THE DINING REPORT – SEL GRIS

10 Easy Steps to Increasing Your Wasteline

I suppose when people at restaurants give you tips on finding their establishments, and you don’t even ask for them, it’s an indication that perhaps you should pay attention to what they are saying, it’s probably for a reason. I mention this due to the fact that I really did not listen, and noticed that after I somewhat lately parked my car on the narrowest street imaginable in Ladd’s Edition (the sweetest Portland neighborhood anywhere,) and went running out on Hawthorne, I had no idea where the restaurant was, although I was pretty certain I was on the right side of the street, the side with the classy restaurants (unlike the other side, with the hostile Bombay Cricket Club and the hippie nightmare Barley Mill Pub.) After making a couple of swoops back and forth in front of Castagna (how long has that building been that lovely shade of green?,) and seeing nothing in sight, I finally engaged at least a tiny section of my rather numb cerebral cortex, and decided to try going east from the non-numbered street I had emerged from Ladd’s Eddition on, as the numbering was quite oblique in this region, but I thought I was looking for 18 blah, blah something. IMG_0248.JPGI gravitated towards the first non-descript storefront with big heavy maroon velvet curtains, and sure enough, Sel Gris awaited me, as well as Pat, Regis, and Jody by then.

Although exactly when all of these great restaurants opened in the last year is starting to become a big blur to me, I’m pretty certain I started to read about Sel Gris in late summer/early fall of 07. I knew it was supposed to have really high-design French food in a super impressive space, and the initial reviews were quite positive. Then someone in the group practically pleaded with me to have a dinner there, and although the first reservation didn’t work out because Sel Gris became extremely popular in a short time frame, I kept plugging away until I managed a suitable reservation for up to 8 people (interestingly, the person who was SO anxious to have me do the Sel Gris dinner didn’t bother to attend, and also did not attend the substitute dinner they asked me to have when the first reservation did not work out. Is it any wonder your hostess has become weary and resigned to defeat?)

In the months it has been open, however, I don’t remember reading one negative review on Sel Gris, so was happy to take the willing bodies I could muster there, even though the on-line prices made me shriek “yikes. my wallet!” and even though the menu was overflowing with many of those food items the French love but I run the other way from, veal sweetbreads, foie gras, pork cheeks, lamb, and venison. Luckily they also had beef and pasta, so I knew I’d be in the clear at ordering time (except for the shrieking and shrinking wallet.)

IMG_0249.JPGAlthough the reservation was for eight, and seven people actually RSVPed in the first day or so, if not before the RSVP announcement went out, I sadly lost one enthusiastic diner due to an impromptu trip to the hospital the day before the dinner. (You were missed Nancy, but this was probably not the kind of food you needed at that particular time.) Sel Gris had been so anxious about their space issues, they had actually called me on Tuesday, four days before the dinner to confirm the reservation, so didn’t mind at all when I called that Friday to say I could free up two places. Interestingly, when I originally booked the reservation, almost a month before, they had asked me a question I had never been asked in all the RR reservations, was it okay to re-book the table at 9:00 pm. At first I couldn’t figure out what the Sam Hill they were talking about, as this just isn’t something I have been asked before, but I guess Sel Gris actually cares whether your evening will be cramped if you have to have your dinner in 2 1/2 hours. (As it happened, the last four of us drifted out the door about 8:55.) This was something I noticed several times at Sel Gris, although it’s certainly classy and the food is extremely architectured and expertly prepared, it’s not particularly stuffy and the staff seems pretty considerate and lacking in haughtiness. (Jody found this a great contrast to Fenouil in the Pearl, which is just SO Pearl, and not overwhelmingly friendly or down to earth, although the food is good and the space really impressive.)

The name Sel Gris (grey salt) refers to a special salt found in one small area on the French coast, and once inside Sel Gris, it’s hard not to notice that almost everything around you is grey, neutral, or metallic. The one exception is the open kitchen at the end of the room, which emits a pleasing glow with bright lights and copper pots, this drawing all eyes in that direction. The house owned artwork in very minimalist and draftsman like (one of Glenda’s favorite local artists by chance,) and although the space is pretty high-end and modern, it’s not lacking warmth, due much to the very professional but still friendly staff. I couldn’t really see too much of what was going on during the evening, as it was my turn to face the wall, but I got the impression Sel Gris could probably do fine in a space two or three times larger than it has. It was somewhat noisy, but the acoustics were relatively decent compared to many of the more popular restaurants we have visited in the last year or so.

IMG_0244.JPGAs we were at a classy French restaurant, the beverages were largely wine, and about a dollar higher than I like to pay, but the pours were generous. One of the nice touches during the evening, when one of us accidently knocked over their just poured glass of wine during excited hand gestures, not only was the waiter there in about two seconds to mop up and minimize the spill, but the spillee was given not only a new glass of wine on the house, but was allowed to finish the 1/3 of the first glass that was left after it was knocked over. After that, of course, all the people with white wine kept trying to knock over their almost empty glasses of wine, to no avail.

The bread plates, like all the food at Sel Gris, were quite the interesting presentation. We were given two for six people, each containing a fancy brioche type thing, three thick slices of decent looking bread, and some high quality butter. I split one of the brioche things with Regis, and it tasted much like a high quality dinner roll should. I wish more places would serve a variety of breads, that’s something I’ve always loved, and long ago a place called the Cajun Cafe (where Swagat is in NW Portland) had a great wonderful southern bread basket, and for all its other issues, the long gone Il Fornio did wonderful assorted breads too. I wish I could be sensible like Glenda and forgo the bread, but I can’t, I just love bread to death (in my case, perhaps literally. )

I really never know which way to go when you are given both “First/Share Plates” and “Seconds” to choose from, as well as entrees, I just know I can never afford both (except maybe at Toro Bravo) so I have to make a choice which I want. IMG_0246.JPGOn this evening no one selected the oysters on the half shell ($14 for 6, too rich for my blood) the “Crisp Veal Sweetbreads with Apple Butter, Bacon and Eggs;” The “Pan Seared Squab with Pork Belly, Cornmeal Dusted Skate Wing, Hot and Sour Broth,” (not that again!) the “Foie Gras Two Ways;” or the “Tuna with Szechwan Peppercorn Crust, Jasmine Rice Salad, Tempura Green Beans, Wasabi Creme Fraiche and Ponzu.” Pat and Regis did give the “Mussels Billi-Bi” a whirl though, this dish containing “Mussels, Spanish Chorizo, Charred Tomato, Saffron, Cream, Grilled Bread and Dick’s Rouille.” Pat said it was really rich and she was glad she and Regis had just decided to share one starter, but thought the Chorizo overwhelmed all the other multitude of flavors on the plate.

IMG_0247.JPGGlenda and I both thought the salads (seconds) sounded really good, and were tempted to order most of them. Neither of us settled on the “Duck Confit,” with “Baby Chicories, Roquefort, and Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrette;” or the intriguing and tempting sounding “Crab Salad with “Oregon Dungeness Crab, Avocado, Grapefruit Supremes, Radish, Cranberry Vinaigrette and Grapefruit Granita.” Glenda did have the very beautiful “Salade Compose,” a lovely composition of “Rabbit Pate, Truffle Tremor Cheese, Balsamic Soaked Figs, Grilled Onions, Olives and Marcona Olives.” As a lover of France and especially French cooking, Glenda highly endorsed my selection of the “Lyonnaise,” a not at all assembled salad of “Warmed Frisee, Braised Bacon, Lardon Vinaigrette, and Cattail Creek Farm Poached Duck Egg.” I was quite happy I had Glenda by my side when this “dish” arrived, as for one thing I had no idea what anything was, as nothing but the frisee was recognizable, and because I really had no clue how I was supposed to eat this weird collection of items. She explained to me I should use the small sprinkle of Sel Gris on my duck egg, break up the big hunk of bacon and mix it with the frisee, then place the duck egg over the top and break the yolk. IMG_0245.JPGDue to the big hunk of pig fat, this was one rich salad, and I was glad it didn’t come in a portion one bite larger, especially after listening to Glenda’s story about eating this very same type of salad in Lyon, France and getting intensely sick. Interesting ways to begin one’s meal for sure.

It’s good we had a nice sized table with adequate elbow row, as all the fancy rectangular places were monsters, each over a foot long. Most of us were pretty awed by the food works of art all prettily arranged to highest visual effect, but our friend Glenda, Ultimate French Food Connoisseur is only in it for the cooking, so actually complained to the waiter (in a quiet voice) that she would have preferred more traditional, utilitarian plates, that these were a tad pretentious. I don’t know though, can a place named after a fancy kind of salt that serves “Tuna with Szechwan Peppercorn Crust, Jasmine Rice Salad, Tempura Green Beans, Wasabi Creme Fraiche and Ponzu” really avoid being thought of as pretentious anyway? I also think the average Northwesterner probably doesn’t have too much trouble with a bit of pretension at a high-end French place. I personally expect it.

On to those elaborate entrees ….

There were quite a few entrees that didn’t make an appearance at our table, largely due to the fact that a couple of items were double ordered. No one had the “Escolar” (especially not me, as I have no idea what it is, but my guess is fish,) Sel Gris’ version listed as being grilled with “Lemongrass-Coconut Broth, Mussels, Clams. Cabbage Wrapped Rice Cake, and Meyer Lemon Aioli.” Also not selected on this evening, another mysterious fish, “Hamachi”, in this case “Seared with Pan Roasted Foie Gras, Tomato Concasse, and Charred Hamachi Consomme.” Since our old friend Leo was absent, no one ventured toward the “Braised Cattail Creek Lamb Shank with the Chestnut Honey Glazed Baby Carrots, Curried Cauliflower, Lentils du puy and Lavenfer Sel Gris.”, Now that’s some fancy soundin’ vittles!!! Also neglected by our party on this evening, the “Grilled Saddle of Cervina Venison with Acorn Squash Pommes Dauphine, Roasted Venison Jus, and Shallot-Currant Soubise.” Denny’s this place ain’t! There were so many interesting elaborate French dishes to order, I think Glenda was practically near tears trying to make a decision, as I know items like the lamb shank were calling out especially to her.

IMG_0252.JPGIn the end, Glenda’s entree choice, the “Pork and Beans.” (REALLY.) These were no Van De Kamp’s pork and beans though, these cost $21 (the second cheapest entree on the menu,) and are described as “All Day Braised Carlton Farms Pork Cheeks, French Beans, and Scallion Salad.” Try to shove that into a can and charge $1.29. (although they were in the only round bowl.) Whatever the vessel, Glenda highly approved of the preparation, and modest plate too.

Andrea, at her second dinner, decided the Scallops sounded wonderful, and they were delicious looking and artful when they made their appearance, in this case “Pan Roasted Gulf Scallops, Asparagus Cannelloni, Tennessee Ramp Butter, and Asparagus Nage.” IMG_0251.JPGAndrea was duly impressed and very happy with her selection. She and Jody also shared extensively. Jody having the “Linguini Barigole,” a concoction of “Homemade Pasta, Goat Cheese Cream Sauce, English Peas, Barigole of Cordoncello and Malitake Mushrooms, Fiddlehead Ferns (Tori, where were you, nature goddess,) and Artichoke Hearts.” I must say I’m with Glenda on this particular dish, it seemed awfully strange to have all the different ingredients served in different sections on this long angular plate. Pasta on a rectangle, I don’t think so. Whatever the presentation, Regis also selected this entree, and everyone who tasted it was won over by the complex flavors and contrasts. (And it sure was pretty.)IMG_0253.JPG

As for Moi, I must say this is the most I have ever spent on a single entree at an American Restaurant, $29. If that would have been it of course, that would have been fine and dandy, but naturally I also had a glass of wine, a fancy salad, and dessert. There would be no grocery money for me this weekend (gruel every night again.) The menu, in its weird understated fashion, called what I ordered “A New York Strip.” I can assure you, you’ve never seen a New York Strip like this before. The description mentions “Grilled Dry-Rub Cascade Strip Loin, Pleasant Ridge Potato Pasillasson, Smoked Tomato Ketchup and Leek Butter,” but basically I was presented a pyramid of food, two pieces of medium thickness meat piled on top of each other piled on top of a thick potato puck-like object. Alongside was the swirl of the housemade catsup. The only equally strange looking meat presentation was across the table from me, as Pat and I had our beef vibe going together, and she had a beefy stack of food going too.

Because of its healthy price and unique presentation, I would like to say this was the best beef I ever had. IMG_0250.JPGIt wasn’t though, it was merely good. The curse of the NY Steak again, I just seem to have lost my taste for that particular cut and find it a touch too neutral flavored these days. I think Pat liked hers considerably more than I enjoyed mine, but it could have been that she partook of more of the homemade smoked ketchup than I did. I was raised as a beef purist, and in my book, no tomatoey sauces go any where even close to my beef, no catsup, no steak sauce, and certainly no barbeque sauce (the only exception, catsup on a burger,) steak has to stand alone on its own flavor. Spiced and sauced is okay, but NO TOMATO! But this is obviously just my peculiarity, not one shared by the Daniel Mondok at Sel Gris, but probably why I found the meat rather average, sauce aversion (I just wish I would have tasted more of that “leek butter,” that I like.) I did thoroughly enjoy my potato puck however (okay, “Pleasant Ridge Potato Paillasson,) as I kept telling everyone at our table who had the misfortune of listening, it reminded me of an 1” thick really delicious BBQ potato chip. (It’s good we were not seated any closer to the open kitchen, I might have been banned from the premises.)

IMG_0256.JPGThe waiter was very excited, because Sel Gris was unveiling a new selection of desserts on this evening, and I think he was anxious to hear feedback on the so far untested sweets. Four of us shamelessly indulged, and these were anything but modest desserts, and all extremely beautiful to behold. Pat was torn between two and asked the waiter what he thought, as both the caramel pots de creme and strawberry tart were calling to her. The waiter commented that caramel would probably always be around, but not necessarily good berries, so that swayed her in the fruiter direction. As the tart did not linger for too long, I think she was happy with her choice.

Glenda and Regis both decided on the Raspberry Napolean, which was absolutely stunning to look at, and it was almost a shame it had to be eaten (I think Regis and Glenda should have taken their portions home and had them lacquered for all eternity.) IMG_0255.JPGIt seemed like the waiter had barely delivered Regis’ portion to the table and his plate was empty, which I would say speaks much to the quality of this dessert.

I actually ordered something I have never tried in my life, the Sweet Potato Pie. Of course this looked absolutely like no sweet potato pie you’ve ever seem, a beautiful individual little tartlet piled high with wonderful whipped cream and nuts, served with a gingerbread cookie/spoon and two drizzles of an intensely spiced molasses type sauce (which I wasn’t too keen on and was glad it was served in segregated fashion.) IMG_0258.JPGThe tartlet itself was wonderful though, much like a delicious little pumpkin pie, and certainly, alongside the Carrot Cake at Tabla, one of the two most memorable desserts I have at a RR dinner.
When it was all over, Sel Gris was one of those lovely restaurants that gladly offers everyone a separate check, which can be such a godsend, especially after all the problems we had had at Fife coming up with the right amount of buckaroos from everyone. With our individual checks, we were also each presented with a dark chocolate nugget coated in Sel Gris (and while I’m not one of those people who likes to mix chocolate and salt, it was really good.) As I mentioned earlier, I found my bill a bit harsh, even more expensive than my fixed price meal at Beast, and was glad I won’t be forking out those kind of big bucks toward food in the foreseeable coming weeks. That being said, if you had no wine, no dessert, the soup starter, and the pasta, you could eat at Sel Gris for $25, excluding tip, and still experience their fine French cuisine and swanky atmosphere.

I really didn’t hear too many complaints about the prices at our table, as everyone loved the food and almost everything about the restaurant, and said they would be happy to come back (especially Glenda, eyeing those reservable seats at the kitchen bar.) The service was excellent, the waiter extremely professional but kindly, and the place was packed with happy diners all night. Sadly, this was a dinner where I didn’t check out the restroom facilities, to see if there was anything wow-inducing there, but for all of Sel Gris’ wonderful qualities, it’s hard for me to believe they could surpass the restroom greatness of that industrial strength dental floss dispenser from Fife. Other than that though, Sel Gris was first rate.

Advertisements