To Lardo or Not To Lardo, That Is The Question


I read last week on, my source for much daily restaurant info, that Fin restaurant, opened this summer, has decided to “dumb down” the menu there to make their eatery more accessible to the masses and less elitist and Sel Gris like (the previous tenant in their space before the Barefoot Sage rooftop fire took Sel Gris with it.) After having had our last Restaurant Roulette dinner there, I must say this sounds like a shame, as few restaurants have as intriguing a menu of unusual food preparations as what we experienced during our meal at Fin.

To this point, two of the most buzzed about new restaurants this year (not counting the breakfast oriented Tasty N’ Sons and the soon to open Little Bird) almost seem like sister restaurants, as they are both in the same part of town (mid-eastside) both have hot young chefs, and both seemingly appeal to those ultra trendy folks who overflow at many of our town’s most popular dining spots. IMG_1893June, on E. Burnside, is the brainchild of Greg Perrault, previously head man at DOC, and from what I’ve read and heard, he has done a decent job creating a pleasant, middle of the road contemporary NW/Italian restaurant which has so far been long on talent (Daniel Mondok was sous chef, but has already left for Genoa) but short on rave reviews (but nonetheless packed.)  Fin, on lower Hawthorne, opened during the same approximate late summer time period, also has a well-respected young chef, Trent Pierce, and has a novel, for Portland anyway, approach to food “slinging”, a small menu, seafood only, and much of it raw.

Both spaces are small, which is quite integral to my boring little story. Like the hoarding masses, I decided my first choice of the newbies food stops for our group would be June, as NW/Italian seemed easier to grasp than challenging, expensive, even uncooked seafood, and a few members had mentioned they wanted to try June. Right after our previous dinner, at Andina, I called June to request a reservation for our food loving peeps, of a modest table size (8) but was told, rather haughtily, that June did not do groups, it was too small. (Shades of the Bombay Cricket Club and their not necessarily friendly ownership.) I was rather flummoxed what to do then, but the always discerning (ie. picky-une) Frank had been pushing Fin heavily, as he and Grace had loved it, so decided I would go that somewhat unknown route instead.

What a contrast. When I called the even smaller Fin, a few days later (I don’t even think they were open that evening) and talked to Joan (who it turns out is the owner) not only were they totally willing to work with our group, even though they are tiny and tables are always at a minimum, but they wanted to know if we had any dietary, food, or menu requests. They actually welcomed our scary ranks to their establishment! Imagine that, a new restaurant warmly welcoming new clientele.

Friendly folks aside, as the day approached, I still wasn’t looking as forward to Fin as I do to many of the new places we visit, even though almost all the reviews had been excellent (and far superior to the reviews I’ve seen of June.) It’s not that I don’t appreciate well prepared seafood (or even good raw seafood) I do.IMG_1895 I rarely bother with seafood at home, because it never comes out as good as at restaurants, and interesting, non-farmed seafood here is scarce to find and really expensive to buy. Many years ago, however, when there was much less choice in Portland dining, and they still had a decent reputation in town, I used to love to go to one of the McCormick chain of restaurants for a yummy serving of sturgeon, trout, sole, catfish, or whatever. I also love sushi, although I seem to get little these days.

I think my main apprehension with Fin was that I’m basically a glutton, and raw fish doesn’t tend to fill me up like lots of other less healthy items. The menu at Fin is really small (although as I said, they’ve done some revisions this month) all the small plates are relatively expensive (over $10) and I was really worried that I would not get filled up at this place without spending a fortune, the last thing I want to be doing in these economically lean days of winter. Not to worry, however, as it happened, even with a relatively small turnout, because of sharing I ended up half stuffed before I had even taken a bite of my own food. Work and drug induced stupor had taken their toll on our group this evening, and we only ended up with five people this night, but they were really generous orderers, so the fish was flowing incredibly freely.

Like me, Heidi had been in Sel Gris once, and thought Fin looked very similar. I thought Fin actually looked quite different than Sel Gris, although both had grey walls, Sel Gris was dark charcoal with touches of dramatic color and a bright kitchen area where all eyes were drawn to the glittering copper cookery and Daniel Mondok’s shining dome. Fin is less dramatic, medium gray walls, modern bar area, subtle infusions of color, and a more muted but still bustling kitchen area. No chrome dome for Trent Piece though, just a gigantic fishy tattoo on his forearm. In fact, Fin has got to have one of the most heavily tattooed but still tastefully attired staff in town, and although very heavily “inked,” almost every staff member seemed sincerely nice and enthusiastic (not to say that tattooed people aren’t nice, but some look a tad foreboding.) I suppose if Heidi thought Fin and Sel Gris very similar, it’s largely because how much difference can you really create when you are working with a small narrow room with an open kitchen at the back and a bar running along the side. It was pretty funny though when someone, I think Julian (and Heidi, of course)  was directed to our table in the “back” of the restaurant, which is really like 10 ft. from the front door.

One thing that certainly sets Fin apart from the former occupant of this space, the music. Even though I could not hear the waitress, I thought it was great fun when we ate at Beast and T-Rex was blasting “Bang A Gong.” That being said, I found songs like “Another One Bites The Dust” and “99Luft Balloons” rather off-putting while eating a really tastefully arranged meal, and although hearing the Ramones and Cars was moderately fun, the music and the food don’t seem to jibe. It turns out it was Pandora Radio, beamed over the internet, and while certain songs might have been fun, the total effect was rather like dining at someplace really high-end and sedate, like Castagna or Paley’s Place, and finding your food served on a “Hello Kitty” placemat.

As I mentioned previously, I had a couple fewer bodies pop through the door than I was planning on, Glenda had been rendered an unconscious zombie by her migraine medicine, and Grace was off at a conference, but luckily spouse Frank stepped up and filled her roll as Extreme Orderer. IMG_1892The meal started off with some nice bread, really yummy butter, and some infused salts in various colors (what will they think of next, infused infusions?) Obviously, in the beginning Fin didn’t understand whom they were dealing with here, Restaurant Roulette and Bread Gluttony, but after David (or Heidi ???) asked for more bread the first time, it became quite free flowing, and our plates were never bread free (believe me, never easy with the Gluten Gang.) I tried a couple of the salts and thought they tasted similar (salty) but as a general rule the red salt was my favorite (I think I read previously that this was beet infused salt, but I can’t imagine that ever being a preference in my case.) This salt situation does say a great deal about Fin and the effort they put into all their preparations, how many places bother with infused salt to make your bread consumption more pleasurable, especially with free bread? I also like this trend I’m seeing that seems to stress quality butter over olive oil, not that I don’t like olive oil, but there’s nothing like good quality bread and butter, especially since it’s not that easy to find specialty butter to buy consume at home. Hip hip hooray for big, fancy globules of fat!!!

Before coming I had decided I would have only one starter and one entree to save on dough, and one nice thing about a really small menu, you have a great deal less to select from. Fin had 3-4 raw small plates, about 4 cooked small plates, and about 4 entree sized plates, so ordering was pretty easy and I stuck to my initial plan (of course there also was that drink and dessert. Incidentally, my Gin Gimlet with Aviation Gin was expertly prepared, and most likely the best Gimlet I’ve ever had.) Luckily, although I was being austere, Frank, David, Heidi and Julian all ordered many small plates, some on the spur of the moment, some by accident, and as everyone was in a really generous mood, I really did consume a multitude of seafood before what I ordered even arrived. Special kudos to Frank in this area, I think every single thing he ordered, he sent around the table for all to try before he had even tasted it, including his entree. I’m a bit less altruistic I guess, I certainly don’t mind sharing, but I do like to have the first taste in most cases.

Here’s what we ordered, not counting dessert –

Spicy Octopus – Sashimi wrapped octopus, mint, citrus, tobiko
Big Eye Tuna Carpaccio – white soy ponzu, olive oil, chive

Radicchio Salad – confit lemon, yuza/miso dressing, croutons
Hand-Cut Pasta – squid ink tagliatelle, seafood bolognese, kizumi nori
Gnocchi Parisienne – miso/kale, black trumpet mushrooms, oregonzola
Korean Rice Dumpling – cured barracuda, foraged mushrooms, pork/gokujan chilli sauce)

Swordfish (actually Blue Snapper) – anchovy, cannellini bean, olive (candied) grapefruit emulsion
Butterfish – porcini dust, shoyu mascerated plum, confit duck, black trumpet mushroom, stock broth
Big Eye Tuna – lardo, chantrelle, truffle ponzu, confit, alby’s gold potato (Heidi, sans lardo, me with lardo.)

As far as general comments on the food, almost everything was totally enjoyed. IMG_1890When the food server (there were multiple) asked who had the Big Eye Tuna Carpaccio, both Heidi and Frank thought they had ordered this, as Heidi knew she had ordered some Big Eye Tuna, and our waitress at the beginning had told us that things could come out in any order the kitchen got them ready, although thankfully the entree sized plates came last. She figured out later that she had not really ordered the Carpaccio, but her financial loss was our gain, because then the rest of us all got to eat more of this delicious uncooked tuna with lovely delicate seasonings (citrus, I seem to remember.)

Frank ordered one of Fin’s signature dishes, Spicy Octopus – Sashimi wrapped octopus, mint, citrus, tobiko, which conveniently came in individual ceramic serving spoons so we could all just grab our own individual taste. This is one of Fin’s most photographed preparations, the beautiful morsels of paper thin sliced fish looking almost like Christmas time in the ocean, with brilliantly colored little red or green fish eggs glistening on top of each spoonful.

When you see a restaurant having “raw” and “cooked” designations, you probably wouldn’t expect to find the Radicchio Salad among the cooked plates, but with Fin, little is what you expect from a typical restaurant, so maybe it’s not the surprising. Heidi did find it remarkable how good this salad was, however, and after tasting someone else’s, she decided to order one for herself.

There’s always something that is not quite right about squid ink pasta, noodles are not meant to be black, but the tuna did provide an interesting flavor to this dish. I thought it was fine, and I didn’t hear anyone at our table complaining, but one review I read of Fin compared this small plate to tuna noodle casserole, saying this version only needed some crushed potato chips on the top.IMG_1891 That’s really not what this preparation made me think of personally, as this tuna was more distinct tasting than Chicken of the Sea, but maybe when you add tuna, noodles, and cheese, thoughts of TNC can never be far behind.

One of the absolute tastiest things this evening was the Gnocchi Parisienne with miso/kale, black trumpet mushrooms, and oregonzola. After the first couple of dinners they attended, it was established that Heidi was a cheese lover and Julian completely the opposite, no weird cheeses for him, especially those moldy sorts (he does like disguised, melted cheeses on pizzas and burgers though.) I mention this because it had to be a testament to the delicious flavor and quality of the “Oregonzola” that Julian commented that even he liked it, moldiness or marbling or whatever aside. I know the bites `I tasted were delicious.

If there was anything we had an overkill of at our table this evening it was the Korean Rice Dumplings.Three of us ordered these babies, and not only were they really rich, but the portion size was much larger than any of the other starters and seemed more like an entree, so we had way too many dumplings and had a hard time finishing them up. IMG_1897Before coming to Fin I had decided that besides my entree I would like to find some sort of smoked or cured high quality fish, but the only thing I could find even close on the menu was the cured Barracuda, interspersed with the dumplings. I really wasn’t seeking either spicy or Korean, I just wanted good fish, but decided I would order this anyway, as how ofter do you see Barracuda on the menu in these waters?

This was the kind of preparation where the spicy Korean sauce was at the foreground, and the Barracuda was a relatively minor ingrediant, so I can’t really say what exactly I thought of the Barracuda, it was really only slivers of fish, but Frank thought it was extremely salt laden (it was probably salt-cured) and that this saltiness rather overwhelmed all other flavors.David’s big on spicy and korean though, so I think he really liked this.

Although David did the all small plate route, the rest of us had entrees as well, and most of us were getting pretty full before these even showed up. The entrees at Fin were sort of medium sized, but extremely rich, so anyone should be able to get by here by ordered one small plate and one entree.

Butterfish is certainly not a fish I’ve heard of (it travels in much warmer waters than ours, lucky fish) but it’s one of the seafoods featured at Fin that I’ve read the most about.IMG_1898 According to Roger Porter on the Portland Food and Drink blog, Butterfish is another name for Escolar, a fish we had at Southpark, but Wikipedia mentions nothing about this connection, so I don’t know who is right. All I can say for sure is that this Butterfish was firm, white, and flavorful. Just the list of ingredients sounds incredibly rich, porcini dust, shoyu mascerated plum, confit duck, black trumpet mushroom, stock broth, lavish to say the least. This is really one of those dishes that highlights the originality of the preparations at Fin, when is the last time your portion of (really unusual) fish came dusted in porcini and featured a shoyu mascerated plum and duck confit? Well, probably not yesterday, and probably not at Skippers.

One interesting thing that happened right before most of us were about to tuck into our entrees was that the person I took to be the floor manager, and whom I thought displayed both expert customer service and a visible passion for the menu at Fin (perhaps manager Israel Morales?) approached our table to say that unfortunately the Swordfish that Julian had ordered was not meeting Fin’s quality standards, and could they instead substitute Blue Snapper with the same preparation?IMG_1896 A brief outline was given as far as the basics or what Blue Snapper is ( surprisingly not a Red Snapper who ran out of Prozac) and easy going fellow that Julian tends to be, he said he didn’t mind at all. I think this serving no fish unless it’s at its peak says a great deal about the integrity of Fin, although the timing seemed a bit droopy, right before the rest of us were getting ready to enjoy our entrees. Julian’s Blue Snapper made it to the table not too delayed, however, which is probably an indication that Fin didn’t mind delivering the bad news on the Swordfish at the very last moment because they knew the substitute fish would cook in a hurry.

By the time Julian’s Blue Snapper with anchovy, cannellini bean, olive (candied) and grapefruit emulsion made it to the table I was pretty stuffed full of ocean dwellers, and didn’t fancy a bite, but everyone who had some raved over how delicious the combination of flavors was. IMG_1899After a couple of unusual comments, however, I did try one of the candied olives though, and must say, one is probably enough to last a lifetime. Sure, sweet olives are certainly a novelty, and maybe something you should try once, but Heidi and I pretty much agreed, they were relatively gross after the first one. Kind of like a salt coated banana popsicle, it’s just not right in the end. (Not the taste, but the idea.)

I don’t know about this Frank character, he’s quite the sophisticated diner, but he had to ask the waitress what Lardo was. I think the term “Lardo” is pretty self-evident, and I must say I’ve been seeing it all over the place (well, yes, especially in the mirror.) Given the negative nickname connotations over the years, I’m a little surprised that people in the “cooking know” find the term Lardo any more pleasant sounding than plain old Lard, but maybe the difference is that Lard is a big old wad of pig fat, while Lardo is tastefully and thinly sliced pork fat usually laid over some high end food so it can cost even more. I’ve had a couple of things over the last few months that were “enhanced” by Lardo, and to be honest, I could really take it or leave it (I know it’s shocking, the idea of me turning down additional fat.) I mean bacon is one thing, at least with that you get about 15-20% smoked meat suspended amongst the plethora of fat, but Lardo is nothing but fat, and while bacon can be almost pretty in its stripes, like a pig rainbow, Lardo looks just plain gross, and when it was draped across the steak I had at Castagna it made me think of a melted latex glove (aren’t you glad I said glove?) So this Lardo trend can die anytime now, and I certainly won’t be crushed.

Anyway, the reason for this Lardo tangent, Big Eye Tuna with lardo, chantrelle, truffle ponzu, confit and alby’s gold potato. Me, being a lardo, had the lardo, Heidi, being a piscaterian, had no lardo. This second round of Big Eye Tuna (after the carpaccio) a lovely plate of fish, not at all fit for Tuna Noodle Casserole, instead rich, satisfying, and not at all tacky. IMG_1900Obviously I’m not in the potato know these days (or as Dan Quayle would say, potatoe knowe) as I had to look on line to find out what a Alby’s Gold potato is, but it turns out it an elongated Dutch variety, just in case anyone desperately needs to know. It’s funny, I certainly like potatoes well enough, but except for really unusual varieties like red potatoes or those nasty, starchy little purple potatoes, most potatoes taste about the same to me. I must have a lousy potato palate. My main potato requirement, no matter what kind, cook them completely. I may like my meat oozing blood, but I can’t have my taters at all crunchy!! Incidently, as for Alby’s tates at Fin, they were fine little sauce soakers.

As Frank was considering dessert, I decided I would take one for a test drive too, since we’ve already established that eating dessert alone is NO fun, especially when everyone else just sits around the table staring at you and fidgeting with their dining slip. Fin only had two desserts, so that made the situation pretty easy, Frank had one and I had the other. Frank selected the Poached Asian Pear with Sticky Rice and I had the Miso Caramel Tart (sorry folks, no notes or any menu documentation to rely on here.) As seemed fitting for a place like Fin, these were two of the most unusually flavored and interesting desserts I’ve even had (although Castagna, on the next block, does some pretty amazing things with dessert too. Must be something about this section of Hawthorne.)

To me, Poached Asian Pear and Sticky Rice sounded a bit on the boring side, but this dessert had to have one of the most interesting and freshest tastes imaginable, literally indescribable. IMG_1902Heidi and I, who both had our share of Frank’s dessert, were trying to come up with what the really intriguing added spice was, and the closest we could come was anise or fennel. The texture was also extremely pleasing, really chilled, but not at all icy or frozen.Really delicious.

Heidi and I also agreed, even more sumptuous, in a more rich and earthy fashion (The Asian Pear concoction was more ethereal) was my Miso Caramel Tart. Julian was laughing when it came to the table, because he said it looked like a wedge of pork and beans, mainly due to the rich brown color and the pine nuts that were liberally added to the burnt sugar before it hardened. What a wonderful taste, a really buttery, shortbread like crust, rich caramel filling, and the contrasting and slightly off-kilter flavor of pine nuts, so yummy. IMG_1901Sweet and salty (and buttery) and just the perfect amount of each. Rather jarring, however, the chunks of sour apple and small blobs of miso that were drizzled on the plate for decorative purposes, they may have filled the plate out but added nothing, and actually verged on unpleasant tasting in contrast to the primary dessert. A minor faux pas, however, amongst an array of dazzling items over our evening.

I checked out Fin’s on-line menu today to try to get an idea of what had changed since our visit, and their nod at trying to make themselves more accessible to the masses. After looking it over, hey, good luck with that. They do have more categories to select from now, instead of the raw, cooked, entree scenario, you now have raw, vegetable, noodle/rice/dumpling and fish/meat.

My first comment, still no prices, not a good idea. If you don’t have prices this can scare the uninitiated off, as no prices commonly denotes “really expensive.” Fin wasn’t cheap when we went there, I think I spent more money at this dinner than any other, and only ordered one drink, a small plate, an entree, and a dessert. The costs were understandable, however, when you consider the quality of fish served, all needing to be in peak condition and most arriving from Hawaii, and how labor intensive the preparations are. It’s expensive, but not outrageous, small plates $10-$14, and entrees in the $20s; people pay these prices all over town at quality restaurants, but if you don’t let people know what things cost, they are less likely to take the chance of visiting out of fear of not being able to afford anything.

Looking at the dishes in the new categories, it appears to me that these are pretty similar to the dishes that Fin had before, they’re just described as a noodle/rice/or dumpling instead of the all-encompassing “hot.” There also might be a couple more things in each category, but all of the preparations still come across as pretty “elite.” As far as the new meat dish added, it’s a New York Steak that’s umami marinated and comes with hedgehog mushrooms, not exactly the type of thing you’re likely to find at your local Sizzler, Applebees, or probably even The Ringside. Fin might be trying to loosen up a bit and appeal more to to the masses, but I just don’t think it’s in their blood, which is fine with me. There is really nothing wrong with being “special.” Of course, I don’t have to try to get people through the door at Fin or pay the bills associated with elite imported seafood either.

If you look at the bottom of the Fin website, their name is listed as Fin Experience Seafood. That’s a good description. I certainly don’t remember ever having so many unusual species of fish prepared in such beautiful, flavorful, and intriguing ways. Go to Fin, take out of towners or friends you want to impress, and you will most certainly experience seafood, at its finest.