The Dining Report – Davis Street Tavern

Attack Of The Killer Croutons!

Most of the time I keep up pretty well when decent restaurants open in Portland, through reading various publications and the internet I try to find the interesting and well reviewed new places to take our group. IMG_1364For some reason, I have no idea when Davis Street Tavern opened. I’m not sure if this during a flurry of local restaurant activity or what, but as near as I can find, it opened in the last half of 2008, and I had not even heard of it until the middle of this year. I also had absolutely no idea where the exact location was, until I did a Google ground search and saw it lurking there in the bottom half of the always wonderful Butters Gallery building.

I was looking for a place at least semi-budget conscious for a day after Christmas RR dinner, and remembered that WW had included Davis Street amongst Portland’s 100 best restaurants, so I decided that although I had never really read anything about the place besides the remarks in WW, I would give it a try. I had also read that the space boasted two ambiences and two menus, the warm and convivial tavern with its small plates, and the more formal dining room with larger entrees and a selection of three fixed priced dinners for $25. Although the tavern side seemed to get the best reviews, I wanted people to have more substantial dishes to chose from, and everyone seems to like the bargain of a fixed price deal. So the dining room it was.

This was a FREEEEEZING December night, with a gusting East wind to boot, so naturally I was the only person in the group not to find a conveniently located parking space, finally having to park across from the Classical Chinese Garden. in front of the low income hotel, where some delightful tenant was outside screaming obscenities (living in a low income hotel might do that to you, though.) IMG_1359As a general rule I’m not overly fearful walking dark downtown streets, but the area around Chinatown could still use a tad sprucing up (in my opinion) so I wasn’t that comfortable on the long, cold, grungy walk from my car to the restaurant, mainly as I was slinging around a purse full of money and a digital camera for the dinner photos. As it was highly unlikely to, nothing happened to me of course, but it would be nice to see a few more establishments swanking up this area at night, although popular places like Ping and Davis Street must be helping the situation somewhat, putting a bit more evening foot traffic in the area.

Although originally I thought this was the dinner that was going to break our recent Rule of Five per dinner, I had had a cancelation soon after this sixth person had RSVPed yes, so once again, we were five, the same five of us that were also at the previous dinner at Beaker and Flask. We are five food loving, restaurant hopping fanatics though, so this five is fine by me, any day.

Passing through the tavern to get to the dining room, it did look like a convivial place to come for a burger or a small plate, especially after some shopping downtown, or before a movie or concert. It had that warm, inviting look that many of these old brick and wood buildings downtown do, like they’ve been around at least 100 years and can manage at least 100 more, and should always play host to a busy eating place, an architectural firm or an interesting art gallery.

Although the reservation was made for and the table was set for six, the table was cavernous, although only moderately long, it was incredibly wide, at it seemed like Heidi and Julian, “just across” the table from me were practically at another table, a fact mentioned later by Heidi as well. It made for lots of elbow room (too bad we didn’t have all the food we had ordered at Red Onion) but somewhat poor conversation, especially when it cam to those in the party with diminutive voices (we all know who that is. Probably not me, Foghorn Mouth.) Actually, like the art gallery above it, Davis St. has a great deal of space, and although there were several seated tables of 8 or more in the dining room, it never felt crowded, every table seems to have plenty of space, and the acoustics aren’t bad, witnessed by the fact that in the middle of one conversation I used the term “fondle all the girls” (sad, but I’m not sure what we were talking about) and a woman seated at the next large table of people over whipped her head around and glared at me (perhaps because she was sitting next to a young girl.) Sorry lady. I actually think the conversation really wasn’t overly wild compared to some you hear at RR dinners, (we all remember the famous masterabatorium. Tori, you are so missed) I think it was just an unfortunate combination of an acoustical dead spot and a risque sounding phrase.

The dining room at DST is darkish, woody, and winey. The walls, if my memory is correct, were a dark sage, IMG_1358The tables and accents were of heavy dark wood. And the back wall, close to where we sat, was completely covered in bottles of wine (Which is interesting in a place that had only one Cabernet sold by the glass.) Also present, an interesting array of art (Perhaps echoing Butters Gallery above.) The waiter, seemingly an old pro, was extremely familiar to me, and I think I’ve been waited on by him elsewhere (and some day it will come to me, and I will scream out “AAH HAA” at a very inopportune moment.)

So, to get back to our little story here, the atmosphere was good and the waiter came across as quite seasoned, but the menu situation was quite weird, as our table of five was given a wine list, five entree menus, but only one cocktail, wine by the glass, fixed priced menu (it was a weird combo affair) which was kept having to pass back and forth all around the table to select cocktails, wines, and eyeball the fixed priced dinners. Cumbersome to say the least, especially as someone would make a semi-decision, then hand it on, then forget what the item they wanted was called, then need to have the menu back . Also, as I’ve seen at past dinners like Tabla, fixed price meals are very popular, people really like the value, so I think for DST to only put one copy of the Fixed Price menu at each table is a real miscalculation, why not just print it on the same sheet as the daily menu, where everyone can see it at the same time, in their own timeframe? I can see having the wine by the glass and cocktails in a fancy little bound booklet, because they probably rarely change. Is the fixed price menu so static though that it’s included with all the permanent items? Seems strange. We finally asked for a second copy of this menu, this causing a frown from the waiter, as he said he didn’t know if there was another one available (???) He did eventually rustle one up though.

Another slightly strange menu arrangement at Davis St. was the inclusion, on a tiny corner of the daily menu, of something called the “Tasting Menu,” a nice selection of items from all segments of the menu for $50. IMG_1362 I told Glenda it sounded like something she might enjoy, and she agreed, but when she asked if she could order it, she was told that the kitchen only did the Tasting Menu as a package deal for the whole table. I’ve noticed scenarios like this on menus before, but generally the menu actually has an explanation like “four or more” or “full table,” they don’t leave you in the dark until you try to order it, so that then you have to scramble to come up with something else.

Perhaps because we were one day post-holiday, the fixed price meal was popular on this evening, four out of five of us deciding to go this way, and Heidi contemplating the idea seriously for a decent amount of time as well, or whether she could get the fixed price meal with an additional starter (which is something David did,) or if she should just have starters, as she had already had a fair quantity of food earlier in the day and wasn’t that hungry. (Heidi is often a naughty girl and has big lunches before the dinners.)

Although there was a non-meat oriented item on the Fixed Price menu (Spaghetti Squash and Shitake Cakes perhaps?) Heidi really wanted to try the Dungeness Crab Bisque, which wasn’t included as a Fixed Price option, and which I had heard from a couple of sources was delicious. So she decided to avoid the Fixed Price dinner and instead have the bisque and a seafood entree. She got a bowl of the Crab Bisque (with roasted butternut squash and fine herbs, they were all out of lousy herbs) so that way Julian could try it too, and David also got a cup because although he was having a salad with fixed price dinner, the bisque just sounded too good to pass-up. (I had no problem passing it up, as my heart will always belong to that delicious Lobster Bisque at MetroVino, which was only $7, opposed to $8 or $11 here, and that was lobster, surely more expensive on the West Coast than Dungeness here during crab season.) The bisque was an interesting presentation though, a decent sized mound of crab in the center of an empty bowl, with the liquid ladled on at the table to create an oooooh, aaaaaaaaaah factor. IMG_1361For some reason I don’t remember the exact comments on its quality and flavor, I guess I was too preoccupied by that woman staring at me after the fondling remark, but I think everyone who ate it thought it was a keeper, and silky smooth (in a lumpy crab kind of way.)

Not so silky smooth or pleasing was Glenda’s bowl of Basil Tomato Bisque, a shockingly bright red bowl of gloppy matter. Actually, it looked quite a bit like tomato pudding, it was so thick. Despite Glenda’s high food standards, and the fact I’ve dined with her quite a few times over the last couple of years, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen Glenda send something back to the kitchen (usually if she doesn’t like it, she just leaves it on her plate and pays for it anyway.)IMG_1363 This was just too shocking an aberration in the world of bisque though for Glenda to ignore, so she sent it away and asked for a different fixed price starter, the same one I had, Butter Lettuce and Baby Spinach Salad with grape tomatoes, French radishes, Rogue River Blue and cider-pink peppercorn vinaigrette. Although this wasn’t the most dynamic salad I’ve ever had, Glenda and I both agreed the dressing was light and refreshing, and it wasn’t bad.

Our two Manly Men had the Classic Caesar Salad, as they both should have. I describe the Caesar Salad as such because the “warm foccacia croutons” were GIGANTIC, certainly the largest I’ve ever seen, like boulders, and I don’t think us womenfolk could have lifted a fork-full of crouton into our delicate, demure, lady-like mouths.IMG_1365 Despite the over-zealous croutons, and professional appearance, both of the guys found the Caesar pretty tame and lacking garlicky zestiness (maybe because the salad contained “roasted garlic?.) I also wondered if Julian found his salad a tad fishy, as when he was done he left one sad little Boquerón on the edge of his plate to stare at me across the great expanse of our table, silently screaming out, SAVE ME! SAVE ME!

A more silent sea creature was Heidi’s entree, the “Seared Monchong.” Incredibly, although Glenda, our culinary specialist was there, I was the only person at the table who knew what a Monchong was (a Hawaiian white fish) but only because I had cheated earlier and googled it. According to the menu, the Monchong was served with “butternut squash and pignoli puree, roasted chanterelles, brussels sprouts and pancetta, and tarragon buerre fondue.” IMG_1368Heidi, as a fish eating vegetarian, naturally asked that the pancetta be omitted from the brussels sprouts, and the waiter said fine. Of course, once her plate of food got to the table it was sprinkled liberally with pancetta. Heidi is always a good sport, and also got tired of waiting for a pretty slow kitchen, so she didn’t ask for another order, she just gave the pancetta to an extremely willing Julian. Many vegetarian would not have been so flexible, however, since after all, technically her food was contaminated by meat residue. I really think that when people request no meat that a quality restaurant should make a real point to follow through on their diner’s request, as the requestee is probably either a vegetarian or doesn’t like the meat in question. So technically, at least two items might have been returned to the kitchen from our table on this evening.

The whole Monchong entree is one of the things I think I found most disturbing about the food served in the dining room at DST, they made such an effort to make what seemed pretty basic food sound so elite. As I was miles away from Heidi (on the other side of the table) I never even saw the “tarragon buerre fondue” or heard Heidi describe it, but I have the feeling it was just a Davis Street Tavern way of jazzing up what was basically a butter sauce, and I certainly didn’t see any little round pot or long pointy forks, although those killer croutons could have wiped out a whole pot of fondue in one swipe. I asked Heidi what she thought of her extremely fancy sounding meal, and she said it wasn’t bad, although the fish was cooked a tad dry toward dryness. Contrast this, however, to the also elaborate halibut dish she had eaten at MetroVino a few dinners ago, which she described as amazingly complex, and flavorful, and probably one of the best fish dishes she had ever eaten. I think this will give you an idea of the execution of the two restaurant’s kitchens.

Normally, given the three choices that Davis Street presented on the fixed price menu, my reputation would certainly indicate that I would be steered toward the Steak Frites, but having already given my digestive system an extreme beef workout over the holiday, I left the beef to others. The others on this evening were David and Glenda.IMG_1366 I was actually a tad surprised that Glenda went this route, as she wouldn’t touch the frites with a ten foot pole, which basically left her with just a plate of steak to nibble on. It’s not that I haven’t seen Glenda eat steak before, it just seems like several other items on the menu would have been more up her alley, the “beet and goat cheese terrine”; the “seared sea scallops”, the Monchong, or the “grilled rack of lamb with minted lamb jus.” I guess even she likes a deal now and then.

Although it was Glenda who eventually offered her frites up to the table (maybe she just ordered the steak and frittes so she could save frites. You know this woman and french!) it was David whose frites I nibble on a bit. IMG_1360Although not shoestring thin they were quite small, and very good quality (I can’t stand it when frites taste like old huile (oil, for those not as continental as moi.) David also shared a hunk of steak with me, and to be honest, I found it rather tough. This might have just been that for my palate the meat was severely over-cooked (at least medium rare!) but to me it seemed like perhaps an inferior piece of flat-iron steak, which can be quite good when handled right. Glenda also thought it might be flat iron steak, and actually found hers decent, which might have indicated her chunk of meat was slightly better, or that correct preparation (rare) made all the difference. Perhaps if I had tasted the alleged “green chili hollandaise sauce” I would have liked the beef better, but this might have gotten lost in the flavors on the bottom of my plate when the chunk was deposited there.

Julian and I both had the other Fixed Price Option, the “Double Cut Pork Loin Chop with white bean cilantro puree, toasted cumin slaw, and green apple and jalapeno reduction.” First of all, yes, I do realize that pork is also a red meat, and doesn’t really digest any more smoothly than beef, but even if I couldn’t fool my tortured insides, and least I could fool my mouth into thinking I was chewing on an easier to process piece of animal. (With descriptions like that, no wonder Heidi doesn’t eat meat.)

One reason I’m more likely to order a big thick hunk of beef rather than a big thick hunk of pork is that chances are, the beef will be prepared somewhat close to how I like it, tender and juicy, but if I order a whoppin’ piece of pork, it will, by health mandate, probably be pretty dry and not that tender. I would certainly never request my pork cooked rare (extra Triganosis, please!) but many finer dining spots carry quality pork that they know they are safe in not cooking all the life out of, and ask you if you mind it a bit pink and juicy in the center. Davis Street does not give their customers this option. I don’t hold them at fault for being conservative, people are paranoid about pork, I just don’t find a 1.5 inch pork chop that enjoyable when it’s dry to the core, and while technically not overcooked, it wasn’t succulent or juicy either. Julian thought the preparation of his pork chop was fine though, not fibrous in the least, so mine might have been left on the grill just a smidge too long. (I also could not help but note that the male’s portion of pork was about 25% larger than mine, but it was hardly quibble-worthy, as I had more than enough meat when I was finished. ((I’m sure glad nothing that just appeared in these brackets could ever be construed as talking about anything but an innocent pork chop. I would never speculate on one of my fellow diner’s meat portions))

This pork entree was another example though of what I mentioned before about the complexity that DST tries to impress its customers with, “Double Cut Pork Loin Chop with white bean cilantro puree, toasted cumin slaw, and green apple and jalapeno reduction.” IMG_1367 I should probably mention up front that two spices I least like to dominate food are cilantro and cumin, so that might have tainted my judgement a bit. (And yes, I was probably a ding-dong for selecting this item, but as mentioned before, a good value often wins out.) I have no idea where the green apple and jalapeno reduction was, the main thing I tasted was cilantro and cumin (and dry, of course) permeating everything on my plate, and hardly noticed the white bean puree. I think this might be a problem with the kitchen here, all these diverse items are thrown together on a plate and become a flavor mishmash. This certainly was not a terrible entree, I ate most of it, but it also had nothing that would make me recommend it to anyone else, except perhaps a cilantro and cumin addict. I did share some of the slaw though, and others liked it, so I suppose it depends on how well you like south of the border spices dominating your food.

I think the fixed price menu was supposed to feature three desserts to select from, but I only saw two, chocolate bread pudding and lemon cake. Although normally at least one of the people with the fixed price dinner would not have ordered dessert, as they came as part of the meal, everyone who was entitled to dessert ordered one for sharing purposes (which doesn’t make for a whole lot of diversity, with only two desserts to select from.) IMG_1369 As it happened, we almost didn’t get any dessert, the wait between the finish of the entrees and the sweets was incredibly long, and one individual suggested leaving before we even got any dessert, but luckily the other three of us refused to go before free dessert (leave before free dessert, what a freak!!!)

When the stagecoach finally arrived with the desserts, I was really the only one disappointed, as I was the only dumbell who had the lemon cake rather than the chocolate bread pudding. The “Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding with black pepper bourbon sauce and cardamon whipped cream” was loved by all who ordered it, even the person who wanted to leave before it got there. Then there was me, Miss Had To Be Different with her weirdo lemon cake,  “Lemon Cake with Blueberry Compote, fig jam, orange flowers, toasted almonds and water whipped cream.” As anyone who knows me a bit might understand, I love cake, and one of my major holiday gifts to myself was a trip to St Cupcake for a variety of wares. IMG_1371 I don’t know if I would even have called this cake though, it was more like a pastry oddity. First of all, who would want water in their whipped cream when they can have cream in their whipped cream? Water whipped cream, that’s just perverse. Then the cake itself, it was more like lemony cornbread or lemony scone,more than just a tad on the dry side. Then the whole conglomeration had a really peculiar taste, which I come to realize now was probably the fig jam, but when I was eating the thing, I didn’t have the menu in front of me, so had no idea what the odd taste was. David took a bite and agreed as well, weird.

The complexity of this dessert and the “water whipped cream” thing are more indications of a problem I alluded to before, it seems like the kitchen at Davis Street Tavern constantly is making an effort to wow with the complexity and uniqueness of its menu, but about 2/3s of the time, fails to execute these ideas completely successfully. I think the kitchen is over reaching itself. Not every restaurant in town can produce stunning, unusual dishes like those that come out of the kitchens at places like Toro Bravo, MetroVino, or even Beaker and Flask, and not every place should try. Everyone has their niche, and the niche at Davis Street Tavern is probably as a nice European Style Tavern/Pub with warm and friendly atmosphere, mid-range prices, and above average food. It seems very popular, but I thought our group was relatively let down by both the inconsistent nature of the kitchen execution and the service (you can have a good waiter, but still find service iffy.) The Dungeness Crab Bisque was highly enjoyed, and the Chocolate Bread Pudding praised, but besides that, eeeeeeeehhhhhhhhh. Every person at our table said it was okay, but they wouldn’t make it a point to return. At least not for a full on dinner, although I can imagine a drink and a couple of small plates might just hit the spot quite nicely for a late lunch or early happy hour, perhaps after checking out the artwork at Butters above. That certainly sounds do-able for DST.