THE DINING REPORT – del Inti

Which Way To Machu Picchu? (and do they sell pet crows there?)

CLOSED

Great, just what I need, more things to worry about. Surely, with the way our economy has been going, almost everyone has to be worried about how their way of life will be damaged on a daily basis by our country being so incredibly in the porcelain receptacle. So many people are suffering right now, it’s unlikely it will not trickle down to me at some time, especially as I am just a couple of steps above a poor person as it is (But I bless my lucky stars, a person of modest but so far stable means).

I suppose it’s an offshoot of not really having a family, but I actually spend a certain amount of time worrying and fretting over things that the average person, who has plenty on their plate to consider, probably does not worry much about. For example, over the last few months, I have been worried about some of the good new restaurants who are run by nice people, but seem to be flying under the radar, and are just not busy enough. For example, I’ve been worried since we went there about Belly, it seems like a good, reasonable place, run by friendly, personable individuals, but the Friday we had our dinner there, a few days after the election, they weren’t overly busy.

IMG_0918Now, I have a new place to worry about as well, del Inti. These are really nice people, seemingly very eager to please, and their restaurant is classy and their food is interesting and well prepared, but when we left this establishment Saturday night about 9:30, the place was virtually empty. Portland has such an incredibly competitive dining scene right now, so many great restaurants to select from at every meal, it really scares me to think about the new places you have not heard much about trying to weather the economic implosion we have going on right now, especially in an overstuffed dining local like Alberta.

IMG_0936With this in mind, I must say it was great going to a couple of the places I have eaten at over the last month, Toro Bravo and Ken’s Artisan Pizza. These restaurants have more patrons than they know what to do with, and have enjoyed incredibly good buzz and will certainly exist as long as they want to. No worries for these folks (or so it seems). Places without the buzz and reputations though, especially the new ones, it hard not to be scared for them.

I have now been to three of Portland’s Peruvian restaurants (I think there might be one or two more) and it is rather amazing to me how individual they all are.IMG_0919 Over about a 10 year period Portland witnessed an incredible infestation of Thai restaurants (still going on) and what was truly noteworthy was how much the menus followed a similar pattern of food preparation, with only a few very notable exceptions like Typhoon, The Siam Society, and maybe Dang’s Thai Kitchen (after all, Pok Pok is not strictly Thai food, it’s a melding of Asian street food). Almost every other Thai place, the same menu, just differences in execution and competence.

Not so with the three Peruvian restaurants I have now eaten at, Andina, Nasca, and now del Inti. All three eateries strike me as completely dissimilar, except perhaps for favorite ingredients like quinoa and an emphasis on seafood and root vegetables. Otherwise though, radically different dining experiences. The big, established kid on the block, Andina, has always come across as polished and high end, their attractive NW 13th St. dining room constantly earning praise and their prices consequently reflecting their  Pearl district status. IMG_0938Andina was the first well-attended RR dinner I ever held, and while quite expensive, people in the group heaped praise on their interesting dishes of meats and poultry, and the professional service we received that evening. I myself was happy for what a good evening it had been, and had found my food good as well, but always have a hard time fully waving the Andina banner after a lunch companion bit down on pottery shards in her stew and had to ask to have her meal comped in Andina’s early days. Also, there’s always that issue of what goes on, probably underground, at that quite old Portland  intersection where Andina resides, as it occasionally smells like rotting garbage or worse in the surrounding environs. Yeah, that just revs up the old appetite!

Nasca, on NE 47th and Sandy, is the polar opposite of Andina, the most modest of spaces (used to be a Tibetan restaurant and before that a divey Chinese place for a million years) a husband and wife running the show (with maybe some in-laws lending a hand) and some really unusual (almost peculiar) but good quality, rib-sticking food. A prime example of this would be a lunch I had there, which was a creamed chicken with walnut sauce served on a bed of sliced potatoes (maybe rice too) and topped by sliced boiled eggs. It was tasty enough, in an innocuous way, but kind of reminded me of some concoction you would come up with if you and your date were trapped by a blizzard and rummaging for dinner with an empty pantry. Many of the dishes at Nasca struck me this way. IMG_0935Which is not to say I don’t recommend the place, I think is makes for a fascinating lunch and perhaps a good spur of the moment dining destination as well (although the space is a tad austere, although hands down nicer than Lungta, the Tibetan place before it.)

Taking up the middle group, I suppose, would be del Inti, open since Fall (???) in that low slung building at 23rd and Alberta that I think used to be some sort of art complex. (Sadly, where have all the art places gone?) I had not been to Alberta for many months, so I could not visualize where del Inti might be, but had a good idea what to look for from the photos on the website (bright blue building!)  I think that bright blue building threw me off (thoughts of La Calaca Comelona) I expected a folky sort of place, but when I arrived it turned out del Inti was quite tasteful, pretty, and almost formal (despite the rather off putting open ceiling rafters stuffed with what looked like bulging black garbage bags, obviously some sort of noise reduction affair (thanks Tori for pointing that out to me.) IMG_0937I guess some modern places care about acoustics. Anyway, del Intii was quite nice inside, (perhaps sage green?) and stocked with a well dressed staff of extremely attractive, helpful people.

Everyone filtered in within a few minutes of me, and we had a nicely full table of nine. We welcomed new member Anna, an artist from Northern Italy, and Glee, who was new at our last dinner, Toro Bravo, made it two in a row (I love it when that happens.) We also welcomed back my original member, Michael, whom I’m pretty sure we had not seen since early summer at Lauro, before he visited Eastern Europe (but just don’t call it THAT.) Also in attendance, M.I.A. since our summer dinner at Giorgios, was our always well loved and fondly thunk of couple Tori and Dave, sharing their news of family expansion. IMG_0927Glenda headed up our table, with her political rabble rousing and tiny voice, and always happy-to-eat member David actually brought family folk along, his brother Rocky from Pendelton. Rocky had some good things to say about some gamey restaurant in that far eastern town, and David volunteered to drive when we go there (I hope several of you don’t mind riding in the trunk.) (Actually, I tried this in the trunk thing one time at a drive in movie, and that did not end well.)

The staff at del Inti were so polite, they actually asked if they could bring us some water, and what kind we wanted (the kind I always want, cheap.) Maybe they should head down south to California, I’ve heard that place would like some water. IMG_0922They also brought us some nice baskets of bread and something I can’t remember, perhaps olive oil or olive oil and red stuff mixed together (incidentally, I just read on the internet last week that much red food coloring comes from crushed bugs, dig in!) This was more chili red than dead buggy red though (if it even existed??)

It seems like a whole bunch of the restaurants these days feature lots of drinks that don’t appeal to me, oodles of brown moonshine whiskey things and bitter concoctions (I’m plenty bitter on my own, thanks.) I suppose I’m a fan of cocktails from southern climates, because many of the cocktails at del Inti sounded quite good to me, and I could have managed any of the six cocktails on their specialty menu.IMG_0917 I’m rather sad I was not tempted by Mona’s Margarita, which reading about it, sounds quite good with its Contreau, hibiscus syrup and chile lime salt. There was also an interesting Cosmo, called here a Chichapolitan, which featured Peru’s Purple Chicha Corn Juice. I guess I took the easy way out, I had a quite decent Mojito, and Glee tried the Lima Limon, a lemon drop with Limoncello. I don’t know what Michael had, perhaps it was the Magarita, I know he’s a fan, and Dave had “Peru’s National Drink”, the Pisco Sour, which had enough egg whites floating on the top to make a souffle. Poor Tori, she just gazed sadly at the cocktail menu, not really able to imbibe, as her jiffy is going to pop in about 5 months, and Glenda, our resident champagne and wine dame actually considered a cocktail on this evening, as she’s thinking of taking the hard stuff up again.

Once everyone was all liquored up (except for T.J., who is something else uped,) we moved on to the starters. Certainly, if there is one place in town that serves well-regarded Ceviche, it’s Andina, so it’s not surprising that del Inti prominently features three Ceviches, since the owner/chef came from Andina. As a general rule I’m not overly tempted by Ceviche, if I want stomach rumblings I’ll have Indian food, but they were quite popular on this evening. IMG_0924And while I took some pictures of them, I don’t know who ordered which Ceviche, as there was a Ceviche Tradicional (fish, onions, cilantro, aji and yams), a Ceviche Mixto (fish, mussels, shrimp and scallops), and a Shrimp Ceviche (mango, tamarindo, red onions and cilantro). I do know that David had the Ceviche Mixto, and he seemed to have the most favorable opinion at the table, while Tori and Glee perhaps had the traditional version, and seemed to find it extremely spicy, as it seemed quite full of peppers of some sort. I’m pretty certain Anna had some Ceviche as well, but I did not hear her opinion, as she is not possessed of a bellowing voice like yours truly, which can be beneficial at these larger dinners.

Besides the Ceviche, Dave and Tori also seemed to be handing back and forth a bowl of the Quinoa and Semolina Soup, which featured herbs, white truffles and extra virgin olive oil.IMG_0929
It was nice and creamy looking, but I heard Tori say something about it being a bit bland, which did not surprise me at all, since if you look in the dictionary under the word bland, you’ll find the words quinoa and semolina. Dave also seemed to have a side of fried yucca, which was nicely cooked and had a delicious garlic aioli on the side. (Actually, now that I think of it, maybe it was Michael. These guys all look alike to me.) Glenda began with a Ensalada Cesar, which was topped with a chive vinaigrette dressing which she proclaimed quite delicious.IMG_0926 Michael was quite adventurous, and as he had decided to make a meal of two starters, began his meal with the Roasted Quail stuffed with quinoa and sofrito with quince glaze. I personally almost always avoid quail, as they are such tiny, bony creatures, (and I’m a glutton) but this was actually a rather porked-out quali of decent size, and Michael seemed to frolic in enjoyment . (That Michael. Or maybe it was Dave.)

For some odd reason, even though the lighting was relatively subtle, I could actually read the menu on this evening, perhaps because the type was relatively large. (And as a sidebar, let me just mention that I am really appreciating Glee’s presence in our group, as there is finally someone in my midst who sees even worse than me, she was having difficulty making out anything. Hasn’t this woman ever heard of glasses?) Anyway, as I could actually make out various choices on the menu, I was torn, as before I had even darkened their doorway, I was committed to having a certain item at del Inti, but now I was wavering. The reason I even knew about del Inti was that I had read a story a month or two ago that mentioned that one of the absolute best things to eat in Portland was the beef heart skewers here. So I had planned on trying those as a starter. Once I eyeballed the menu I decided another beef preparation sounded like my best option for an entree though, and despite my reputation, a doubling up of beefiness is even too much for me. IMG_0925So sadly, out went the heart skewers, and in came the Chicharron Mixto, fried calamari, shrimp and fish with garlic aioli. This was really quite good, I like much of the calamari I’ve had around town, but this was certainly one of the best preparations I’ve had, really light, chewable, and not at all greasy. Also, the garlic aioli was delicious. One thing I did find quite interesting about the del Inti menu, however, is all the things that contained “fish” without any description of what that fish is, very unusual for a Portland restaurant.

This was one of those evenings when I am lucky if I hear a third of the conversation, but I did hear some interesting topics floating around.IMG_0928 Of course there was much conversation centered around our expectant friends Tori and Dave (or maybe Dave’s pants were just a bit tight around the mid-section,) and how Dave hopes to adopt a pet crow for the infant to frolic with, and that he can’t wait to take the young whippersnapper out to give panhandling a test drive. We heard about Rocky’s rather frightening case of West Nile disease a couple of years ago, not a topic you hear about every dinner, unless of course you dine frequently with mosquitos. Probably most scintillating of all, the conversation focusing on just how much earwax I really do have, all of which, I positively swear, resides DEEP INSIDE my ear canal.; They don’t call me Oregon Cave Head for nothing. Could this be why I miss two-thirds of the conversation?

IMG_0934I’ll use that yummy subject as a transition point to discussing the entrees (after all, who wouldn’t.) Sometimes when we get one of these decent sized dinners it takes me forever to discuss the food ordered, but the four of us goofballs on my side of the table made it quite easy, as we all had the same thing (shades of Lincoln and Toro Bravo.) As previously mentioned, Michael decided to have two starters for his meal, and he managed to have better follow through than me, and actually had the Anticuchos, the Skewers of Beef Heart with Green Onion and Parsley Sauce. I didn’t hear if they were one of the absolute best things in Portland, but he did say they were very tasty. IMG_0933David, trying to flee in recent months from his reputation as “The Emperor of Chicken” had the very un-chicken like Parihuela, fish, prawns, clams, fennel and potato in a spicy broth. He said it was very good, and much like cioppino. We had a hard time twisting his arm into not having the $4 side of Roasted Root Vegetables, though, as the guy just lives for them.

Actually, those Roasted Root Vegetables were the confessed reason that Dillenburg the Younger steered clear of the chicken, as the Half Chicken preparation of Leg, Thigh and Breast A La Plancha was surrounded by them, as well as Aji Amarillo and Lemon.IMG_0930 Glenda and Tori had no such qualms though, Glenda finding the chicken preparation first rate (describing the sauce as rich and wine like,) and Tori enjoyed the bits she actually ate, her appetite these days hindered by little Jimmy hugging her stomach. She got a nice doggy bag to go though (warning, inside joke.)

As for the rest of us unimaginative numbskulls, despite del Inti having entrees like Seared Scallops, Cilantro Braised Lamb Shoulder, Grilled Pork Chop, and Stuffed Rocoto Pepper, the four of us on the west side of the table all had the same thing, Hanger Steak Saltado, with Onions, Roma Tomatoes, Fried Potatoes and Soy Sauce. I don’t quite know what the reasoning was of those surrounding me, but there was something fascinating to me about an entree being served in a non-Asian restaurant with the prime ingredient of Soy Sauce, I just had to try it (even stranger, I don’t even particularly like soy sauce, I avoid it like a hawk when offered, especially with sushi.) (Sidebar #2 – WHAT does that saying “avoid it like a hawk” actually mean? Does that mean hawks don’t like hardly anything, and consequently avoid said items strongly, or does it mean you should avoid hawks, in case they want to put their pointy toenails in your eyeballs and whisk you away? Our language is a baffling thing.)

As for the Hanger Steak Saltado, the reviews seemed relatively favorable, with no one doing handstands but no one disliking it either. IMG_0931Dave commented on the fact that the potatoes had a very distinct flavor, and I think that was probably because they were seared in soy sauce. Tori found her bite rather bland, but it was probably just a lack of sauce, because the sauce was really quite rich, although no beef is as rich as the Smoked Coppa Steak at Toro Bravo. Glee, who had tasted a bite of aforementioned steak at Toro Bravo, seemed to find this not quite in the same league, but is there any other meat in the league with Smoked Coppa steak? She still seemed to enjoy the meal in general though, and Rocky seemed pleased with the beef preparation too. Dave seemed fond of his dinner, between musings and desirings for that pet crow (our Tori, such a tolerant woman.) And I found mine good as well, although probably not within my top 5 to 10 beef preparations (which isn’t too bad, if you consider how often I order bovine.)

IMG_0940When it came time for dessert, I guess I wasn’t paying too much attention, (perhaps considering the merits of a pet starling) as several people had decided to have something that I didn’t notice them ordering, and was surprised when an array  of desserts made its way to the table. The staff had warned us that they were down to one order or flan with huckleberry compote, and one order of Alfajores, basically cookies filled with dulce de leche (you can’t fool me, that means caramel). They had reserved them for our table, which would have been even more impressive if there weren’t only two other people left in the restaurant, but still a gesture appreciated. There were no takers for the flan, but Glenda had the Chicha and Pisco Poached Pear with Vanilla Ice Cream (I wonder what happened to Chicha and Pisco, and why they left their pear behind? Tragic.) Rocky and Tori both had the Mango Crisp with vanilla ice cream, which might have been a bit unusual and savory, as Michael took a taste and said it reminded him of an appetizer.IMG_0943 As I was under the intense pressure to buy before they were all gone, and then be stuck with the memory that I had been left out, decided to snap up the one order of the Alfajores that remained. These three inch round cookies were fraught with danger, as not only were they covered in cough inducing powdered sugar (sometimes I think people sprinkle things with powdered sugar just to see how many people they can make cough,) but the little suckers were incredibly messy to eat, with soft caramel of the consistency of Adams Peanut Butter oozing all over the place.IMG_0942I finally decided to eat them with a spoon, which of course made me look like a ding dong, eating sandwich cookies with a spoon. They were okay tasting, if not a tad too simple, the dulce de leche was pretty tame, and the whole affair could have perhaps used a third ingredient to bring it to life, perhaps a fruit sauce.

A really nice touch though, and a first for our humble dining group, to show their appreciation for trying their restaurant, del Inti brought us a free dessert for those at the table who didn’t order anything, their Molten Chocolate Cake with dulce de leche filling and whipped cream. I didn’t try any, but it was a pretty little cylindrical affair with multi-layers.IMG_0939 I probably should have tried some, as it seemed to have gotten the best dessert review of the evening, and once it went to the south end of the table, never made it back to those poor dessertless types at the north end of the table.

Another kindness of del Inti, all the checks were separate, without asking, except for Tori and Dave (the waitress even paid attention to who the couple were, despite the fact that they were not even sitting together.) Many of the places we go make a big thing of NO SEPARATE CHECKS, or NO MORE THAN 2-3 CREDIT CARDS PER TABLE!, so it was really pleasant to be able to pay from individual bills, and not have to worry about forgetting to add something to your itemized dining slip (by the way Tori and Dave, I realized afterward I stiffed you for a Root Beer at K.A.P.. I’ve been filled with anguish since.) Also, another noteworthy thing about the staff at del Inti, after the group had started their diaspora, it was noticed Anna had left her hat behind, and one of the nicely dressed women at del Inti (waitress or hostess”?) ran up and down Alberta trying to locate her with no luck.

I really don’t think Peruvian will ever be among my favorite foods (too healthy perhaps, all those root vegetables, not to mention quinoa and semolina) but I found del Inti a nice place with interesting, well prepared food and a staff eager to please. Sometimes it’s hard to look at the crowds at places like Pok Pok, Toro Bravo, and Ken’s Artisan Pizza, knowing that perfectly good, new restaurants like del Inti, Belly, and Tapalaya probably are not yet getting the crowds they deserve. The aforementioned places have certainly earned their masses, people go there for a reason, the food is individual and exceptional, but it would be nice to see some of those people waiting in line for an hour trying out these smaller fish too, they have delicious food, nice atmosphere, reasonable prices, and eager to serve ownership and staff. Why wait, when you can be stuffing your face within moments?

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