The Dining Report – Patanegra
Fine Dining In a 3 Ring Circus (Who Song and Patanegra?)

CLOSED

IMG_2038As I’ve always told people, I tend to get all wrapped up in visiting the new restaurants, and forget that now and then I should work Portland’s moldy oldie eateries (those that have been around for over five years) into the Restaurant Roulette roster. Thus was the case with Patanegra, a Spanish restaurant I had put on our “to do” list in the very beginning, but then let fall off the list for over three years. In the interim, “more popular” Spanish/Tapas (NW style) places have opened like Toro Bravo and Lolo, and as they were both so hip and had a lower price point, I basically forgot about Patanegra, rather isolated in the lovely but stinky environs of distant NW Portland, right across the way from good old Food Front.

I remember many years ago, Portland having one Spanish restaurant, Catalana (??) over on Stark at 28th, where The Bonfire Lounge is now. Well regarded, kind of expensive, but not really any Tapas, just entrees. Then for a number of years there was the relatively popular Tapeo in NW Portland, but I think something went wrong with the lease, or the space was too expensive, and although many people lamented it, Tapeo closed. Not too long after (perhaps a year or two) Patanegra opened, not too far from where Tapeo was, and by the same owner.

I remember in the beginning (maybe 6 years ago?) Patanegra got some good reviews, but after that it seemed to disappear from the radar. One time I dropped by there for a drink (but never had one) and found the space very attractive inside, but looked at the menu and thought it would be an awfully expensive place to eat, and back then it seemed like most of the food was entree sized, as the small plate trend had not taken hold in Portland yet. Since that day, long ago, Portland has experienced complete foodie pandemonium though, so who can really remember the restaurants that have been around for over a couple of years? Not moi, obviously.

Recently, however, some oddball in the group asked me about Patanegra, and to humor him, I decided I would check out their “current” online menu. I liked the fact that Patanegra now has tons of tapas, and that almost everything can be ordered in either a small size or a larger sized portion, and while everything was still several bucks more than the food at Toro Bravo and Lolo, I wanted to contrast what was served at a Spanish restaurant with a real Spanish owner, rather than our more Northwesternized Spanish restaurants (I don’t think that Giorgio Kawas of Lolo is Spanish, as his first local restaurant was the Italian place that bears his name, but I could be wrong.)Although I know some members of our little food based coven wish this wasn’t always the case (not to mention my poor, vacant wallet) Restaurant Roulette is basically about fine dining. Now and then I do more funky (Queen of Sheba springs to mind) but most of the time when I pick a place I want there to be the potential of really good food and decent atmosphere. Long ago we did Marrakesh just for the fun of it, but that was the last purposely “zany” place I remember us going to, although some dinners have become so screwed-up and off-track  they merged into zany territory (do the names Eleni’s, Assaggio and Menji-En ring any bells?)

IMG_2026Somehow, when I selected Patanegra, my first thoughts were not “this could be an evening of pounding music, ridiculous human behavior, and embarrassing conga lines!” I thought I was selecting an upper-end, stately dining establishment in NW Portland, which nonetheless specialized in lively and interesting food. I was so sadly deluded, at least in my perception of what sort of dining experience would be attacking us this evening. (Good lively food withstanding.)

I guess I should have been wary when I called a couple of weeks in advance for a typical Friday reservation, and was told the whole restaurant was closed for a private party that evening, I would have to select another night.IMG_2032 I know many well-thought of Portland restaurants are very successful renting out private dining areas, and that other restaurants like Gruner host private dining parties on evenings the restaurant is typically closed to the public, but what respected Portland eateries do you know that close on Friday nights for private affairs? Probably not too many, as I think generally it annoys your patrons, and makes them wonder if you might be having those dreaded “financial issues.”

IMG_2031Anyway, rather embarrassingly, I had to contact the six or so people who had already said yes to a Friday dinner at Patanegra, and see if they could do the next Saturday instead (luckily I didn’t lose any, it must have been a pretty slow social weekend in P-town, and I added a few more too, nine total after one health cancellation.) Racing to NW 23rd Place and Thurman, I felt pleased with myself, actually finding a rather small but for me perfectly sized parking space right across from the restaurant, although the general area seemed to be rather jumping with activity (which seems to go totally dead on the next two streets over, Upshur and Vaughn.)

I suppose I should have been wary when I saw all these people headed toward Patanegra with balloons and packages in hand, but considering the whole restaurant had been closed the night before for a party, I figured that any celebratory festivities on this evening would most likely be on a small scale, since what restaurant, besides a place like Who Song and Larry’s, hires themselves out as party central multiple nights a week, afterall, fine dining is all about the food, right? Silly me.

The first three of us to arrive were greeted by two massive tables, taking up most of the prime dining area, equipped for a party, complete with a “latin” band with amps, all jammed into the middle of everything.IMG_2028 We were told that our table for 10 (now 9) would be over in the side area, slightly curtained off, which seemed a blessing, but somehow we knew that a flimsy brown curtain would never be enough to protect our table from music and party spewage, not to mention witnessing any frighteningly tacky behavior that might come about after a couple of rounds of sangria. Also, it was pretty obvious our table had been cobbled together at the last second, not only was it too small for nine people, and pretty hard to negotiate around, but all of the seats were wooden chairs except for half of a two person booth seat, which looked about as classy as someone having to use the backseat of their car for seating at their tasteful garden party. I admit that when I called and made the “second” reservation I would have been pretty annoyed to hear that we would be sharing the space with a massive party (at least 20?) but I still think we should have been warned somehow and it not assumed that we would think it fine and dandy to have to share a kitchen with about 20 partygoers ordering at the same time, and being forced to bellow at each other and the waiter all evening long (this was one frustrated waiter by the time our evening was over.)

Reading these comments, I suppose I sound all old and crusty, and like I don’t like fun, liveliness and music, but this just isn’t true! I love massive, big FUN times (hard to believe English is my first language, eh?) but in the proper venue, at the proper time. IMG_2037When I go to my dentist, I expect it to be like going to the dentist, I don’t want to see her there wearing a big hat and dancing around with a revving drill. When I go for a “girlie exam” (sorry fellows) I don’t want the doctor there with a PRB in flip flops snapping pics with an iPhone. When I go out for “fine dining”, I don’t want to end up glomming onto someone else’s massive middle aged crisis birthday party complete with drunken revelers and Santana oldies (okay, I admit some at our table did rock out to “Oye Como Va”, but it’s not like you could ignore it, thrusting at us from behind that flimsy brown curtain.)IMG_2040 A birthday dessert and singing “Happy Birthday” at a restaurant is one thing (I have to say that, it happened to me this year) but having someone else’s birthday celebration forcefully rammed down your throat is another. I know a couple of years ago one of our dinners was inflicted and infected by a table of Prom Goers the next table over, but I don’t think a restaurant can help a situation like that, you can’t have a reservation screening procedure that weeds out Prom Boppers. Having a full scale birthday hootananny with band in the middle of your restaurant is a different matter though. How “seriously” run could this place really be?

Another thing that added a relatively negative vibe to our evening, it’s clear that Patanegra is out to nickel and dime you to death, an $18 corkage fee (remarkably, our table paid two on this evening) a 20% mandatory gratuity on groups of 6 or more (most restaurants are 16%-18%) IMG_2041Also, let’s not forget that additional charge per dispensing of olive oil, which the bread really needs, as it is that flat tasting, texture lacking European sort (okay, not counting French and Eastern European bread.) Between the parties and all the surcharges, it’s pretty clear this place is in it for the money, not to mention those really high prices for both the small and larger plates. Also, a Patanegra weirdity, they specialize in wine, and have a million varieties of really fancy Spanish bottles, but no printed by the glass list or anything scrawled on the wall for guidance, you want a mere glass of wine, you have to ask the waiter what might be available on that particular evening, which largely explains why I didn’t have any wine this night except for a couple of sips of Sangria, too much of a hassle. Metrovino this ain’t.

In the beginning, the waiter, a Spaniard, born in Portugal, and raised in Paris (who met his wife on a cruise ship) seemed like an amiable sort, although his habit of coming to our table, answering a question, then disappearing for about 10 minutes at a time wore pretty thin after a bit, as it was dragging the beginning of the meal out so long. IMG_2044In his defense, however, I’m sure he was probably helping out with the big group, so gave us as much time as he could. Because of the non-existing wine by the glass list it was pretty painful though when he would come to the table, talk to one of two people about the wines, take their order and vanish, to have to repeat this process with someone else. He did keep the so-so bread coming in large amounts though, which we really appreciated, especially considering we probably didn’t see any “real food” for about an hour (overwhelmed kitchen, I’m sure.)

In my particular case, through much of the meal I seemed to be sitting in some service black hole, first I was excluded from the people sharing sangria, then almost everyone had gotten about three of the small plates they had ordered, and nothing of mine had made it to the table (although I was hardly wasting away, as this was another night when almost everyone shared everything.) IMG_2029The Halle’s also had some pretty tardy dishes, a lamb shank in particular, and by the time it made it to the table they were practically in their jammies with their teeth brushed. The sangria thing did strike me as weird though, because in the beginning the waiter had explained that the sangria came by either the glass or pitcher, and that the pitcher, which was $25, was a much better deal, and served four or five. Cora and I decided we would give the pitcher a try, and when it came to ordering other people said they would try it too. When it finally made it to the table, the others were trying it out, but my glass was empty. When I reached to get some, the waiter said something like, “oh, you wanted sangria too, I just told them to make it for four.” IMG_2050The reason I mention this is not because I felt slighted (oh pitiful me!) but because you would assume that for a set price, $25, they would always make the pitcher for a particular amount, not make just enough for the amount of people you “think” might being drinking it. Not that it mattered too much, as the sangria was a bit too syrupy for my particular tastes, and David made a big face when he tried his too, although the others liked it. Sangria really is a hit or miss kind of thing, depending on individual palates, available fruits, quality of wine, etc.

Okay, now that I’ve trashed Patanegra for a good long while, let me say some nice things about them. IMG_2051Although nothing is particularly cheap, the menu is really big (2 kinds of anchovy preparations!!) and interesting, and while Lolo and especially Toro Bravo are famous for all the choices you have, this has to be the biggest selection of P-town’s Spanish joints. They also have a sizable selection of Paellas you can order, but my guess is that they don’t sell a whole lot, as it can only be ordered for two people, and with a menu this large and with several paellas alone, do two people actually agree often enough to order this famous rice dish?

Here’s a list of some of the things I know we ordered, which was probably less than half of what was on the menu …

Ensaladas
Organic beets with vinaigrette and chevre
Mixed greens with baked goat cheese and walnuts
Greens, hard boiled egg, tomato, white asparagus, onion and garlic in a red wine shallot vinaigrette

Cold
Pata Negra Iberico ham platter
Toasted bread topped with tomatoes, manchego cheese and cured pork
Roasted Piquilla peppers stuffed with fish and saffron rice with Romesco sauce
Octopus ceviche style tossed with citrus, jalapenos and cilantro
Roasted zucchni stuffed with goat cheese and pine nuts
House cured salmon

Hot
Tortilla Espanola (Spanish style omelette with potatoes.)
Lentil salad with grilled baby squid
Fish of the day (Cod with white beans)
Empanada of the day
Fried fresh anchovies in olive oil
Grilled Beef Steak (basically 3 bites for $12.75, larger portion $18.75.)
Spanish Rice
Spanish Morcilla sausage with sweet alorosa and caramelized onions
Spicy pork stew
Marinated and braised lamb shank
Duck  (I’m not totally sure, but I think it was prepared with something like prunes and pistachios.)
Prawns sauteed in olive oil and garlic
Grilled scallops wrapped in Serrano ham

Poached Pear with almonds
Creme Caramel

IMG_2046The general consensus was, almost all the food was really good, although with the sporadic way things came out (the delivery might go more smoothly when the kitchen isn’t so over-burdened with tons of bodies all ordering multiple dishes at the same time) some items might have been more enjoyable had they come to the table in a more logical order (for example, although it was quite tasty, no one was really overly interested in my Toasted bread topped with tomatoes, manchego cheese and cured pork about 2.5 hours into the meal, particularly after having 4000 slices of bread and other filling entree type foods. It would have been better appreciated, especially by me, towards the beginning of our evening.

It was good that the salads came towards the “beginning” (okay, 1.5 hours in) but I found the portions rather confusing. IMG_2048At Toro Bravo you pay around $8, and get this huge salad that can serve about 4 people. Here, my salad (Mixed greens with baked goat cheese and walnuts) was also extremely large, but I got the impression it was two salads in the same bowl, as I thought Glenda, who was sitting next to me, had ordered the goat cheese salad too, so I told her half of it was hers, so she ate it. About a half hour later another salad arrived for Glenda (Organic beets with vinaigrette and chevre) and as the waiter was very adamant she had ordered it, she ate that salad too. As Patanegra isn’t exactly the Sizzler salad bar, it seems unlikely Glenda would order two full salads, so I wondered later if I had forced 1/2 my salad on her unintentionally. I noticed David (???) also had a really large bowl of salad going (Greens, hard boiled egg, tomato, white asparagus, onion and garlic in a red wine shallot vinaigrette) so I don’t know if that was just his salad, or a couple of people’s, or he just happened to latch onto the bowl at that particular time. Who knows with that end of the table, they were pretty cliqueee, trying to keep all the wine and sangria to themselves.

I tasted about half of the stuff at the table, and one standout was one of the most simple items, Prawns sauteed in olive oil and garlic.IMG_2045 I’m not really sure who ordered this, David maybe or Sam, but it was so good, just the right amount of garlic, totally delicious. Another good thing that I tasted, but did not order, the Roasted Piquilla peppers stuffed with fish and saffron rice with Romesco sauce. This is about the third time I have mooched on a dish similar to this since last fall, the first and best at Pitxi in N. Po. (which sadly shuttered this month) an only marginally less tasty preparation at Andina, and this also really good small plate. Latin cooking obviously understands the value of a good red pepper.

I had tastes of that night’s fresh fish dish coming at me from both ends of the table (Cod with white beans) and it was quite yummers, with a strong dose or herbs, maybe sage? I know Glenda really liked her Duck, she kept making a happy noise all the time she was eating it, somewhere between a purr and a growl (or was that a pet stached away in her purse?)IMG_2047 The house cured salmon was also excellent, and Cora was practically doing hand-stands (this woman, you just can’t stop her) over her Grilled scallops wrapped in Serrano ham. She was very insistent that Glenda try one, and while initially Glenda reacted like someone was trying to make her taste a rodent eyeball, once she chomped on it for a moment or two she appeared to find the flavor pleasing.

Another item that most people seemed to approach with reluctance was my Fried fresh anchovies in olive oil. Not that I’m dumb or anything (???) but once I ordered these little jewels of the sea, I had a hard time remembering if I had ordered anchovies or sardines (especially considering how long it took them to swim to our table.)IMG_2039 As they are both Spanish inspired, I think I was getting these mixed up with the delicious Deep Fried Sardines and Lemon they have on the menu at TB, and these were nothing like those. As I think anchovies are more of a East Coast thing, no one really wanted to have a taste, even though they looked nothing like anyone expected, very large, breaded, and filleted. They were really very innocuous, and everyone who I finally got to take a bite agreed they were a great deal like plain old fish sticks, and not overly salty.

As the evening was dragging on and on, and some of us had yet to see items we had ordered make it to the table, we could not help wonder if the waiter had even heard us order them. IMG_2054One of these items for me was my Grilled Beef Steak with a side of rice. When it finally arrived, probably about 9:00, it was tasty enough, with good flavor, and really tender, but I had to laugh at the portion size, three hunks about 1.5″ wide by 2 ” long, probably six bites. It was kind of a weird way to serve steak, these odd shaped hunks, it made me wonder if maybe they ran out of steak and this was the trimmings, or someone’s leftovers from the party (just kidding on that one, I hope.) Anyway, 6 bites for $12.75, I wonder how many bites you got for $18.75. Tasty but costly. Also, I probably should have thought about the fact that this was a Spanish restaurant, and if I ordered rice, it might just be Spanish rice. Like duh man, the thought never crossed my mind until this orangey stuff arrived. I am not what you could call a Spanish rice fan in any respect, and this wasn’t the version that would change my mind. I would have preferred, however, if they could have been a bit more descriptive on the menu, it seemed sort of arrogant to assume everyone had a working brain.

There was sort of a strange assortment of desserts, both a Creme Brulee and a Creme Caramel, a Poached Pear, and I think a Chocolate and Cranberry Cake. Is it really necessary to have Creme Brulee and Creme Caramel, they’re so similar? I certainly support having as many dessert options as possible (I support this almost more than anything in the entire world!) but does it really help the situation to just name the same dessert two different things? What was really ironic, Sam ordered the Creme Caramel, because the waiter made it sound more interesting, but when it arrived at the table it was just basically Flan, although Sam thought it seemed a bit different. It certainly had that wiggly flan texture, and rather lame burnt sugar top, and tasted eggy and flan-like to me. Glenda had the Poached Pear, which was really pretty sprinkled with toasted almond slices.

As I’ve mentioned before, when we have groups over 6 or so, most of the time I don’t hear all of the comments the group is making about their food, or even if they like what they have ordered. IMG_2059This was like the worst night ever for that, because of the band, you were luckily if you could even hear what the person right next to you was saying. Also, at times it was pretty hard to hear the waiter, and visa versa, and he actually had to take a thing or two back to the kitchen because no one at our table thought they ordered it, probably because the server misheard in all the racket. Towards the last third of the meal, the waiter was growing increasingly frustrated with the communication situation, especially since each time he would try to talk the band would whip into high gear, and you could tell he was ready for this evening to be over, for everyone. Rather oddly, at the end, when he handed us the long, handwritten bill he stressed a couple of times could we please make sure everything we ordered was on there, as the ownership would hold him financially responsible if he missed anything. This seems like a great deal to ask of your customers, especially a large group whom ordered a minimum of three or four things each. We did notice the sangria didn’t seem to be on the bill, and added extra money for that, although we certainly could have made it out the door without bothering.

My main issue, when I booked the reservation at Patanegra I thought I was taking our group for a fine dining experience, not to an evening of food and spectacle. I suppose I felt totally baffled by and rather disdainful of the management tactics at Patanegra. Not too baffled, of course, as the total guiding principle that comes across seems to be to do anything for all the money you can get, no matter what impression your customers take away of their evening.When the conga line was snaking its way around the main dining area, I could only avert my gaze and bang my head on the table. Not all in our group shared this opinion, however, Michael said he liked the music and he seemed to be enjoying the odd antics of the birthday group. Sam said it was her favorite dinner yet, but I couldn’t tell if this was because she is passionate about most things Spanish, liked speaking Spanish all night, enjoyed the liveliness and the music, loved the food, or maybe a combination off all of the above. Cora also seemed to be having a really good time, and David certain did more laughing this evening than most. As hostess, I was displeased because I don’t think a restaurant should turn their entire establishment upside down to serve the needs of one group (unless it’s my group!) especially when you are paying $12.95 for 6 bites of meat and relatively high prices for everything else, you should not have to wait hours for your food to trickle out, and you should not have to bellow at the people you are sharing your meal with (unless this is your preferred form of communication.) Quite good food, really weird restaurant.

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