THE DINING REPORT – PITXI
Could Your Please Grow Those Apples A Little Faster?

CLOSED

Maybe it’s because we’re on the West Coast, which doesn’t strike me so much as a European Melting Pot as back East (although we do fine with Asia and down South here) but Basque culture is not something we are exposed to very often in Portland, and a Basque restaurant, how many of those do you hear about in our area? Sure, Spanish influenced places like Lolo or Toro Bravo have splashes of Basque cuisine, but they don’t market themselves as Basque.

IMG_1849On my very last “real” vacation, sadly a little over 9 years ago, part of our itinerary was to rent a car in Barcelona, then drive all over the most Northern area of Spain, starting in the Basque Region with a stay in a Parador in Hondarribia (Spanish – Fuenterrabia) a little Barvarian looking town across the bay from France. It was fascinating, once we left Catalonia, seeing every road sign and other directional marker in both Spanish and Basque, those Basque really know how to use those weird letters of the alphabet we have little use for here, like X, Y and Z. Hondarribia was a great little place, so quaint and full of Spanish, Basque, and French History, and the food there was unlike any I had found in my other travels around Spain, particularly heavy on seafood and peppers, and costing almost twice as much as other regions we had eaten in (not quite sure why, maybe because the North of Spain is a much harsher climate, one region actually referred to as the Scotland of Spain (although this is on the opposite northern coast from Hondarribia, in the NW environs of the country, in Galicia.)For some odd reason, when Pitxi first opened, which had to have been at least two to three years ago now, they were located in Sandy, Oregon (maybe they lived there?) Not to disparage Sandy, which is a great place to stop for donuts or cheap gas on your way to Mt. Hood (and they also have a really nice Fred Meyer) but Sandy always strikes me as really frontier like, and high-end Basque and frontier don’t impress me as going hand in hand. IMG_1846Earlier this year, for whatever reason, Pitxi made a move to Portland, unfortunately finding another location somewhat off-the-beaten foodie path, this being on Lombard in St. Johns. Not to disparage St. Johns either, but I’m not sure if this the correct spot for a fancy food place like Pitxi, St. Johns is still both very university and blue-collar rooted, and I could tell by our fellow clientele on this evening that many of the people who stumbled into Pitxi were not sure what to make of it, and few seemed to know in advance that they were embarking on a meal at a really nice place. I know Pitxi did the Groupon thing, so maybe this could be referred to as The Groupon Effect.

Pitxi is one of about two or three restaurants that have actually solicited Restaurant Roulette to darken their doorstep, and while I thought it sounded like an interesting place about three years ago when they first contacted me, our group basically never manages to leave the PDX/Metro area, West Linn was the farthest afield yet (and boy, did I really go far afield that evening) so Sandy, Oregon was never a likely venue to actually visit. As it happens, though, Melissa and her parents joined our group early this year, and all were Pitxi fans and mentioned the restaurant had moved to North Lombard. After that, there was really no reason not to go to Pitxi, especially since I recently had another email from them asking our group to check out their unusual cuisine.

IMG_1832One really unusual thing about Pitxi, at least as far as Portland fine dining goes, was that all their starters are the same price, $9, all their entrees are the same price, $18, and all desserts are $7. Originally I wasn’t too thrilled about this idea, as being forced to pay $9 for every single starters just seems too much, but now that it’s hard to find decent entrees at fine eateries around Portland for less than $20, the $18 main dishes lessened the blow of $9 starters, and everything ended up balancing out nicely.

Pitxi isn’t one of those places with a big swanky website, and the last time I looked their website was totally down. You can follow them on Facebook, though, and from there I had grabbed the following menu ….

APPETIZERS $9
Cold beet soup, Honey flatbread, Lamb pillows, Potato bacon stew, Cold fish terrine, Swiss chard custard
MAIN COURSES $18
Mushroom patty (fresh noodles, stinging nettles, Oregon truffles); Sole (pancakes, sugar snap peas, spring squash); Cod (milk, mushrooms, cauliflower); Quail (asparagus, potatoes, quail egg); Pork (beer, broccoli, quinoa) and Veal (lemon, spinach, turnips)
DESSERTS $7
Raspberry frozen air pocket; Bananas for chocolate; Strawberry ‘cheesecake’; Saffron ice-cream olive oil cookies; Cheese plate; Lemon purse almond praline.
God only knows what some of those things even are, but luckily our group knows not to judge a book by its cover, so I still had a decent turnout of seven for this dinner, although many seemed puzzled by the menu (sort of that Castagna thing, highlighting certain ingredients, with perhaps a touch of English as a second language thrown in.) As it happens, right after I sent out the RSVP, Pitxi changed to an early fall menu, and two people pointed this out and sent me the newer menu, which now featured … .
APPETIZERS $9
Figs, asian pear and goat cheese; Red pepper cannelloni and salmon mousseline; Cream of leek and tuna; Roasted vegetables terrine; Fennel orange soup; Swiss chard custard

MAIN COURSES $18
Curry squash dumplings (pumpkin, squash, chicken of the woods); Snapper in a bag (mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots); Sarsuela (potatoes, tomatoes, seafood); Albacore tuna(quinoa, flat beans, samfaina); Duck (apples, grapes, crepe); Roasted pork loin (braised fennel, corn, peach)

DESSERTS $7
Red wine pear; Nectarine and blueberry sabayon; Elephant heart plum sponge; Saffron ice-cream & olive oil cookies; Pitxi’s peaches.

Most people seemed happier with the new menu, although I must say I would have enjoyed the first list of usual desserts compared to those we had to select from on this particular evening, also a rather odd assortment. One really happy turn of menus events we discovered once we arrived, Pitxi had been experimenting with their happy hour menu and decided to include these items with their dinner service, so approximately 10 small plates could also be ordered from about $4 to $10.

After viewing the online menu(s) I had sent to everyone, since the selection was relatively modest, I think many people had an idea what they were going to order before they got to Pitxi. I know I had my food all picked out. Seeing this new list of small plates, however, I think most people’s plans were thrown into disarray, as almost everyone likes inexpensive and interesting small plates. Why not get two things instead of one when the cost is half or less of the other starters?IMG_1838 Like a dork, I forgot to permanently borrow one of Pitxi’s tapas menus, so I can barely remember what was on there. This new menu did disrupt my planned food agenda, as far as the fact that I ordered an additional item, but in the end it didn’t really matter much, as they forgot to bring me my original starter anyway, so instead of paying $9 for a starter, I just had a $5 small plate. That was okie dokie, though, as this was one of those dinners where you eat way too much of everyone else’s food all night (yes, Frank and Grace were there, but Grace seemed in less than her usual food ordering form, as she had dashed to join us from her “job” in the O.R. and seemed rather wilted this dinner.)

Here are some of the small plates items I remember, more or less …

Green Salad (David said the dressing was totally wonderful, and it was only $4 or $5.)
Roasted Potatoes with Smoked Paprika
Ham and Cheese and Peppers (served on toast, also really good.)
Shrimp Cakes with Garlic Aioli (originally I was going to have peppers and anchovies, but the aioli wooed me away.) Fine, but not outstanding.
Fish Cakes with Tartar Sauce (??) Also decent, but you had to like dominantly flavored fish
Dungeness Crab on toast
Stuffed Sweet Peppers (really delicious, the accompanying whipped sauce was incredibly fresh flavored and herb induced.)
Stuffed Duck Neck and side salad (both Glenda and Liz had this, and both found it excellent. Liz commented that the side salad was the best thing all night. A good sized, really rich item for the price (I think it was $10 or less) Glenda had this as her main dish.

IMG_1839Glenda also had a starter from the regular appetizer menu, the Figs, Asian Pear and Goat Cheese. She was actually relatively disappointed by this starter, as she said there was no gelling of the flavors, just a separate pile of each item not associating with one another (although it did look SO purty on the plate.) This happens to be the appetizer that I ordered and I never got, so maybe fate was smiling on me this evening. Frank and Grace might have also had items from the appetizer menu, I see a thing or two in the photos I don’t recognize, but who knows, all their stuff was starting at the far end of the table.

Speaking of Frank and Grace, I’m pretty sure they also split a main dish, but I’m not sure if it was the Sarseulla, Albacore Tuna, or the Duck. IMG_1837I do know that Liz had the Curry Squash Dumplings with pumpkin, squash, and Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms. Our youthful friend Liz, although an avoider of shrimp products, seems to be a BIG FAN of mushrooms, at least those that are relatively grit free, and commented on how she enjoyed these poultry sounding fungi. I had a bite, and while the whole concoction seemed an interesting conglomeration, as someone who is not a big fan of yellow curry, about one bite was plenty for me. A really creative dish though, I must say.

IMG_1845David, who can be rather a snapper on occasion himself, ordered the Snapper In a Bag, a steaming hot mass of fish and paper that he found delicious stem to stern (so delicious, in fact, that his sample offer to me was an exhausted hunk of parchment to chew on. Gee, thanks David, but I already had a notepad before I came.)

New folk Sam had the Roasted Pork Loin with braised fennel, corn, and peach. Who is this Sam character, you ask? Sam is our latest newcomer, a bunny lover, henna artist, and professional student, and she came all decked out for our evening at Pitxi in a lively blue flowered frock and jaunty matching chapeau, obviously trying to dethrone Glenda from her title as RR Fashion Maven.IMG_1843 Sam had some interesting stories about living both South of the Border and really really South of the Border, and it was nice to have her finally join us after being on the email invite list since the beginning of the year. She appeared to fit in well, and I think even have a good time, so hopefully she will join us on another occasion (I only hope she doesn’t wait until I find another Basque Restaurant, as all of us could be in our graves by then.)

Anyway, back to that Roasted Pork Loin. I also had the roasted pork loin (which was really more of a roasted pork loin chop) and Sam and I both agreed that it was a nice presentation and tasted quite good, tender and not overly dry. Luckily, also, others wanted to share in the wealth of my roasted fennel bulb, which was just fine by me, as while I like fennel, a little goes a long way.

As for desserts, as a pie and cake maniac, Pitxi’s desserts were just a tad lacking in decadence and too fruity/healthy/rustic for my palate, and I must say I probably was not alone, as several people jumped on that night’s dessert special, a freshly prepared apple tart. IMG_1831Sadly, although it looked pretty, we all seemed to find the tart rather lacking, a bit sour, perhaps a tad dry, not zingy or spicy enough, and all-in-all rather plain. The other dessert that was ordered, the Saffron Ice Cream and Olive Oil Cookies, also got mixed reviews, which seemed to suggest that saffron might not be the best dominant flavor for ice cream, but Liz did find the cookies yummy.

So in summary, almost everyone had something good to say about the food at Pitxi, be it the arrangement of the plates, the creativity and quality of the ingredients, or the execution and flavors that were the result of the kitchen’s labors. At least two or three people, if not more, had almost nothing but good things to say about the food at Pitxi.

Unfortunately, all of us had something bad to say about the speed of food delivery at Pitxi, The food here is delicious, and interesting, but do not go to Pitxi if you have anything else to do for the rest of the evening (or perhaps your life, if going to Pitxi is your deathbed request, it could be your last.) IMG_1842Even though our group was moderately sized, and we didn’t over-order too badly (yes, even with Grace there) this was our looooooooooooooooooooongest dinner ever, almost 3.5 hours. People were practically banging their heads in frustration by the time the dessert menu came, and with the wait for the check, we probably could have flown to Basque Country and back before it arrived.

We met the owners of Pitxi, Ania and Edward, toward the end of our meal, and I could tell these are really nice, hardworking people, and I don’t relish dumping on them. I know they have been struggling for a few years now, trying to make Pitxi a success and introduce their cooking to a wider audience.IMG_1833 That being said, something is just not working the way it should at Pitxi, a restaurant in a hot dining town like Portland needs to learn how to get their food into their diner’s mouths in a reasonable time frame. It’s nice to hypothesize that maybe Pitxi was just having an off-night and that’s why everything was so slow, but I remembered Melissa telling me in the spring, that although she loved Pitxi, when she went there shortly before, service was so slow she had missed the movie she was going to afterward. She mentioned at that time that although she really wanted RR to visit Pitxi, she thought they needed to get themselves together more completely before we visited there. Sadly, 1/2 a year later, it seems like Pitxi is still struggling to get themselves in order.

When you are at Pitxi, there’s really nothing glaring that stands out as an indicator of why the food takes so long to arrive. Ania, who was performing her food preparation at a counter slightly beyond the end of our table, seemed ultra attentive, at one point Liz dropped her knife and Ania whisked a new knife over so rapidly that Liz didn’t even notice that she had a new knife (by the way, did I forget to mention Pitxi has lots of nice, classy silverware?)IMG_1834 Later my pen ran out of ink, and 2 seconds later, Ania was there with a new pen. If only the food could be zoomed over with equal speed. Is a lack of kitchen staff the issue? An unwillingness to do advance preparation, perhaps? (I suppose if you were running a restaurant on a tight budget this might be a good way to cut down on waste and expense.) Are the plates arranged in too elaborate and time consuming a fashion? As I said, nothing was particularly glaring, but an evening meal should not take almost 3.5 hours.

One of the members in our group keeps mentioning how often I allude to Toro Bravo, so I think I will mention it several times in this review to make him extra happy. Toro Bravo would be a great example for Pitxi to learn from. Some of the dishes are similar, but Toro Bravo has managed, from the moment it opened, to get well prepared food out to its patrons with amazing speed and efficiency, to serve a gigantic menu, to keep its prices as economical as possible, and to make people want to come back again and again, even with an hour or two wait for a table. Toro Bravo serves great food and is an exceedingly well-run restaurant. Pitxi serves delicious food, but seems to lack some important organizational skill, and this seemingly prevents them from turning out food in an efficient manner.

Since i’ve done a lot of these dinners now, I try to be somewhat patient when minor faux pas occur, or when things seem to be bogging down, usually toward the end of the meal. Pitxi was so slow going from start to end, however, it was had not to become worn down and lose patience. In the beginning, we didn’t exactly get the ball rolling in the right direction by coming in spurts, someone lost, another person rushing from work far away, this person ordering some wine, then that person. IMG_1844We were all seated within a half an hour of the reservation time, however, and it would have been nice to see things start whipping into action then. For a Friday night, prime dining time, the dining room was only about 1/2 full, but I finally had to say to the waitress, hey, lets get some food and orders flowing. (Incidentily, as a general rule the waitress was very good, and we liked her, I think she had just gotten used to the pace at Pitxi being extremely languid.)

Once everyone got their wine, Pitxi brought us each a nice amuse bouche on the house, undoubtably meant to cleanse our pallets and wet out appetites. Then came some bread and butter, always desperately sought by several of us, and certainly an incredibly welcome addition when it’s free (and it was this evening.)IMG_1830 After this, it seemed like an awfully long wait. When some small plates and appetizers finally arrived, a nice conglomeration came all at once, and we were sated for some time, although we were rather disconcertingly told not to expect more food for awhile (the implication that the kitchen would need time to catch up.) As Glenda had gotten all small plates/appetizers but no entree, and they had brought those all in the initial food flow, this meant she basically spent the rest of the evening, until dessert time, watching the rest of us eat with just an empty Ikea placemat in front of her.

Thankfully, although it took a bit, the entrees all arrived at the same time, and we all enjoyed eating what we had. There was a long, long lag before the dessert arrived, and this is when several of us started losing patience and making jokes about how they must be waiting for the apples to finish growing for the tart. IMG_1848We tried ordering the check as soon as the dessert arrived, as Grace had already left some time before to tend to the young uns, and David was not even having dessert but was still having to endure the slow moving torture, but the waitress seemed like she was busy attending to other matters, so it was many moons before the check made it to our table. Once it got there I could see why, as it was all carefully handwritten in neat penmanship, which looked really sweet, but no doubt took forever. Then naturally we had the ongoing agony of paying, as only two people had cash and all the rest was going on different credit cards (thank heavens for these places without a two credit card only rule.)

All this negativity aside, I still think Pitxi has many things going for it. The owners are really nice, they seem skilled chefs, and as they’ve been at this Pitxi thing for about three years now, they seem resilient and willing to do whatever they can to give it their best shot. IMG_1847Although it has certain cross-overs to tapas and other Spanish cooking, their Basque centered cuisine is relatively unique to Portland. The food is reasonably priced, well plated, interesting, and flavorful. Their inexpensive bar menu would seemingly draw in many people who might not otherwise try Pitxi or have any clue about Basque cooking. And lastly, although their space is perhaps a tad industrial and perhaps too open in the bar are, it’s still nice, and a pleasant, classy place to dine.

An opposing argument, however, although their space is nice, does a restaurant like this really belong in far removed St. John’s, famous for humble housing and modest eateries? As I alluded to, Pitxi seemed lightly traveled for a Friday evening during the prime dining hours (and we experienced them all that night) and some of the people who came in to eat seemed like they had no clue that they were journeying into fine dining. Production issues aside, Pitxi is the type of place I could see people lining up for in the Pearl, on Mississippi or Alberta, or even on NE 28th (overflow from other restaurants never hurts anyone) but here, in a destination neighborhood, I just don’t know. This particular space doesn’t have the best track record, and while the Pitxi people have made it really nice, it doesn’t come off like a college student kind of place (U of P is very close.) I wish Pitxi well, but I wish they were somewhere else (and that they would learn to speed it up!)

Go to Pitxi, experience the delicious, beautiful, really fresh food, have some nice wine, maybe bring some long novels, and make no other plans

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