THE DINING REPORT – NOSTRANA

Thank Goodness For Seeing Eye People

First of all, a little comment (to be followed by thousands of other little comments, no doubt.)

IMG_1785When I was posting the previous review for Irving Street Kitchen on this blog, I hadn’t even finished (the words post first, and then the pictures go in) and some girl/woman was sending me negative comments on the fact that I had mentioned that the waiter at Irving Street Kitchen had highly recommended an item that wasn’t even on the menu. Blah, blah, blah, it’s all water under the bridge. I think what really irked me was that she described me as an amateur blogger and made it sound like all I did was sit in front of my keyboard all the time trying to inflict hurt and make other people’s lives miserable.

Oh Contraire, Missy, the challenge of writing this blog for me, at times, is similar to the notion of draining one’s body of all one’s blood, one tiny pin prick at a time, you squeeze and squeeze and squeeze, and most of the time, only the smallest amount dribbles out. Although many writers love blogging, and I congratulate them on their constant creativity and willingness to put forth this continual effort, I am not one of these people, and the task of documenting the dinners is no less than monumental at many times (like this one.) IMG_1803The dinners are almost always good though, and some of the restaurants actually like being written about, (okay, NOT THAT ONE) so I continue to try to get these sometimes weird and wacky (but equally often mundane and obtuse) reviews written. So what if it’s three weeks gone by now, and these are the first words I have typed on our evening at Nostrana.

Actually, this is a pretty sad situation, because our evening at Nostrana was a really good one, and deserves at least as much documentation, if not more, than some of those fair to middling dinners I have posted endless paragraphs about. Three weeks in and no still no flowing juices of inspiration, not a good sign.

This particular dinner started off in an especially grand way, as Glenda invited everyone who RSVPed yes over for a pre-dinner cocktail and to see her swinging bachelorette pad/art museum. IMG_1787This worked out great, as it was a lovely late summer evening, so we had our delightful little noshes, tasteful wine and cocktails (Aviation Gin, off course) and then strolled over to Nostrana, a couple of blocks away. As for Glenda’s abode, it’s much like Glenda, basically beyond description. Naturally there was a shrine to Obama, much modern art, some funkier creations, oldities, and also an adorable taxidermied chicken (I thought I would be appalled, but it was really sweet.) Without a doubt, a wonderful place for a cocktail gathering, if only we had had several hours to view Glenda’s collection, rather than the 45 minutes we could manage before this dinner.

As many people know, Nostrana is owned by one of Portland’s most famous chefs, Kathy Whims, one of the original people behind “Old Genoa” during its glory days. Kathy is always in the foodie news, joining in this famous chef cook-off, being up for that award (a James Beard runner-up`) everything you read about her and her restaurant is always highly positive.IMG_1781 That being said, all my previous experience with Nostrana was at lunch, a meal that seemingly can thwart almost any great restaurant (lunches are just never as good as dinners, no matter where you go.) The first lunch I had at Nostrana, in the very early days, was truly yummy, largely because we were given someone else’s food by accident, and it had sat too long at our table, so we got to keep it, for free. It was a fish I had never had before, Bossa, sauteed in butter, and it was delicious (and should I stress again, FREE!!!!)IMG_1786 The second lunch I had at Nostrana, also in those early days, was fine, just not outstanding. I’ve always found their menu a bit small (or modest, perhaps) so I guess that’s why I never thought that much about having a dinner there, eventhough everyone constantly raves about how they love Nostrana.

Largely because I wanted to drink Glenda’s liquor, the time seemed really ripe for a visit to Nostrana, so off we finally went. I must say the vibe at night is much different than at lunch. When you have lunch at Nostrana, it’s bright and airy, professional and woody, but not necessarily that homey. Nostrana at night has a great vibe though, it’s bustling, dark, loud, and packed to the gills with people who look like they are having a great time hanging out and eating some nice Italian inspired dishes. It’s hard not to emphasize loud, though, another open ceiling led to much shouting, missed conversation, and poor Glenda, with her Librarian voice, had to repeat many of her comments not directed at those right next to her. And while I would have enjoyed hearing more of the conversation around me (never that easy with a table for 10 anyway) I was most hindered by the darkness.

It’s true, when you are just hanging out at Nostrana eating, the light level seems fine for a restaurant at night. When you are on the verge of old lady eyeballs, however, and you are sitting in Nostrana trying to make out the tiny seraphy type on the menu, you might as well be in a blackened cave, the effect is about the same. This had to be my worst experience ever in a restaurant trying to read the menu, I virtually could not make out a thing, and consequently ordered the wrong entree because of it. Luckily I was saved for most of the evening, however, by sitting next to our youthful-eyed helper of all humanity, Liz (after all, she builds artificial limbs for children, for God’s sake!)IMG_1802 Liz patiently answered all of my “what’s that say? and what’s that say” questions, and at one point also functioned as my ears, when Glenda became lost in the Nostrana din and I thought it best if I actually knew what she was saying. So thank you Liz, I’m sorry I was so feeble bodied (or at least, feeble sensed.)

We actually started off this dinner with quite a lot of Kathy Whims face time, as she and Glenda are acquainted and she came over to welcome semi-regular Glenda and our group. Later I followed Kathy into the unisex cubicle (after she left, of course) and so now I feel I know her SO MUCH better, having sat where a great chef sat right before me. (OH NO, not one of those scary types of reviews!!)

Besides the fact that I couldn’t see anything or hear much, this seemed like a really successful dinner. Except for my continual grumbling about ordering the wrong entree (my budget said a $19 entree, but my tongue ordered a $30 entree) I don’t think I heard any complaints about any food items.IMG_1797No complaints about any of the food!! How often does this happen? Like never, practically. It seems like there is always something to nit-pick with someone’s food, but if there were complaints this evening, I certainly didn’t hear them.

Here’s some of the things we ate:

Scamorza Cheese – shitake mushrooms, bruschetta. (it seemed a bit steep at $9, but was loved.)

Insalata Nostrana – radicchio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, rosemary sage croutons, Caesar style dressing (this is one of Nostrana’s signature dishes, and has been from the beginning. It’s good, and big!)

Beet and Goat Cheese Salad – blood orange, arugula, pistachio

Proscuitto

Bruschetta with grilled tomatoes

Insalata Caprese – heirloom tomatoes, basil, house mozzarella, wild oregano, arugula

Insalata Mista – lettuces, crisp seasonal vegetables, virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar

One of the things Nostrana is known for is their wood burning oven pizza, and several people took advantage of this fact and had “Pizze” as their main course. The “pizze” at our table ranged from a plain Margherita (mozarella, tomatoes, basil) to a Diavola (spicy sausage, provolone, tomato, Mama Lil’s peppers) to something that Melissa and Barbara ordered, which was doused in a big pile of arugula. IMG_1799Thin crust wood burning oven pizza has always been one of my absolute favorites in the world of pizza, but for some reason, the time I had pizza at Nostrana, I think the crust was a bit chewier than I tend to like, and it was a hassle to deal with slicing up the uncut pie with the knife they used to give you for this purpose. Although I never read complaints about the texture of Nostrana’s crust, people have obviously struggled with cutting it over the years, as now they give everyone their own set of kitchen shears to handle the chore. IMG_1798Although it still sounds pretty messy, this is a pretty nifty concept, although it’s a tad on the weird side when everyone who ordered pizza is handed their own pair of scissors. On this night I heard no complaints about any of Nostrana’s Pizze, everyone said they were delicious, so either the crusts have gotten better (I like just a little firmness, and a little crispiness, and a little softness, and a lot of thiness) or I just don’t know what I’m talking about (okay, I admit I found the pizza I had in Venice pretty lacking too, and it was thin, but hard!!!)

Actually, as a boring side note – probably my all time favorite pizza crust – does anyone remember that kooky place that was around for quite a few years in the space on SW Park where Southpark is? (I think it was there.) It had some English man’s name, I think, your ordered at the counter, and it had a bunch of beers? Big, scary paintings of oddball people behind the counter? Whatever it was called, they had a wood burning oven, and wonderful pizza. Not the fanciest place, but great pizza, other decent food, and yummy desserts. WHAT WAS THAT PLACE CALLED?? Someone help me out here. I think it had Bistro in the name.

Okay, from here the rest of the food ordered gets fuzzy, as all the other things are not appearing on Nostrana’s on-line menus or were nightly specials. And because of the group size, not only could I not hear what people were ordering, but I couldn’t see everything that well at the table (and certainly not read about them on that night’s minuscule menu.)IMG_1790 Heidi, Julian, and Liz all had a pasta dish where the main ingredient (not counting the noodles, of course) was tuna. I think it was a tagliatelle or other similar flat noodle, and all three enjoyed it to the hilt; Liz in particular was going wacko over the taste, but we all know what she’s like, anyway (take all of the enthusiasm I’ve had over my entire life, condense it into one evening, and that’s Liz on any given night. That’s why she’s fun to have in the group. Happy and enthusiastic!!!! Our Liz, we think we’ll keep her.)

Glenda, I think, got the last order of a lamb special Nostrana had that night. It was cooked somehow, and had something with it on the side, and perhaps something else besides that. Wow, with astute food reporting like that, I should have applied for that food reviewers job that is open at the Mercury. It pays a whoppin’ $100 a week!!!IMG_1801 Anyway, whatever Glenda was chawing on, and whomever is that is talking about it in whatever fashion, Glenda is a big Nostrana fan, and this evening was no exception. It was yummy to her gummies!!! (Okay, she didn’t say this. Or maybe she did, but I just didn’t hear her. )

David went all out and ordered that night’s fancy steak, the $30 Strip Steak This is what happens when you wait over three weeks to do a review, I can’t remember if it was a NY or a rib eye, but I don’t think rib eyes come in strips, so it was most likely a NY. As I was planning on getting the cheapo $19 Flat Iron Steak, I naturally gave DD a hard time about his free-spending ways, but the joke ended up being on me. As I wasn’t actually looking at the menu when I ordered (since I could not see it, but it’s funny how either looking at a menu or pointing to an item helps you, even when you know what it is you want) I said I wanted the Strip Steak, not the Flat Iron that I really wanted. IMG_1796Even more embarrassing (and wallet traumatizing) was the fact that when my meat was plunked down in front of me, I still didn’t catch on to the fact that it was the same as David’s, and I was teasing him about his fancy pants steak, until he pointed out that I got exactly the same thing. The situation immediately lost its humor.

I do live in the real world of Portland dining, and realize that $30 isn’t that much for a quality steak in a good restaurant. That being said, I am still a person of modest means, and if I order a $30 entree, I make sure not to also order a $9 cocktail (another cucumberesk thing, much better than most) a small plate starter (Bruschetta) and a $6 side dish of roasted fingerling potatoes, which were just sort of roasted potatoey, and not overly necessary. This all sent even the idea of dessert out of the window for me though, my wallet was now about empty, with a tip still to come.

As for the steak itself, it was certainly fine, although I think David enjoyed his more than I did, as his meat wasn’t impacted by the bitter taste of financial excess like mine was. This was certainly one of the more unusual steak preparations I have tried recently, as this beef was topped by a layer of what I think were roasted peppers, somewhat in the Spanish tradition it seemed.IMG_1789 As can be the case with any decent cut of beef, however, my end (okay, my steak’s end) had a bit of a rubbery tendon that was impossible to cut, and unfortunately the waiter happened to be passing by right when I was sawing away like a maniac. I think he thought I had issues with my meat, and ran over to ask if everything was okay. I told him everything was fine, I was more of less finished, and while it was true that the tail end of my meat was a bit too challenging to maneuver, by and large the steak had been fine. That might be a fun sight though, if Nostrana started handing out steak shears as well as pizza shears, and everyone sat making little shapes out of their food. Or maybe this is all just an indication that I need to do some workouts before I got to Nostrana, as everything there is just too difficult for me to cut with my flabby noodle arms.

As I mentioned earlier, my budget was now totally kablooey, so dessert was not an option I could contemplate under any circumstances (especially since I couldn’t see the dessert menu anyway.) IMG_1793Some people, still not quite used to the epic proportions a large dinner can be, were antsy to leave, others had packing to do and planes to catch, some were way too full, and others are not dessert types. We did have our lone dessert hold-out though, Glenda, who I think had something of a figgy nature, which she devoured a bit faster than usual, as it’s never fun being the only dessert imbiber. I’m glad she had her dessert though, as a person who almost always wants dessert, you have to stand your ground, even when surrounded by non-dessert craving infidels.

In conclusion, one of our better dinners in awhile. I basically enjoy all of the dinners I host, but sometimes the restaurant, the food, and the company seem to gel particularly well, and it struck me that this is what happened during our dinner at Nostrana. Good everything. So thanks Nostrana, thanks Glenda for getting the evening rolling in a tasteful yet fun fashion, and thanks to my co-diners for a really enjoyable, if sight impaired, evening.

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