Basking In An Aura of Obscurity

Although I don’t know much about food carts, those restaurants in the Western suburbs, or the strip mall kinds of places, I do try to keep track of most the the “major” restaurant and bar openings in the Portland area. After all, this is basically my job as Restaurant Roulette hostess, to find the interesting new restaurants as well as visiting the established eateries. I use sources like, Portland Monthly, Portland Food and Drink, Willamette Week, and now and again, even in their sad days of food journalism, the Oregonian. Because of this, even if I’m not interested in visiting a restaurant, I still know it exists.

Not so for Gilda’s, which has been open who knows how long. (My guess is mid-2010??) Mention Gilda’s, even to a foodie, and chances are you will hear, where??? IMG_2133I still would not have heard of it were it not for Roger Porter posting a review on the Portland Food and Drink blog during late winter. I’m not even certain how he heard of Gilda’s, maybe he visited the Artist’s Repertory Theatre across the street. Anyway, Mr. Porter gave Gilda’s a decent review, and as everyone is always wanting to try a “new” Italian place, off we went, although I was still the only person in our group who had even heard of Gilda’s.

We were a decent sized bunch, there were seven of us, and we welcomed a new couple to our ranks, Cherene and Scott from Aurora. Scott is a seafood lover and Cherene not so much, but as it happens, seafood is one of the things Gilda’s does best, so both of them ordered one form or another, as did everyone in our group I think.

IMG_2131While I don’t typically visit this section of downtown Portland, I knew Gilda’s would be easy to find, as it seemed to be located in the bottom of the hulkingly historic Commodore Hotel. Probably because I’m not a fan of much of the Art Deco movement, the Commodore is not a favorite old timey building of mine, and I’m relatively certain it’s not helped at all by the ghastly poo-poo brown and yucky gold paint job, but I suppose it’s expensive to paint a massive block long hotel (actually apartments these days) and we’re probably lucky the old thing is standing at all at this point.

Inside Gilda’s is a combination of old fashioned Italian and pleasant psuedo-modern-comfortable, not really mock-Italian like Mama Mia’s, but certainly not cool trendy NW Italian like Fratelli, Ciao Vito or a Cena (and nothing like Nostrana, which is just sleekly woody NW.) IMG_2122The restaurant has a relatively square layout, with the kitchen and wine area taking up a good part of two sides of the room, but the prevalent color is a cool and attractive sage green, which classes things up, although some of the art is a little too much in the  “pretend you’re in Italy” vein. I also had to deduct some “atmospheric points” for the big refrigerator case of wine that runs along the side of the dining area, any place besides Pix or other bakeries that has a big refrigerator in the diner’s sightline loses points in my book, it just doesn’t scream fine dining to me (more like ice cream parlour.) Also, the gigantic black clock on the North wall of the dining room probably should go, although it is an attractively modern and unusual design, it doesn’t appear to work, and dupes easily confused eaters like me into constantly thinking it’s hours later than it really is (you never know with a Restaurant Roulette dinner, some are so long, it could be any time when we are finished.)

My last complaint, this was probably the worst bathroom I remember at any RR dinner, but I don’t know how much of this you can blame on Gilda’s, as it doesn’t actually have its own restroom, it shares the one down the hall with the somewhat dubious looking Commodore Bar, not a place I’m ever planning to visit, no matter how many drinks I’ve already had. IMG_2126You could actually smell the bar wafting down the hall, never a good sign. So maybe the restroom is a common structure issue, but it seems to me that if you are trying to run a nice restaurant like Gilda’s, you would want to make sure your customers had access to a stalls with locks, cleanliness, and other niceties.This one was approaching something you would find at Satyricon in the 80s (okay, not quite that bad, more like Starry Night (or the Roseland to you “newcomers.”)) Not exactly the sort of place you would want to give birth.(Got that H.H.B.?)

On the opposite end of the complaint spectrum, the service was really good, the hostess(es) sweet and the waiter excellent, and the food service very good in general. I had read in advance that the waiter was going to be one of those over the top Italian guys who kisses all the women’s hands and makes mortifying compliments (think Piazza Italia.) IMG_2128I think our waiter was the same guy, a middle-aged very Italian fellow with piercing blue eyes, but except for the rather hackneyed “excellent choice” routine (just once I want them to proclaim “that all tastes like crap”) his conversation was completely professional and his waiter practices very good, especially making sure each freshly prepared dish made it to the table the second it was ready. Perhaps in the early days of Gilda’s he was told to ham it up a bit, but this evening he came across as nothing less than a gentleman and fine server.

IMG_2124Gilda’s has beer/wine only, but as this was another one of those dinners where I was relatively incapacitated by illness, similar to Andina, I probably didn’t even need the wine I had, although the house Pinot Grigio was decent, and I think Heidi had some sort of Rodney Strong red (maybe Merlot) that she really liked. I also had about 6 glasses of water, as I had gotten a really serious virus right after our dinner at Trebol and almost three weeks later still had a diminished voice, sinus infection, and coughing issues (well, at least it ONLY lasted a month.)

After some bread with herbed olive oil, which we all appreciated, we launched into some starters …

Deep-fried Carnaroli Rice balls stuffed with fresh Mozzarella and served with Tomato sauce.
I think Heidi and Julian found these really filling but good. It was interesting to see how the presentations vary from restaurant to restaurant, I had Arancini a couple of times at Cafe Castagna, and those were smallish, walnut sized rice balls, but these were big honkers, more like baseballs.

Ahi Tuna, Avocado, Tomato confit, Agro Dolce Onions, Lemon & Chive.
David had this pretty (and large) molding of squares of reddish tuna and accoutrements, and shared it readily with all interested parties. Really fresh, mild, and delicious.

Fried Calamari, Sea Scallops and Tiger Shrimp with Caper Aioli & Lemon.
This was one of the items Roger Porter mentioned as a highlight in his review, and sure enough, it was really tasty. Most of it was calamari, and the shrimp were few and far between, but as I have shrimp quite frequently, and calamari rarely, I didn’t mind. Not cheap at $13.00, but a really generous portion (which is probably why normal folk like Cherene and Scott shared it) airily breaded, not greasy, and with the seafood not at all rubbery. The Caper Aioli was tasty too, although you’ve probably never heard me complain about any aioli.

SOUP OF THE DAY – Crab Bisque
Newcomer Scott checked this out and seemed to totally enjoy it.

Arugula, Goat Cheese, toasted Walnuts and Balsamic Vinegar.
A pretty presentation, with large slices of beets. It seemed to drag a bit behind the other starters (they might have been timing it to go with the others salads, which for everyone but Glenda were coming as the secondary starter) but Glenda found it delicious and worth the wait.

Romaine, house-made dressing, roasted Garlic Croutons, Reggiano Parmesan.
Although I appreciate a good Caesar salad myself, David, Heidi, and Julian all are Caesar salad fanatics, and order them almost every time we see them on the menu, which is of course the majority of the time. It has to be saying something that all three seemed to agree this was one of the best C. Salads they had ever tasted, largely due to the zesty, garlic laden dressing.

As far as the main courses we all had, those are listed below. IMG_2130Maybe because the conversational level ramped up about then, I didn’t hear too much as far as specific commentary of what people thought about individual dishes, but the general consensus was that everyone liked everything they had, and I heard no complaints whatsoever. I do remember Cherene mentioned that although she doesn’t like fish that much, she found the halibut preparation really good. I didn’t pay more attention to how it was cooked or what came with it, but now that I’ve reviewed my photos I can give a rudimentary description.


Halibut with pesto sauce, grilled asparagus and polenta.

Artichoke Hearts, Mushrooms, Sun-dried Cranberries, Sage & Madeira

Carnaroli Rice, Dungeness Crab, Tiger Shrimp, Spanish Saffron,IMG_2132
Peas, Zucchine & roasted Tomato

Ahi grilled rare, with fresh cracked Black Pepper, Gaeta & Castelvetrano Olives, Capers,
Lemon, fresh Oregano and Basil

Silvies Valley Ranch Beef rolls, stuffed with Carlton Farms Bacon, Pecorino Romano, Garlic & Parsley, Browned & simmered in Tomato sauce

Ricotta and Spinach with marinara sauce. This was what I had for a main course, and although just like it sounds, it was pretty simple, it was still hearty and good. The sauce was just about right, zesty but not too overwhelmed by tomato, nice and thick, and plentiful enough to cover the pasta. The ravioli themselves were cheesy enough that you didn’t have that weird medicinal flavor you sometimes get with too much spinach, and there were just the right amount of pillows to fill you up.

This was a place where the waiter read the desserts to you, nothing written down, so you had go by his brief description.

TIRAMISU -Very good I was told.

CHOCOLATE LAYER CAKE -Rather disappointing, particularly for the going rate of $9.00, really expensive! My problem wasn’t necessarily the quality, it was as good as any other dense chocolate cake, perhaps the issue for me was the description. IMG_2134Generally when someone mentions layer cake it describes a light, airy cake of several layers with filling/frosting in between. I love this kind of cake, and you find it in very few restaurants these days, Pambiche being a notable exception (that’s why I’ve always loved Pambiche.) This cake was a thick dense layer of flour-less chocolate cake and a thick layer of a mousse-like substance. It tasted fine in your standard intense chocolate way, but had nothing special like sea salt or an unusual texture that would make it worth $9. It was really more of a chocolate torte than a chocolate layer cake.

That complaint aside (and I would not have complained so much if it was a $7 mislabeled dessert, not a $9 mislabeled dessert) everyone enjoyed Gilda’s and thought it was a good find. IMG_2129As a general rule, the location in the no-mans-land of upper downtown Portland South of Burnside would seem like a major impediment, but it’s close to Timber’s Stadium and right across the street from Artist’s Repertory, so with a bit more signage and some advertising Gilda’s could do alright, especially as the food is good, the atmosphere is decent, and the service really pleasant. Another bonus, how many other good restaurants are on that side of Burnside, in that area? The prices might be a bit high for the average Timber’s fan, while my glass of house wine was cheap ($6) the starter was $13 (sharable though) my pasta was $19, and my dessert a whopping $9. These are very average prices for a good Portland meal these days though, and not exorbitant for a restaurant where the quality of the ingredients was high, especially the seafood, and the food seems carefully prepared. They really do need to work on that advertising though, if it takes months for an avid foodie to hear of their existence, how is Joe Schmo gonna know where to go?