THE DINING REPORT – CABEZON

With Eight You Get Really Ill And Want To Die!

Let me just start this latest exodus off by saying that yes, a few hours after our dinner at Cabezon, I got violently, incredibly ill, ill is ways that most people would associate with bad food, or unclean conditions, or something equally nasty and unsavory. But was it Cabezon?IMG_1431 I just don’t know, so I won’t point any fingers, or any other shaky appendages, and was I to guess based on food quality and seeming freshness, I would guess no. Also, there was nothing I consumed that others didn’t also consume, there was a great deal of repetition of ordering and sharing of food at this dinner, and although I never heard back from one attendee, everyone else let me know they felt hunky dory later, if not better than usual, as seafood can seem less gut-wrenching than many other heavy duty meals. So if I got sick from some interaction at Cabezon, it must have been a fluke, Ebola on my fork or Typhoid in my wineglass, and I would certainly return to Cabezon without qualms (although they might not want me back if they see the headline on this entry.) But you know me, I’m into those headlines with immediate impact!!!!

If you want a gigantic menu of fresh seafood specials and a fancy red flocked dining room, better go somewhere else like Jake’s. Although Cabezon is plenty pleasant, and perfectly tasteful, the menu is relatively small, with quite a few starters but a moderate amount of entrees, and maybe one special in each category each night. Supposedly the menu changes on a daily basis (now that would be a real pain) but certain items appear as regulars, items like the house pate, Mac n’ Cheese, and the Cioppino.

This was actually our largest dinner in a year, managing eight bodies and two new attendees, Melissa and Nancy.IMG_1434 Melissa had actually been to Cabezon before, an amazing feat to me, as almost no one has even heard of Cabezon two months in. She had warned me that she had not really liked the dish she had chosen previously, but didn’t mind giving Cabezon another go, as most of the group she had dined with on her earlier visit had liked their food, and she just assumed she had ordered something that didn’t suit her palate. I know Nancy had not visited Cabezon before, as she lives in Salem and probably isn’t in the habit of just popping up to Portland for dinner each night.

Cabezon has a full bar, but no one seemed in the mood to booze it up too much, so people either had wine, soda pop, or nothing. Heidi commented on the fact that the wine was a decent sized pour, and although I’m not the world’s biggest wine fanatic, I must say the glass of Rex Hill Pinot Gris was one of the better dry whites I’ve had around town in some time.

Since Cabezon is not exactly the world’s largest place, our table of eight (which was sort of shoved back in the corner) seemed to occupy a large portion of the dining space in the restaurant.IMG_1428 A portion of the restaurant space is taken up by the fresh seafood counter when Cabezon sells fish during the day, a space that is unfortunately more toward the center of the restaurant than the separate room where Laurelhurst Market sells meat and sandwiches during the hours before that restaurant opens. This is such an interesting trend, these spaces with markets during the day, fine dining at night. The new Olympic Provisions probably also loosely falls into this category, although their dinner menu seems much more simple at this point in time, and not having seen the space, I don’t know if classifies as fine dining, or just good eats.

As the Cabezon table was long and skinny, and half wedged against a wall, with a bigger group, conversation was rather cumbersome, and basically divided up into geographical areas. IMG_1429 I was in the middle, so I could get a whiff of all the conversation, but the people at the North end and the people at the South end could barely talk at all, and with Glenda’s “longshoreman’s voice”, only Heidi, Julian and perhaps Nancy could hear anything she was saying. The rest of us obviously missed out on much of the culture that continually weeps from G.G.’s pores on a regular basis. I did hear much of what Melissa was saying, however, and I could tell this was someone who knows where to go and what to eat when it comes to the local food scene, very impressive.

Cabezon has a couple of starters which are really a good value, as they are very large, and pretty cheap as well, Mac ‘n Cheese with Grafton cheddar and Gruyere ($6) and Fries and Aioli ($4), both which Heidi and Julian got to share and to spread amongst their tablemates.IMG_1424 As I had a different starter, I only tried a few nibbles of the overflowing Mac ‘n Cheese, and it seemed first rate, but the gigantic plate of fries was harder to stay away from. (Especially as the blasted thing was set right in front of me.)  Everyone commented what excellent fries these were, medium sized, sort of darkish, but not at all oily, and of course, like most things, benefiting from that side of housemade aioli (no catsup was in sight, which makes me think Cabezon has much confidence in the fries themselves.) If Cabezon was to “lower themselves” and serve something like fish and chips, you can tell just by the fries, it would be an awesome combo.

This was certainly one of those dinners where there are good things going back and forth across the table during the whole evening, so it was easy to take that edge off your hunger before your starter even arrived. IMG_1423Besides the fries and the two big portions of Mac n’ Cheese floating around (David got one too) Cabezon provided decent bread and what seemed to be homemade butter with lovely big hunks of salt on it, bringing an elite touch to somewhat commonplace bread (nice and chewy.) I, and others, also glommed on to a few of Jody’s starter, “Marinated Castelvetrano, Piccholine and Nicoise Olives” a tasty and attractive selection for $4.

Four people split two Caesar Salads, “Romaine and Radicchio Caesar with garlic croutons and Parmesan Reggiianno,” and from what I heard, they were okay, but nothing particularly special. I also don’t know if there was some sort of Radicchio shortage going on or what, because the portions I saw in the salads could only be described as a smattering. Melissa had the Porcini Blinis, little pancake discs with mushrooms distributed in the top regions. It seemed like she found them palatable.

Glenda and I both had the night’s special starter, a nice plate of Smoked Sturgeon with a little frisee salad on the side, light, moist, and delicious. IMG_1421 Although I never actually seem to eat any, Sturgeon has been my favorite fish since my 20s (obviously not too long,) and while I always enjoy a plate of well smoked Salmon, there’s really nothing like a smoked Sturgeon, it’s just so much more delicate and lacking in a fishy taste compared to so many other white fish. Glenda agreed that it was excellent.

As for the entrees, although there were eight of us, only three different items were ordered. I guess as a way of pleasing more diners and acknowledging that some people just won’t eat fish, Cabezon has a few non-seafood dishes to select from, including Hanger Steak and Leg of Lamb, but even a beef fanatic like myself couldn’t stoop to not having seafood at a place like Cabezon. Afterall, if a seafood market can’t come up with some pleasing plates of fish, who can? Everyone else seemed to agree too, as we all partook of the ocean’s bounty this night.

As mentioned earlier, the waitress stated that one of the regular dishes that Cabezon has become known for is their Cioppino, “with crab, shrimp, clams, local fish, calamari and mussels.” I personally have only had Cioppino once before in my life, at a holiday lunch at a neighbor’s house who loved the version they serve at Zupan’s. Based on this, I made sure I steered clear. IMG_1430 This probably isn’t too surprising to people who know me somewhat well, as I am not a fan of tomatoes, especially tomato based soups, and throw in a few fishy, briny items, and you probably have my nightmare. That being said, the Cioppino at Cabezon looked pretty, and chock full of seafood, but not for me. Although he was more or less sitting across from me, I don’t think I heard what David thought of his Cioppino (I think maybe I heard okay, but knowing David, he would have liked it better if the tomato broth was all tabasco) and Melissa said it was decent, if not knock your socks off.

Julian and Glenda both decided the True Cod with Pancetta sounded good to them, a large wedge of fish, greenery, and potatoes, plopped atop a verdant, pureed sauce of St. Patrick like green. IMG_1433 Glenda enjoyed her fish, leaving potatoes behind in her quest for dessert, and saying she would gladly revisit Cabezon. Julian also said his fish was good, but not as good as what Heidi had ordered.

As for what Heidi had ordered, it was Cabezon’s nightly special, Wild Caught Steelhead with Beets and Greens, or at least something of a similar nature (I forgot to swipe a menu from Cabezon, so much of this is from memory. Scary!) I suppose I just don’t hang around that many seafood restaurants, or game fishermen, because it seems it me that Steelhead isn’t something you are offered too often at restaurants, maybe because it’s a sport fish, not a farm or ocean fish, but four of us were excited by the possibility of Steelhead, so Heidi, Nancy, Jody and myself all pounced on the steelhead. I always have a hard time remembering what a Steelhead is, as sometimes people use different names for the same fish (Coho/Silver Salmon) but luckily David was there to explain that a Steelhead is an ocean going trout. Show-off trout, off to visit the seashore! Actually, I feel like a barbarian now that I think about it, because this poor fishy was just trying to visit the ocean, and I devoured it before it could get there.

Were I to select an accompaniment to any food out there, chances are I would never choose beets. It’s true, I can get them down my throat, but it’s never really with a feeling of pleasure. That being said, they tasted better than I expected with the Steelhead, as the sweetness actually added a pleasant counterpoint to the mild yet rich Steelhead, and all four of us who ordered this entree seemed to enjoy it.IMG_1435 I don’t think I’ll ever understand the world of salmon and trout, however, and the mystery of a fish I associate as being a relatively small sized creature (trout) swimming toward the ocean and turning into this fish at least four times larger and very salmon-like. That’s like your kitty turning into a donkey or your child growing up and becoming a llama. Why are fish able to change so much during migration?

When it came to dessert, we were all very like-minded. Although we were given good reviews of the “Ginger Cake with Meyer Lemon Mousse and Huckleberries” (huckleberries seem to be the new raspberries over this last year, they’re everywhere), and Cabezon also offers a fancy sounding Pot de Creme and an upscale ice cream, all of us who had dessert ordered the “Anjou Pear Crisp with house made vanilla ice cream and caramel.”IMG_1436 I think there were four at the table, and when we were finished, I didn’t see too much left. For some odd reason, although I often love pear desserts, I found this one only so-so, but I think that was just my personal preference for what kind of pears and seasonings I like best, and what I like in the cobbler, and for some reason, most of the time I don’t really like pears, or apples, and vanilla ice cream together. Much better, I thought, was the “Lavender and Honey Creme Brulee.” No one ordered this, but the kind folk at Cabezon brought us a serving for the table to try, and although I would probably never order any food with lavender in it, as I like to keep perfumes and food separate, it was really quite good, and it was nice that the folks that didn’t order dessert could both sample ours and eat their own complimentary dessert.

Many times over the past years, our group has visited a restaurant that is “the in thing” or the brainchild of a famous local chef, and the general feeling around the table is, oh, I don’t think I would go back. IMG_1437Before this dinner, no one but the seemingly “gets around” Melissa and myself had ever heard of Cabezon, but except for Melissa, who has already been there twice, everyone said they would like to go back for another meal there. The food was interesting, fresh, and well-prepared, the staff was good, and the environment pleasant. I hope Cabezon makes it, although it’s not even a block off of Sandy Blvd. and a stone’s throw from the Rheinlander, it’s still off the beaten path.  I had to give extensive directions where it was to people, even though you can see it from Sandy, and it’s at a traffic light, it’s still hard to see. Portland’s Hollywood District is not exactly home to tons of fine dining, and as Glenda correctly remarked, Cabezon is probably the nicest restaurant in the area.

Despite the rather cumbersome seating arrangement this evening, this was a good dinner. Naturally, however, I have my regrets when I look back at this evening. For one thing, I’m sorry I didn’t see the restroom sink. When we initially gathered at Cabezon, Glenda had visited the restroom and commented on the lovely sink fixture, saying we should all go and look, it was beautiful. Glenda and I have had many, many dinners together now, and I never remember her commenting on anything associated with a restroom, so it must have been practically magnificent.IMG_1425 I really should have gone and taken a look, it was about four steps from our table, but my own home restroom was so close to here, about 7 minutes away, I suppose I just could not re-live my bathroom shame from our last dinner, it’s still too fresh on my mind. Also, as I said, the restroom was so close to our table, certainly the ultimate warning sign. I might be able to live down my utter embarrassment at having a strange woman walk in on me while doing my business, but I could probably never attend another RR dinner had I once again had a door lock malfunction, and the door whip open with me perched “on fixture” in clear view of my regular dining companions.

Of course my second regret involves a toilet as well, and a sink, and the fact that not three hours after paying forty-some dollars for my dinner, it was making a return visit involving said home fixtures, sadly both of them. I would like to say this was a delicious dinner under all circumstances, but sadly it wasn’t, and a combination of acidic wine, olives, sturgeon, beets, steelhead, fries and aioli, and pears is not something that should be revisited under any circumstances. Where the blame lies for this misfortune, I will never know, perhaps it was the sandwich I had for lunch. Or maybe it was a vengeful Steelhead getting back at me for spoiling its trip to the coast. Sorry fishy, but at least you got me back good!

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