THE DINING REPORT – THE RINGSIDE FISH HOUSE
Feeling Poor on Park Avenue

I’ve never been a Ringside kind of gal. IMG_2392Even before I started this group, I’d been eating out quite freely since my teenage years, certainly more than average, but for one reason or other, the Ringside never drew me in (maybe it’s the name, somehow sitting next to an elevated platform where two guys are beating the daylights out of each other, with spit flying, just doesn’t sound overly appetizing to me.) We all know I love my beef though, so it’s hard to figure out. I’ve never been a fan of those sporty guy or corporate sort of places, so maybe that’s the issue. We did go to “nicer” restaurants though, so why the Ringside never came into the mix is a bit surprising, maybe it’s because we BBQed steak at home quite often, so wanted something different when we ate out.

I was only at the Original Ringside (of course now we have the totally revamped Original Ringside) once in fact, right around the turn of the 21st Century. Wow, that was a miserable experience (not due to the cooking or decor at the Ringside that evening, although those upscale prices did not help.) The guy whom I had been hanging around with forever, had a father who was having some big birthday (65th, 70th?) and as this was a nouveau rich kind of family, Dad’s favorite eatery was that Old Boy’s Paradise, the Ringside. It was decided that almost the entire family would come, all four sons and their spouses and me, the arm accessory of the middle brother. Although I balked at having to pay for a Ringside dinner, as this whole family and I always seemed like we were from different galaxies, I was assured that if I went my meal would be paid for, as the birthday boy was going to be paying for everyone’s meal, via the family matriarch. Of course lots of expensive grub was ordered, with starters, and big honkin’ steaks. When the bill came, third brother is line decided that it was tasteless to have daddy pay for the birthday extravaganza (duh) and that everyone would have to split up the bill, including payment for mom and dad. It’s funny how when it came time to pay the bill, all of these brothers, who had been talking about virtually nothing the entire evening but stocks and expensive houses and cars, had no money on them and few credit cards (but plenty of rancor towards one another.) Plus, the brothers with the families that had eaten the most food wanted to pay the smallest part of the bill, or have mommy pay for everyone. Anyway, as you might guess from this quaint little story, innocents like me were the people caught in the crossfire and ended up emptying their wallet when the check came. It’s true, I was paid back for a portion of what I put out, but the entire evening was so idiotic, it hardly gave me reason to ever want to return to the Ringside.Over the last couple of years I had read many comments online, alluding to the fact that the Ringside was starting to show its age, that it was way behind the times, was full or tattered decor, and ofter smelled of mildew. Also, many comments were made that the steaks were only about the fourth best in town. The other thing I always remembered about my evening at the Ringside, besides the three ring family circus I was dining with, was how dark, dank, and old fashioned the ringside seemed. It was like crawling inside a pair of old flannel pajamas for a nice dinner, not you wearing pajamas, but the restaurant trapped inside some old fragrant jammies.Portland is a hip dining destination these days though, and finally the Ringside was astute enough to realize that they were no longer amongst Portland’s elite eateries, so would have to make drastic changes so as to not become an overpriced Poor Richards on the upper west side. IMG_2405The original Ringside was closed for a long renovation, and the restaurant was temporarily moved to a really great spot with lots of potential, the big spot in Fox Tower facing the new park and right next to Regal cinema (actual light inside the restaurant!) By the time the old space was renovated, I’m sure the ownership of the Ringside looked at the books and saw how great the new place was doing, and mulled over the favorable comments they had garnered about their steakhouse being revitalized, and probably were a bit sorry to leave, even if their old space was now all swanked up and an important part of Portland dining history. Viola! The Ringside Fish House was born! (Seafood, yaaaay, another item that is plentiful in our region but that people still manage to charge an arm and a leg (a fin and a gill) for.

Now that the attractive, modernist park is open across the street (opposed to a block of run down food carts or a gaping construction wound- yes, like the one 1 block North) this really is a great space for a sophisticated urban restaurant, light and bright with big windows and cozy seating. The first mess of a restaurant in this space, Tondero, didn’t even last a month (I think it was like two weeks) and the second restaurant, Harrison, came from a successful pedigree (Oba!) but had pretty weird, mediocre food and scary bar decor (orange, with giant hideous paintings of children.) I would think this has to be one of the absolutely most expensive restaurant leases in Portland though, especially now that the park is completed, so it seems like the Ringside Fish House might be a perfect fit. It certainly seemed like it was doing well the night we were there, and was especially popular with the west hills and blue hair (silvery blue, not punky blue) set.

This was an interesting dinner for people watching both inside and outside the restaurant. Since we were right next to the window, on the second floor of Fox Tower, looking out toward Nordstrom, I could see all the well-healed types coming out with their bulging Nordy bags and others passing by just going to and fro, many to the cinema above. As most of our dinners tend to be places on the Eastside, or in the Pearl, I almost never go shopping, and I can’t afford “true” culture these days, I rarely visit downtown for anything, and am often discombobulated by all the “weirdos” out there roaming around (Oh, wait, that’s just my own reflection in the window.”) Inside, there were many special occasion and old monied types on display in their finery. When I got there, David, who was already at the table, commented on a quite a bit older woman, sitting at a table near us, with elaborate firecracker orange hair molded in an elaborate semi-Spanish do jutting forward about 6 inches in front of her. When Glenda passed behind her, with her expansive but always well maintained white hair, David said he feared a “Clash of the Titans,” but luckily neither woman noticed the other, or we could have had a really nasty hair fracas on our hands. I would bet on Glenda, who may seem mild-mannered, but who, with her fervently stated aversion to human touch, has got to be familiar these days with throwing a good punch or two.

We were actually a very small group this evening, despite the fact that numerous people had told me they wanted to eat at the Ringside Fish House, once I put it on the roster, the usual story, everyone vanished into thin air. I myself blanched at the dollar figures on the online menu, but when people originally said they wanted to try it out, did they think the Fish House would negate the Ringside part of the name, and the prices would be like Skippers? All I can say is, keep this in mind folks, if you see the Ringside Food Cart, it’s probably not the cheapest in the pod.

I myself was grasping for ways to save money this evening, and didn’t even look at the cocktail menu, or wine list, instead asking for Ginger Ale. I also split a dessert with Sam, so what bigger sacrifice could I really have made? It wasn’t easy for me anyway, I always am intimidated by these fancy pants places, and usually feel during the entire meal like someone will walk up to me pointing, and say, “remove her, she grew up in Felony Flats.”

I remember for years The Ringside was famous for having waiters only, not waitresses, so I was glad to see our server here was actually a woman, and seemed a seasonal professional to boot.IMG_2399 I must say, however, that she was a bit eager to take those orders though, I hardly got one flabby buttocks type cheek onto the chair, and was immediately descended upon for my drink request. The exact same thing happened to both Glenda and Sam when they arrived, they barely even sat down, and the server wanted to know what they wanted to drink. The waitress seemed like she had been around the restaurant block quite a few times, and probably knew better, so my guess is that they had a busy Friday night and were trying to turn the tables as quickly as possible. For a company that has always been know for their extremely professional servers, it seemed a bit surprising.

Other than this instance, however, the waitress was good. IMG_2396There was the problem with the vermin on the table though, which shows you, such things can happen anywhere, even the nicest places (I must say, however, I’ve never been to another movie at the Pioneer Place Regal since I read they had a major rodent problem in the theaters there. Of course, moat of the movies there SUCK!) Anyway, as it happened, the vermin scurrying across the table in this instance was a tiny little sugar ant, whom I was enjoying watching and photographing (see totally unidentifiable photo) until some really cold and ruthless individual sitting across from me decided he would kill the tiny little creature and eliminate all evidence of its being. Naturally this took most of the wind out of my sails for the rest of the evening, it’s bad enough to have death on my plate and the three other plates around me, did we also have to have tiny flecks of death strewn across the dinner table? After all, it might have looked like just a tiny insect to some, but this might have been the Gandhi or MLK of the Ant Kingdom.

This was ANOTHER of those dinners where the minute people sat down they started mentioning that what they were planning on ordering was not on that evening’s menu. Hey everybody, that’s why I always try to mention that the web menus are sample menus. i admit, especially if I think I’m going to have a hard time finding something, I too select in advance what I’m “hoping” to have, but then I try to have a backup choice as well, as many of the online menus say “changes daily.” I actually thought the menu was pretty similar to what I had attached to the RSVP notice (in other words, the things I had selected in advance were there) but both Sam and Glenda mentioned that items they had strongly contemplated were missing, and this seemed to completely throw Glenda off, and she had a really hard time deciding what to order (which seemed a bit odd, since when she had RSVPed she had commented that everything looked so good, but then where there were slightly fewer items to choose from, she was completely flummoxed.) Sam dealt with the situation in a totally different manner, she just ordered something completely extravagant.

One rather weird coincidence, both Glenda and I wanted the Lobster Soup to begin with, but once the waitress described it, neither of us ordered it. I remembered the delicious Lobster Bisque I had a Metrovino and was hoping it would be like that, creamy, rich and delicate (not to mention hot.) Glenda wanted Lobster Soup only if it was chilled. As it happened, the soup preparation was neither hot nor cold (it was room temperature) and when the waitress said it was not bisque at all, that seemed to eliminate all promise in my eyes. So we both decided on different starters.

Here’s what we ordered at this dinner …

Ahi Tuna Tartare, Old Bay Chips, Tomato Aioli, Quail Egg Yolk – This was Glenda’s starter, after much indecision (those missing items, again.) As it happened, she loved the Ahi, she said it was one of the best things she’s ever had (could the Tuna have been French?) and she was so enthused she put some on a plate for each of us to sample, which is revolutionary, as Glenda usually only shares when she doesn’t like something.IMG_2397 Not such a hit with her, the Old Bay Chips, which she immediately dispatched in our direction. If you don’t count things like rich desserts and ultra French, fat-laden items, Glenda is a pretty healthy eater, and rarely eats fried potatoes of any sort or even “regular” potatoes at the dinners, as I think she considers them unnecessary carbs. So you can imagine how she would feel about tucking into a plate of potato chips, although I did eventually see her try one. The main reason I’m even discussing this (besides the magical and fascinating life we all know Glenda leads every moment of her existence) is that “Old Bay” specter that looms all over the place on the RFH menu, which seemed odd to me, as least at a restaurant that I think would be categorized as “elite.” As most people who cook at all might know, “Old Bay Seasoning” is a product you can buy at your local grocery store (BRIGHT yellow and blue can) originally marketed to boil crab and other shellfish in. Although I don’t think it’s as common here out West, it sounds like it’s a big deal on the more rightside coast and down South, and people use it to season all sorts of crazy items, including potato chips. It looks like you can even buy several brands of Old Bay seasoned chips in those regions (thank you Wikipedia, as always.) It seems odd to me that a born and bred Stumptown restaurant would have Old Bay this and that all over their menu, but there is was, on several items. Do you suppose the Ringside gets advertizing revenue for mentioning it? Wouldn’t a high-end restaurant create their own special seasonings, or at least not mention when then are using a product available everywhere, including Winco? If you were using a “common seasoning” wouldn’t you use one that appeals more to Portlanders (hops and coffee maybe?) This was a baffling mystery to me. I did try a couple of these magical chips though, and I must say, they were totally unspectacular, and I could not even tell if they were made fresh, in-house, or just pulled out of a bag shipped from way out yonder.

Grilled Romaine ‘BLT’, House made Bacon, Cherry Tomatoes, Garlic Croutons – I’m pretty sure this was what David had as a starter. I think he thought it was pretty good, but was disappointed that it was lacking Old Bat Seasoning (as well he should have been.)

Sweet Corn Risotto, Laughing Bird Shrimp, Housemade Bacon – This was my starter, although it was not what a planned on before I came (although I don’t remember why I veered away from my pre-dinner choice.) I really have not ordered Risotto is a restaurant for over 12 years or so (the last time was in San Gimignano, Italy, great town, hard to pronounce name) but it’s amazing how much less of a gummy wad it turns out being when the pros make it, opposed to when I make it.IMG_2390 For a year or two I was on quite a risotto kick at home, always the same flavor, wild mushroom and good quality bacon, and most times, although edible, it could be a tad sticky (most likely because after about 45 minutes of stirring I get impatient and whip up the heat and add more liquid at one time that I should.) As for The Ringside Fish House’s version (oh, do you think I should talk about them in this review too?) I loved the first couple of bites (the ones with the big hunks of bacon in them) but enjoyed the bites with shrimp in them less, largely because shrimp is generally something I prefer in salad or as a stand alone item, the briny taste and rubbery texture doesn’t thrill me that much when mixed with a bunch of other items. That being said, I largely enjoyed the Risotto, but thought it rather odd that both David and Sam had the same comment when they sampled it, “ooh, that’s interesting.” This is usually not the most banner waving, high-fiving comment someone can make about your food. If they want “interesting” they should try my risotto, now that’s “interesting”, it tends to be so earthy from the wild mushrooms that you have images of a mouth full of dirt, with a bit of compost mixed in, when you are eating it.

On to the entrees …

Although the Ringside Fish House seemed like it was doing quite well (and wanted to turn our table from the beginning) I could not help but wonder if much of this wasn’t to do with the $20 off coupon they had posted on both Facebook and at least one other food website. Three of us had actually spotted the coupon and printed it out, but as Sam was the first one to mention it, I told her she could use it (you could only have one per table.) Because she had the coupon, and didn’t see what she was originally planning on getting, she decided to splurge with the Butter Poached Maine Lobster Tail, Roasted Fingerlings, Oyster Mushrooms and Asparagus. Sam really is a generous person, and consequently insisted all takers should have some of her Lobster. For some reason or other, I’ve never been a big lobster fan (like duh, it’s the price!!!) although I do remember treking down to the Sizzler when I was in grade school for that good old steak and lobster special, but naturally the steak was actually a brown painted sponge and the lobster tail was a replica made of rubber (and sadly, I still liked them both.) Over the last couple of decades though, the only lobster tail I’ve had has been from a grocery store. That being said, tasting Sam’s $37 Butter Poached Maine Lobster Tail, I really didn’t see much difference from the one I got for $5.99 at the grocery counter, and while Sam found it good, she was a bit disappointed too that it didn’t leap out as being outstanding in any way.

You can tell how much not having the planned menu items threw Glenda off, as she actually ordered half-cooked Tuna for her entree after just having it as an appetizer. (I stand corrected, the first was raw tuna.) In this case it was: Herb Crusted Rare Ahi Tuna, Picholine Olives, Oven-dried Tomato, and Fingerling Potato.IMG_2391 Perhaps worried that she was about to become a victim of mercury poisoning, she once again shared her Chicken of the Sea with us. I’m not quite sure what recipe element it was, but this incarnation of the tuna I found less enjoyable than the raw version before. Glenda was happy with what she consumed, however, and when Glenda is happy, we are all happy. (Or maybe it’s that when Glenda is unhappy, we are all unhappy.)

Even David, who seemed to think I had it in for the Ringside chain (only the prices, dude) and confessed he loved the moldy old Ringside, seemed to dither about with the menu ( it seemed like none of us could not get it together this evening.)a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/66124488@N06/6149142322/” title=”IMG_2400 by eat til’ we bust, on Flickr”>IMG_2400 He finally decided on Slow Cooked Alaskan Halibut, Potato Gnocchi, Andouille Sausage, Manila Clams, Orange Reduction. About 5 minutes later, probably once it was already swimming his way, he expressed displeasure, saying he never should have ordered Halibut, it’s so bland. (if you want lively, Mr., next time order the Electric Eel, that will spark your palate.) Sure enough, it came, and it was pretty, but sadly, rather bland, but tasty bland.

As it was something I tend to enjoy anyway, and one of the less expensive seafood items ($22) I had decided in advance I would have the Johnston County Ham wrapped Idaho Golden Trout, with Dungeness Crab, Heirloom Melon, Almonds and Cinnamon Yogurt. Whatever I was expecting, it never would have looked like this, sort of a dark brown pod. At first I thought perhaps it might even be the wrong item, but something on the plate assured me it was the right entree, maybe some stray almonds. Since it was three weeks ago I don’t even remember the crab, there must have been a small wad on the plate, and melon? – if they say so. I suppose I was way too wrapped up in unraveling the mystery of my brown fish pod. I guess Johnson County Ham is practically the new Old Bay Seasoning of Ham, as I’ve seen it now several places, but don’t know why it’s allegedly so special. Even when I was eating it I was still confused exactly how they came up with this particular “fish object.” They had obviously de-boned and de-skinned a ruby trout, and somehow compressed it into some sort of fish cylinder. a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/66124488@N06/6149142218/” title=”IMG_2398 by eat til’ we bust, on Flickr”>IMG_2398Then they had wrapped said “fish object” is some very thinly sliced and way-salty ham, and fried it all up until really crispy, or so it seemed. Although overly salty for my palate ( I might have seen a deer licking one across the street in the park) it really was not bad, if they gave me one for free I would certainly eat it again (and I’m sure they totally want to, with this glowing review making fun of their fish pods!) but it’s just not what I expect when I order a trout, I like a nice grilled trout crinkly on the edges dripping in butter loaded with numerous little bones (the random coking element creates an exciting mood of danger during consumption!) not a fish object expertly de-boned and resembling a processed, stuffed chicken breast (from Maple Leaf Farms.) But really, that’s just me, I’m sure many people marvel at the ingenuity of this fish creation, and find it delicious (especially if they have deer ancestors) and can’t say enough about it. And really, should I expect a common trout anyway, in an entree mentioning crab, melon, and cinnamon yogurt?

I was also the only person to order a side dish. I always thought steak houses and other fancy dining spots were famous for making you order things to go along with your meat (or in this case fish) and that they were commonly huge, so I figured $6 was not that bad for a giant plate of some expertly prepared Grilled Asparagus. If any of this was around, it sure did not come to our table, all I got was a little plate with three of four spears that could only be termed “The Asparagus of Shrinkage.” I know people get all bent out of shape when asparagus gets over-cooked, but I’m actually pretty flexible in my asparagus eat-age, I even believe over-cooked, limp, and slimy asparagus has its own interesting flavor, and I’ll even eat that. This, however, was a ridiculous excuse for asparagus, tiny, dried out, and basically flavorless. They should have paid me at least $6 to eat it.

Originally when Glenda finished her feast of tuna (attack of the Ahi!) she said she was stuffed and wasn’t having dessert. Of course, the minute the waitress put away the crumb scrapper and placed a menu down in front of Glenda, she had changed her mind.IMG_2402 Her dessert was rather large and elaborate, and I think it was something like a poached peach, vanilla ice cream, and Madeleines. RFH had both salted caramel and brown sugar homemade gelato, which sounded rather redundant, but I thought about trying one or the other, but then when I mentioned splitting the cupcake sampler with Sam, she thought about that a minute, and decided that was a good idea. Thinking back, I believe the three flavors were something like Chocolate Peanut Butter, Key Lime, and Carrot. They weren’t huge, and three was probably about right for the average dessert. As I told Sam, I thought they were okay, but they weren’t exactly St. Cupcake quality, and none of the three flavors really stood out for me. I was glad to split the $8 tab with someone else though.

Of all of us, I would say Glenda probably enjoyed the Ringside Fish House the most. David seemed a tad disappointed (as a Ringside fan) and Sam and I were both rather ambivalent. It’s certainly a tasteful sort of place, quite high end ambiance, and the food is decent. If you were a well-heeled sort and could afford one of those delicious looking seafood platters (I think the giant one was $75) you would probably enjoy this place a great deal more than those folks forced to pinch pennies like me and basically our entire table.IMG_2403 I really don’t like these high-end places that make me feel poor, knowing that I could plunk down $6 at a place like Toro Bravo or Andina, and really swoon over what I was eating, opposed to Sam with her $37 dollar lobster tail that we both sort of went, it’s okay, and seems fresh, and there was that nice coupon. If you have out of town guests, and they want nice atmosphere, a good view of Portland, and some fresh seafood, somewhat thoughtfully prepared, by all means bring them to Ringside Fish House. Of course, they probably need to be relatively well off. I wouldn’t bring your poor Hare Krishna friends here. In their case, I would try one of those plentiful, open at night food pods.  Many of those probably have some menu items as interesting as what Ringside Fish House has. I doubt they have those fascinating “fish objects” though.

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