THE DINING REPORT-SOLUNA GRILL

Surprisingly Good, If Excessively Footy

CLOSED

As the organizer, Head Honchette of Restaurant Roulette, I would have to say the question I have been asked, above all others, is “how do you hear about/select the restaurants?” As I always tell everyone, it’s not particularly hard, I just read food articles, be they in the daily and weekly printed rags, or on various online sources. When Fife decided to rather abruptly close, people seemed somewhat shocked, as chef Marco Shaw had a good reputation here, particularly in his Beaumont neighborhood. So most of the talk seemed centered on the demise of Fife, rather than what might eventually happen to that large boxy space built just to house Fife quite a few years ago (eight maybe?)

I think the only thing I read, in advance of opening, was on the Portland Food and Drink blog, mentioning that the incoming restaurant would be called Soluna Grill, and that the menu sounded like a bunch of American standards practically worthy of a chain, perhaps Stanford’s or Manzana Grill. IMG_1543 It wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic sounding news blurb, and while I only agree with Food Dude about half the time, it didn’t exactly whet my appetite for what was to come. Also, looking at Soluna’s website, the space looked a tad more boring now, after all, what can you really do with a big, modern square box? (although the big, weird, rusted metal object that sits in the parking lot will always RULE!) Also, when anyone besides a barbecue joint adds the word “grill” to their name, it makes me think lowest common denominator.

Needless to say, as much as I love new eateries, I wasn’t jumping all over myself to take RR to this particular eating outpost, post haste! That being said,  I do like to support the Fremont/BW area, and as it’s close to where I work, it makes me happy to see quality places root themselves there and stay there. Also, a “big birdie” in our group (who likes Rusty Nails) had mentioned that some work function had been catered by Soluna Grill, and that everything had been really good, so maybe we should add it to the roster. Of course I rarely listen to this birdie (after all, I don’t speak bird.) I did decide to look at Soluna Grill’s on-line menu again though, and was pleasantly surprised by how good some of the items sounded, particularly some of the smaller items and interesting side dishes. As almost always happens with this group, when the time rolled around to visit Soluna Grill, the member who mentioned he might like to try it was not available this outing, as he was going out of town. Oh well, tough toenails, bub, you missed some good eats. (And actually, a bunch of toenails too.)

As has been the case at all our recent “Spring” dinners, the weather was tolerable, but by and large crappy for mid-year, occasional sun breaks between downpours, but way too cold.IMG_1547 Case in point, mid-June, and Heidi was still wearing a wool coat, and Glenda had wrapped herself in fancy patterned outerwear that could have doubled as a sleeping bag if she had become stranded on her way home (I mean quilt material, not outdoor sleepwear design. Besides, with a elaborate fabric like this coat, you would get no sleep. Our Glenda, she just has to be our Wild One.)

Another interesting factoid about this evening, besides the info that people were dressed like they were headed for igloos, it turns out Beaumont/Wilshire/Cully has an event called Second Fridays (what’s next, 4.3 Mondays?) and this happened to be THAT Friday, so the whole area was full of festivities, outdoor dining, live music, rickshaw rides, street sales, just what everyone wants on a tiny, overcrowded little street like Fremont where parking and sitelines tend to be awful to begin with. I don’t mean to sound like a party pooper, it actually looked like a good place for a stroll, this is a real pleasant stretch of road between 57th and 42nd, and people looked like they were having a good time, but with a speed limit of 20 mph to begin with (really) cars parked everywhere, and people diving out in traffic like they always do here, it made making it to the restaurant without having a people pancake pasted to your auto grill more challenging than ever.

That being said, our dinner had a good turnout of seven, just not the nine who had committed to attending (luckily we only waited for those absentees about 30 minutes.) We gladly welcomed back last dinner’s new member, Andrea (thanks for showing up!) who actually had invited yet another new member, her friend Gina, a pescatarian co-hort for our well-revered member Heidi, and a really good addition to our humble eating group. Also joining us once again, our always enthusiastic diner pal Liz, and accompanying her, an excess of tiny feet (what some people will do for attention. She and Andrea really brought it on this evening!) (I’m only joking, really!)

Any of your who have attended dinners over the last three months or so probably remember our semi-regular Liz, she of the interesting profession. Liz equips children with artificial limbs up at Shriners Children’s Hospital, and is enthusiastic about her job, patients, and even her supplies. IMG_1568During the previous dinner she had mentioned using excess artificial body appendages to supplement her other home decor, and Heidi and Julian, also collectors of unusual household objects (love that big black and gold print of the octopus grabbing a papal figure) expressed keen excitement over the idea of adding some of these to their home collection. Liz, kind person that she seems, actually remembered this, and came loaded with a purse stocked up with children’s feet of varying sizes, three to be exact. Needless to say, these were keen conversational pieces, and although Heidi kept trying to stow them under the table to be socially acceptable, people kept wanting to examine them, so they would again reappear. Many expressed disappointment at their lack of lifelike qualities, but who really wants to be sitting in a decent restaurant, trying to have a nice meal, and be confronted by a lifelike human foot in their eating area? Not me, that’s for sure. Just keep in mind, however, that if you ever make it to Heidi and Julian’s home, and see a pair of baby bear cubs (stuffed) fighting over a human foot, that’s Liz’s foot.

Attention getting episode number two came when Liz (obviously little Miss Attention Seeker this evening) was carded when she tried to order a drink (needless to say Liz is a little younger than a couple of us) and could not find her wallet, anywhere. She looked through her purse a couple of times, went out and looked in her car, and still, no wallet.IMG_1551 Needless to say, panic mode was beginning to set in (after all, she couldn’t get that drink, for one thing) when she finally remembered that secret, mystery pocket in her purse, and sure enough, she had stuffed her wallet in there at the last sleazy dive she had visited. That was a great relief for all of us, especially as many of us seem to be on a budget these days, and we certainly could not have let her go away empty stomached, not after she had generously brought so many feet with her.

IMG_1544I think Soluna Grill is on the right track as far as how to get people on their side right away, bringing out a platter of mushroom and cream cheese filled mini-spring rolls with dipping sauce, nice and crispy hot. Everyone seemed to enjoy them, and when our two negligent no-shows no showed, no one seemed to mind eating the absentee’s portion before they got cold (so there!)

After this the wine and cocktails arrived, a Pinot Gris, a really dark Rose, and some sparkling wine for Glenda, back to her old habits once again (perhaps the cocktail age is over.) I had a cocktail though, a pretty good combination of vodka, Lillet (the citrus apertif) and brandy. I actually knew what vodka was (after all, I had the one drink about 20 years ago) but was kind of winging it on those other two things, but luckily I was sitting next to Andrea and her Smart Phone, and she looked everything up for me (silly woman, I guess she likes to know what she’s drinking.) Liz also had some sort of cocktail, but she’s already had enough attention, so who cares?

At many of the dinners, there is a great deal of crossover in ordering, but this certainly was not one of these occasions, and almost everyone had something different (perhaps this is a testament to the varied and interesting nature of the menu at Soluna Grill.) One of the few exceptions to this rule was the Chickpea Crusted Green Beans with tomato ginger dipping sauce.Both Julian and Andrea ordered these, and they seemed quite good, the ginger based sauce incredibly zingy. Certainly one of the more popular items this evening.

One of the few starters that got an immediate thumbs down was the Fresh Spring Pea Bisque with dill creme fraiche and pancetta croutons, Liz’s selection. She just did not enjoy the texture, and said the flavor was awfuly bland. IMG_1552As she wasn’t enjoying this soup at all, she sort of pushed the bowl aside, and the waitress must have noticed this, because she asked what Liz thought of the soup. Liz gave a polite but relatively negative reply, and was offered another starter instead. Her second choice in starters was much more enjoyable, and nearly double the price, but doing what a well run restaurant should do, when the bill came, she had only been charged for the much cheaper pea soup.

This second selection was actually Gina’s first selection in starters, the Yellowfin Poke with sweet cucumber, macadamia nuts and candied ginger guacamole. IMG_1554Silly me wasn’t sure was a Poke was, and thought it sounded vaguely hostile, so made sure not to order it. It was exceeding attractive when it came to the table, however, sort of a roll up of raw tuna, nuts, and cucumber, and Gina seemed to enjoy it, as did Liz when she selected it as her make-up starter.

As we hardly have any dinner where either Heidi or David doesn’t order some variation on a Caesar salad if there is one, and David was away this dinner, it was Heidi’s responsibility to order the Hearts of Romaine Salad with anchovy vinaigrette, garlic bread crumbs, and parmesan crisp. Somehow, I missed Heidi’s opinion of her salad, eventhough she was sitting directly across from me, but it looked pretty, and since Heidi appeared to enjoy Soluna Grill, we’ll assume the salad wasn’t overly dreadful.

A starter that sounded really good to me, but unfortunately there were too many to get them all, was Glenda’s first plate of food, the Grilled Local Hermiston Asparagus with roasted garlic, corn flan, balsamic syrup, and parmesan.IMG_1560 Glenda said it was quite good, and I think ate every bite. Gina also had this same small plate later in the evening, but I got the impression the corn flan was not overly to her liking, as she really didn’t eat much of that part of this dish.

I actually had the most expensive starter, the Dungeness Crabcakes with smoked paprika aioli and pickled fennel slaw, but I was really hungry this evening, and it sounded good and hearty. IMG_1553As it happened, it was really good, so I suppose it was almost worth the price. I think it had much to do with the smoked paprika aioli, as few things these days that mention any sort of aioli aren’t good . Crabcakes are really one of those items that aren’t very consistently good no matter where you get them, some people totally screw them up by using inferior crab or adding too much weird garbage (to save having to use too much expensive crab I assume) but these were just right. I felt a little bad, because the last dinner had been so much about sharing, and these were mostly the same group of people, and I didn’t offer to share bites of my crabcakes like I should have. I was way too hungry though, and these were way too good, I just hunched over my food and growled if anyone got too close.

Sometime around the middle of the dinner, things started to get really loud. Be it the neighborhood celebration, or a Friday night event, or perhaps a strange permutation by the ownership, a jazz trio had been set up and was playing all evening, eventhough there was not a stage area or anything to accommodate these musicians. So basically they were just against one wall, toward the midpoint in the restaurant.IMG_1550 Unless you are in a bar or going to a jazz club or some such location, it’s a bit unusual to find live music in your dining room; I know they have live music at 23 Hoyt, but they also have a piano and other useful trappings like that set up in the in the bar area, so you expect that. As the entire restaurant is just a large cube, Soluna Grill is not really the best environment to introduce musicians into, and even with moderate volume, the music got tiring quickly. Compounding matters, off to our right, in came a family graduation party or something of that ilk, complete with balloons, presents, and party favors, and these folks were loud, screaming loud. As we could not turn these people’s volume down, someone in the group (Heidi, Andrea?) asked the waitress if the musicians could turn their amps down some, and the waitress seemed to agree, it had become an auditory nightmare.

Just as she enjoyed her Poke (???) Liz also enjoyed her entree, the Pacific Seafood Stew, with butternut squash, coconut milk, kafir, lime and cilantro. Like many of the dishes at Soluna Grill, this preparation had a distinctly Asian flare, and except for the butternut squash, sounded much like a Thai dish.IMG_1555 Good RR member that she is, Liz always makes it a point to display her excitement when she enjoys something she has ordered, and she seemed just bubbling over with enthusiasm for this fishy wonder, commenting that just as her pea soup had been totally lacking in seasoning, this stew was perfectly seasoned and had a wonderful flavor.

Not so wonderfully flavored, at least to her palate, was Andrea’s Potato Gnocchi and Chicken, with criminis, sun dried tomato, pinenuts, and marsala cream.IMG_1559 I’ve actually read a couple of positive reviews of this potato/pasta creation, but for some reason, Andrea found it extremely disagreeable, to the point where soon after she ate it she disappeared into the restroom for a REALLY long time, so long we made jokes about her going out on a house call (Pet Dr.) or dining and dashing, and when she returned she was looking gray and had to leave immediately, grabbing her dessert “to go” and heading home. I emailed Andrea later and she said she was fine once she left the restaurant, that she must have just eaten something that disagreed with her system.

IMG_1558Highly in character, Glenda selected the entree I thought she would, the Smoked Long Island Duck Breast, duck confit-pearl couscous, crepinette, spinach, and radicchio cipolioni onion marmalade. If you like duck, it looked really good (I like mine quacking in the pond, not on a plate) and Glenda said it was quite well-prepared, and asked for bread afterward to mop up the sauce (always a good sign.)

Heidi and Julian had returned the preceding weekend from a rather fancified vacation in Palm Springs and San Diego, where they had eaten some of their best meals ever (and most expensive) and as the result of their bruised wallets, were trying to economize a bit this dinner.IMG_1561 Because of this, Julian decided the Soluna Burger with roasted garlic aioli, house pickles, cheddar cheese, and on a brioche bun would suit him just fine, especially at $10 (it also came with some of those housemade potato chips that had tempted him earlier.) Julian seems to know his burgers, having them quite often, usually cooked to a mild rubber texture, and he thought this was quite a decent burger (once again, you see that word aioli in the description, need I say more?)

I’m sure Heidi would have liked to economize a bit more as well, but since she doesn’t eat meat, she usually has to select from one or two of the most expensive items, as fish entrees in Portland generally are quite costly, as Salmon, Halibut, and Scallops always draw top dollar here. IMG_1556Still, at $18, the Spice Crusted Salmon with celery root mashed potatoes, pepper-onion relish and lemon and cucumber raita was still more reasonably priced than it would have been at many restaurants in our area, and looked like a nice plate of food.

That being said, Heidi was still covetous of my side dish, and after having a bite, asked the kitchen if she could get a side order herself. That being said, Heidi was still covetous of my side dish, and after having a bite, asked the kitchen if she could get a side order herself. When I had sent out the RSVP notices, I had mentioned that the Grilled Snake River Kobe Beef came with blue cheese macaroni, Hermiston aspar5agus, and zinfadel syrup, and that blue cheese macaroni sounded like one of several intriguing side dishes at Soluna Grill. It seems like over the last 5 or so years high-end macaroni and cheese is always a big draw, but usually when I try it at nice restaurants, I end up somewhat disappointed.IMG_1546 Part of the problem is that although the cheese(s) involved might be good quality, they are too mild in flavor, and the cheese adds more of a greasy taste than a cheesy taste (I’ve had this dilemma at home too.) God only knows what blue cheese is really made of, and while it is very rich, it doesn’t strike me as fatty. So it does make sense that blue cheese would be a really good addition to macaroni and cheese, you can just use a bit and it goes a long way (cutting down on fat as well) and it’s really tangy. Anyway, while many of us had moved on to dessert, Heidi was still savoring her dish of Blue Cheese Macaroni, she enjoyed it that much (although I liked it too.)

As for the rest of my entree, especially the main part, I would say it was good. I don’t know if I’ve ever officially had “Kobe Beef” before, I’m so un-with it, I know, Kobe Beef was so 5 years ago. IMG_1557That being said, the meat was good, although forgetting it was Kobe Beef,  I neglected to take note of anything special when I was chewing on it. It did seem nice and tender, though. The asparagus was also good, and the whole combo of beef, mac and cheese, and asparagus was a really yummy collection of fine eats. I suppose if there was one element I found less satisfying, it was the zinfandel syrup. I’m pretty picky when it comes to wine sauces, I want them reduced a whole bunch, basically to gravy, and no lingering wine flavor present. Zinfandel strikes me as an awfully sweet wine for a meat sauce, and I did find this sauce a bit more sweet than I generally want on beef (maybe that’s why they called it syrup.) Not bad, but a little less sweet and more rich and beefy would have come a lot closer to perfect in my book, especially as it was going on “fancy pants cow.”

There we several things that made the desserts at Soluna Grill sound exciting, not the least of which was the fact that they were all only $5.IMG_1562 When’s the last time you actually saw a collection of high end desserts that went for only 5 buckeroos? Even Pix has moved way beyond those levels, although they did start out in that range, and below.

Liz had one of the special desserts of the evening, and for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I’m pretty sure it did not look like it originally sounded, and even while she was eating it, I had to ask her what it was again.IMG_1563 I do know it had fresh strawberries, was layered, had a vaguely pinkish hue, and looked full of cream. Whatever it was, it seemed to make her extremely happy, almost as happy as finding her wallet did earlier.

Looking at the online menu, I had thought about ordering the Chocolate Bourbon Croissant Bread Pudding, as something about the combination of bread pudding and croissants sounded more than a little decadent. As there was cake on the menu though, and we all know I’m a cake freak, out went the idea of bread pudding in favor of cake.IMG_1548 I’m a follower of Marie Antionette in that regard, who needs bread when you can have cake? Julian and Andrea didn’t share my sentiments, however, and both went for the bread pudding. Sadly, Andrea, being ill, had to eat hers at home, but I did admire her quick thinking, waiting to grab her dessert before she bolted (my kind of folk.)

Gina ordered another special dessert of the evening, a glutten free lemon torte, which led to a rather goofy incident that put somewhat of a tarnish on the sterling customer service we had most of the evening at Soluna Grill. Everyone, Gina included, liked her lemon cake, but as a seemingly sensible and somewhat light eater (ie. trim and healthy looking)IMG_1566 Gina decided she would eat a bit, then take the rest home. We lingered an extra while after we had paid, because the rest of Gina’s dessert had not returned to the table in its cute little black box (I think they were black.) Eventually Gina flagged down the waitress again, who went back to the kitchen and came back with a whole new dessert, explaining she had lost the portion Gina had sent back for boxing. Dessert in Gina’s hand, we all proceeded to leave, only to have the waitress hurrying up one more time, saying she had found Gina’s original one, and snatching back the new portion. We all commented that, as general rule, especially with the free starters and Liz’s replacement starter, this seemed more than a tad tacky.

Well, at least Soluna Grill taught Glenda a lesson for always believing anything French has got to be superior, she was quite disappointed with her Apple Napoleon with amaretto caramel and dried cranberry whipped cream, and she barely ate any of it. I should have counseled Glenda, I learned long ago, anything with the ingredient amaretto is probably overbearing and nasty, and amaretto caramel sounds practically revolting, sort of like salt water taffy.

Luckily for Glenda, she REALLY liked my dessert. As I said earlier, I was corralled by cake, in this case Red Velvet Cake. I am a late in life convert to Red Velvet Cake, and still don’t like most of those I try (and many are awful.)IMG_1564 I don’t even care for the Red Velvet cupcakes at St. Cupcake, but stand back when it comes to almost anything else at that establishment. Navarre has wonderful Red Velvet Cake, a tad citrus like, opposed to the chocolate versions you usually see. This version was actually a Red Velvet cakelette, very firm, and full of nuts, with delicious cream cheese frosting. Probably my second favorite of those I have tried. As it happened, I was quite full by this time, and decided to be sensible, like Gina (I can’t manage the thin part though) as was going to take about half of my cake home, especially since I love cake for breakfast (I WONDER why I’m not thin?) Glenda liked my dessert a bit too much, however, so I didn’t actually end up taking anything home (but at least I didn’t eat it all.)

Despite having a nice new dessert delivered, then jerked away, Soluna Grill seemed pretty professionally run, and the service and food delivery were good, especially considering that there was a large party of rowdies there at the same time that our decent-sized group was (which might be why the bill process seemed a bit more bogged down than the rest of the meal, taking care of the hoarding masses.) Most of the prices at Soluna were much cheaper than we have experienced in quite some time, the cooking was innovative, and almost all the food was well-prepared, especially considering the relatively wide ranging menu.IMG_1569 The atmosphere, while not unpleasant, is a bit bland, however, and they would probably benefit by taking the Grill off their name, so people understand it’s a relatively accomplished restaurant, not one step from The Olive Garden or Applebees. Aside from these complaints, it was a good dinner, and certainly an exceptionally exciting night out for anyone who happens to have a foot fetish (sorry you missed it, DD.)

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