The Dining Report – Gruner

Portland Mountain High

When I was in my teens, my father and I used to go out to dinner a great deal. Portland was not the gigantic dining mecca it is now, and there were the cheap neighborhood places, the moderately nicer places, and the places that were extra fancy, that we only ate at now and then. One of the moderate places we went to quite often was a Swiss/Germanic place called The Matterhorn, which was located at  82nd and Burnside, where Walgreens is now. The Matterhorn was operated by two nice couples, the Elmers and the Herzogs, and when it opened I suppose it was viewed as sort of a poor man’s Rheinlander, since it had cheese fondue, Tyrolean dressed staff, and singing and accordion playing. The Rheinlander might still exist, in its ridiculously expensive fashion, while The Matterhorn is long gone, but I always found The Matterhorn the superior restaurant, maybe because Swiss/Germanic suited my palate better than just plain Germanic.

Sometimes restaurants go away, and for the rest of your life you look back and pine away for the house specialties, or just something they did exceptionally well. Sadly, although The Matterhorn was a decent enough place, and I ate there SO MANY times, there were just a couple of menu items I found superior there, their cheese fondue and their thick and creamy soups. Otherwise, meh. I don’t think this is any particular indictment of their kitchen. I just find Alpine food less than inspiring, too many schnitzelee meats, too much cabbage, too much pickled and stewed. Even the desserts, not so great (Black Forest Cake, yuck!)

This could be why I wasn’t exactly doing handstands at the thought of checking out Gruner, Chris Israel’s new “Alpine” styled eatery. We all know Mr. Israel has a great track record here, Zefiro, Saucebox, early 23 Hoyt.IMG_1474 I’ve never been a Saucebox fan since those early days though, Asian Fusion doesn’t do it for me, and when RR visited 23 Hoyt in the Israel days, we were almost completely underwhelmed. Before Gruner opened, it seemed like I kept reading, this guy is great, but why Alps food? (Often valued right up there with British cuisine.) We all know I love those new places though, and I knew Israel was doing a real number on his space to make it really interesting, so off we went for “Alpine Cuisine.”

Sometimes before we have our dinners, people tell me they have selected their food before they even reach the restaurant, picking from the on-line menu. I often caution people against doing this, as some on-line menus are really old and dusty. I did this myself in the case of Gruner, however, I knew the menu there was relatively current, and so few entrees sounded overly appealing to me (that high-altitude prejudice again) I wanted to make sure I had an idea what to order in advance, as I didn’t want to spend forever deciding what to have.

Although I had a vague idea where Gruner was before I went there, I don’t have a really good memory what the building looked like before, I think it was relatively easy to over look. I’m pretty sure it didn’t used to have the weird, futuristic substructure that juts out from the 2nd floor now now, signaling to passing UFO’s and random diners, there are good eats inside. IMG_1462Aside from a very dark paint job and the off-putting second floor though, Gruner presents a relatively discreet facade, so discrete Julian said he passed by several times and still wasn’t sure where the restaurant was (the signage is tiny.) You can tell just by giving the outside a gander though, good taste approaching. (I found out in the last week that the rather odd looking remodeling was courtesy of cutting edge design firm SkyLab.)

Although the space might perhaps be a bit too small to hold Israel’s reputation, it is really attractive inside, all light wood and big windows. It’s not hard to imagine Gruner being able to fill double the space, however, and I couldn’t help but notice the reservation system seemed relatively rigid for a group, I’m sure due to currently popularity and limited space to begin with. Heidi commented on the fact that it probably wasn’t the best sort of place to just drop in and hope to get a table, as there was absolutely no waiting area, just a small square of space at the door to stand while they retrieve your reservation.

The hostess didn’t seem totally sure where to seat us, because originally I had planned on a larger table than we needed, as I thought EVERYONE would want to go to Gruner. I had politely called a couple of days in advance to downsize the table though, so I’m not sure why the hostess seemed ill at ease what to do with us. Luckily Mr. Israel happened to be standing right in the area though, and knew right away the best location for our party. He seemed much more affable and welcoming than I would have expected from a longtime famous chef, although I was a bit taken aback to see a fellow so connected with such trend-setting Portland dining houses wearing a rather proletariat plaid flannel shirt.

It seemed pretty obvious from the beginning that the service at Gruner was going to be first class, really attentive, but not verging on bothersome. I don’t know if I ever took more than 2-3 sips of water before someone was rushing to the table no fill my glass, hardly a necessity, as a green bottle of water was on each table. I did feel a tiny bit rushed when it came to a cocktail, as I hadn’t even looked at the menu yet, but it probably didn’t matter anyway, as the type was so tiny, I never would have been able to read it anyway (even the waitress, certainly young enough to still have good eyeballs, commented on the tiny font used on the menus.) She asked me if I would like recommendations, and since without even looking at the menu I knew that Gruner was going to be one of those trendy cocktail purveyors (lots of whiskey and bitter drinks, yuck) I figured it might be a good idea to have her suggest something. I could tell I made her task a lot more difficult when I demanded “nothing bitter and nothing brown.” She finally suggested some concoction with gin and rhubarb syrup. It really wasn’t a bad tasting drink, but I wasn’t in love with it, largely due to it being one of those rather oily textured things that are so popular at all the acclaimed watering holes these days. (Sadly, my tongue never evolved past the lemon drop era.) Heidi found a nice $9 glass of red wine she enjoyed enough to have a second pour of, but was not particularly happy that when the bill came, she was charged more per glass than the menu had listed She probably should have complained, but Gruner seemed like the sort of place that complaining about a couple of dollars might end up more embarrassing than it was worth. Julian was thoroughly disappointed with his diet cola, as he said he could tell by taste it was Diet Rite (which it was.) These were most of our complaints for the evening though, which must denote something positive.

I could tell things were starting off right when the waitress put down the plate of bread, three different kinds. Although I know I will never stop harping on it, no bread product will probably ever surpass my ecstasy compared to those yeast rolls at Castagna. Any eatery that puts more than two kinds of homemade rolls on your table for free though gets 3 gold stars in my book. IMG_1463Three rolls and fancy butter, even better. Actually the most attractive of the three rolls, a gigantic pretzel roll, was the least tasty of the three, largely because of its typical flat taste. The blobby, colorless drop biscuits wear actually the tastiest, quite good, and the small loaf of brown bread was very good too. So thank you, Mr. Israel, for understanding the value of good rolls and bread (it’s most likely no coincidence that both Gruner and Castagna are both descendants of Zefiro, although I don’t remember anything about that mythical restaurant’s  “bread situation.”

IMG_1465Besides the bread we got a couple of starters for the table to share. Although I’ve alluded previously to the fact that beets are not a favorite of mine, deviled eggs are rarely less than edible, and the “beet-pickled hard boiled eggs” were both festive enough with their bright red border and lacking a total beetish quality, so I had no problem gobbling one up. Even more to my liking, the “fried, smashed yellow finn potatoes with special sauce.” The potatoes were big, crispy fried up disks, quite good on their own, but as is typical with potatoes, these were enhanced further by the creamy sauce. IMG_1466Heidi and Julian thought the sauce reminded them of something, and Julian pulled out of his memory banks that the sauce was similar to what Clay’s Smokehouse drizzles over all their potatoes. I haven’t been to Clay’s in at least seven years, but I do have a vague memory that this was a similar sauce, although I remembered that the potatoes at Clay’s were never quite as delicious as these particular fired potatoes, although Clay’s are certainly decent, but more pan fried cubes than big bronzed potato rounds.

After the snacky items, we also got a couple of serious salads. Gruner has several very unusual salads with a multitude of ingredients, and several were quite tempting. Some we didn’t try included: shaved radishes, styrian pumpkin seed oil, cider vinegar, dill, chervil, chives and pumpkins seeds; a frisee salad with gruyere, artisan ham, walnuts, chives and creamy mustard vinaigrette; and the Gruner salad with lettuces, carrots, fennel, chiogga beets, celery, scallions, cucumbers, sunchokes, chickweed, sunflower seeds and pretzel croutons. (hey, where’s the kitchen sink?)

A “Spring Trio” was ordered though, little individual piles of beets, horseradish and ginger; carrots, lemon, garlic and parsley; and leeks with a mystery substance on top (cheese and herbs, perhaps.)IMG_1467 I don’t know who manufactures these long, white, rectangular plates, but you sure seem to see a whole lot of them in high end restaurants these days. Sometimes I think restaurants come up with weird, linear starters, entrees and desserts just so they can use these plates after they are talked into buying a bunch by their restaurant supply company. (Just a personal theory, mind you.)

My salad was very nice, house smoked trout with apples, scallions, mizuna, gherkins, and horseradish cream. I really don’t know what’s going on, there seems to be an explosion of smoked trout salad around Portland these days, this is about the third one I’ve had in the last few months, opposed to none at all before that. IMG_1469This was probably the best of the bunch, largely due to the generous portions of smoked trout, offset nicely with the apples and horseradish cream. After I shared a taste with her, Heidi made it clear she was insanely jealous of my salad, but probably could not have managed to eat one and her entree, as she was the victim of a big, whopping burrito lunch.

Julian, King of Pork, had asked for a recommendation from the waitress between his two choices, “pork tenderloin schnitzel with cranberry relish and German butterball potato salad” and “House made sausages, bratwurst and saucisson, with sauerkraut, yukon gold potatoes and sweet mustard.” The waitress had suggested the sausages, since the schnitzel was okay, but basically just schnitzel (a chopped up, breaded, over cooked meat patty.) If there is one dish Gruner has been slammed on, it’s been the schnitzel, The A & E, a week later in an otherwise glowing review of Gruner, referred to this meat preparation as cardboard-like, never a positive comment when it is associated with food. Obviously, there is no helping schnitzel.

As for those house made sausages, probably rather tackily, my all time favorite Portland restaurant is the much lamented “Good Dog, Bad Dog” downtown, and I’ve been going to Otto’s Sausage Kitchen all my life, so I can assure you, I know a good weenie from a deficient weenie. (Let’s just not talk about how they make those suckers.)IMG_1471 Julian shared a bite of whichever of the two sausages he liked better (he wasn’t sure which was which, as they weren’t wearing name tags) and it did seem really tasty, although no tube steak will ever compare with a GDBD Oregon Smokey, ruler of all dogs. I remember reading a year or two ago that Washington Square had a GDBD, but I have a long standing phobia of that suburban mall, and besides, I’m suspicious of a hot dog pusher who advertises “burgers too,” that ruins everything.

Getting back to Gruner though (I’m sure Chris Israel loves having his restaurant compared to a hot dog stand) one of the reasons I could not have ordered the sausages was the sauerkraut, eww the smell, eww, the taste, skanky! I know people actually do like it though, and Julian not only doesn’t mind it, he knows how real sauerkraut should taste, having spent the first few years of his life in Western Europe, very close to Germany. He had high praise for Gruner’s version, saying it was the best sauerkraut he had ever had on this side of the Atlantic. Sounds pretty positive to me.

In the early days Gruner used to have a trout to appease the non-meaters, but if for seasonal reasons, or whatever, the current seafood dish is “Grilled Salmon with grilled baby leeks, sauce grun, and yukon gold potatoes.”IMG_1472 It was a very modest and simple looking plate of food, but Heidi said every bite was delicious.

Originally I had contemplated having the schnitzel, but I suppose I read one too many negative remarks before we finally made it to Gruner, so I decided I better pursue something else. Afterall, even I can make dried out, flavorless meat patties in my own home (but how do you ever get that smell of slightly burned flour out of your house in less than 24 hours?) Sadly, as it’s just not my sort of food, I really did not see a whole lot of pleasant (for me) options, sauteed calves liver w/onions, herb stuffed quail with rabbit, viennese braised beef with turnips, NO THANK YOU, NO THANK YOU,, NO THANK YOU!!!

Luckily, probably when they changed the trout to salmon, Gruner changed the meat in the spatzle from rabbit to pork, so I was good to go. This was actually a lucky compromise on my part, because the “Spatzle with morels, braised chicken, reisling, thyme, creme fraiche and crispy shallots” has been one of the most positively reviewed items on Gruner’s menu.IMG_1470 It was a wonderful combo, delicious comfort food, and obviously hearty and filling. This is actually one “Alpine” traditional I would like to see carried on in more Portland restaurants, Spatzle. It seems like a carb you can do all kinds of interesting dishes with, particularly when it’s mixed in, rather than merely served as a side dish.

Just to give an idea of how well-run Gruner seems to be, it was about this time I headed back to the “WC”, certainly much nicer than the average European water closet, but using those worldwide initials nonetheless. When I went to pass through the first of two doors to this facility, there was a young, attractive man cleaning off the door handle. How often do you see that in Portland restaurants, an employee cleaning/shining up the door handle to the restroom? Fancy. Let’s just hope he cleans the handles on the inside of the doors as well, since they’re unisex. (Hey, surveys have shown that women wash their hands much more often than those other folks.)

As the food was pretty rich at Gruner, I was the only person gluttonous enough to pursue dessert. It just doesn’t seem like a real Restaurant Roulette dinner without someone checking out dessert though, so I forced myself. Many of the things on the Gruner dessert menu didn’t appeal to me on this particular evening, and unfortunately for my waistline, I am a person who eats whatever  I tend to find most appealing at that moment. IMG_1473Consequently, my choice this night was a flourless chocolate torte affair that Heidi and Julian chipped in eating (and although it wasn’t planned, paying for.) It was a great deal like most of these dense chocolate cakes, the most notable exception being a very coconutty taste, which I would guess came from the whitish sauce poured over the top. Not bad, but nothing I would make much effort to actually pay for again in the future (if it was free though …) At least it was only $7, instead of the usual $9 I’m seeing so much of around town these days.

One of the most charming Gruner features came with the delivery of the check, which was tucked into the pages of this sweet, little, old-looking German book. I suppose if you’re getting a nasty thing like a dinner check, having it enclosed in something “novel” (yuk, yuk) softens the blow to some extent. Also, to be honest, although it seems like I spent an arm and a leg at Gruner, most of the prices were fairly reasonable, especially the entrees. Once again, it’s those high-priced drinks and salads that tends to put a big whammy on your wallet in these nice Portland eateries these days.

Despite Mr. Israel’s reputation, I didn’t have overly high hopes for Gruner. As labored over before, “Alpine” is not my favorite food, I tend to prefer the vittles of the more Southern cultures, Italy, Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America, even the American South. Also, in his tenure there, I found 23 Hoyt extremely disappointing, and can no longer remember what made Zerifo “the restaurant” back in it’s day. Gruner runs like a sophisticated, well-oiled clock though, the service was great, the atmosphere extremely sleek and attractive, many prices are modest, and the food is well-executed and well thought-out. Each of us who attended this dinner was impressed, and all would be happy to return to Gruner. The seems more like Chris Israel’s “baby” than the other local places where he’s partnered with others, and it says a great deal that his new restaurant was waited for with so much anticipation, got off on the right foot immediately, and with high service and food quality, seems likely to stay a great place to go for hearty, somewhat out of the ordinary cuisine by Portland standards. And if you read German, your check even comes with bonus reading material.