THE DINING REPORT – SOUTHPARK

Less Disgusting Than The TV Show, and Lasts A Lot Longer

Southpark, remember that place? (The restaurant, not the off-color TV show.) IMG_1713Well, I didn’t. I thought of it several summers ago, when I was compiling the original list of places I thought my new dining group should go to, but so many places opened after that, and Portland became a “dining destination”, and low and behold, I forgot about downtown stalwart Southpark (which I believe was originally billed as a mediterranean seafood restaurant.) Back when it opened, 10 years ago, 12 years ago, it was one of Portland’s nicer places, an attractive big space with “edgier” cooking than places like Jake’s or the now gone McCormick and Schmicks.

As most of the interesting dining locations are on the eastside now, except for a smattering in the Pearl and NW, I wasn’t sure how Southpark was doing these days, as I rarely go downtown, and you never read anything about it in the food publications. IMG_1708It does have a locational advantage over many eateries though, upscale dining really close to the Schnitz, so I figured it was still doing okay, at least as far as a special occasion customer base. I was actually relatively amazed when I got there on this fine summer Friday to see how well Southpark was doing, really, really busy, especially as it was entertaining a booming outdoor business. This fact came to haunt our evening, however, big restaurant, many full tables, 2/3rd the necessary staffing, many having to continually run outside to wait on al fresco patrons.

I’d forgotten how nice Southpark was in a very traditional downtown way, and they’ve kept it up well even without a hotel involved (many of the more refined downtown eating places are situated in “good” hotels.) Heidi commented on how big it is, and I suppose one thing I find interesting is that both times I have been there I have made reservations far in advance, and both times I have ended up at tables jammed back by the wine bar (incidentally, the separate little wine bar is probably a nicer location for a meal then being in the main restaurant “back by the wine bar.”) The whole place still has good downtown eatery atmosphere though, even if you are shoved towards the back.

Our quaint friend Glenda had R.S.V.P.ed with a relatively limp yes, because while she always enjoys dining with our group, as a downtown cultural maven, she was sure she had eaten at Southpark over 20 times, and it was never a favorite of hers, more of a convenience due to location (but what about that McDonalds down the street, Glenda?) IMG_1722Because she had said she was coming, however, we were somewhat worried when she had not shown up by about 7:30 (the dinner was at 7:00.) That was really all my fault though, having selected a restaurant with the word Park in the name, she had decided she would meet us at her much preferred Park Kitchen (much more expensive, too.) Luckily, I suppose, we live in this dazzling electronic age, so Glenda was able to borrow a computer at PK, get on her web mail, and find out where she was really supposed to be. This was just not Glenda’s day, earlier she was subjected to a CAT Scan, and they didn’t even find any cats, except for that new tattoo on her calf.

We had a medium sized group of regulars this time out (my sustainers) which pleased me to all get out (is that how that weird phrase goes) as summer is usually such a lame time for group dining, last summer at this time it was only Glenda and I at Nel Centro, and the summer before Tori, Dave, Glenda and I had spent a tiny evening at Giorgios, one of the few summer dinners at all that year. So a group of six was a jackpot as far as I was concerned. Also, our old bud David was rejoining us after many missed connections with the last few dinners (he’s a social dynamo these days) but sadly he had damaged his right wing recently, and was in loads of discomfort throughout our evening, and was having to back out of his milk carton boating expedition the next day, as he had no way of hanging on. Also, unfortunately, Southpark had run out of Oxycontin earlier in the evening (too many socialites I guess) the one thing he had really wanted to order. Luckily they did have a couple of Rusty Nails in stock though.

As for the rest of our cocktails, naturally Heidi and Glenda had some nice glasses of wine, Liz had a cocktail that looked a lot like mine, but wasn’t, and I had a drink I didn’t like at all, another of those cucumber and vodka concoctions, this one ruined by the addition of Proseco (I just don’t like fizzy liquor, especially wine.)IMG_1709 Julian had obviously experienced a rough week, as he had Jack Daniels instead of his customary Diet Coke (I’ve never seen this man touch the hard stuff in the 10 months since he and Heidi thankfully joined our entourage.)

When I was contemplating whether Southpark should be our next dinner, and had viewed the online menu, I noticed the selection was pretty by the book, nothing really dazzling, and everything relatively 8 years ago. There is nothing wrong with those standards though, especially when you do them well. The starters and salads seemed particularly old fashioned in these Beaker and Flask, New Castagna, Toro Bravo days, Raw Oysters, Calamari, Crab Cakes, Mussels, Caesar Salad, nothing that made me think, wow, this sounds interesting, I think I’ll try it.

Glenda was in one of her bread grasping days (one out of 10-20 dinners) so luckily they brought a plate of bread (I think it was rosemary and olive??) and a tiny pitcher of olive oil before too long. IMG_1714We are hearty eaters, however, and one plate of bread doesn’t last long in our midst, and it took forever for the second requested plate of bread to come (not a sign of stinginess by SP, just a sign of overwhelmed servers.) Sadly, even wrangling a server to request more bread took at least 15 minutes, so it became pretty clear this was going to become one of those really LOOONG evenings, duration wise.

Sort of like having a separate bar menu, Southpark has a separate Wine Bar menu, and since we were seated in that vicinity, we saw several of those items passing by. As previously mentioned before, Heidi loves olives, but none were available on the dinner menu. For $4.50 you could get some from the wine bar, however, so Heidi went that route with the House Marinated Olives. She also saw a serving of the Brick Oven Flatbread with Olive Oil, Sea Salt, Hummus, and Tzatziki, so she and Julian shared this as a starter. href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/52953462@N04/4883707879/” title=”IMG_1712 by Foodie Photoer, on Flickr”>IMG_1712Obviously she was braver than me, because although well made hummus can be so yummy, I always find that if I start a meal with hummus and some hearty bread, I don’t want too much of the food that comes after it, it’s so filling.

Liz had a starter I’ve seen quite a lot of around town recently, ever since Toro Bravo seemed to put it in the Portland mainstream with it’s delicious version, stuffed dates. (I thought I better throw that in there, as D.D. said I rarely do a review without mentioning Toro Bravo.) This version was Dates with Marcona Almonds and Jamon Serrano. I could tell Liz really enjoyed it, as she did her little, somewhat stationary “I Love This Food Dance.”

No dancing was involved and no food was enjoyed when it came to the Caesar Salad with Romaine Hearts, Garlic, and Croutons. As it was pretty expensive at $9.00, I had hoped it would be outstanding, but I must say, instead of outstanding it was downright lousy. IMG_1715David and I both agreed on this fact, it was basically a flavorless pile of mushy lettuce, probably the worst Caesar Salad I’ve ever had. It’s pretty obvious the secret to a good Caesar salad is zestiness, why can’t people understand you need to put a good amount of garlic, lemon, and at least some anchovies in there?

As Southpark has always been known as a seafood restaurant, most people were sharp enough to get on the bandwagon and order seafood, but one loser went a different way (I refuse to incriminate myself!!!)

David seems to like dishes with mixed assortments of shellfish and non-shellfish, so he selected the Paella with Prawns, Clams, Mussels, Chicken and Chorizo. IMG_1719When he asked the waitress about it, she said it was very good, one of their most popular items, but not spicy, which should have probably been a warning sign for David, he of the happily inflamed tongue. He found it a major disappointment, very flat and as flavorless as a big plate of fish and mussels can be. Poor David, this was not his evening, a bad flipper and the least enjoyable food at the table. Especially a letdown I’m sure after missing so many good dinners over the last few months.

Liz also had a mixed seafood dish, the Bouillabaisse, which was described on the menu as: Fresh Fish, Clams and Mussels. Not mentioned in this description, Shrimp, which Liz is completely allergic to. Perhaps SP assumed that a major reason someone would not order a dish with shellfish was that they had a dietary restriction again it, so it was okay to just mention some of the shellfish, or maybe it was just an oversight, but whatever the issue, Liz could not eat it. The busboy rather glumly took it back to the kitchen to find out if they could whip up a batch without the shrimp, but as shrimp was also part of the base, this was impossible. When the waitress brought back the menu for Liz to select something else, I got somewhat of a you should have been more careful ordering sort of vibe, but once it was pointed out that shrimp was not listed, the waitress seemed more helpful eager to please.

One interesting thing on Southpark’s menu these days is the Farmer’s Connection, described as Today’s fresh fish paired with the best from our local farmers. I don’t know if this is always the case, but on this evening there were actually four fish featured on the Farmer’s Special, only two of which I can now remember, Escolar and Steelhead.IMG_1721 I originally wanted the Steelhead (who wouldn’t, after my great experience at C!) but sadly wasn’t too enthused about the Farmer’s Connection pairing, which I think was chickpeas and some sort of greenery (I really need to review my photos before I write these things!) Glenda had the Steelhead and enjoyed everything on her plate, actually proclaiming this probably her finest meal ever at Southpark (and after her pseudo-badmouthing.)

Although he didn’t really know what it was before the waitress described it, as I don’t think we see it that often in these here parts, I think he was somewhat wooed by the exotic name, so Julian went for the Farmer’s Connection with the Escolar. Listening to the waitress’ description of Escolar as a firm white fish, I probably would have avoided it at all costs, as I still have nightmares about this really dried out, firm white fish I had at a Pousada in Portugal over 10 years ago, which I believe was a Sea Bream, and totally nasty. Some people do like firm white fish, however, and Julian was very happy with the Escolar, as was Heidi when she tasted it. Because of his enthusiasm, Liz decided she would give this a whirl as her replacement entree, and was extremely happy.IMG_1717 Also, bonus points to Southpark for getting this second order cooked so fast for her, we were worried that she would be left in the dust while we were eating (despite sharing some tastes with her) but I don’t think I was even a third through my entree when her new food arrived.

Heidi, for a change having so many seafood items to select from, was someone torn, but perhaps like me wanted different side dishes (especially as she had already had chickpeas) than on the Farmer’s Connection, so went for something from the regular menu, the Alaskan Halibut with Gnocchi, Squash, and Corn Puree. IMG_1718Heidi had mentioned previously that over the years she had walked by Southpark hundreds of times, but for some reason had never been tempted to try it, perhaps because from the outside it looked rather stuffy or too expensive. It seems like on this evening she was our most enthusiastic diner, she liked the atmosphere, the wine bar, the menu items, and most of all, her entree, which she found delicious. As far as prices, she was also happy, because while Southpark is certainly in no way cheap, it is still moderate for a good quality, downtown seafood restaurant.

As previously mentioned, I really had planned on having some sort of fish, but none of the accompaniments appealed to me, especially on the specials. I had thought of having the Pork Tenderloin, but it had a fruit sauce that didn’t sound like something I would fully enjoy. I thought of the butternut squash ravioli, but that was so like, 6 years ago man, and more fall or wintery. Of course that left, surprise, surprise, beef. David had asked me if I was going to have the rib eye, and I had said no, it was too expensive at $28, but still I kept thinking of it, as I was really hungry, and the sides sounded good with beef.IMG_1716And naturally I kept rationalizing in my mind, well why not spend $5 more for something you might really enjoy rather than $5 less for something you might only moderately like.
I must say, the Carlton Farms Ribeye with Potato Puree, Green Beans and Red Wine Demi was really good. The beef was perfectly rare, had a delicious medium char flavor, wasn’t too tendon-oriented or fatty, and the wine demi-glace was reduced just the way I like it, thicker, gravy-like, with no lingering cheap wine flavor. Also very good was the potato puree, lurking under the meat and sucking up those juices, and while the beans were certainly better than those practically raw ones at Allium, they still could have used a few more swishes around the pan (what can I say, Julian likes extra cooking of his meat, and I like extra cooking of my green beans.) Sure, it was more money than I like to be spending, but for a simple plate of food, quite delicious and completely competently prepared.

I should probably state once again that although people generally liked the waitress and found her very informative in the beginning of the dinner (we were very inquisitive this evening) everyone started to get a bit frustrated towards the end of the meal, as it was taking so long for service. No one blamed the waitress in particular, because it was obvious Southpark was understaffed this evening, but she did have a great talent for avoiding a waving hand, at one point Glenda practically looked like she was trying to flag down that passing rescue ship, all to no avail (it used to be in the old days Glenda could signal people with her hair.)

I guess it did not help that a couple of us still wanted dessert, and to be honest, I don’t even know why this was the case for me, as nothing looked overly inviting. I knew Glenda would want dessert, however, and I didn’t want her to be too self-conscious if she was the only one (yeah, that sounds like a nobel excuse for eating dessert, I did it for Glenda!) Liz, who usually does have dessert, had much more willpower than me, also remarking on the rather lame dessert selection, so no dessert for her. I also decided on a dessert that they said took about 7 minutes to bake in the oven, prolonging everyone’s torture, but is 7 minutes really even long enough to bother mentioning (maybe if you were in a hurry to get to an opening curtain.)
My dessert really wasn’t something I would even think of ordering usually, the Bittersweet Chocolate Crostata Chocolate Ganache, Pâte Sucre Crust, and Amaretto Gelato. This is one of those instances were you order something, and you’re not totally certain what it is, but you figure someone will like the chocolate part and eat it. It turns out the crostata was a little folded pastry square baked until the really dark chocolate inside collapses.IMG_1723 As someone that is not an intense dark chocolate o’ holic, I probably would not order it again, it was pretty simple, just freshly baked pastry with a big lump of very dark chocolate melted in the center, and some ice cream on the side that tasted more like vanilla to me (which was fine, as Amaretto is what I consider an often dubious addition to most items.) Others at the table thought it was really yummy though, so I think it was basically my lack of appreciation for simple dark chocolate that gave it a ho hum factor for me.
I knew early in the evening that Glenda was going to have dessert, as she had mentioned that Southpark had one of her favorites, the Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée  Traditional Custard with Burnt Sugar Crust, one of the best versions she’s ever eaten of this old standard. I suppose I could have tried this out, I like a good creme brulee on occasion, but in past discussions of Creme Brulees and the like, I have mentioned that I prefer mine really creamy, and Glenda prefers hers more eggy and elasticized, so I thought I might not like this version if Glenda gave it such high marks. Creamy, NOT eggy please!!
I can’t really give this dinner a total thumbs up, because the slow service bugged all of us and David was completely disappointed with all his food. Surprisingly though, the most lukewarm of us before the dinner, Glenda, loved every bite she ate. Also quite enthusiastic were Heidi, Julian, and Liz, despite the shrimp snafu (not listing major ingredients is a serious issue.) As for me, hated the salad, loved the entree. It was also nice to eat in a classy but not glitzy atmosphere for a change, as much as I like offbeat, quirky, trendy or cozy, now and then it’s good to go to a place that is just plain “nice” in a traditional, go out to dinner downtown sort of way. And for some reason, it was even pretty easy to park right in the heart of downtown, on a Friday, right before 7:00 pm on a beautiful summer evening. Perhaps not the best economic sign. Southpark appeared to be doing pretty well at least, I hope they continue long enough to hire a few more wait people for some of their busier shifts.

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