10 to 20 thousand times what a good drink it was (and except for Rusty Nails, this guy isn’t that easy to please in the boozing department.) Pam later had a Margarita de la Casa (that’s more like it,) and was in agreement with all what tasty drinks Trebol shakes. $35 whopper aside, the average drink here runs about $7, not too bad for really good cocktails.

IMG_0194.JPGWhile us three early birds were enjoying our beverages at the bar and trying not to watch the dubious movies, we couldn’t help but notice the arrival of Pat, a somewhat mature, well-dressed woman we all took to be a regular and perhaps local “colorful character.” Pat, one of those people who manages to draw all attention toward her without actually being too loud, seemed known by all staff members, and pulled up a stool at the bar to sample some special wines the bartender seemed to have in mind for her especially (we all got the impression this was a regular routine, although she told us her place of habit these days was mostly Roux, that fancy joint over on Killingsworth.) Pat seemed like a lively, interesting sort, and looked to be alone, and since on this evening, like many recent RR dinners, we seemed to be losing RSVPers by the second, we tried to gently coax Pat to join our party. It turns out Pat was only there for an after work drink though, so we had no luck recruiting her into our minions. I did give her one of these fancy little “Featured Publisher” business cards Foodbuzz Food Network sent to me, and told her to check out the blog and look us up sometime. When she found out we were a restaurant group with a blog, she insisted the owner had to come out to meet us all (yes, all three of us.)

So we got the pleasure of meeting owner/chef Kenny Hill, previously well-regarded for his years at Higgins, as well as Sous Chef Mike Wilkinson, another Higgins alumni who Pam wanted to meet, as she was old friends with his significant other. I didn’t talk with Mike, as I had moved to our table then, but Kenny seemed like a really good guy, and had a brief little chat with each of our party. I gave him a business card too (I’ve got to get rid of these things somehow,) and told him to look for a review on the blog in a few days. I don’t know if Kenny thought I was a real writer then (not just a goofy hack,) but I must say that at that point all the service was ramped up a notch, and Justin, bartender/waiter, kindly insisted I take a menu home with me to write the review (which was really nice, as they were decent quality menus.) I don’t really know if the thought of a review was really the impetus for the extra good service, since from the beginning everyone was really nice, and friendly, and I had probably talked to every server by the time I left the restaurant. And it’s not like I would ever savagely rip to shreds a place we had gone (okay, so maybe Assaggio was an exception. Oh, and Eleni’s. Oops, there was Meiji-En. And I suppose the part about the food being served in bedpans at Queen of Sheba wasn’t overly flattering, depending on how you look at it.)

IMG_0197.JPGNow …. on to one of those “more on that laters,” and to one of my few complaints about the evening. Unless you are a person of pixie-esk or elf-like stature, the booths at Trebol are an ordeal. Generally booths are always the absolute best places to sit in any restaurant, but at Trebol they just do not fit four comfortably, in fact it’s hard to believe they can fit two comfortably, as the tables are a patchwork affair of two tiny two-tops stuck side by side, which makes for an uneven eating surface, even if there are only dos of you. And if there are four of you, not only is there not enough room for all your food or beverages, but the benches are short enough that they can barely hold two average size butts and a purse or two. This might not have been the case with all the booths, but it was the case with all those I saw, the two tiny tables wedged together. It was very makeshift, and I don’t remember ever sitting in a both before where there was not an adequately sized single table. I hate to nitpick (well, really I don’t actually) but Trebol comes across as an attractive, thoughtfully furnished establishment, if they are going to have booths they need to have adequate table space and keister room. The lack of space really did hinder me while eating several times, which was weird with only four of us. (Actually, any thought of me being hindered while eating it pretty weird in general.)

To begin the eating festivities, we were given a special little nosh, and none of us could figure out whether this was something everyone in the restaurant got, or if we were being given special treatment because we had met Kenny and the crew, we were writing a review, or we were just such winners (as everyone knows.) I’ve been to a couple places recently where I have been served complimentary snackies at the beginning, Beast and Tabla, so it’s really hard to tell if this is just the nightly routine. IMG_0195.JPGIt’s nice to think you are special though, especially as they give everyone the house made tortillas too, and how much free stuff can these places afford to give away in these trying economic times? Whatever the case, this little treat was a Mexican Spot Prawn with House Cured Bacon and a cilantro sort of sauce. You know it had to be good, as I said “house cured bacon.”

Now, on to my second pesky “more on that later,” and what makes Trebol a bit more “unorthodox” than those other wonderful Mexican places I’ve mentioned previously. Although the fresh housemade tortillas are quite similar to those served at both Nuestra Cocina and Autentica, and all three places revel in delicious bean dishes as sides for a variety of meats, the rest of the menu at Trebol varies widely from the two aforementioned establishments, it’s much more complex and extremely unusual from what I’ve seen at any other Mexican influenced restaurant in Portland. Naturally the emphasis on totally fresh and organic sets it apart from all the other places, and must result in frequent menu revisions. Two or three of us had looked at Trebol’s on-line menu, and were surprised to see how many things had changed on the current menu, particularly in the entree section. There is some really dynamic, inventive food preparation being practiced here, with a heavy emphasis on seafood and unusual vegetables (a bit of a Higgins imprint, I would have to say.)

To make mention of a few of the interesting starters our group did not order, those included “Mexican Spot Prawns in a Sassy Chipotle Sauce;” ” Grilled, Marinated Quail in a Peanut Mole;” and “Mussels with Chicken Sausage, Roasted Pasilla and Red Onion Broth.” As far as the entrees we did not indulge in, those included “Fisherman Stew with Mexican Spot Prawns, Clams, Mussels, Calamari and House Made Chorizo;” “Organic Pearl Barley Cake with Asparagus, Artichokes, and Wilted Greens;” and “Mesquite Smoked True Cod Tostada with Chipotle Aioli and Greens.” On this night, at least, the menu reflected a Northwest Mexican Seafood restaurant. How many of those do you know around these parts?

IMG_0199.JPGOn to those starters. As David and Lynne were both in quite a leafy mood, they both decided Trebol’s House Salad with a Jalapeno Lime Vinaigrette sounded really good, except for the fact that Lynne didn’t actually want the Jalapeno Lime Vinaigrette, but it was her luck that Trebol is not one of those places that is so enamored with itself that it insists NO SUBSTITUTIONS!!!, so they kind substituted their tamarind vinaigrette from a different salad. (Hey, if she wanted a really good salad, she should have had tamarind margarita dressing.) I originally would have liked to have tried the “Selected Pacific Oysters with house made Cucumber and Jalapeno Granite, ” but I had already had herring that day, and how much can one poor old body really stand?” (Just as a side note, though, just once I would like to see a menu describe a starter as “Rejected Pacific Oysters.” Now that sounds lively!)

IMG_0201.JPGHaving a hard time deciding between two starters, I ended up having one and a half. Pam and I split the “Grilled, Marinated Calamari with Parsnip Potato Cake, Greens, and Lemon Olive Oil.” As I’ve mentioned before after trips to those two Greek places in town (one good, one evil, but sisters nonetheless,) I enjoy grilled calamari with lemon accents much more than most of those fried versions out there. Although the Calamari appendages were a bit small in this instance, especially the fingery ends, and totally lost in the leafy pockets of greens, the flavor was wonderful, the spicy, seafoody lemoniness intermingled with cloves of roasted garlic, and the parsnip potato cake was perfectly prepared, much like a wedge of creamy polenta, and even David, suffering from parsniphobia since his childhood, said it was delicious (and not snippy at all.) I also was in the mood for a bowl of the hearty sounding vegan soup, as on this particular “Spring” day it had been snowing, sunny, hailing, and windy. Imagine me, selecting anything vegan, seems downright perverse, doesn’t it? IMG_0198.JPGAnyway, since it was five whole days ago, my memory is failing me (It wasn’t on the menu, it was a special,) but I’m pretty sure it was creamy leek, or creamy leek potato, or something of that nature. It was pretty good, really thick and smooth, although perhaps just a tiny bit biting flavor wise. Yes, I must say it, the vegan soup would have been almost perfect with a nice shot of cream. Unpleasantly animal oriented though it might be, cream has the wonderful ability to soften flavors that are a tad harsh, and can elevate a soup from good to great.

Luckily, we had some good foursome conversation going, as the wait time between the starters and entrees was a bit long (only, a bit long, not torturously long like we have seen at certain other “hell-like” dinners this year.) Our server, Justin, took total blame though, apologizing for getting our entree order in a few moments later than he should have. Generally, however, all the service was really good, and when ready the entrees were actually delivered by the owner and sous chef, so there was really little room for complaint about how we were treated all evening.

Now, on to those main eats…

As is often her misfortune, Pam had made several tentative selections from the online menu, because really, it was hard to anticipate so many entrees on the menu would change (which is why I rarely select anything in advance from on-line menus. Usually I suggest people check out the menus for an idea of the flavor of the cooking featured, and the general prices.) As mentioned previously though, I’m sure the menu at Trebol changes constantly due to the house emphasis on fresh and organic. As a general rule, that has to be a great thing for a restaurant, always changing, modifying, and inventing. As far as patrons who like to decide in advance, well, you’re out of luck sister. After much studying at the bar, then a bit more at the table, weighing various ingredients that she liked from various dishes (bacon here, avocados here, chorizo in this, artichokes in that,) IMG_0203.JPGPam finally threw her money behind the “Cornmeal Crusted True Cod with Sunchokes, Potato Gratin and Braised Leeks.” (By the way, in case anyone is wondering, all of these dishes have delightful Spanish names that at this point in my reviewer duties, after one too many reviews with agonizing Italian names, and a little too little input and review support from other members, are just too painful for me to type after already spending 10 hours at my computer keyboard today, sorry!) I’ve never been a cod fan, too sweet for my tastes, but I must say the whole dish was very complex and unusual, and Pam loved it. IMG_0202.JPGIn this same vein, when it came to complexity, on a scale of 1-10, Lynne’s selection on this evening, the “Traditional Enchiladas with Grilled Asparagus, Carmelized Onions and Queso Fresco” rated about a 25, the sauce was amazing. As Lynne generously shared hearty bites with all of us, we were trying to figure out the dominant spices, and asked the waiter if he knew. (I knew I certainly tasted cinnamon.) Lynne really only wanted to know the most commanding spices, but the waiter, trying to be helpful, actually went back and tried to get the recipe from Mr. Hill. Needless to say, he wasn’t totally forthcoming with everything included (I would certainly hope not,) but gave the waiter a rundown of some of the recipe’s highlights (this is an example of what I have referred to as “ramped up service.”) Lynne thought the dish was exceptional, one of her best with Restaurant Roulette.

David, always our spicy little man, decided he was interested in one of the dishes I originally considered selecting, the “Braised Draper Valley Chicken in a Jalapeno, White Bean Ragout with House Made Bacon.” (There’s that bacon again. You could offer a toenail shaving and nose hair salad, and the majority of people would order it, if one of the ingredients was house made bacon.) IMG_0204.JPGThe entree was a lovely presentation, coming served with those fancy looking long skinny carrots (that’s their official name, isn’t it?) with just a hint of the tops left on to provide a striking green compliment to the dish. David, having already explained earlier his dislike of root vegetables after being forced to consume an overabundance as a farm child, left most of his pretty, pretty carrots, but consumed every other morsel of his chicken and white bean ragout (and bacon, of course.) He thought it magnificent and certainly a new favorite (hmm, farm boy, too many root vegetables, but still loves chicken. The man is a conundrum.) We all had a bite, and all said, ooooh, spicy but good. Root vegetables or not, David loved his meal, and proclaimed it one of his three best RR restaurants, the other top two being Pok Pok and Country Cat.

As for me, the menu was without one touch of beef (Who suggested this crazy place??) so I shifted gears to always equally health-disasterous pork (got to get my 20,000 calories a day!) My selection on this evening, “Grilled Pork Loin with Black Bean Puree, Jicama Slaw and Mulato Relish.” For some reason, the older I get, the less I seem to like pork (if only I could say that about those bovine beauties, I’d certainly be at least half a person lighter.) IMG_0205.JPGPork, especially grilled, just doesn’t do it for me as a general rule these days, unless the sauce is really exceptional (often prune or fig based.) I don’t think I would call this preparation exceptional, but it was really quite good, and the meat had a nice sear on it for added flavor, and the mulato relish had spicy bites lurking amongst the rest for added flavor surprises. The waiter mentioned that they had taken this dish off the menu for a bit to try another pork preparation, but had to put this recipe back on due to customer revolt, so it certainly appeals to mass palates, and think I ate all the nice lean boneless chop, even though by this time I had already had plenty of food with the tortillas, and the salad/calamari, and the hearty soup, and now my entree. So bravo for me, once again, approaching gluttony!

Actually, we had all basically cleaned our plates and had more than adequate food, so no desserts were indulged in, although there was a list of about six really fine sounding choices to select from. If they really want to sell desserts though, I would recommend Trebol go to a written dessert menu rather than a verbal dessert menu. I’ve noticed from past experience, the more real and concrete desserts are to you, the harder they are to resist. So verbal menu, no sweat, easy to reject. Written piece of paper with descriptions, harder to resist. Absolutely hardest to ignore, dessert tray or dessert cart where you see real items. Danger, danger! I’ve noticed over the last five years or so, no one lugs around desserts these days. I’m sure it’s a big hassle and wasteful, carrying around all these sample desserts for people to take a gander at, but man, are those real items hard to resist. I remember going to Il Fornio a few times (remember them?) just to drool over that gigantic dessert cart they had (so so restaurant, great dessert cart.) So if you want to sell more desserts Trebol, shove them is people’s faces, whether they want to see them or not. There’s a reason I’ve been to Pambiche 50,000 times, and it’s not those entrees.

While Lynne was indulging in the most modest cup of coffee ever, a tiny portion of decaf in a grande sized cup filled up with water, David was entertaining us with colorful stories which harked back to those grand days of Restaurant Roulette. When DD comes to the dinners, he often shares with us episodes of that cable TV show where that weirdo goes around the world eating every disgusting article thrust in front of him (no, not “Fear Factor, it’s a food or travel show. I’m sure many of you know what it is, but my TV is sadly lacking almost all stations of entertainment value, so I have no clue. Sounds interesting though.) Anyway, he was telling us about a recent episode he had seen where this food goober had went to a restaurant where only prepared penises were served (and just so you know, he was trying to relay the story in the most tasteful and non-threatening way possible.) Sounds just scumpdelicious, doesn’t it. I guess once I got a drift of what he was talking about, my mind kind of went blank, as I didn’t hear where the restaurant was, (Forest Grove maybe,) or what it was called. Hmmm …. Ding Dongs, Junkies, Johnny’s, or The Family Jewels perhaps. I’m sure you can come up with your own ideas here, probably better than my flaccid attempts at humor.

Anyway, although we were once again a small group, we were a cohesive group, and the evening went quite well. The restaurant had good atmosphere, treated us great, and the food was deliciously prepared and inventive. All three of my co-diners raved about what they had been served, although at this point, after almost two years of interesting dinners (and only one repeat,) it takes a whole lot to get me whipped up and bubbling over with complete excitement (like some really good beef or a completely wonderous dessert.) I highly recommend Trebol though, especially if you want some high-end, really unusual organic cooking at a pretty reasonable price. All of our entrees were under $20, and sadly in this day and age, that is something we rarely see at a restaurant of this caliber. IMG_0209.JPGThe only disturbing part of the evening, (besides David’s story, of course,) was that it was Friday night, at 7:00 pm, and Trebol was only modestly busy, and not busy at all by 9:00. I think it has something to do with location, if it was on Mississippi or maybe Alberta, it would be packed like all those places that people shoehorn themselves into for a similar quality or lesser meal. But it’s really only a hop, skip, and a jump from N. Mississippi, so more people need to give it a try. I think it’s once of those places that probably gets better every month it’s around, so lets hope it’s around for many months.

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