Restaurant Roulette Elite
The Dining Report
Lauro Kitchen – All Around the Mediterranean in Under Two Hours

I’ve been fond of Lauro Kitchen since the very beginning. I had an acquaintance who lived just two blocks south of 34th and Division, and every time I went past the space being rehabbed around five years ago,IMG_0401.JPG I would wonder what was going in at that corner. I could see it slowly turning into what looked like a halfway decent restaurant, which I found exciting, as at that point none of the good restaurants that are now in this Richmond neighborhood existed, with the exception of the pretty new and rapidly becoming famous Pix Patisserie. Lauro soon opened, and from opening, I heard nothing but good things about what a great place it was. I managed to go there a few times in the first couple years, and always loved the warm but sophisticated vibe the space exuded, and the interesting menu and fun drinks. From the very start, Lauro has been one of those few restaurants that you just never read anything bad about, except for the fact that it’s always SO hard to get into, a not especially large space and no reservations. Even if you took a large group there, it was still first come, first served, and you were not allowed to sit down until almost all your group was present, which might mean you could lose your table if everyone was not there promptly.

IMG_0402.JPGBecause of this, although it was always in my top ten, I never tried to take an RR group to Lauro. Just too impossible. I even remember reading an interview from of Lauro owner David Machado a couple or so years back where he said he was never planning on having reservations at Lauro, as reservations result in empty tables even if walk-ins are wanting to eat. In the mean time, things seemed to have changed though, Machado’s second restaurant Vindalho, has had reservations pretty successfully from the beginning, and whether it’s the fact that Mr. Machado has seen from Vindalho that you can successfully manage a neighborhood restaurant with a reservation policy, or if it’s that these tough economic times and all the stiff competition of respected restaurants has made it harder for Lauro to always fill tables, Lauro now has reservations (and beginning this month, even lunch, including take-out.) Now, if only my other favorite Division St. restaurant about 12 blocks down, Nuestra Cocina would follow suit, I would be one happy camper.

This was our first Restaurant dinner in quite some time, so I was really happy to fill all the places I could at my table so easily (Lauro limits reserved tables to eight.) On one of the nicer late spring evenings we’ve had lately, we all met at our appointed time and place to see what Lauro had to offer us these days. IMG_0414.JPGSince opening, Lauro has billed itself as a Mediterranean Kitchen, but what these means in Portland is always sketchy, it could be food leaning toward Greece, Spain, Italy, or even France, or all of these places (I believe Olea and Tabla also bill themselves as Mediterranean, but Olea tends to be all over the map with perhaps an emphasis on Spain and France, while Tabla tends to be more Italian. I recently read that David Machado has recently been trying to take his menu in a more Middle Eastern direction while at the same time exploring his Portuguese roots, which seems like a weird combination, but Middle Eastern touches were certainly noticeable all over the Lauro menu, as were Greek, although my knowledge of Portuguese food is limited enough to not recognize it unless the menu makes mention of Portuguese this or that, unless it was the Romesco sauce all over the place (although I think this is actually Spanish.) IMG_0410.JPGTo be honest, one of my favorite things back in my traveling days was sampling different culture’s cuisines, but almost all of the food I had during my limited time in Portugal was ghastly, even on Lisbon’s official restaurant row it was difficult to find something appealing sounding. I certainly had the worst fish I’ve ever had in Portugal, something called a Sea Bream which was dry as a bone and an odd combination of flavorless and weird tasting.

I heard traffic on this Friday night was maddening, especially from the westside, so we kind of arrived in spurts, stretching out our drink orders to rather epic lengths, and getting the evening off to rather a slow start. IMG_0405.JPGAlthough in the past Lauro’s specialty drink menu has always been appealing and delicious, for some reason the drinks listed on the chalkboard didn’t seem to hold much interest to those who wanted cocktails, so most people either had their standard drink, wine, or beer. I decided I would give the “Aviation” a whirl, as House Spirits, the local distillery who makes Aviation Gin is a customer of mine, and I had had a very similar drink at Meriwethers about this time last year, and had enjoyed the Gin and cherry combination. For whatever reason, perhaps too much of the third ingredient, lemon, I found the drink a bit too sour and not overly to my taste. Three people had half pitchers of wine and seemed happy with those, although Glenda originally looked at her white wine with alarm, as it looked all sudsy, but it turned out it was just slightly carbonated, and she ended up liking it, once she ascertained it was supposed to be foamy, and wasn’t the result of a badly rinsed serving vessel or rabid bar help.

IMG_0408.JPGSome of us had starters on this evening, and others just decided to wait for their entrees, munching on the good quality breads provided, )both a chewy country loaf and some focaccia.) Salads were extremely popular this Friday night, which was a good thing, as Lauro has always been known for their wonderful salads. Glenda and Nancy had the Butter Lettuce Salads with radishes, avocado, goat cheese and tarragon vinaigrette. David, always striving to be different, (weird, different, whatever,) went for the Hearts of Romaine with lemon garlic and anchovy dressing (in more common terms, a Caesar salad.) I actually had the Melon and Sweet Onion Salad, a combination that made our Queen of Elegant Eating, Glenda, blanche, but I actually thought it was quite good, the excellent quality flavorful honeydew and cantaloupe, feta cheese, onions, and the very sweet and actually delicate onions mingling nicely with the fresh mint sprinkled over the top. Pat and Regis, going in a totally contrary direction (those people!) decided to split the Kefta Lebanese Lamb Kabobs with Tabouli, two jaunty little sausage-like wands of meat jutting up from their plate of tabouli.IMG_0404.JPG I had a bit of the tabouli, which seemed much better than run of the mill tabouli, and Pat and Regis seemed quite pleased with their selection (although as always, I really think someone needs to hire Regis a West Coast Beer Adviser, he never gets quite the right one.)

When entree time rolled around, several of those displayed a decidedly Middle Eastern touch, most notably Jody’s selection, the Chicken Tagine with fried lemon, olives, and almond cous cous. IMG_0409.JPGThis was a casserole affair, and took a very long time to cool down, and while I heard Jody mention several times in the beginning it was extremely hot, I spaced out later and forgot to solicit further comments afterward. I think she took quite a bit home, however, so hopefully it was good enough for a second meal. Regis also had a dish that seemed Middle Eastern in origin, Grilled Lamb Sirloin with a melange of spring vegetables and mint chutney (if only our long lost Leo would have been there.) I think Regis enjoyed his choice, as he and Pat were the most effusive in their positive comments about their food on this evening. IMG_0412.JPGPat also said she enjoyed every bite of her entree, a pasta dish which I think from the menu was a Smoked Salmon and Marscapone Ravioli with asparagus in lemon cream. It looked really good from the middle of the table where I had plunked myself down before anyone arrived. IMG_0417.JPGThere was something decidedly fishy going on the table across from me, as both women not only had those butter lettuce salads, but both opted for fish as well. Glenda had a Special of the evening, a Grilled Trout, which, if I’m not mistaken, was served with a Romesco sauce (which had earlier hindered her ability to have the asparagus with Romesco sauce as a starter, after all, two servings of Romesco in one evening would be entirely gauche, not to mention completely redundant (actually her main objection I believe.) I think the trout also came with some sort of au gratin potatoes.

IMG_0418.JPGNot everybody wanted dessert, I think three people abstained, but almost everyone else wanted the nightly special of Almond Cake with seasonal berries and whipped cream. I can’t say I saw too much left on those plates around me (although Pat and Regis actually only shared this time, planning on a “to go” trip to the ever famous Pix Patisserie, that lavish Portland landmark kitty corner to Lauro, as they had heard about it several times, but never experienced it themselves.) As for me, my interest in berries is not big, except for fresh blackberry pie with ice cream, so I decided I would have the Lemon Tart with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. It was certainly a nice change from the desserts I often select, somewhat light, and the tart shell was totally wonderful and buttery.

IMG_0415.JPGThe service, except for perhaps a few “dubious interactions” on our part was fine, and chef Jennifer Buehler made at least a couple trips to our table to bring food and check things out. This was a pleasant touch, and she seemed very nice, despite claiming she was having no luck rustling up a husband. I suggested a certain single “gentleman” to my left, and although he was old enough to be her father, I tried to convince her he’s really spry for his age, despite his red embarrassed face (I wonder why he had that?) Actually, since I didn’t notice David Machado around at all, and Jennifer seemed to be in charge, I wonder if he ever cooks at Lauro at all these days. The last two times I saw him was at his newer Vindalho, but he wasn’t cooking there either, so maybe he just designs the menu and oversees. Perhaps he’s tired of bending over a hot stove. I suppose that’s something that sets old tried and true Lauro apart from all these hot new places, you never go to Beast without seeing Natalie slaving away, and Gabriel is usually manning the fires at Le Pigeon, as is John at Toro Bravo and Daniel at Sel Gris. These people are still building their reputations I imagine in some way (pretty lofty ones already,) and might still love cooking, as they are all below 40, where I think Mr. Machado has left that milestone behind him. Maybe that’s why Lauro doesn’t seem quite as cutting edge and consistent as it did for that first year or two, David Machado is trying to let go of the reigns a bit more (I also believe Lauro is open 6-7 days a week as well, and now doing the lunch thing, so that would certainly stretch a two restaurant owner/chef too thin I would think, being everywhere and cooking everything. Lauro will always be a special place in my heart though, I had a couple of really special dinners there, and I will never be ashamed to take anyone over its threshold. I just might recommend that they try something new and interesting sounding, however, as perhaps some of the older tried and true dishes are not prepared as lovingly as they once were.