THE DINING REPORT – ALLIUM

And the Mysterious Tale of That Little Town That Floated South

IMG_1649Does anyone really know where West Linn is? Sure, maybe some of the people who live there, and a few of those folks who live in Lake Oswego, but has anyone else ever been to West Linn? It seemed like no one in Restaurant Roulette had ever been there. It wasn’t really one of those places I fret about driving to, not like Tigard, Tualatin, or Beaverton, as I know the general geographic area where West Linn lays, and that it’s wedged against the Willamette River, making it not too hard to find. Where did that crazy bend in the Willamette River come from though?

Although this was over 18 years ago, for five years I worked in the old part of Lake Oswego, and almost every workday I would follow Hwy. 43 through Lake Oswego, through Marylhurst, and through the “outskirts” of West Linn to get to I-205. I had seen signs, so I knew West Linn was that place right before you got on the freeway and crossed the river above Oregon City, that place where lots of rich athletic types tended to buy homes (those who could not squeeze themselves onto the banks of Oswego Lake -actually called “Sucker Lake” in its earliest days.)

Once you leave Lake O. and Marylhurst, you don’t really see the river from ol’ Hwy. 43, but I knew West Linn was along the Willamette, so it made much sense to me that once I got to the city limits where the signs start to advertise that you have entered West Linn, I should just turn left toward where I judged the river to be, and surely that would dump me right in the heart of West Linn, or at least furnish me with some signs telling me which way to go. BUT NO. Little did I understand that beyond the conglomeration of river eyesores that are the basis of two paper mills and a dam, the Willamette river takes a big jog, so that if I took a left (or several) at what seemed like the outskirts of West Linn, I would end up doing nothing but driving down the State Park boat ramp or into several no return cul de sacs. And did you know, West Linn and Oregon City aren’t really just opposite one another? There might be a parcel of land, homes, a shopping center, some industry, etc, right opposite Oregon City which is classified as West Linn, but there’s certainly no town there.

So is it really surprising that I was 15 minutes late for my own dinner when I started my journey 45 minutes before, or that I ended-up making my carpoolee late as well? So much for trying to make things easier by doing a Google Earth street view so I could at least recognize the buildings and surrounding area. Things like this just don’t help you if you can’t even find the town to begin with. And the Google Earth view was a bit deceptive anyway, as those slightly cloudy, hazy street views can be, I thought I was looking for a row of nicely restored older buildings that you might find in the old downtown area of any smaller town (actually those were in Oregon City, and many are on the rundown side) but West Linn being a town of “the beautiful people” these are actually new replicas of old restored buildings, which was pretty obvious in person with all the fancy paint jobs and creative rooflines on each building in the row.IMG_1650 Better than modern monstrosities though. I only wish I could have been a bit less late, so I could see more of what the rest of “town” looked like, to see if there really are any older buildings, but since I have such exquisite timing, there was some sort of town event going on right when our dinner was, a street dance, I think they called it. So half the town was closed off, people were walking everywhere, and parking was at a premium, especially as Allium was in the next block from the “street dance.” This could very possibly be the only time I visit West Linn “official”, I wish I could have made it count more.

As fascinating as all my endless dribblings about getting lost are, I suppose eventually I should actually mention something about Allium or our dinner there. Allium is the brainchild of Pascal Chureau, one of the folks originally involved with multi-million dollar Fenouil in the P-District, so although it is billed as a Neighborhood Bistro, it was hard not to imagine a fancified and Frenchified atmosphere of rich and well-designed food. Allium was really a pretty casual, non-fussy kind of place, however, with by-and-large reasonably priced food (the ribeye was “up there,” which is why I didn’t order it.) The walls were a warm terra cotta sort of tone, and the tables decent wood, but for some reason, perhaps because I arrived too late to look around the dining area, something in the decor made me think of “tasteful chain.” Which is not to say the interior of Allium wasn’t pleasant, it’s nice and new and shiny, it just wasn’t particularly unique. Also, although the service was good, I also found that a bit by the book, perhaps corporate.

My major surprise upon entering this dinner (LAST, LAST, LAST) was that Frank and Grace had brought along their two daughters, Antigone and Helena (assumed, internet names) youthful folks we had heard much about but never witnessed in person.IMG_1652 Luckily, these were well behaved, intelligent little offspring (they had left the Food Monster at home) and they both had PADs, so all went incredibly smoothly considering the combined age of these younguns adds up to all of about 10 years.

I could tell that even though we were only 15 minutes late, everyone had already heartily jumped on that food and drink bandwagon, as they were already starting to drink and munch when I straggled to the table. Heidi, who always seems big on olives, had ordered the Warm Olives – piri-piri pepper & citrus marinated olives with bread.IMG_1654 It seems like we see a great deal of order of olives at these dinners, perhaps because they tend to be one of the most inexpensive items and you generally get a multitude of them. That begs a point, however, why are olives always one of the cheapest items at quality restaurants, but so expensive at the olive bar in your grocery store? What a truly baffling conundrum for us deep food thinkers (and an explanation of why I rarely visit the olive bar at my grocery store. That and sneezy people.) Originally Heidi remarked that the olives were way too hot, I thought it was the piri-piri pepper, but it turns out the issue was temperature, because these were actually more than merely “warm” olives. Actually, what’s with “warm” olives anyway, aren’t they usually cold? I tend to like them chilled, except on a nice slab of pizza. I didn’t actually taste the warm olives to see if they would change my opinion, they were too far to my left to steal any when no one was looking, but I heard Heidi say that once she had spread them out and cooled them off a bit the citrus was a nice touch.

Another popular starter this evening, Fries & Aioli – with salt and parsley, and optional duck fat and rosemary. It seems like we rarely have a dinner these days without someone ordering that particular establishment’s version of fries and aioli, and who, of course, would know French Fries better than a Frenchie? Frank and Grace (and girls) and Heidi and Julian got an order, and they were so good, Grace got another order (or was that two?) one with the optional duck fat. I snorfled some of Frank and Grace’s fries when they were thrust in my direction, and I must say these were excellent plus, in size, shape, texture, and non-greasy flavor, exceptional.

And per usual, it was so nice to have Frank and Grace at a dinner, they are continually so generous in their ordering, I know they always share a larger portion of what they order with the table than they actually consume, and often insist you have the first bite.IMG_1651 Case in point, Frank’s Ahi Carpaccio – with Astleventrano olive vinaigrette, lemon and chives. I know for sure Frank tasted this dish after he had offered it to all takers at the table, and having had one of the first delicious bites, I must say it was really wonderful, and if I was him, I would have kept it all to myself. The “sauce” was really perfect for the raw tuna.

A Grace generosity, ordering the large size serving of Oysters – served with champagne and fennel mignonette. IMG_1653 When it came down to it, I guess Grace and I were the only raw oyster fans at the table this evening, so I think we did a splitsee on this serving of six briny nuggets from the sea, which were very petite and good quality. Sadly, it wasn’t until I started typing this up that I thought about the fact that I really should have pitched in half on the oysters, as I swallowed half of them.

Heidi, besides the olives, also had a special starter of the evening, which I’m just now remembering was a creamy sort of soup, I want to say potato, but it might have been something more like cauliflower. Whatever the flavor, Heidi was kicking herself the rest of the evening, the soup was so hearty, it left her a very limited appetite for her main dish to come, and she felt like she had to roll out to the car to head home.

My starter, decided in advance, was the French Onion Soup Gratinee – with gruyere cheese and baguette. Probably another rather bone-headed starter, as the weather had been in the 90s all day, so not the most appropriate external heat level for going belly-up to a big, rich, cheezy bowl of soup right before a big, honkin’ entree, but as a natural glutton, I somehow made it through (oh, and don’t forget that dessert.) On a scale of 1-10, I would probably give this French Onion an 8, nice and rich (there’s nothing worse than a lame flavored French Onion Soup) but perhaps a tad too cheese laden to eat comfortably in public. Julian had this too, but as always, I missed his comments, Glenda was probably bellowing at the table again.

There must have been a children’s menu lurking somewhere, as Antigone and Helena ended up with food I didn’t see on the regular menu, “macaroni and cheese” and “Spaghetti” (both designer versions.) . IMG_1655Anyway, one of the girl’s, seemingly taking after her ordering dynamo mother, had quite a lot of food (although you were exceedingly restrained this evening, Grace, only one dessert to taste) while the other had only one major item besides some fries, and no dessert even. Helena was really socking the food away, with one of the pasta dishes, 1/2 a burger, and a huge sundae for dessert (okay, maybe Grace did have a bite of that.) Antigone only had fries and pasta, though, maybe she got prematurely full looking at food on her iPhone.

Julian’s been on a hamburger eating jag lately (could it be that additional $9000 on the home remodel?) so of course he had the Painted Hills Hamburger – with pancetta, “Bravo Creamery” cheddar, charred onions, and tomato jam.IMG_1658 He seems to have enjoyed most of the burgers he’s had over the last few months, although he continually has them cooked to a too hard and tough for E Coli to exist doneness (wuss) and even though none of the burgers have had any of those special touches I’ve been reading about lately, foie grass on top, surrounded by Voodoo Donuts or grilled cheese sandwiches or wrapped between two pieces of fried chicken. But where is the pizza with hamburger injected into the crust, or the hamburger topped with a pizza slice? I mean, if you have to peddle disgusting food, why not go ALL out?

Heidi and Grace both had the same entree, the Seared Halibut  with grilled romaine, speck, moroccan olives and tomato vinaigrette with herb pistou.IMG_1657 Both seemed to enjoy it, and both said they thought Allium was a first class restaurant. Frank, in his usual Frank way, was on the fence in his opinion, not helped when he tasted Grace’s entree and proclaimed that the romaine seemed improperly washed (Grace explained that was probably the grilling, not soil or other filth.)

Frank himself had the Seafood Paella, with saffron infused rice, prawns, clams, mussels, squid and chorizo. It looked like a nice serving of various seafoods and rice, and Frank’s opinion was that it was “okay.”IMG_1660 (Hey, that’s pretty enthusiastic for Frank.) I think perhaps our old dining friend Frank (one of my original members) has perhaps spent too much time (if such a thing is possible) eating out in San Francisco, and is “seafood spoiled” for every normal place.

Glenda was originally thinking of having that heftily priced Beef Rib Eye, but changed her mind when confronted with one of the specials, the Lamb Rib Eye with Cauliflower Florettes .IMG_1659 As this was one of the evening’s specials, I don’t have an online menu to look out for the official description, but the bed of cauliflower was in such small chucks, I originally thought it was gnocchi or some such pasta or potato, and had to ask Glenda what the white things were. Whatever the case, she loved every bite (and why would she not, with a chef d’Francaise?)

As for me, in an incredible change of pace, I had the beef, Painted Hills Flatiron Steak – with fries, heirloom beans, and trufflle-szechuan pepper butter to be exact. Like many people, this has been a bad year for expenses for me, expensive dog operations and chicken coops, so I have to economize at these dinners when I can, which sadly means spending no more than around $50 (that was around $30 just a couple years ago it seems.) So although it’s my favorite cut, no $34 Rib Eye for me this evening, especially as I had just spend $13 on a Flock Block a couple of hours before, and these things add up. To be honest, though, it seems like sometimes when I order the rib eye, always one of the most expensive options, it tends to be rather plain, perhaps because restaurants want to let the richly flavored beef do the talking. So I don’t mind the occasional cheaper cut of beef, as they often have a more interesting sauce to liven them up a bit.

In this case I was a bit skeptical, as I don’t think I had ever seen a flatiron steak served as a hunk, it’s always sliced up, because with the less expensive cuts of beef, the secret to tenderness is all how you slice them. And traditionally, steaks like flatiron and flank, you always have to slice them at an angle, which someone dining in a restaurant might not know how to do, or have the right knife to do properly. I must say my apprehension was totally misplaced in this instance, no matter how I whacked away (???) with the provided knife, the flatiron was totally tender, and is often the case, full of flavor.IMG_1656 The sauce was also nice. By this time I was a tad sick of the fries, however, no matter how good they were, and would have liked a different tater side dish, no matter if steak and frites are the BIG THING. One big complaint I did have, however, was with the heirloom beans. I admit I was raised in a house where the daylights was often cooked out of veggies, so I am more tolerant of that than many people. I also know how vegetables are supposed to be cooked, and this was not it. Although the trufflle-szechuan pepper butter  drizzled over the top of everything, including the beans, was really nice, and exceptionally flavorful, the beans were totally undercooked and verging on tough and stringy. Also, there is a distinctly different flavor between raw and cooked green beans, and these had a raw, just ripped from the vine taste. Fresh and poised is one thing, raw is another, unless you are standing outside eating them au natural (hopefully just the beans.)

Glenda, trying to be some sort of continental weirdo this evening, decided she wanted her salad after her main course, but before her dessert. So after her wracked lamb, out came her Butter Lettuce Salad with hearts of palm, toasted pepitas, cane syrup and mimolette cheese.IMG_1661 Sometimes when eating at home, your salad ends up as part of your main meal, and I certainly never like it as much, too many options to be eating at the same time. That’s why I personally prefer a salad before my main course, I savor it more, and I’m usually pretty hungry and so that increases the enjoyably. After a big heavy entree, forget it, why bother, I’m not as hungry and my general feeling would be, why even spend the money if I don’t need to? I have to hand it to “our gal Glenda” though, she ate her entree, she ate the salad (with many scary umm noises to boot) and she ever wiped out a relatively heavy dessert. She seems to have a hollow leg. I wonder if she got that from Liz?

As for those more standard, less lettuce oriented desserts, none of them seemed French in the least. As mentioned previously, the more voracious of the youngun’s feasted on a nice looking Sundae – vanilla and chocolate-peanut butter ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce, and peanut brittle. IMG_1662 Wow, that sounds good. Too bad Farrell’s is long gone, I could host a dinner there! We could all share the Portland Zoo, and have plastic animals to take home too!

Grace had something that was either Creme Caramel, or Panna Cotta. I think it was panna cotta, (the posted menu only mentions creme caramel.) and involved fruit on top (wrong end of the table situation, but I know I have a photo somewhere.) Glenda, straggling behind a bit after the “salad situation” had bread pudding, at least according to the on-line menu: Espresso Bread Pudding – toffee, chocolate, and Julie’s organic vanilla ice cream.IMG_1663 I know when I asked Glenda what kind of bread pudding it was, she said “just plain” she thought, which doesn’r sound like espresso, toffee and chocolate, but the bread pudding had a really strong aroma, so it might have been espresso. Whatever the case, Glenda enjoyed it, despite her palate being lettuce distorted (palate cleanser, indeed.)

Although originally I wasn’t too sure about it, the Banana Chocolate Tart, with chocolate mousse, banana, ganache and streusel was actually quite good, a bit extra sweet and small, but with a nice assortment of textures and tastes going for it. I seem to remember not too expensive either, always a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I mentioned later to Glenda that although the restaurant in many ways was a Fenouil offshoot, it didn’t strike me as overly French, but she begged to differ, thinking the food was similar to what you would find in many French Bistros. IMG_1665America certainly has many restaurants that aren’t “American Food” though, so it seems to me that many French Bistros might just serve food, not necessarily “French Food.” I did get the admission out of Glenda, however, that the desserts were not French inspired in the least. (With Glenda you have to gather and save those points when you can, especially in regard to anything French.)

Whether the food was French, or Northwest, or just Bistro in general (I don’t think French Fries and French Onion Soup denote a French restaurant myself) there were several enthusiastic opinions expressed toward Allium this evening (the reasonable prices certainly didn’t hurt the matter.) Glenda loved it, Heidi said it was very good, and Grace seemed very positively influenced as well. That Julian, I almost never hear his opinions on the food, he’s just an easy going food guy (as long as there is no WEIRD CHEESE involved) and good old Frank, he’s just Frank.

As for me, I thought it was good enough. I don’t know why I wasn’t as ebullient as the others, sometimes getting lost and being late throws me off-kilter all evening, and I also had a splitting headache in the beginning, which didn’t help at all, either. My steak was certainly tasty, and the onion soup fine. The menu seemed a tad simple to me, however, I think I’m getting spoiled by some of the innovative places we have in our environs, perhaps well-prepared, decent food doesn’t necessarily ring the bell for me these days. Certainly the menu at Soluna Grill was much more interesting, as was Lolo, and of course, Ciao Vito has the wonderful ethnic flair. Earlier in my life, I worked for five years in Lake Oswego, and I learned that people who live around there don’t tend to embrace places that are too eclectic, cutting edge, or especially, expensive (or if they do, they just come to Portland) so perhaps Allium is playing it safe in its formative days (it’s only been open 2-3 months.) Whatever the case, I wish them well, modestly priced quality food should never be taken for granted. I just wish West Linn had not floated farther South down that old Willamette than where it should have been, and if I do return, I hope it doesn’t try that trick again.

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