THE DINING REPORT – THE GILT CLUB

Spock’s In The Potty and the Pork Rinds Are Humongous

Recently a member suggested that we have a dinner on a specific day to benefit a good cause. On April 29th, 2010,  Dining Out For Life International was the beneficiary of a collection of dinners at several Portland restaurants, each of the participating restaurants donating a percentage of their proceeds on this one evening to HIV/Aids research.IMG_1481 The Gilt Club, on Broadway, was donating one of the highest dollar figures per diner, 30%, and Melissa suggested that we should have our tri-weekly dinner on this rather unusual Thursday evening. As it happened, I had recently read in one of the local rags that the Gilt Club had ramped up their dinner offerings with a new chef with very sophisticated leanings, and had been thinking of maybe having hosting an RR dinner here, so I told Melissa I would send out an RSVP notice to see what sort of response we could get.

The response was good (of course three of those people were Melissa and her immediate family) so off we went to the Gilt Club on an unseasonably cool late April evening featuring annoying rain barrages seemingly every few minutes. One nice thing about this rather no man’s land of downtown (not quite Chinatown and not quite the Pearl) it’s not as hard to park as closer to Old Town or farther west by Powell’s.

I’m really not part of a “cocktail set” these days, so I’d never been to the Gilt Club. I’d heard about it quite often over the years though, mainly discussion of the somewhat elaborate interior design and how good the cocktails were. Only occasionally about the food though, although most of the food talk seemed in agreement that it really wasn’t that bad a place for some late night noshing. IMG_1477No one seemed to put it on top of their food list, however, so it just didn’t seem like an appropriate place for an “all-out” dinner.

Over the last couple of years, Portland has witnessed several cool cocktail places becoming top notch dining spots, Beaker and Flask most notably, and Clyde Common to a slightly lesser degree, so perhaps Gilt Club saw this and realized that maximizing their space with some elaborate food offerings might be a good way to maximize their profits as well. So in came a new chef and a really high falutin’ menu a few months ago.

But before I get on to the menu, more on the decor. I must say from what I have heard from others who went before me, you either love the inside of the Gilt Club or you hate it. I often love over the top decor, that theatrical dining room at Oba! has always been a favorite of mine, and it was with great sadness I heard about the closing of Colosso on Broadway last year, that wonderful little dark but gilded cave with the yummy drinks and so-so food (and unusual staff.) As for the Gilt Club, not really my cup of absinthe. Everything is gauzy, gold, and red, way too much red for my tastes. Red is a color I find upsetting in large doses (Target, yikes!) obviously due to my lineage from a long line of bulls. IMG_1492Also, the elaborate light fixtures reminded me of tinker toys or maybe banjos. As for those crazy big booths with the high sides, scary, the first thing I did was drop my jacket between the 6 ft high back and the window, and had to clamber over the side to retrieve my Pleather in a simian fashion (hey, I’m not part monkey, I’m part bull, remember.) This probably would not have been so bad, as everyone said, many people probably mistake the high back for a shelf and throw all kinds of belongings back there, but as the waitress gave me the most unamused, disapproving look possible, this didn’t exactly get our evening off to the most fun-inducing start. I felt like I had dropped some sort of diaper for the youthless on the way to the table.

Judging from the variety of house infused liquors on Gilt Club’s menu, this is a big thing here (house infused melon tequila?) I chose one of these house infused drinks, “Tracy’s First Love”, a combination of house-infused cucumber vodka, muddled cucumber, basil and fresh lime.IMG_1476 Normally I find these cucumber drinks extra relaxing, fresh and clean, like biting into a big vegetable, but this one seemed a bit harsher than usual, a tad too much lime perhaps. Several people suggested I should send it back until it was made to my liking, but as I explained, I am a person whose policy it is to live with the drink I ordered, whether a treat or a punishment, and besides, this one was really pretty to look at with all the lime slices floating on top. At least it looked relaxing (and wasn’t THAT bad.) Other cocktails ordered included a French 69; some sort of Blueberry (??) Martini (it was purty too) and a Rusty Nail (I think some poor unfortunate off the street ordered this one.)

Before I get to talking about the food, I want to compliment the Gilt Club on their menu. Not the food on there, but the type, really big and legible. This is really the first dinner I member in a long time where I didn’t have to ask anyone, “what does that say?’ or “how much does that cost.” So thank you Gilt Club, your menu is an old bag’s dream.

IMG_1482 As I don’t know what their menu was like before, I don’t know if the Gilt Club threw out their entire old menu and put the new fancier one in its place, or just gussied up the old menu with lots of new dishes. My guess would be the latter. Whatever the case, it seems a bit odd to see “house made pork rinds with paprika and creme fraiche” side by side with”foie gras terrine stuffed with quince paste and pistachio brittle”, not to mention something called a “Pig Explosion” right under “Wild Mushroom Panna Cotta”.  And to be completely honest, do the words Pork Rind and Creme Fraiche ever belong in the same sentence, let alone food description?

That being said, at least a couple of those items had takers at our table. Old Joe Rusty Nail seemed to get amusement out of ordering a round of the Pork Rinds for the whole table, which was not quite as amusing as the look on his face when aforementioned pork products arrived, as they were huge, more like pork butts or something.IMG_1479 He did cajole quite a few individuals at the table to sample some bites, with some apprehension, and Glenda just would not take one for a test drive (taste drive?) I think I spied a half eaten bag of extra spicy pork rinds in her purse, so that’s probably why. I must admit, I’ve had a pork rind or two before, my father ate them for years (of course he also died quite suddenly) and these tasted much like the ones you get in the grocery store in that red and black package. You could probably eat about ten of those though to equal one of these big fatties.

On a slightly more upscale note, John ordered the “foie gras terrine stuffed with quince paste and pain perdu with pistachio brittle,” which both Melissa and Barbara mentioned as the most wonderful combo imaginable, the earthiness of the foie gras and the sweetness of the brittle a wonderful contrast. David, who long ago was King of Chicken but has more lately become King of Caesar decided to try Gilt Club’s version of this salad, but both he and Heidi agreed it was pretty mild and boring. Maybe part of the lack of zestiness was that David ordered the standard version of the salad, not paying the extra buck for whole white boquerones anchovies (somehow I don’t think it was a money issue.) Who knows, perhaps these stinky little ocean dwellers would have livened things up to no end.

IMG_1501Glenda, showing here elite ilk, decided on the “fingerling potato salad with roasted lamb tongue, red onion, herbs, arugula and mustard vinaigrette.” Ms. Goldwater totally enjoyed this salad, and was certainly glad she selected it. As for me, no thanks, I don’t want any salad that could be tasting me at the same time I’m tasting it. And really, what could be any sadder than a disembodied lamb’s tongue?

Less heart-rending was the popular “roasted beets in yoghurt dill sauce with crushed pistachios.” I didn’t actually hear any opinions of this salad, but several were ordered, and all I think were consumed, so that must have been a good sign. Heidi decided to splurge and pay $4 for bread on this evening, in this case the house made focaccia. IMG_1478 She wisely avoided the optional “porky butter”, as we would hope she would. For crying out loud, does anyone need to add pork to butter? What’s next, lard with whipped cream topping? (okay, I think I even made myself ill with that one.) The focaccia was good, with the plain old olive oil, and certainly closer to being worth $4 than many less substantial breads. That aside, no place that peddles this breadstuff will ever peddle a product that compares to that wonderful focaccia that was served at Lovely Hula Hands (BIG SOB!)

We’ve been having a lot of fried potatoes lately at the dinners (Gruner got an A for their unusual version) so Heidi and Julian decided to get an order of the “Pommes frites with roasted garlic aioli.”IMG_1483 I had this really unsettling combination of food going on this evening, not to mention bread and pork rinds, so I don’t think I tried any of these fries. If those that came with my main dish later were any indication, they were fine, but not outstanding (maybe I needed to try the aioli on them.) It seems like I’ve tasted quite a few fries lately, and I must say the two best orders were at Cafe Castagna and the now forbidden Cabezon (hey, I still call them as I see them.)

My starter-starter (opposed to my mid-starter) seemed a good value at $5, but considering the menu mentioned plural, and that the delivered item was singular, not actually such a good buy.IMG_1480 No matter how you prepare it, $5 just seems too expensive for one stuffed date, at Toro Bravo you get about 4 for around $6. The Gilt Club’s date was stuffed with chorizo and featured a piquillo pepper sauce, and tasted fine, although not quite as tasty as the pancetta wrapped dates at Toro Bravo. There was certainly a lot of sauce though, so I would guess $3 worth of sauce, $1 worth of date, and $1 worth of chorizo.

After this it seems like there was a blurring of what items were ordered as starters and what dishes were ordered as entrees, as some people were eating a bit lighter (I wish I had.) Up next for me was my “mid-starter” (afterall, I had only had one date) the “Boudin Noir and fingerling potato tart with gruyere, apples, and puffy pastry.” (This place must have gotten a deal on fingerling potatoes, as they were everywhere on the menu. Perhaps they were discounted through a supplier for actually resembling toes. Just think about it, they are called potaTOES, not potaFINGERS.) Whatever the tubers, I was sure glad Barbara was sitting next to me, and explained that “Boudin Noir” was a sausage, like a black blood sausage, the opposite of a “Boudin Blanc”. Otherwise, when I was passing around samples, I might have accidently offered Heidi some meat without knowing about it, which would have made me feel pretty skanky. Just tasting it, I probably never would have figured out what the dark, crumbly rounds were, they really didn’t resemble much of anything.

The tart was quite pretty, eliciting table wide ooohhhs and aaahhs. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, however, as the term “tart” encompasses so many shapes and preparations, and I was thinking of something creamy and cheesy in a tart shell. IMG_1485This was a big, puffy square of puff pastry with the various ingredients strewn on the top. The pastry was quite good, and I liked the apples and the cheese, and many bites were delicious. Since it was a big flat shape though, it was sort of like a pizza where every bite can be different depending on distribution of the toppings, so some areas were rather plain. Also, if I was had a list of 1000 different toppings I was thinking of putting on top of puff pastry, I still don’t think potatoes would make the list, especially firm little fingerling potatoes. And the Boudin Noir wasn’t really necessary at all, it certainly didn’t add anything to the preparation, it was more like showing off (“We know what “Boudin Noir is!!!)

As alluded to previously, Melissa and her family seemed to be ordering mostly smaller plates then sharing everything, so Melissa’s choice for her second item was on the smaller side, “Potato and Nettle soup with lemon creme and julienned prosciutto.” IMG_1489 As she knows such things are important to me, as far as the blog goes, she tried to give me a few thoughts on her selection. She stressed that the soup itself was delicious and creamy, a lovely combination of flavors, but that she found the rather lukewarm temperature rather disconcerting. She framed this remark as being a quirk of hers, that she likes really sizzling hot food, but I tend to agree with her, especially when it comes to soup (and especially creamy soup) it needs to be hot. That was one of the elements of our meal I really noticed at Gruner, everything seemed really fresh and hot off the stove. Other than not warm enough – tasty soup.

Barbara had positive words about her ‘Smoked Duck Confit with frisee, crispy shallots, cured egg yolk, hazelnut dressing, and Calabrian chilies”.This really sounds like quite the unusual combination, shallots, hazelnut dressing and chilies, where do chefs come up with this stuff?IMG_1500 If I was paying more attention (never easy with a dinner of eight or more people) I would have asked her more about the cured egg yolk, and how she thinks you go about curing an egg yolk. Seems like an odd scenario to me. Maybe it’s like one of those Asian thousand year old eggs (or is that hundred year old egg? How time flies) with less mileage under its shell.

By this time I noticed I was really wracking up the silverware count, at least three clean forks, but the Gilt Club didn’t seem to mind, and changed out all the silverware before entrees came out. It was nice silverware too. I must say this was a nice touch, I like clean things, but maybe not as environmental as those restaurants who make you hold onto the same scuzzy fork for the whole meal, thus cutting down on water usage.IMG_1484 The waitress kept apologizing to me for having to hand me things like silverware, glasses, and food, but I wasn’t put out, the table was too wide for her to reach, especially as I was in the middle on the window side. The service was fine on this evening, and the food kept coming in sensible spurts, I just sensed a certain lack of warmth from our waitress compared to other members of the staff. Maybe she didn’t like groups (or people who dangle over the back side of the booth trying to retrieve their belongings from the Gilt Club Booth Canyon.)

Besides oinking out on snacks, the rest of us had rather standard main courses. I was quite jealous when I saw Glenda’s “Painted Hills shoulder tender bresole spiced steak with bordelaise, bone marrow and grilled asparagus”, as it looked so much like something I would have liked, nice rare meat, thick sauce, large portion.

 As is often the case when she actually has two or three meatless items to select from, Heidi was rather torn between two fish preparations, one the night’s special and one a menu standard. The night’s special was a Salmon entree. I know Heidi gets her share of Salmon, as there’s often not much else for her to pick from, but what made this Salmon sound more interesting than usual was that it was lightly smoked before cooking to add additional flavor. She was certainly tempted, but instead decided on the “Olive oil poached Halibut with slow poached egg, dill potatoes, sugar snap peas, and black olive sauce”. As an outsider, I must say that if the world ever runs out of Salmon and Halibut, pescatarians like Heidi will probably never get protein again, as it seems like those are the only two fish ever available locally for people who don’t eat meat (throwing in an occasional shellfish like shrimp or scallop.) Unfortunately, she and David, who also had the Halibut, agreed it was relatively disappointing, mild and lacking any exciting flavor combinations. Also, Heidi was a bit unsettled with the slow poached egg, she thought it was so slow poached it approached unpoached. Perhaps she should have tried the slow cured egg.

IMG_1496Someone in the Halle family  (John?) seems to have ordered the Braised Spring Lamb with crispy sweetbreads, lentils du puy, fava beals, morels, and preserved lemon gremolata. I totally missed this part of the evening, and took no note of it, but I found a picture of it later on my camera, so perhaps Melissa took it for me. This is also true for another photo I found which looks to be the “Braised Pork Cheeks with lobster sausage, crispy polenta, wild mushrooms, grilled ramps and pork jus.” These people were obviously sneaking all sorts of food at their end of the table that we didn’t even know about. So much for a “light meal.” I obviously need to keep a closer eye on this bunch.

I had not been feeling that well all day, like I was getting some dreaded disease or the flu, or maybe the vapors, so I had decided earlier I was going to try to eat a bit less (or maybe that was a bit cheaper.) So it’s funny how I ended up consuming sausage stuffed date, pork rinds, blood sausage, fries, and finally a burger. Light as air! (Maybe it’s the I’m getting so fat I could probably float diet.) IMG_1495Why on earth I would even consider combining a tart and a burger, I also don’t understand. I think the item on GC’s menu labeled “Pig Explosion” referred to me. Anyway, my evening of lighter eating didn’t work out so well, and I should have had no tart, a salad type thing, and the beef that Glenda had.

Which is not to imply that there was anything wrong with the burger, the “Painted Hills ground beef burger with Beecher’s white cheddar, house cured bacon, red leaf lettuce, Calabrian chilies, aoili, grilled onions and pickled vegetables with a choice of pommes frites or pork rinds”. (Optional foie gras can add $8.) Okay, here we go again, a burger and pork rinds??? Why doesn’t someone start serving a burger inside two Cinnabons with lard drizzled on the top? (Still sounds a bit better than the lard with whipped cream topping scenario.) But does the Gilt Club have a contract with some ambulance company who idles out back?

Whatever the case, I had the fries, and definitely no foie gras. Julian had the exact same, the only exception being his firm demand that all life and flavor be cooked out of his meat (mine was squiggling and wiggling.) This is actually the first time I’ve had a burger at an RR dinner, so I guess I wanted it to be extra, super duper delicious. I would probably just rank it good, lots of char flavor but not enough smoky bacon flavor or cheesy cheddar taste. My favorite burger used to be at Echo, (which I’ve heard has a new owner) but the absolute best burger I’ve had in recent times was at Cafe Castagna (such delicious garlic aioli.)IMG_1497 Also, I probably would have enjoyed my burger more had I not had pork rinds, focaccia, tart with nasty sausage, and date with nasty sausage preceding it. Julian thought his was pretty good, so maybe my tongue was just jaded (and overly fat stimulated) by then.

It was toward the end of the meal when I started to get reports that Spock was in the toilet. In at least one of the unisex bathrooms, mounted on the wall across from the toilet,in a very odd location, was a copy of a Leonard Nimoy album, “The Way I Feel”. (tee, hee, funny title.) I sent Julian in to take a photo (I was landlocked on the wrong side of the giganto-booth.) Julian felt a bit sheepish, going into a public bathroom with a camera (where’s Greg Oden when you need him?) but did a fine job snapping a photo, much as our long lost friend Dave had done, the last time I sent an RR “gentleman” into the restroom to snap photos (the giant dental floss dispenser at the also long lost Fife.) Sometimes you just can’t take your own photos. I don’t know where that other photo came from though, was that an unbaked baguette??!!) Later, water practically squirting out of my ears, I did unwedge myself from our booth (that sucker had a nasty corner to maneuver through) and did myself witness aforementioned scary looking and probably scary sounding album, surely a kitschy collector’s piece.

IMG_1503This was a pretty odd evening, as neither Julian, nor myself, had an interest in dessert this dinner (what can I say, they didn’t have anything fatty sounding enough for my tastes) although our third dessert stalwart, Glenda, did indulge. Also at least some of the Halle folk. As I didn’t have any myself, and no one insisted I eat any of theirs, I don’t even know what they were, but I think Glenda’s might have been a Meyers Lemon Tarte. Sadly, it did not come with Boudin Noir or Boudin Blanc.

Judging from the responses around me, I would say the verdict of the food at Gilt Club was about a 65/35 split, 65% were happy, 35% found the food so-so (although no one found anything bad.) I suppose if there’s one place the menu at Gilt Club made me think of, it was the Davis Street Tavern.IMG_1506 After we ate at Davis Street, I got on their case during my Dining Report about perhaps over-stretching the boundaries of what their kitchen was capable of, everything seemed so fancy but wasn’t overly well-prepared. Part of my problem with that place, though, was that they have a perfectly nice tavern thing going with pleasant little small plates and such, but also have this fancy dining room where they supposedly wheel out the high-end eats to show what they are really about. But at least on the evening we dined there, what they really seemed liked they were about was mediocrity.

I suppose I’m more lenient about Gilt Club because basically they are a fun cocktail bar that has decided to go that extra mile by serving some really fancy menu items.IMG_1502 Much of the more common food was okay, but nothing special; then, surprisingly, it seemed like with some of the more elaborate items, they excelled. Also, Gilt Club, although not overly appealing to my senses, was still way more fun, and came across like a bunch of “young-uns” pushing the boundaries of what they could achieve when it came to high-end restaurant food (after all, Pork Rinds!) Also, Leonard Nimoy’s lurking in the toilet, how many restaurants have that?

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