THE DINING REPORT – BELLY

I HAD A BELLY FULL, AND MORE

It’s hard to know what to make of Belly by the name. Also adding to the confusion, the fact that both Belly and Belly Timber opened last summer during approximately the same time frame. A knowledgeable restaurant goer in this group actually invited me to meet himself and partner at Belly a little over two months ago, based on the good review it had gotten in WW a day or two prior. As it happens though, the review referred to was actually for Belly Timber. Not that it matters, as a social pariah I’ll go almost anywhere, and it was a good way for me to see what Belly was like, even if I just wanted a drink and a nosh, having already eaten that evening.

This name Belly though, what kind of image does it really radiate? Although certainly less confusing than Belly Timber, to me Belly probably says cute, possibly fat, perhaps jiggly, wiggly, and Buddha like. In all cases, not particularly serious, which is some ways could be an image problem for a restaurant like Belly, because although the name is perhaps a bit goofy, or perhaps too anatomically specific, Belly is certainly extremely serious about the food it serves its patrons. Belly is nothing if not a fine dining destination, albeit a casual, non-pretentious one with reasonable prices. I must also note, now having eaten a meal at Belly, a fat, jiggly wiggly belly could also come into play if you ate there regularly, as many of the portions are huge.

IMG_0736At this current time, it appears Restaurant Roulette is eeking out its survival as a small group of approximately six serious restaurant goers who meet once a month at some nice restaurant for a good meal and some semi-serious conversation. In October it was Lincoln, and this month, less than a mile away, was Belly, a restaurant which took over the space briefly occupied by the originally interesting but soon to be crash and burn Terrior (an eatery plagued by plagiarism, staff and supplier infighting, and a crabby owner.) Belly is staffed by really nice people though, from the minute the hostess (ownership/partner perhaps?) literally opens the front door for you, you feel welcome and wanted. (Although perhaps in these tough and frightening economic times, many restaurants are happier to see patrons than even a year ago.) But the Belly staff seems genuinely nice, always a 20 thumbs up for me (as our long lost friend MM used to say, or was that 10 thumbs up?)

Inside Belly is attractive, in a muted way. On the North side of the room is the open kitchen and a long bar, on on the South side, facing Fremont, you have a wall of windows. The colors are very neutral, mostly beige, with wood accents, an open ceiling with baffles to improve the sound, and bamboo tables, just like my cutting board at home. IMG_0745Toward the front door is a wood burning pizza oven, and bottles of wine and preserves are along the walls (shades of Navarre.) At the back is a large and funky painting. To be honest, both times I ate at Belly I was seated in exactly the same area, and I didn’t venture to the back of the room to see if the vibe was different. There’s absolutely nothing in the decor at Belly that isn’t pleasant, I just found the extremely muted colors and newish space didn’t call out to me as much as some of the refurbished spaces like Toro Bravo, Lovely Hula Hands, Trebol, or Lincoln. That’s all personal taste though. The music is certainly different than many of the places RR has ventured to, I remember hearing The Ramones and Psychedelic Furs on this evening, which made me think a bit of our evening at Beast with “Bang A Gong” blasting out of the speakers. This particular 80s type music certainly gives foundation to that casual feeling that Belly seems to radiate, although the Ramones and “braised pork cheeks with Hazelnut spaetzle, brussel sprouts and whole grain mustard” seem rather odd companions.

IMG_0734Maybe it’s because I’m not getting out as much as I used to, but it seems like with each new dinner, I become more alarmed by the price of specialty cocktails. Belly was no exception, all of their special drinks, with the exception of Belly Sangria ($8) were $9, $10, or $11. As one who has not set foot in a liquor store in three going on four years, maybe I just have no understanding of how much hootch costs these days, perhaps the costs have skyrocketed, but is it really necessary to charge $10 for a jigger full of alcohol? This is especially true in economic times when people probably need a sippy sip just to think about what’s going on with their retirement account. IMG_0735(Please send a barrel my way.) I don’t mean to pick on Belly though, because they did have some really nice sounding cocktails filled with some really interesting spirits, some of them house infused (Pomegranate Rum, Ancho & Habanero Vodka, and Sarsaparilla Bourbon.) And after all, when’s the last time you had a cocktail where the fixins were ancho chili and habanero pepper vodka, fig puree, and a splash of cranberry (Fire In The Belly) or Aviation Gin, Clear Creek Doug Fire brandy, lemon juice and soda (a Pine Needle Press) or even what I had, the Oregon Pear SideCar, which consisted or Clear Creek pear brandy, Cointreau, and pear juice? I must say, it was one of the better cocktails I’ve had recently, but nonetheless, the $10 hurt. Basically, I have an imaginary line that says I won’t be ordering any drink that costs more than $8, but I can tell, I’m going to start adjusting my line upward. So maybe it is better our dinners have become monthly for the foreseeable future. After all, the pleasant months are over, so I’m going to have to fork over money for heat at least once a week now (sadly, this is not much of an exaggeration of how often I heat my non-weatherized little abode.)

IMG_0739Belly had an interesting selection of starters, although interestingly, only one true salad. They had oysters of the half-shell; fennel potato soup with bacon; a polenta dish with broccoli, poached egg and a anchovy vinaigrette; and even a warm roasted beet pear tart with feta cheese. Glenda, clearly ready to pork out on this evening, had the smoked pork rillette with pickled vegetables, stone ground mustard, and beautiful looking toasted crostini. Rillette is one of those things I’ve been seeing all over various classy menus for the last couple of years, I think Toro Bravo was the first place I saw it, and I’m never quite sure what the heck it is. My general feeing had always been that it’s some sort of processed, pureed meat, and the small ramekin of pate Glenda got seemed to confirm this opinion, although sometimes I think rillette is also molded and sliced. Glenda sad it was very good, although sadly she could only eat about 1/2 of what was brought to her.

The rest of us were in search of that illusive salad, so all of us had the red leaf lettuce, radicchio and braeburn apple salad with smoked blue cheese dressing. Everyone loved this salad, it was delicious, largely due to the apple, smoked blue cheese combination, which made it extremely flavorful. IMG_0738I must say this is the first time I’ve ever seen smoked blue cheese, it much be a specialty item. I hope someday I see it again in a grocery setting, it made a really nice salad. I’m sure some fancy cheese places must carry it.

You know how it is when you go to a Chinese or Lebanese restaurant, and there are just pages and pages of items to choose from, and you don’t know what in the Sam Hill to get? Well, Belly isn’t like that at all, the menu is quite small, seemingly stressing quality over quantity (although the food itself comes in good sized portions.) Not counting the starters, and the side dishes like french fries, greens or brussel sprouts, there are only two pastas, three pizzas, and five entrees on the Belly menu, one of those being a burger. In these harsh economic times, in a competitive dining town like Portland, that might be a good way to run a restaurant, have a limited amount of perishable items in your larder at all times. Belly still managed to cover most of the bases with a somewhat limited selection, besides the burger, they had a pork dish, pan roasted trout, a braised rabbit pot pie, and a steak. Also, many of the starters could seemingly be doubled up to create a full meal.

IMG_0740As alluded to earlier, Glenda was into porcine exploration this evening, so she had the previously alluded to braised pork cheeks with hazelnut spaetzle , brussel sprouts and whole grain mustard. Of all of the entrees, hers seemed the most petite portion, but I think this was mainly because she had declined her spaetzle, probably because she had the toasted bread with her pork rillette, and she’s a stickler for watching her carbohydrates. I have the feeling the dainty looking pork cheeks (really) were quite rich, and Glenda found them very good. This was actually a night when I had planned on not even considering beef, as I was interested in the braised pork chop I had had a bite of earlier in the summer (well, not the exact same chop, that would be just plain gross,) but with the change of the seasons, the pork entree had changed to the cheeks, a cut of meat that just doesn’t seem to have much allure for me, delicious though I know they are said to be. So I almost changed my entree to one of the pastas, the loaded potato gnocchi with bacon, scallions, creme fraiche and shaved white cheddar. I had actually just had a similar gnocchi less than a week before at The Farm (minus the bacon,) and it was really good, but because I had eaten it so recently, decided on something else.

For a bit it looked like we were going to have one of those Lincoln like evenings where everyone but one person has the same thing, but then Pat veered away, tempted by the second pasta dish, the penne with ragu bolognese and grana padano cheese. IMG_0743The pastas at Belly actually come in two sizes, what I suppose is a starter size and what is more of a main dish portion ($12/$17.) Pat asked how big the large pasta portion was, and was told by the waitress pretty large, but Pat thought this was fine, as she really loves pasta. Regis, suddenly feeling jealous of Pat’s pasta, decided at the last minute he would like the penne too. The portions ended up being absolutely enormous, certainly enough to feed two if you had a starter and bread, and had a mound of grated cheese on top that was probably two inches high (now that’s the way I like my grated cheese served.) When they were finished, both Pat and Regis each had at least one dinner serving left, although Pat’s sauce was a bit on the scarce side, and Regis strangely had about a pound of meat left. Both said it was good and hearty, if not a bit pedestrian, which they didn’t find too surprising from a non-Italian eatery.

As Belly did not have a chicken entree, and my intended pork chop was missing, David and I both settled for steak (yes, how traumatic.) David didn’t know what a Culotte Steak was, but having had that cut several times at Lauro Kitchen, I knew it came from the cow wearing the short pants (actually, I think it was explained as being similar to Top Sirloin.) The menu described this particular entree as steak and fries – grilled culotte steak with french fries and bordelaise butter, and most exciting of all, it was $18. I really cannot remember the last time I saw a piece of quality steak served at any first class restaurant for under about $22, the only exception being the heavenly Coppa Steak at Toro Bravo, which I think used to actually be under $15.

IMG_0741When the steaks came they were really thick, compact hunks of beef, with enough golden brown fries on the side for three steaks. Although it can’t be easy to cook a dense cut of beef this thick perfectly rare, I thought Belly did an admirable job, moist and juicy, very red, but completely warmed through. Like any top sirloin like cut, the flavor was very mild, and the secret to tenderness was just to cut the steak at the correct angle. IMG_0744I’m just sad I got so absorbed in my meat that I didn’t really figure out until I was nearly full that the little rectangular dish of red and white sauces was homemade ketchup and garlic aioli for the fries, which were also really good on their own, and not at all greasy. David liked his steak and fries so much, he actually took about half of it home to eat for breakfast the next morning.

About half of us still thought we had room left for dessert, so we ordered away. Like the rest of Belly’s selection, the dessert menu is relatively compact, featuring quite a few dessert drinks but only four traditional sweet desserts. No one tried the dark chocolate cake with hazelnut bavarian sauce, or the three scoops of ice cream and a cookie. Pat wanted the ice cream, as she always says it’s a favorite dessert of hers, but the flavors were too obscure on this evening to interest her, so she decided she would just nibble on what Regis was having. Regis and I both had the pear hazelnut bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream, which was pretty good, I always enjoy the subtle flavor of baked pears. IMG_0747Glenda had the also autumnal warm apple pie with sour cream ice cream, caramel corn, and apple cider. This dessert was quite the spectacle, the individual components arranged in a line on a long plate with the ball of caramel corn in the center. People do such interesting things with dessert presentation these days.

All of us enjoyed Belly and said we hope it can weather the current economic storm and stay afloat until better dining-out times. It’s scary though, things are just so competitive in Portland right now, so many good places to choose from. On the evening we were at Belly the dining room was only a bit over half full, but it could be that many people were still in a post-election coma, only three days after the event. At the same time though, I’ve heard that Lincoln, not far away at all, is still packing them in, but might be having growing pains (someone telling me about his party of four having to wait an hour and a half to be seated last week, when they had a reservation! Not good.) IMG_0746So far, Belly has not enjoyed the same publicity buzz Lincoln has, maybe because they took over someone else’s space rather than building from the ground up, but it’s a good place, and deserves success, especially based on the great food, really nice staff (the waitress was excellent,) and the fact that the prices are a few bucks less than the average moderate but upscale PDX restaurant these days. Fill your Belly at Belly, and actually have a couple of bucks left in your wallet when you’re finished (unless you have more than one of those cocktails, of course.)

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