THE DINING REPORT – TRADER VIC’S PuPu Plates, Potted Parrots and Over Active Cleavage

IMG_2464Many people around my age have underage drinking stories of the original Portland Trader Vic’s, which for many years was located in the S.E. corner of the Benson Hotel, where El Gouge-O has successfully been hanging out for a number of more recent years. I don’t think I ever had one morsel of food at the original TV’s, but I do have fond memories of a few Potted Parrots there, this fruity rum drink that comes with a parrot on a stick you get to take home. I was never one of the under agers (that’s me, Miss Law and Order) but I do remember a group of us taking a friend along on a weird late night jaunt there, and I don’t think she was even out of high school. The thing I remember most was having a Potted Parrot delivered to our table for this guy who had run to the bathroom, and since he wasn’t around at the time, we all put a straw in and took a slurp. I think at least one person left their straw behind. Anyway, once Mr. Potty Break came back to the table, he immediately protested, saying no, he had not ordered another drink (we were poor youths, and weren’t dripping in cash) and made the waitress take it back. About 15 minutes later we saw this exact same drink being delivered to another table, slightly slurped and with an excess of straws. Truly appalling, but it did provide a big laugh.

I have this foggy notion (after all, I am OLD) that sometime after that, maybe about 20 years ago, a slightly known date and I meandered into Trader Vic’s during the Starlight Parade, when I again sucked up a Potted Parrot.IMG_2434 I’m pretty sure that was my last brush with the Old Trader Vic’s, and not too many years later they folded up their beach umbrella and left town. Except for a few employees and some major rum hounds, I don’t think anyone really cared much, it’s not like people other than hotel guests and perhaps some other misguided tourist ever ate there. That was my memory of the old Trader Vic’s, except for some alcohol crazed types in the bar, it always seemed pretty empty, although it might have been that it was always so dark that you just couldn’t see people. I also remember they had some incredible blowfish and puffer fish hanging from the ceiling, probably a good place to keep the prickly little objects, to avoid confrontation from all the inebriated people stumbling in and out of the lounge (I think back then the drinks were nice and strong.)

Polynesian food is hardly cutting edge though, sort of like cocktails weinees and cheese fondue (okay, I still like that) and I get the impression that Trader Vic’s has fallen on some hard times.IMG_2438 If you do a little research you find out that both the Seattle and San Francisco Trader Vic’s closed in the early 2000s, and now the ones that are left are in places like Scottsdale, Arizona and Palo Alto, California (college students out on a drinking binge perhaps?) although they’ve also hung on in LA and Florida. Also, interestingly, there are oodles of them in the UAE (I guess Middle Easterners like their frou-frou drinks) and a couple in Thailand. I think it would totally short circuit my brain, however, trying to figure out what these places all have in common and why the Trader Vic’s have survived there, and in places like Oman and Abu Dhabi, thrived. Lots of money to waste on crazy drinks and so-so food perhaps? (They did choose a gigantic space in the Pearl, after all.)

I think Trader Vic’s surprised almost everyone involved in Portland’s dining scene (cookers, servers, and eaters) by announcing they were coming back to Portland, and settling, in all places, the ultra fancy, quite often snooty, P-District (Beaverton would seem more likely, although I can also imagine them going into the elite, but still almost carnival like, Bridgeport Village.) IMG_2442They did pick a space that made sense for them it would seem, the corner that has already hosted two other failed chains, Manzana Grill and Palomino. At least they had the sense to not plunk themselves down on Alberta or Mississippi. Better to go where consistent money is flaunted, rather than an artistic, funky neighborhood where every fifth person is of little or modest means being priced out of their own neighborhood by gentrification.

Still, if you were going to bet which long gone chain (or if any long gone chain) was going to re-enter the Portland dining market and spend a virtual fortune rehabbing a space, who would think it would be Trader Vic’s? Is there some recent giant demand for Polynesian food I haven’t heard about? Clearly, they’ve seen the press about Portland’s hot dining scene and decided there are big bucks floating around here to be spent on eating out. Why else re-enter a market you left a long time ago, with no apparent present demand?

None of which stopped me from having a dinner at Trader Vic’s, whether their re-opening made sense or not. There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of fun now and then, even if the menu isn’t necessarily in line with foodie tastes or interests. And I did have such fond memories of those Potted Parrots.

IMG_2440Not counting the tiny places that don’t have much room to work with, Trader Vic’s was certainly one of the most challenging (and frustrating) reservations I have managed in my over five years of doing this, both my dealings with the restaurant and even my dealing with group members, trying to figure out how many were actually coming (to book the right size table.) Originally my plan was to do the dinner in August (Tiki Month!) but when I called TV’s for the reservation about three weeks in advance, I was rather shocked when they said they didn’t think they had room (it’s a big space.) Actually, the employee answering the phone sounded about fourteen and not too sure of anything, and said she had to talk to her Mother (eerr, Manager) and would call me back. I didn’t get a call back that afternoon, or for several days, so I set up a dinner elsewhere. About three days later, however, Trader Vic’s did call back though, saying they could fit us in only after 9:30 PM (no thanks, I’ve already went to bed by then and started on my next breakfast.) I did ask if a Friday five weeks from then would work for a group of ten though, and when told yes, booked that at a more traditional dining group hour. Somehow I wasn’t too impressed with the restaurant’s level of professionalism, however, not bothering to call a party of ten potential diners back for three days to tell them whether they could do the reservation or not. I guess they don’t quite understand how competitive the dining market in around P-Town yet, and that if you can’t get one reservation, you just move on to another really good restaurant that will take you.

An even bigger pratfall this time out proved to be our group itself, and trying to get various people who had shown enthusiasm over the last few months toward the Trader Vic’s dinner to even reply to the RSVP notice in a timely fashion. IMG_2449When I booked a table for ten, I was sure I was going to have to exclude some people, as so many people had said this was a dinner they wanted to do. I completely understood Heidi and Julian not being available, as they were about to spew forth life, and we certainly did not want to see that happen in the middle of a Potted Parrot and Puu-Puu. Also, Kiersi was recovering from a cracked back after falling off the wall at a rock gym, and that seemed like a good reason to not go out and play. It became clear, however, that over the previous months, when I had mentioned that I anticipated an expensive dinner at TV’s, that this warning had fallen on deaf ears. After I made the reservation and sent out the RSVP and menu, suddenly, no one wanted to come. It was too expensive. Dining out in Portland IS so expensive, and times really are so awful, I do totally understand not wanting to fork out big bucks, as I economize constantly to scrape up the money for every dinner. That being said, many of the drinks at Trader Vic’s were actually no more expensive than most places, and with careful planning, I’m certain a few more people could have fit it into their budget, if they had just shown a little enthusiasm for trying to work it out. Especially if one considers the level of sharing that happens in our group, half the time I’m full and my entree hasn’t even arrived, because I’ve been so inundated with everyone else’s food.

IMG_2447Generally, I’m happy enough with a smaller group of three or four, but not in this instance, when I have a table for ten reserved, and there appear to be no tables for four available, as the restaurant is insanely busy. The last thing I want to say to the folks who reward me by actually wanting to come is “Thanks, but we don’t have a table or reservation now.” This isn’t how I work. As it happens, at the last moment I was able to wheedle someone into changing our table for ten into a table for four, which prevented me from being a really bad hostess, but all the stress beforehand didn’t exactly make this a dinner I will look back fondly on.

Someone must be looking back fondly at dinners at Trader Vic’s, as the place was packed. The up front area with the bar was particularly crazy, it seemed like people were standing about six rows deep, and it was pretty loud in there.IMG_2456 Most of the restaurants we frequent tend to be smaller places, so it seemed amazing how many zigs and zags there were getting to our table, which was towards the back of the restaurant. All of the common areas are decked out with ultra elaborate “island decor”, including busy wallpaper and dug-out canoes hanging from the ceiling. It’s been so long ago, but my memory of the old Trader Vic’s was of casually dressed servers, maybe Hawaiian shirts and such, but at Trader Vic’s Pearl, everyone is in dressy black, especially the multitude of attractive young female servers, although this being 2011 in P-Town, you find slinky black dresses with lots of tattoos. I must say though, to a person, although young and fancy, all of the staff seemed really nice, and even gave me a personal tour to the restroom (are you saying I’m OLD, girlie???) Many of the clientele seemed a tad “snoot full of money” oriented, but I didn’t see this from anyone working there, always a breath of fresh air in The Pearl.

IMG_2458The bar seemed full of post-happy hour revelers, but the restaurant itself seemed like it had its share of special occasion type people, those scary sorts who show up with balloons and presents (only acceptable when the recipient is me.) Toward the end of our meal another large group came in and sat along one wall of our particular dining room, and one of the men had a voice that could deafen an air horn. In such instances I must say the smaller groups are better, as you can flee the restaurant faster.

Three of us were dressed pretty standard for a decent restaurant, but Sam was all swanked-out this evening, wearing a tasteful black dress, pearls, and with her hair neatly bunned-up and be-combed. IMG_2460At first I think a couple employees and patrons thought she worked there, as she was dressed just like the staff, but after a few sips of her specialty cocktail, when Sam started thrusting her cleavage in David’s direction, I think the staff (and patrons) were pretty happy Sam did not work there. Sadly, (mercifully) I can’t remember what the thrusting cleavage was all about, but it might have been something to do with a photo opportunity. When Sam is fancifully bedecked she usually likes to have as many photos taken of her as possible, then emailed to her, so she has adequate promotional materials for her social media endeavors. Our Sam, she loves the limelight.

Two of us knew what drink we wanted before we even got there, but the other two appeared dazed by the drink menu.IMG_2448 Cora, an old hand at Trader Vic’s, wanted her drink of memory, a single sized Scorpion (opposed to the Scorpion Bowl for four.) The glass was quite large, and filled with a yummy combination of rum, brandy, orange juice and a “whisper of almonds.” I, of course, had my beloved “Potted Parrot,” and while it certainly had a tasty collection of fruit juices, it seemed a bit light on the liquor these days (at least I think there is supposed to be fire-water in there somewhere, as the only menu description is that you get to take the parrot home, a tad vague. I’m pretty certain one of the ingredients is light rum.)

David, who always flounders around without his Rusty Nail (which is probably better than floundering around with his rusty nail) finally asked for a Pina Colada, which at TV’s is called a Bahai (light rum, coconut and pineapple.)IMG_2436 Sam took about four hours to go through the drink selections, I think she was looking for the most photogenic cocktail. She finally selected the rather unsavory sounding “Nelson’s Blood” which according to the menu contained “blood orange puree, dark rum and ginger beer.” It might have had lots of rum, as soon that cleavage came out.

Because Trader Vic’s is expensive, I knew beforehand I could only do a cocktail, a starter, and a “reasonably priced” entree (not the $40 Cowboy Rib Eye I would have loved to have ordered.)IMG_2435 The restaurant did help us blunt our appetites a bit by bringing of all things, bread and housemade peanut butter. I must say this was novel, when is the last time you ate at an expensive restaurant and they brought out a peanut butter starter? Most of the time with our group, every bit of bread and whatever accompanies it gets gobbled up right away, but the peanut butter wasn’t really that big a hit this evening, just too peculiar I guess. Everyone tried some though. David thought it went badly with flatbread that they brought with it, so asked for a new basket of the more standard bread selection. Cora thought the PB was dry. Sam had just spent several days out in the wilderness eating omnipresent peanut butter, so she had a hard time showing much enthusiasm towards it, but did not find it dry. I thought it was fine, like good quality, home made peanut butter, but I’m not exactly a peanut butter devotee, I tend to eat it about once a year, and never before a fine dining experience.

Perusing the online menu (which is exactly the same when you get to the restaurant) I had hoped someone would share the Cosmo Tidbits with me, which was $15 for two people, a decent deal. Cora was the first taker, so we ordered this selection of standard Polynesian starters, BBQ Spare Ribs, Crab Rangoon, Crispy Prawns and sliced Char Sui Pork.IMG_2446 A few years back I had eaten some Crab Rangoon somewhere on NE Broadway (I suddenly can’t remember if it was at the weird Sweet Basil Thai or the adorable Thatch Tiki bar, but they were located very close to one another) and it was delicious. I was really looking forward to the Crab Rangoon, but sadly it was very so-so, not cream cheesy enough. The Crispy Prawns weren’t too bad, sort of the poorer sister to the wonderfully tasty coconut prawns next door at Oba!, but without Oba!’s yummy spicy citrus marmalade. It turned out the sliced Char Sui Pork was merely Chinese BBQ pork (probably why we got red sauce and hot mustard) but was high quality, moist and quite good. The BBQ Spare Ribs were the best part of the combo, luckily free of sauce but tender and full or flavor, and I wished I would have gotten a full order of them instead.

David had neglected my earliest advances as far as being a co-sharer of the Cosmo Tidbits (although he happily ate some of ours) as he seemed to have only raw fish on the brain.IMG_2455 His starter was the Ahi Poke – sushi grade tuna, avocado, soy chili dressing and taro chips. I do  have to hand it to Trader Vic’s for throwing some interesting, unusual items on their menu, and the large taro chips certainly fit that category. David seemed to enjoy the rest of the combo too, and the bite of tuna I tried seemed really fresh. Another really interesting item, this ordered by Cora, was the Edamame Ravioli, which was made in-house and stuffed with ricotta, mint, shiitakes, and had a browned butter sauce. Light, refreshing, and completely out of the ordinary.

Certainly an interesting take on Caesar Salad , Sam and David were both wooed by the allure of the Shanghi Caesar Salad, featuring crisp won-tons, spiced cashews, a parmesan crisp and dressed with a ginger, lemon aioli. For some reason, I missed both their opinions of this salad, but I suppose if it had been negative, I would have paid more attention to the comments.

I didn’t realize until later that Sam was so interested in the Cosmo Tidbits that she decided on this for her entree.IMG_2450 I think she found her salad a bit too filling though, because when she had her whole plate of tidbits to herself, she keep trying to share, but the rest of us were all tidbitted out by then, so she had lots of tidbits left for the road (somehow left-over Crab Rangoon does not sound like the most inspiring breakfast choice, especially with milk poured over the top.)

Cora had a tragic dilemma deciding between two items, the Nut Crusted Mahi-Mahi (supposedly TV’s most popular main dish) and Trader Vic’s Crispy Duck. Somewhat swayed by the waitress, who proclaimed the duck more out of the ordinary, Cora ordered that, and was generally disappointed. One good moment, though, when the waitress put down all of Cora’s items, which came in many separate bowls, Sam looked at the round flat warmer and asked, “what’s in there, tortillas?” IMG_2453Yes Sam, duck is commonly served with tortillas, especially in Polynesian restaurants (this woman has spent too much time south of the border. Loco!) The menu description of Cora’s entree was a 1/2 aromatic duck (hey, next time wash it first!) mu shu pancakes, cucumber, scallions, and hoisin plum sauce. Cora had similar dishes to this in the past in Chinese restaurants, and said this version was lacking in the richness and complexity of flavors this sort of preparation usually inspires. It was just a “whatever.”

At first David was afraid of ordering too much food, and was only going to have starters like Sam did, but then I convinced him that there could never be too much food (guess what, he had too much food.) IMG_2451The result of my prodding, Volcano Prawns – spicy garlic wok prawns, edamame, blistered tomato, book choy, snow peas and Jasmine rice. I’ve learned over the years that David is an easy touch when it comes to anything mentioning hot, spicy, or tongue destroying, so it really wasn’t overly hard to convince him. It seemed like an interesting combination, but as isn’t too surprising at a place like Trader Vic’s, the prawns were barely spicy at all, but not bad.

I really, really, really, really wanted that Cowboy Rib Eye, as it sounded like a good preparation, but I simply could not afford a $40 entree (which is why I’ve never been to El Gouge-o or even Mortons.)IMG_2452 Not too many other items appealed to my palate, however, so I settled for the $28 Fulton Beef 8oz. Fillet – Wood oven fired beef tenderloin, kabocha puree(?), and Misty Mountain Organic Mushrooms. Not exactly cheap, but not back-breaking, as so far food-wise, I had only put out $7.50 for my half of the appetizer sampler. Although the shiitake mushrooms on the side were nice, the steak didn’t exactly wow me, although everyone else thought it was pretty nice. I suppose as a general rule, particularly as one who always tries to eat steak cooked rare, the best steak to me is one that is rapidly seared to seal the juices in and which often has a slightly charred flavor. Although wood fired ovens are great for many things, particularly pizza, I would imagine a wood fired oven cooks steak, no matter what doneness you like, more slowly, so perhaps this is why I found this meat’s flavor only average. Also, I didn’t notice any particular enhancement from sauce, not too surprising for a meat dish that mentions kabocha puree (which sounds relatively gross to begin with.)

Sam, who had spent a relatively modest amount of money so far (as much as you can spend a modest amount of money at TV’s) was the only dessert taker, and selected the one dessert IMG_2463I would have wanted, had I indulged, the Banana Trio, a serving of Bananas Foster, a Banana Fritter, and a Frozen Chocolate Banana Pop (hmm, peanut butter and banana pops, is this place set-up for kiddie palates?) Sam generously offered to share, but no one seemed in the mood, except for that random monkey I saw swing by on the vine behind the table and grab Sam’s banana pop when she was all wrapped up in another photo op.

Glenda was adamant she would not attend this dinner, as Trader Vic’s is a chain, so I didn’t even invite her. It’s hard to decide whether she missed anything or not. The decor in Trader Vic’s is fun and elaborate, but upscale fun and elaborate, as this is The Pearl, after all. (Think modern day Las Vegas casino restaurant.) IMG_2439The waitress was down to earth and nice, perhaps not the most professional server ever, but fine in her own inked-up way. If I was strolling around downtown with a group of people and it was late afternoon, I think TV’s would be a great place for happy hour (especially if you are like me and have been to the happy hour at Oba! 500 times too many.) I don’t think Trader Vic’s is for foodies though, about half the menu is pretty so-so, and the whole Polynesian thing is weird, is it Chinese, is it Japanese, is it Hawaiian? There were good things to be found, like Cora’s Edamame Ravioli, but many other things seem lost in a weird time void between 1950-1980.

Will Trader Vic’s survive in the Pearl? Who can say?  The Pearl is a weird place, PF Chang’s, Giorgio’s, Piazza Italia, Henry’s on 12th, Paragon and Oba! go on forever (hey, I’ll always like Oba) but Fenouil bit it, and Ten01 bit it, and Hiroshi Sushi bit it, it seems like expensive doesn’t fly that well here (although Oba! ain’t cheap, for sure.)IMG_2465 Perhaps for a restaurant to hang on long term in this neighborhood, it needs resident support, and while it’s packed now, it’s hard to imagine Pearl residents thriving off of the food at Trader Vic’s. It probably depends on if the bar can keep them afloat, which is a bit hard to envision, as an establishment this large has got to be paying a gigantic staff. I’m sure they do gang busters on First Thursday though. While I was standing out on Glisan after the dinner taking photos of Sam mugging with the big wooden Tiki torches outside, it occurred to me that it was highly unlikely I would ever enter the dining room of Trader Vic’s again. Happy hour though, sign me up!