The Dining Report – Irving Street Kitchen

Wacky Lighting Fixtures, An Annoying Dining Area, and the Delicious Missing Lamb

Sometimes, when summer starts to wane, so does my poor old brain. I have a terrible time being inside tapping away at my keyboard, knowing that soon those toasty summer days I live for are becoming shorter, and cooler, and soon I will be, literally, huddled around my space heater trying to type circulation back into my freezing fingers.IMG_1743 Almost every substantial vacation I have taken in my life has been to a warm climate, Mexico, the Caribbean, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France (all in late summer months) I seek sun and warmth and light whenever possible, and when they are no longer available, I basically want to shrivel up (or in my case shiver up) and die. So when the weather is nice, I’m almost always outside, whenever possible, not pasted in front of my computer plunking out those pithy (or marginally pithy) comments on our latest dinner, no matter how successful or enjoyable our last dinner might have been. So excuse me if this particular dinner report comes across as extra lame, but summer is dying, and so is a large section of my heart (luckily most of my brain went years ago.)

Impressions from our evening …

ATTENDEES – Summer and around Christmas are always the worst times to corral bodies, so anytime I have more than 2-3 peeps during those time frames, I’m ecstatic. This dinner was seven, so, SCORE! Also, two new people, former Chicagoans Bethany (hospital administrator) and Bill (freelance advertising thinker) soon to be married on October 23rd. IMG_1725They had some funny stories to tell about how they found each other, basically the night before Bill was moving to Portland, and Bethany eventually came along too after she became obsessed with running in Forest Park during a visit, and had to have it for her own (Bill too, I guess.) Also at this dinner, probably my longest running active member at this time (where are you, Michael?) Jody, and it’s always fun to catch up with her and see what’s been going on in the months since we’ve seen her (this time, much paddling.)

ATMOSPHERE – As many people know, Irving Street Kitchen slid into that cavernous space where Bay 13 floundered (seafood, Floundered, get it?) for its relatively brief time in business, and from what I’ve heard about Bay 13, that was the most talked about fact, gigantic space, tiny patronage. So already ISK has a leg-up there, because at least on this Friday evening, the place was full, both inside and out. To make the space seem more intimate, ISK has partitioned off the room with panels, curtains, and weird Wild West/barn-like booths, creating several different atmospheres in one large room, all featuring decor that would be best described as funky or eclectic.

All the light fixtures looked to be re-purposed from a previous existence as something else (most noticeable, glass milk bottles painted white) and it’s hard not to find the place “interesting” to look at. I’ve read comments that some people think there is too much going on inside ISK, that the different areas don’t seem to create a harmonious package, but if you’ve got a gigantic space to work with, and don’t want the area to look like an aircraft hanger, maybe breaking it up into dissonant little areas is the way to go.

As a general rule I liked the “feel” of ISK, there’s nothing wrong as far as i’m concerned with adding a bit of fun to a restaurant space that has its origins in Southern Cuisine, maybe the main issue is having a restaurant in the Pearl that combines elements like a somewhat sophisticated bar with wines on tap flowing just like beer, lighting fixtures made of what some people would consider discards, and private eating areas that look like they came from a rodeo arena. IMG_1732 Also, tres’ tacky, the mason jars used as wine decanters, the original Delta Cafe was doing this years ago with their cocktails, and it was silly then. As anyone who knows my line of work, I’m all for recycling, but these are supposedly fine wines and this is The Pearl for god’s sake, could you see Metrovino serving their wine our of a canning jar?

One thing I wasn’t thrilled about when it came to the physicality’s of ISK, the large square “table” where you check in for your reservation, to me it just seemed like a big long counter where lots of employees were milling around, and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go or who I was supposed to see about our table. To me it came across as disorganized and haphazard. Also, although in theory it was nice that our group had a curtained off dining space and a big round table to ourselves, the acoustics were quite bad, and as we had our own private speakers blaring bad rock and New Orleans favorites, the music came across as way too loud and hindered a certain amount  of conversation.

THE SERVICE – For some reason, I wasn’t exactly enamored by the people at the front desk, square table thingee at Irving Street, they didn’t make me feel that welcome and it took quite awhile to get our table ready. although they did all come across as sincere in their Thank Yous as we were leaving. IMG_1727They just didn’t seem that Portland though, perhaps more like San Francisco transported by Alien Mother Ship. The waiter, Vladimir (I think he said he was from Estonia when prodded) was very good, however, friendly, attractive, warm and sincere, an all around good waiter, except for a faux pas, insisting the lamb was the best thing on the menu (David soon pointed out to Vlad that there was no lamb on the menu. Whoopsie.)

Despite Vlad being a cut above, things really started to slow down food and service wise after we ordered. It took a long time to get any food, then a really long time between starters and main plates, and while dessert wasn’t too slow in coming, it took forever to get the check, pay, and get out of ISK once we were finished. IMG_1728This probably should not have been the case, as we were offered separate checks, which traditionally makes things faster without my tiny brain trying to count everyone’s money, factor in credit card payments, the difference between the tips that are already there and the ones added later, how much the tip should be or if it’s already included, and if everyone has paid enough or if we have over-paid. They seemed to be collecting one cash payment and one credit card payment at a time, which took a really long time, and this was eventhough there were only five of us, as Bethany and Bill had had to leave before dessert. As those Southerns would say, everything seemed to go as slow as molasses on this evening.

– I suppose I was a bit disappointed, as I just love Southern Food, and I thought, wow, what could be better than high class Pearl District Southern Food? IMG_1726The menu came across as more diluted South, though, or Southern via San Francisco (ISK is owned by a restaurant company based in S.F., and the chef was pulled from San Francisco) or Northwest/Southern, not at all died-in-the-wool Southern. About a third of the starters seemed influenced by the food down south, things like Gumbo, Johnston County Ham and Buttermilk Biscuits, and BBQ Shrimp, but I don’t really associate Meatballs with Mashed Potatoes, Herb Roasted Bone Marrow, or Gravlax as coming from anywhere near the Mason-Dixon line. The same case with entrees, sure Fried Chicken is plenty Southern, but Summer Vegetable Gratin with Moroccan Heirloom Tomato Sauce, Pan Roasted Halibut with Summer Truffle Cream, or Cacciucco Mediterranean Seafood Stew, those are typical of many Northwest style restaurants, and have more European touches than Southern touches. Sure, Southern accents are thrown in to liven up many dishes, Grafton-Cheddar Crispy Grits, Chive Drop Biscuits, Collard Greens, but items like Madras Curry and Ras el Hanout hardly scream Deep South.

I guess if you look at Irving Street Kitchen’s website it classifies itself as “New American cooking with Southern overtones”, not as a Southern eatery, so perhaps part of the problem is that it’s relatively new and been misclassified by outsiders, but from past P.Town history I would say these food fusion places often don’t do that well here for very long, if you try to please everyone, you often end up satisfying almost no one. IMG_1731Too many types of food at one restaurant, people get suspicious, thinking perhaps you might not do anything overly well, or at least can’t figure out what you do overly well.

Marinated Olives
Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo
Meatballs, Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes, Sauce Au Poivre
“Angels on Horseback” Bacon Wrapped Oysters, Remoulade Sauce
Bibb Lettuce, Rogue Blue Cheese Dressing, Braeburn Apple, Radish
BBQ Shrimp, Worchestershire Sauce, Chive Drop Biscuit
Pan Roasted Halibut, White Corn, Mascarpone, Chanterelles, Summer Truffle Cream
“Cacciucco” Mediterranean Seafood Stew, Mussels, Clams, Saffron Lobster Broth
Draper Valley Fried Chicken, Smashed Potatoes, Collard Greens, Country Gravy
Blackened Bistro steak, Grafton-Cheddar Crispy Grits, Garlic Brown Butter
Nectarine, Apricot, and Blueberry Cobbler, Cream Cheese Pastry, Almond Krokant
Butterscotch Pudding, Brown Ale Caramel, Creme Fraiche, Caramel Corn with Curried Peanuts
Brown Butter Pound Cake, House Made Ricotta Buttercream, Warm Peaches and Raspberry Compote

The Best Things –

Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo (Not especially spicy buth rich and full flavored.)
Bibb Lettuce, Rogue Blue Cheese Dressing, Braeburn Apple, Radish (so much Blue Cheese!!! Big and delicious !!!)
Draper Valley Fried Chicken, Smashed Potatoes, Country Gravy (Excellent Fried Chicken, Terrible Collard Greens.)
Butterscotch Pudding, Brown Ale Caramel, Creme Fraiche, Caramel Corn with Curried Peanuts (We all tried some of this and thought it really delicious, and over the top decadent. Little cone of Caramel Corn cute but unnecessary.)

The Worst Things –
Collard Greens – (Salt Lick Extrodinaire, super yucky!)

So-So Things –
“Cacciucco” Mediterranean Seafood Stew, Mussels, Clams, Saffron Lobster Broth (pretty blah and lacking zing!)
Pan Roasted Halibut, White Corn, Mascarpone, Chanterelles, Summer Truffle Cream (Also pretty blah and lacking zing)
Grafton-Cheddar Crispy Grits (Looked like square fish sticks, tasted like melted mozzarella sticks.)

Not Bad, But I Wouldn’t Make An Effort To Come Back For It Things –
Meatballs, Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes, Sauce Au Poivre
“Angels on Horseback” Bacon Wrapped Oysters, Remoulade Sauce (came with rock salt, I thought it was rice and tried to eat it.)
BBQ Shrimp, Worchestershire Sauce, Chive Drop Biscuit (tastes allot like the gumbo.)
Blackened Bistro Steak,  Garlic Brown Butter (Nice, really charred flavor, but dense, rather chewy cut. Sauce without highlights.)
Nectarine, Apricot, and Blueberry Cobbler, Cream Cheese Pastry, Almond Krokant (Julian seemed to enjoy it.)
Brown Butter Pound Cake, House Made Ricotta Buttercream, Warm Peaches and Raspberry Compote (okay, not great.)

– Okay, but not great. Perhaps too unfocused, as everyone had heard and read that Irving Street was a Southern Restaurant, then it turned out it was more Northwest with Southern flourishes.IMG_1729 Some of the really good preparations like the fried chicken were nearly ruined because they were perched on top of the saltiest collard greens ever, and average entrees like the bistro steak were hardly improved by side dishes like those cheddar grits that were very close to fried cheese sticks. The butterscotch pudding, so far ISK’s signature item, was really good, but does anyone need a mini paper cone of sugar coated popcorn as a side for their already excessively decadent pudding?

I like fun and funky, but it’s not hard to imagine some people being antagonized by decor featuring milk bottles and the contrast of a lovely sleek bar and booths from the O.K. Corral. Also, if you are sitting where we sat, it’s a really long trek either in a very wide arc or weaving between tables to get to the bathrooms, which incidentily have weird grafittied sex-designations, I guess denoting “cool, urban restaurant.”

Sadly, I suppose, one downfall of Restaurant Roulette dinners has always been that they can be rather long, especially with the bigger groups, 2.5 – 3 hours is not that unusual, with the multiple drinks, starters, entrees, desserts, paying etc. Irving Street Kitchen seemed to prolong the agony, however, everything took so long, which should not happen with a group of seven people.IMG_1741 I know it’s a big, busy place, but wouldn’t such an establishment correspondingly have a big kitchen and adequate wait staff to handle this after 2-3 months in business,especially when they appeared to be doing relatively well? Also, shouldn’t the waiters be informed of menu changes before their shift?

This ended up being another of those dinners where the majority in our group said ISK was okay, but that they probably had no interest in going back.IMG_1742 I suppose I share this opinion, as the inspiring factor that drew me to check-out ISK for our dinner was the Southern Cuisine, and since so little of this was available on the menu we experienced, there wasn’t enough to make me want to come back to perhaps trying something else that I might find wonderful. Sure, I love good desserts, but not enough to spend over $50 getting to them.

Someone at our table predicted Irving Street Kitchen would only last about a year, but I don’t know if I agree with that. Even Manzana Grill eaked out two or three years, and there are plenty of places in The Pearl that do just fine with so-so food, Paragon and PF Chang’s being a couple who spring to mind. And while the space might seemed cursed because of the Bay 13 failure, it’s hardly in leagues with the other doomed spaces in the neighborhood,  like that cavern where Olea was for a couple of years (and that was a really decent restaurant) or the Manzana Grill space, or where Cobras and Matadors and The District were. Now those are buildings of DOOM. Of course, a gigantic place like Irving Street Kitchen, you probably have to have a lot of success to keep it afloat. So we’ll see. From everything I’ve read, the chef, Sarah Schafer, seems like a hard working individual with lots of ideas and plans for her restaurant, so let’s hope she can set it on the right course. The BBQ Brunch lunches sound like a good and tasty addition to the neighborhood. Also, the bar is really attractive, and would appear to have all the makings for a really fun happy hour.People have been panning Oba! for about five years now, and it’s still standing strong, so who can ever predict what will go on in that ol’ P. D.