THE DINING REPORT – NEL CENTRO – June 26, 2009

A Mini Review

Yes, another prompt review on my part. But let me tell you, I’m catching up.

I suppose it was a symbol of our harsh economic times (or maybe just an indication of what a boring hostess I am) but the RR dinner at Nel Centro tied for the most lightly attended meal ever, there were two of us. Normally if I only end up with one person to join me, I give them the option of whether they want to still have the dinner or not. You know me, I’m always ready to eat, but since I advertise this dining out experience as a “group affair”, I don’t necessarily assume that people want to come in they are just dining solo with me. After all, you’ve got to have a big honkin’ three people to have a “group”, right. I also know, however, that the food and the restaurant are the major components for Glenda, so the poor woman, I didn’t even give her the option of canceling. I just wove my web or trickery and made her show up for a dinner where there was no one to talk with but me. Torturous perhaps, but the food was good, so hopefully she forgives me.

As I mentioned when I sent out the obviously well-ignored RSVP, Nel Centro is the third restaurant venture for David Machado, that clever and well thought of Portland chef who has two other critically acclaimed neighborhood places, the always lovely Lauro Kitchen, and the interesting and very modern “spice route” joint Vindalho. Nel Centro is his big city, urbane, polished place, and features the high end cuisine of two fancy European metropoli, Genoa, Italy and Nice, France,  both located on the wealth drenched Riviera. Besides the challenge of raising the bar when you already have two critically acclaimed establishments, Machado also faced the challenge of filling the huge, ground floor restaurant space of the new Hotel Moderna, located on the revamped transit mall not far from PSU, a region of town where there are few well regarded restaurants.

Has Machado succeeded with Nel Centro? Well, at this point the verdict still seems to be out. Since opening, the beginning reviews have seemed lukewarm at best. The general feeling seems to be that the food is fine, and the restaurant is a professionally run establishment, but nothing too exciting is going on there. Most of the praise so far seems to be lavished on the giant courtyard patio outside the restaurant, which would certainly be a nice place to have a drink or a happy hour (although I have no idea if they even have that, I don’t think I’ve ever read about a Machado Happy Hour). Speaking of libations though, that was the one interior area of  Nel Centro I found interesting, the bar area. There seems to be some rich color going on there. The rest of the restaurant is just too modern and blanched of color for my taste, all grey, black and white. I assume this is why Nel Centro added the multi-colored retro 70’s light globes, trying to warm up the space and give it a bit of color. Neither myself nor the other three people I have eaten there with found this combo a pleasant melding though, the lighting just does not go with the rest of the restaurant. The whole Hotel Moderna looks very modern, bright and sleek, and has to be an immense improvement of the Days Inn that preceded it. That being said, The Nel Centro space just doesn’t work for me, too sterile, although all the windows are nice for looking out on the downtown passers by.

Which is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the food at Nel Centro Glenda, after her new standard, Gin and Tonic, began the eating part of her meal (opposed to the drinking part of her meal) with a Fava Bean, Pecorino and Shaved Fennel Salad. Although at first she found the mixture a bit dry and blah, and asked for some salt, once she got to the part where things were more mixed up, she said it was relatively tasty. After this, I think she had a special Sea Bass or something of that nature, of course this might have been at Park Kitchen, I have a hard time keeping Glenda’s entrees straight, as it seems like she’s always shoving some fish into her mouth. Whatever fin it was, she thought the preparation lovely and delicious.

Por Moi (French Riviera lingo) I began my meal with a glass of white vino (Italian Riviera speak) then plunged into a butter lettuce salad with candied walnuts, grapes, and Fourme d’Ambert (don’t ask me, there was no one else at the table. My guess was, it was a cheese). This was a big looking, pretty salad, but I noticed during a subsequent lunch at Nel Centro, this was mainly due to large, perky lettuce leaves. The salad was good, but as is typical in most restaurant salads with nut meats, they are few and far between. This varies from at home, where I have about 20% greens, 50% nuts, and 30% fruit (there’s nothing like a salad with a pound of nuts is my motto. That and “Eat Bad, Die Young!”

For my entree, I decided to have a “Grilled Delmonico Steak with Porcini Butter and Potato Gratin”. Although I had heard of it before, I didn’t really know what a Delmonico Steak was, and if it was a cut of, or preparation of beef. I subsequently learned it’s supposed to be a particular cut of steak (although I bet people fudge on this, some places mentioning a top sirloin and others a NY). As for what I had at Nel Centro, it seemed like a NY Strip with a bone on the side. No matter what location it came from, I would order this entree again anytime, the meat was tender, flavorful, and had an attractive char, the porcini butter added a nice mushroom flavor melting on top, and the Potato Gratin was wonderful, some of the best I’ve had at a restaurant, really rich, cheesy, brown, and fully cooked. I really cannot abide by under-cooked potatoes, and these were just right (and I’m sure, non-fat, like the rest of my entree).

The small dessert list really was not to my particular taste, very austere and European in nature. The one tolerable exception,  the ‘Lemon Semifreddo with Hazelnut Dacquoise and Pernod Chantilly” something I of course have nearly every day, but I thought, oh, what they heck. Knowing  Glenda, she probably has this about once a week, but she also decided she would give it a whirl. This was certainly a very sophisticated looking dessert, a creamy yellow slice of a molded, domed type object. I suppose it was rather like a semi frozen yellow mousse, and was light and refreshing, although I found the Pernod Chantilly both interesting and slightly off putting, the unusual anise flavor contrasting with the lemon in an usual fashion.

I think Nel Centro is basically a good restaurant, but one lacking in cutting edge excitement (perhaps perfect for a hotel dining room). The service was good, if a bit formal and lacking warmth. The menu seemed full of unusual sounding items, but when they are explained, most of them are relatively commonplace, but lurking behind fancy European titles (for example, Pansotti with Walnut Sauce is much like big ravioli with cream sauce). The major problem seems to be the atmosphere, which is nice, but just plain blah. Classy perhaps, and sophisticated, but just plain boring. Glenda said she would gladly return to Nel Centro, as her meal was very good, and I could probably cause a stampede running for that Delmonico Steak with AuGratin Potatoes. That being said, it’s just not a fun, interesting, or homey neighborhood place like Mr. Machado’s other two restaurants. The food is well prepared though, so there is potential, if only they could find a way to liven Nel Centro up a bit (maybe show videos of people frantically running for buses).

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