The Dining Report – Special Edition

Shiver Me Belly Timbers!!!!


As many of you know, who actually read some of my incessant blatherings, I’ve been at this Restaurant Roulette thing for almost two years now (come next month. Hmm, it seems like July used to be a summer month in these here parts.) It’s true, the group has had a couple of months where it was on the shelf, the most recent being this May. But by and large, RR has existed over the last 23 months, and although it hasn’t exactly bought me fame and fortune, now and then a pleasant perk has come my way, especially since last fall. So I have had a few nice things fall in my lap as the result of the hours spent at my keyboard and my insane ramblings.

Of course the dinners are always a wonderful thing, the great food and fun company, those are what I will always remember most about my days as Ruler of Restaurant Roulette. And every once in awhile someone does something nice for me as well, be it furnish me a drink or even a lovely birthday dinner, totally unexpected. The Foodbuzz Food Network haas been good to me as well, giving me some added exposure, a connection with some local food bloggers, that sweet little signing bonus that helped me get the digital camera, sending we my wonderful little RR business cards, and having that elaborate dinner at Ten 01 for all the interested Portland Featured Publishers. So lately I feel like I’ve been scoring.

I mention this all because my most recent perk was having an email sent to the RR mailbox inviting me to a special pre-opening sneak peek at that interesting new, and crazily named, restaurant on Hawthorne, Belly Timber. IMG_0400.JPGNaturally I said yes, because when do I ever turn down free food and liquor? I THINK NOT! Belly Timber, named after a Victorian (those people were such cards) term for food, is now open as of Wednesday, June 11th, at 3257 SE Hawthorne, in that wonderful old Victorian appropriately built around 1850. The pre-opening party was Tuesday evening, June 10th, and featured an array of complimentary high-end creative cocktails and noshes to be featured on their regular menu. Why I was so lucky to get an invite, I have no idea, I must have confused someone into thinking I’m somebody, but stalwart RR member Pam in tow, we headed to the Belly Timber shindig promptly upon its opening hour of 7:00, on the cold, sucky, drizzly June evening that was taking place this year on June 10th.

As you’ve heard me go on and on and on and on about, I love quaint old houses and neighborhoods, so what could be better for me than mid-Hawthorne, right? Actually, truth be told, I’ve never been a Hawthorne fan, I love Ladd’s Addition, but mainstream Hawthorne, it’s never been for me. The driving and parking, almost impossible. I don’t know how many accidents I’ve narrowly avoided and pedestrians I’ve barely missed on this tiny overwhelmed thoroughfare over the years. True, there are some beautiful old houses tucked off the main drag, some great shops like Powells, JaCivas (such wonderful cake. Do you think I could start a cake eating group? Will someone please join me?) and PastaWorks, and some decent restaurants like Bread and Ink, Mio Sushi, The Hawthorne Alehouse, 3 Doors Down and first rate Castagna and now Sel Gris. That hippy thing though, piercing thing, too cool for words thing, not for me. Never for me, even before I was over that hill. Sure, were someone to give it to me (where are you, someone?) I would certainly take a wonderful old house in these environs, a couple of blocks off the main drag or closer to Mt. Tabor would be wonderful, but other than that, Hawthorne is not a place I crave.

That being said, I have always admired that beautiful old house that Belly Timber now resides in, as I’m sure almost every person who has ever passed by and loves old gems has. The outside alone is fantastic, that wonderful paint job and seemingly loving restoration. Even had the Belly Timber people been serving Kool Aid and Alpo, I’m sure Pam and I would have wanted to join in on the party, as we both wanted to see inside this Victorian beauty, Pam probably more rabidly than me, since as many of you know, Pam has got that lifelong Victorian restoration project of her own on her hands. Of course there have already been several business ventures in this location, the vegan Calendula and that Patisserie place after that, but these never inspired a visit from either of us. Funnel in the prospect of some good eats though, and we were there in a flash. After all, even though it looks like nothing but a weird enigma from the outside, I always find The Farm Cafe one of the sweetest (and compact) dining spaces in Portland, the the good victuals that place pumps out only improve my good feelings about the space (best cheesecake I’ve ever had.)

I suppose much as I expected, the atmosphere inside Belly Timber was woody, tasteful, and somewhat austere, livened up here and there by surprising touches of metallic paint (the nice copper hue on the front door, the sage green in the (perhaps) breakfast room where we sat, the attractive plum in the restroom.) Actually the inside and the outside of this old house are an interesting contrast, the outside so alive with finials, cornices, interesting windows, lively paint, and all kinds of embellishment, the inside very dignified, solid, and perhaps a tad plain. As it was rather a dark day, the wonderful (and perhaps not authentic) stained glass windows could not be enjoyed to their full extent, but the blue and yellowish one over the attractive bar was extremely unusual and lovely, catching the setting western sun as it was. I certainly liked the space, but Pam and I discussed later that it seemed a tad too plain at this juncture, and could be easily lived up with perhaps some funky vintage rugs, local artwork for sale on the walls, tiffany lamps, or perhaps even some old timey photographs. Opening a quality restaurant in this day and age, especially one in a historically significant edifice, has got to be an incredibly expensive and labor intensive endeavor for anyone, so perhaps as it begins to gain some footing the decor at Belly Timber will personalize and warm up a bit, as right now it has somewhat of a law office vibe, but still, while a tad lacking in distinct personality, it’s still a really good space with wonderful potential.

According to the press release, the man leading the kitchen at Belly Timber, David Siegal, has a strong local pedigree, spending time cooking at Nostrana, Meriwether’s, and the East Side Dining Club, so before even biting into a morsel, the assumption was that Belly Timber was aiming for high-end, probably NW driven dining. From my dinners with Restaurant Roulette I have come to the conclusion that if you want to draw a crowd to a dinner, start with some good locally grown American food and add some nice European flourishes on top, and as this seems the direction the Belly Timber menu is heading, it could spell success. Since have a beautiful setting, solidly prepared, interesting food that appeals to knowing local diners at slightly under the normal price point has got to be a strong selling point. That might be why the previous food oriented occupants in this space have failed, their aspirations were either too limited (vegan) or too simple and one dimensional ( patisserie.) It’s a grand spot, why not have some really good, perhaps somewhat cutting-edge, food?

IMG_0399.JPGAfter talking to Brooke, whose PR firm organized this event (for some reason I originally thought she worked at Belly Timber. I’m so naive when it comes to these restaurant “soft opening”  events,) we headed to the bar to check out the cocktails. The man tending bar, Lance Mayhew, was a very friendly and accommodating sort who evidently is the head of the Oregon Bartender’s Guild, so how could you beat that? His suggestion, to begin our festivities, was a DMD cocktail, a mixture of Elderflower liqueur, orange bitters and sparkling wine. Originally Pam declined in hopes of a G & T instead, but once she was told the ingredients of the DMD, was won over and enjoyed this tasteful cocktail fully. I’m really not much of a champagne fan, so while the drink was nice enough to begin a pleasant social gathering, it didn’t totally float my schooner. The drinks were freely flowing, however, (a real emphasis on FREE here,) so I really have no complaints, especially as we were given a list of signature cocktails and told to order whatever we liked (TOTAL SCORE!!) The drinks at Belly Timber seem to run pretty average as far as current Portland prices ($6.50 – $8.50) and feature lots of locally manufactured spirits, interesting fruits like rhubarb,  and trendy substances like bitters. Mulling over the menu, I discern a definite blending of the traditional and the contemporary. Looking over the beer and wine menu, the draft beer seems a nice combination of West Coast brews, and the wine list features about 10 varieties by the glass, all Oregon or European in origin, and some moderately priced bottles, $51 being the most expensive, for an Andrew Rich Pinot Noir.

As I’m generally mingle-challenged and getting too old to learn, when it was mentioned that we could grab a drink and plunk down at a table until some food was pimped around, Pam and I headed toward the smallish room in the back area (only about three tables) in search of a two top. Back there we met Carol and Anthony, the really friendly and informative owners of Gaston based Ayers Creek Farm, and decided to share a four top with them, discussing the products they grow and sell at farmer’s markets, (currently Hillsdale,) specialty stores like PastaWorks, and restaurants like Nostanna, and talked a bit about good local restaurants. Evidently on their 100 + acres they grow some of the absolutely best blackberries in Oregon, raspberries, garlic, plums, chicory and various winter greens, summer squash, and a variety of other wonderful items. Although they tried to make themselves sound like humble farm folk, (okay, they did have farmer’s hands,) it was clear these were people of culture with an extensive knowledge of fine modern cuisine, and obviously a good model for the modern day Willamette Valley organic farmer. They were really nice, and it was fun talking to them, it’s just too bad they had to leave before much food was served to get back to the old homestead.

Little morsels of food did appear before Carol and Anthony left, mostly good quality baguettes with yummy whipped butter and pulverized dehydrated carrot and pea shoot sprinkles (seemingly mixed with a good dash of salt.) The carrot and pea powders were fine, but who is coming up with all these weird delectables these days, dehydrated dusts, foams, and obscure reductions? What happened to all the real food, before it got all lathery and pulped into powders? To get back to this evening though, obviously I could tell from this point on that Belly Timber was interested in parading some unusual and fancy foodstuffs, because when is the last time you really had carrot and pea shoot dust at Applebees? Other early nibbles were marinated veggies, house cured sopressata (that fancy and extra fatty salami like sausage,) red and gold beets on fancy little bread cracker dealies with some nice shriveled greens, and deep fried asparagus and mushrooms. Pam and I, used to enormous RR dinners, had made the misfortunate mistake of practically starving ourselves since lunchtime, and fell upon every offered food item like buzzards at the slow moving skunk convention (another fine food metaphor,) for example, I don’t even like beets, but our lack of previous sustenance and the free flowing alcohol were not the best combo (although we both limited ourselves to two cocktails, not easy when they were so generously offered.)

For our second cocktail, we decided to try more potent sounding items from the drink menu. Pam selected “Life with Fernando” (hmm,  does her husband know about this?) a pinky beverage of tequila reposado, aperol, fresh grapefruit juice and orange bitters. I myself, seeing the word cointreau, decided on the “Corpse Reviver #2” (unfortunately my corpse is #3,) a rather scary sounding combination of the locally produced Aviation Gin, Lillet blanc, cointreau, lemon juice and absinthe. I didn’t notice the absinthe until after I ordered it, then kept fretting over what it might do to my already creaky brain. I kept waiting for the delusions to start, but no such luck, although for some reason my ring finger went wacky about three hours later for no reason, and I currently appear to have a sprained finger, which is painful to bend. Could it be that wormwood working on my digits? (And do they actually even still put that in Absinthe available in the U.S.? Seems unlikely.)

Once our tablemates left Pam and I faced the scary possibility that we might actually have to mingle soon, but about this time I saw someone else enter Belly Timber I actually knew a tiny amount, Elizabeth from Lizzy Dishes Portland, the local blogger I met at the Foodbuzz dinner at Ten 01. She didn’t see me, but she and her companion are not big minglers either I guess, and just happened to make their way to the table right across from ours. Saved from meeting new people again, this time by being able to converse with Elizabeth and her really nice and also very food knowledgeable friend Jeff about local dining. (Elizabeth also has a dining group, and is headed to Beast next, while RR is about to do old fave Lauro Kitchen.) Also making the rounds at this time were Belly Timber’s owners, Michele and Tara. They seemed like nice people, and I asked them the requisite group dining questions about reservations (yes) and maximum group size (20, they have a large upstairs room which at that moment was being overrun by a private veterinarian’s dinner, and that’s  why the party was confined to the main floor.) Pam, of course being Pam, asked them about the house itself, and we were told if we could wait until towards the end of the party we could have a tour of more of their space. I was also brought a dinner menu so I could write a bit about Belly Timber for the blog and check it out for a future RR dinner.

For a cocktail party, the occasional arrival of small snacks was certainly generous, but as I mentioned earlier, Pam and I were both as hungry as racehorses and awaited every morsel with frenzied anticipation. I suppose if I have a complaint it’s that the food was served in rather a random smattering fashion, and while we were seated near a serving portal and certainly got our share, there were still things that looked good that came out and you never got any, or you got some and your friend didn’t get any, or the people across the aisle got some and you didn’t, or you each got one, but the other two people had to share one. (They did have an abundance of bread, nice little china plates, pretty silver forks and dainty little napkins.) One time the waitress approached our area with three skewers (there were four of us there,) so I just let Pam have the skewer, as in my absinthe rattled state, I was afraid I might poke my eye out with the sharp object. I can’t remember what it was, I think raw tuna, bacon, and some other fish. I just hope Pam doesn’t die of mercury poisoning, or I’ll feel guilty for giving up that skewer for the rest of my life. The food we did grab onto seemed inventive and of good quality though, and while I’m not certain what everything was, I think I remember some halibut gravlax, mustard greens, and pickled onion on a rye cracker, and standouts like pecorino pierogis with lamb shoulder and chicories (too bad the earth tillers had to go, they love chicory,) and my favorite, the oriecchiette (you know, little ear pasta,) with rabbit sausage and rapini (I remember reading about his daughter in high school.) If I return, which is certainly my plan, I’m sure I will have a hard time choosing between the ears and bunny pasta and the grilled skirt steak, which I did not taste, but, what more can I say, it’s beef and I’m me.

Looking at the menu, the starters are priced about average for a good quality Portland restaurant, anywhere from $6 for the butter lettuce salad to $9 for the aforementioned lamb and pierogis and Maine shrimp, potatoes and watercress on grilled bread. The entrees seem like a really good bargain though, at least 2-3 dollars below many quality Portland establishments, and everything except the specialty burger is served in both small plate and entree size. Beside the previously enjoyed pasta with rabbit sausage ($8/15) other interesting entrees include Pan seared halibut, wild rice and Maine Shrimp with fennel and basil seeds ($11/19) Oven roasted pork chop, red cabbage, beans and onion relish($9/16) Spring chicken soup, chickpea noodles, lovage and lemon ($8/14), Wild mushroom flatbread with house made mascarpone and an arugula salad ($6.5/12) and the aforementioned Grilled skirt steak, which comes with sorrel, fingerlings, and rosemarry butter ($8.5/$17.)

After being there a bit over 2 hours, things seemed to be waning a bit, and while the festivities were officially going on until 10:00, we didn’t see any noshes on the immediately horizon, so decided it was time to leave, as we had those pesky job things to go to early the next morning. We still wanted to look around the house more, but as I had the feeling those vets might still be at it, as I had not seen random people milling around with stethoscopes and anal thermometers on their way out, I wasn’t sure if that was possible. We did pass one of the owners on the way out though (Tara maybe, sorry, it’s that absinthe again,) and she kindly and quietly look us up the grand winding and woody Victorian staircase so we could see the little outdoor patio area with the disarmingly modern furniture.

IMG_0398.JPGAlthough we had both just had small samples of various items, Pam and I both liked Belly Timber, and I hope to have a RR dinner there in the near future (look for that announcement coming to your email soon.) The setting is great (just liven it up a tad, peeps,) the ownership is nice, the menu seems interesting, and the prices are moderate. So I wish them success, and have the feeling some people might actually go there just to find out what the name is all about. Portland really does not have that many decent eating establishments in beautiful 19th century architecture like this, so I hope Belly Timber has found a fitting home, and this grand old home has found someone to keep it company into its hopefully long future.