The Dining Report – Beaker and Flask
Don’t Forget To Mail In Those Reservations

CLOSED

It’s interesting the places the local newsrags select as their restaurants of the year. Last Spring the Oregonian surprised everyone by selecting Navarre as their restaurant of the year, Navarre being a totally oddball place that still pumps out remarkable food (from a miniscule kitchen) with occasionally unorthodox service in an atmosphere that tends toward ragged. (Please don’t think I don’t love Navarre, I do, but it can still be somewhat of a rough eating experience.)

IMG_1347In the fall, Willamette Week selected a Restaurant of the Year and two runners up who were all restaurants that were less than six months old at the time, and their winner, Beaker and Flask, was less than three months old at publication. (The other two, Red Onion Thai and Laurelhurst Market, have completely lived up to the early praise.)

Beaker and Flask is an establishment that sounds like it took a couple of years to get off the ground, even their website says 2007 on it, and while originally talk around town was that it was going to be a fancy cocktail stop with some quality noshes, once it finally opened the doors during summer of 2009, it was obvious it was both a trendy bar and a first class place to have a “real meal” as well. I remember reading for months and months in places like Willamette Week and on the Portland Food and Drink blog that it was in development, or finally going to open soon, and then all of a sudden it had opened, and was receiving rave reviews.

Although Beaker and Flask has already proved incredibly popular, it can be cumbersome to dine there in some respects. IMG_1338My guess with some of the issues/lapses is that when Beaker and Flask finally opened, it became so popular, in such a hurry, that owner Kevin Gibson and his staff have never been able to catch up and add some of the “niceties” that are common in most local restaurants. Our dinner here was in November, and some of these things may have changed by now, but they do make having a dinner at B & F a bit tricky. One example, lack of building signage. I guess if you have a really popular place already, you might not need a sign, especially if you have a big address on the side of your building. That being said, despite some good places opening in this general area over the last few years, this is still somewhat of a wasteland, and not a place of familiar buildings or landmarks. So you if have a general idea of where you think the restaurant might be, but forgot to bring the address with you, good luck. When you’re driving down lower Sandy, it’s not that easy to spot Beaker and Flask (except perhaps by looking for a crowd.) I realize another very close by landmark has existed for years without signage, Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse (“home of the casually threatening atmosphere”) but at this dinner one of the attendees forgot to bring the address, so had to stop in at a couple of local taverns to try to find out where B & F was.

Which brings up another “issue” with Beaker and Flask, it seems you can’t phone them and talk to a real live person. I mention this mainly because of the fact that if you are leaving your house and don’t know where the restaurant is, or you are on the road and can’t find the restaurant, you can’t exactly call and ask them (I swear this wasn’t me, I had already been there.) IMG_1341Which is the other rather odd thing about Beaker and Flask, if you want a reservation, and they do kindly accept those, you need to email it, I would think at least a day in advance. I’m a big advance person anyway, so I’ve always had plenty of time to email, and within a day or so, owner Kevin sends you a friendly sounding reply telling you he has saved you a table. Considering the policies at some restaurants, I really do appreciate a willingness to accept reservations at all, but since you can’t call them to do any sort of confirmation, I would think getting a reservation in anything less than a 48 hour time period would be dubious at best. But maybe that’s for the best, as it seems like reservations often tie-up most of the best tables (it’s not a huge place anyway) and it probably irritates some people to go to B & F and see all of those nice booths sitting empty, waiting for reservation time.

Which I guess brings me to my last rather petty little point of complaint, after which I will actually discuss the dinner we had there. Please keep in mind, this complaint applies to many Portland Restaurants. If you are going to have an online menu, I wish you could keep it a bit more current, at least if you are one of those places who changes your menu constantly. Beaker and Flask still has its October 22nd menu posted on their blog, which makes it really hard for deteriorating minds like my own to remember what we ate there in mid-November, since the menu that evening was different from the online menu (which was what I had selected from a couple of weeks before that.) IMG_1337As I said before, at least Beaker and Flask probably has an excuse for their online site being so out of date, they are drowning in their own popularity. What is the excuse, though, of the many less popular Portland restaurants who still have summer menus posted on the internet? And what, exactly, is my excuse for this blog always being so far out of date, let me ask you that? (If the shoe fits, eat it.)

I don’t seem to have a suitable palate for all these new fangled cocktails, and on my last visit the Dark and Stormy (????) seemed more like an ordeal in drinkability than a relaxing beverage, so this time I decided to try Sal’s Minion (???) a rum concoction with coconut ice cubes. Most of the time when you get a rum drink it’s a deluxe sized thing, maybe because you tend to mix rums with lots of other things because of its potency. This was a pretty small drink though, mostly just rum with a little bit of pineapple. Although it was small it seemed relatively potent, and while I don’t know if I’d ever order another, as there wasn’t a lot to it, I must say the glass was adorable, a sort of antiquey green affair with Grecian art. My Score – 9 for the glass, 6 for the drink. These days, as a general rule, I seem to be the only person in the group who ventures into the specialty cocktail menu, either people do wine or have their own “special” drink, so I can’t say what anyone else might have thought of the cocktails at B & F.

As for the atmosphere at Beaker and Flask, they basically built their own space (I don’t know what used to be in this building before, but it wasn’t an eatery. Industrial or wholesale???) and the decor is nice, classy but casual. IMG_1345The wall colors and tile under the bar are a relaxing dark turquoise, and there are lots of dark wood accents, a big wall of liquor, and recycled wine kegs everywhere. It’s one of those really dark places though, so I had to hug the tiny tea light to see anything. The back part of the restaurant, by the open kitchen, is okay, and you get to watch the boys back there laboring to pump out the food in a timely manner, but given the choice, anyone would certainly select those oversized, plush booths in front of the big windows looking out on lower Sandy. And as Heidi pointed out, once you gaze beyond the moderately ugly industrial landscape in front of you, there’s actually a somewhat nice view of downtown to be had. Of course these booths are the seating everyone wants to reserve, so they sit empty a certain amount of the time, waiting for their appointed bodies to arrive.

One of the things I remembered reading about B & F was their commitment to using a variety of fresh local ingredients at all times, which obviously means seasonal adjustments to the menu are always taking place. So when I visited Beaker and Flask late in October, menu items included Fried Razor Clams with beets and horseradish (delicious) and Smoked and Grilled Mackerel with Dungeness Crab and Potato Salad (an interesting combo where each entity maintained its own integrity of flavors.) By early November, these two items were gone. I really regretted the absence  of the Razor Clam, I love a well prepared clam, and they are pretty rare on menus here, and last time I had seen order after order going by, but perhaps the season was over and that’s why they were gone. I was sad to see the mackerel dish gone largely because it was so novel, and had some of the best restaurant potato salad I had eaten, second only to the earth-shatteringly good Smoked Potato Salad at Miss Delta.

Beaker and Flask is another of those places where you have to pay an additional charge for bread (with butter) two or three dollars, so we got that going, and Heidi asked if anyone would go in with her on the cheese plate, which was being peddled as a dessert item for $9.  It also came with some roasted hazelnuts and crackers, and while a couple of the cheeses were good, it seemed a little slight for the price. IMG_1340We also learned, with the coming of the cheese plate, that Julian does not like cheese in its real form, just melted, but that if he’s in the right mood, you might be able to pay him to eat some, as well as some other kooky items We also learned at this dinner and Heidi and Julian collect classic taxidermy, but keep it in their basement, in case any comes back to life (you never know!)

David had read in the A & E that one of the better pork dishes in town was Beaker and Flask’s “Grilled Pork Cheeks with Braised Pepper, Pickled Octopus and Aioli” and said he was going to order it, and all interested parties could try some. As Heidi doesn’t do meat, and it didn’t seem to be Glenda’s cup of tea, that left this flavorful treat for David, Julian, and myself, all of us having hearty portions. I must say, this was certainly the best thing I had at B & F this evening, really savory and delicious. As for the odd combination of the pork and pickled octopus, the braised peppers basically took precedence over the whole dish, and I didn’t even notice the octopi.

In true Glenda fashion, her starter was the braised cabbage roll (not my kind of fashion) a pretty presentation of a round of cabbage ringed with the tiniest of lentils, sitting on a bed of pretty yellowish sauce. Glenda said it was quite good, although perhaps a bit heavy on the lentil to be a light starter. My previous time at B & F

I had seen all these plates of burnt lettuce passing by are table, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, perhaps some secret kitchen catastrophe? It turns out this charred lettuce is one of the most popular starters at Beaker and Flask, the “Grilled Romaine with Salsa Verde and Smoked Feta.” We had several orders of this salad at our table, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, tangy and interesting.

Although a couple of people have mentioned that they thought service is slow at Beaker and Flask, I haven’t found that to be the case, and while everyone who works here seems much younger than you, it comes across as a well run place where everyone understands their role, and the food is delivered promptly and well prepared. IMG_1343Despite her rather disconcerting habit of calling everyone older than her “Dear” (I think I heard Glenda trying to bite through her fork) the waitress was very pleasant, personable, and competent. I guess I point this out because sometimes I get the impression at these “youthfully influenced” places that people barely want to wait on you, or when they do wait on you, it’s with very marginal interest, at least until tip time, when they turn up the friendliness a notch. This was not the case here, the waitress was quite good throughout, and elicited a laugh when she saw our dining slips and asked us if we were “playing some kind of game.” Yes, Restaurant Roulette, the most dangerous of games!

When it came to the entrees, there was a varying level of satisfaction. David, although he completely enjoyed his Grilled Pork Cheeks, was much less satisfied with his “Grilled Alaskan Spot Prawns with Millas and Fall Vegetables.” They were certainly a healthy size, but perhaps a bit bland, and anything approaching a root vegetable (fall vegetables) can put David off of an entire entree. IMG_1342Since it’s been a million years I can’t remember what the heck Glenda had, I think it was some nicely breaded and fried fish fillets (true cod, perhaps) piled in this fancy little tower of julienned vegetables (opposed to Julianed vegetables) starch, and sauce. Really pretty, but perhaps with an excess of black pepper (just a guess) since Glenda started coughing and could not stop for some time, never fun. Julian had asked the waitress which she preferred, the “Grilled Beef Shoulder Tender” or the “Maple Braised Pork Belly’ and the waitress had selected The Beef Shoulder because she said she was not a big fan of intensely rich and fatty meats, but that both were good and popular. Julian, who doesn’t mind rich and fatty meats, decided to do the “Maple Braised Pork Belly with Creamed Kale, Delicata Squash, and Apple Relish.” IMG_1344I must say, when it arrived, this was a rich and fatty looking entree, even the squash looked intense. I think Julian liked it well enough, I didn’t see anything left when he was finished, but I do think he mentioned it was a tad filling. One thing I always enjoy about Julian, he seems to appreciate the food people place in front of him (manly appetite) with the exception of wads of cheese (blobs are okay though.)

Heidi and I both decided to try the grilled trout, which was pink fleshed, and a hearty portion. I don’t have any sort of menu to describe what this entree was, but I remember it came with some sort of braised purple cabbage, mango salsa affair. This was certainly one of the most interesting trout presentations I’ve seen, and despite the trout glaring at me, very pretty, but while I liked the fish, I found the mango a bit less to my liking, mainly because my appreciation of mango is marginal at best. I thought it gave the whole dish a rather sour taste. IMG_1346Heidi seemed to enjoy the combination more than I did, she probably likes mango, and when we were both finished her plate was neat and tidy, while mine looked like a bomb had went off inside my trout (I was trying to separate the fish from the salsa.

On my last visit to Beaker and Flask, there had been only one dessert, and this time there were only two. Olive Cake and Huckleberry Panna Cotta. Glenda had the olive cake, which was not at all as plain as it sounds, as it was accompanied by some other kind of liquor soaked sponge cake, fruit, whipped cream and almonds, really a lovely looking plate of dessert. IMG_1349On my previous visit, the Panna Cotta with Huckleberry Sauce and Beignets had been the only dessert offered, and I had split a serving as well as a tiny splash of sweet and excellent dessert wine the waitress had given us on the house (finishing up a bottle.) So I already knew this panna cotta was going to be delicious, exceptionally creamy, with huckleberries that were yummy and sweet (I CANNOT eat sour fruit!!!!) I’m not a person who lives or dies for Panna Cotta, but I must say this is the best I’ve ever had, largely because of the texture, and not at all hurt by those fresh and fluffy beignets. IMG_1348I could have eaten about a pound of those (now wouldn’t that be healthy, a pound of light and fluffy beignets.) I suppose if you only feature one or two desserts, you had better make them good, and Beaker and Flask certainly has that handled.

I suppose Beaker and Flask is mostly the sort of place that appeals to people looking for a somewhat offbeat and adventurous meal, the combinations are totally unique, as are many of the preparations. If you want to go somewhere safe, and have a typical pasta dish, a steak, a pork chop, or a burger, don’t go anywhere near Beaker and Flask, they don’t have anything like that from what I can see. But if the idea of a smoked and grilled mackerel laying on top of some excellent but unusual potato salad with a scoop of fresh crab a la mode doesn’t scare you, rush right over. Things might sound a bit strange, but the kitchen has a great idea of what atypical flavors work together. The prices are moderate, and the portions are just about perfect. If you rush right over there though, unless it’s 5:00 PM, you’re probably have to wait for a table. As for those reservations, those work out quite nicely, but don’t forget, you must plan ahead, as email is certainly not the most rapid form of table snagging invented.

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