Hey, What’s Not To Like?


There are some restaurants you like from the moment they open, or at least from the first time you go there, and each time you return there it’s like visiting an old friend. Often you makes lots of “new friends” in the interim, but you still wonder what’s going on with this “special friend,” how they are faring, and if much has changed with them.

Portland has way too many good restaurants, and this being the case, you often don’t get a chance to return to places you really like, because there’s just so much to select from.IMG_2495 Lauro was one of the first, really good (but still modestly priced) neighborhood places that got going a couple of years before Portland’s incredible food explosion. In the beginning, they were always packed, and with no reservations, getting in could be rough, especially if there were quite a few of you. They ditched that no reservation policy a few years ago though, luckily for groups like ours, and Heidi and Julian, who became Lauro fans in the last year or so, occasionally stroll over for a meal and have no trouble getting in. On the recent Friday night we were there, it seemed like they were doing quite well, but with every passing month seeing more openings of good food places on Division, who knows what the future holds for Lauro. My guess is, as it’s a fine neighborhood eatery with an intriguing but comfortable menu, and a good bargain as well, that Lauro will continue on for some years.Lauro is certainly David Machado’s best restaurant. IMG_2496I remember reading about him in the early days when Pazzo was actually a good (not to mention expensive) restaurant. Although they tried out a couple other chefs, I don’t think Pazzo ever recovered after he left there, and when people are talking about places to eat, who ever mentions Pazzo, even if they are stuck downtown? So perhaps it was David Machado who made Pazzo decent in its heyday.

I know people like Vindalho, and it’s a pretty space, and going there makes you feel fancy, but the Spice Route Cuisine has never done it for me, too expensive, too small a menu (Indian food needs LOTS of choices) and they lost their acclaimed young cook, David Anderson, to Genoa. Certainly not a bad place by any means, but it always strikes me as relatively sterile and high-priced.

Speaking of sterile, that brings me to Machado’s third restaurant, Nel Centro. IMG_2489Sure, they have a great patio and the bar seems pleasant, but that dining room, yikes, I get a stick up my keister just thinking about it. Talk about sterile, Nel Centro will never reproduce (or at least we hope not.) The food is certainly okay, but the dining room atmosphere is nothing but off-putting, upscale corporate, shiny/metallic, and funky colorful spaceship (the lighting) are not a pleasant combo, and the farthest thing imaginable from warm and interesting. Of course the entire hotel (is it Moderna, I can’t remember anymore?) and restaurant were fashioned out of a Travelodge, or Motel 6, or something of that nature, so it might be the best they can do. Give the place a little character, someone, please!

Lauro has always had tons of character, good, rich color palate, nice natural and artificial lighting, good use of colorful tile in the kitchen area, fairly decent acoustics, and traditionally a great staff (okay, this could be slipping a tiny bit.) No real waiting area though, which has always been a problem, those hungry faces over by the door letting in their cold air in the winter. I’ve always enjoyed those floor to ceiling windows, though, even if Anders Printing has not been the most inspirational view over the years (coming into view soon, however, on the other side of 34th, yet another Pok Pok offshoot!)

This was a fun bunch this evening, with a good collection of regulars (Liz, Sam, Glenda, Cora and David) returnees from birth experiences (Heidi and Julian) and returnees from medical catastrophes (Kiersi, back less than two months after falling off that rock wall and smashing her vertebra, ouch.)IMG_2488 Also, Kiersi brought a really nice friend, Dimitri, certainly our first member originally hailing from Latvia (doesn’t this girl know any unattractive, borish, badly dressed men? I could send a few her way.) Everything seemed really festive on this evening, as it was fun to have Heidi and Julian return so soon after the birth of Hank, and everyone had been wondering how Kiersi was doing, and having her back reassured everyone she was just fine! Also, my birthday happened to fall on the following evening, so several kind people in the group had brought me some gifts and cards, and Heidi and Julian bought me a delicious cocktail. This was one reason I had decided on Lauro for this dinner, I wanted to be around nice people in a restaurant I’ve always liked for my psuedo-birthday meal. Poor Glenda, still brawling with public transportation, was a tad over tastefully late (30-45 minutes?) but I knew she would be there. unless she was rendered unconscious by migraine medicine (as had happened when we visited Fin) and sure enough, there she was, bellowing for a cocktail when we were about to start ordering.

As is always the way with Lauro, all the nightly specials were neatly written on the big chalkboards on the way to the restroom (where does every restaurant find these people who can write so neatly on a chalkboard? Have you ever tried to write on a chalkboard? If I did it, everyone would think it was some strange Druid language or pictures of chickens or some other scary beast.)IMG_2501 Glenda, who was already way behind the program because of Tri-Met, asked me about the specials, but as my back was to that wall and they were far away, I could not read them. Even Sam, at the closer end of the table couldn’t really read them, just saying they were really long, but that the waitress had told that end of the table what they were. Well, that was disturbing! Us cool people with the big wallets who tip tons were at our end of the table (for all the waitress knew, at least.) As Glenda wanted to know, and I was curious, I asked the hostess what the specials were, and she said the waitress would read them to us. I told her that the waitress had read them to the other end of the table, but not ours, and she appeared endlessly shocked. I suppose the reason our end of the table might have gotten the short end of the stick was that we were pretty discombobulated with the later arrivals and such, and them getting cocktails, but even when the waitress was sent back again with the specials for our end of the table, I think only the two people at the end of the table could hear her. Oh well, it  isn’t like I didn’t find adequate food to order.  The major issue is that now that I am writing the review, I don’t know what those people with specials were eating.

I suppose because I was feeling so celebratory, I did a terrible job paying attention to what people were eating and drinking this outing. I don’t even know what my drink was, only that it was some really tasty take-off of a margarita that was red (maybe it had passion fruit in it???)IMG_2486 I know Kiersi and Dimitri had a ginger based drink, and there was some discussion of this cocktail Kiersi makes called a Ginegar, that has vinegar in it. David, tired of not finding Drambuie at every dinner, whipped out a flask so he could make his own Rusty Nail (yes, I know that some of you think I’m kidding.) Although Glenda was all bent out of shape until her drink came, I didn’t notice what she had. I think Heidi had some red wine, I’m sure Julian probably had a Diet Coke, Sam mentioned something about she and Liz splitting what was probably a 1/2 pitcher of wine, and as per usual, I totally missed what Cora was drinking (I know she likes Crater Lake Vodka. Maybe that’s the problem, I always think her drink is a glass of water.)

IMG_2518Sam started us out with a couple of bowls of nice House Marinated Moroccan Oil Cured Olives, which was kind of her, and Kiersi and I had a discussion of the fact that growing olive trees was becoming a really popular trend in the Portland/Metro area. Kiersi, always an enthusiastic type, said she would love to grow olives. I told her that I had also considered buying an olive tree last spring, as they were everywhere, but although they might be easy to grow, they are murder to make edible in small quantities (soaking in lye, rinsing a million times, then brining them for a long time.) Somehow, once you mention the soaking in lye to people, their interest seems to waver (mine certainly did.)

As per usual, Lauro also brought some bread and olive oil. Kiersi, obviously the Queen of Vinegar , wondered if we could get some balsamic vinegar too, and when I asked the waitress, she said fine.IMG_2500 We found it disappointing when it never showed up, but then when we mentioned it to the other end of the table it turned out someone had furnished a little pitcher down there, and they were all ignoring it, while Kiersi was pining away. This was one of the areas I did notice that the previously excellent service at Lauro has slipped a bit, no recognition of who ordered what and some food deliveries to the wrong seats (I’m always SO impressed when they deliver everyone’s food to the correct station. That’s the sign of a first class restaurant.)

Marginal service issues aside, the rest of Lauro seemed just like before, with the exception of the fact that the menu seems to have stepped up a notch and become even better (the nerve!) even though the prices are still relatively sensible. IMG_2494The funny thing to me about Lauro has always been that although I always enjoyed the place, I often had a difficult time ordering there, too much stewed tomato, lamb, and cooked shellfish for my tastes (imagine that, from a Mediterranean restaurant.) It seems like each time I went there I had the Culotte Steak, which was never dynamically exciting, and culotte steak seems to be a cut that is both a bit chewy and lacking in richness of flavor. (Besides, those funny little short pants always bother me.) It would have been nice if I could have seen or heard the specials, as there might have been something on there I wanted, but even the regular menu this time had more options than I traditionally find here.

IMG_2498It’s hard for me to comment on most of the items ordered this evening, because not only did I not hear many of the remarks (space-out mode again) but since there was such universal good feeling about the items people were eating, it’s difficult to pick out specific remarks. Here’s most of what we gobbled though, with a lack of specificity involving those elusive specials, and a few comments, most of the weird ones being mine.

Catalan Onion and Almond Soup (I had this, and I felt bad not sharing, as I usually share things. That being said, unless multiple vessels and silverware are involved, I dislike sharing soup, it’s too messy and seems weirdly unnatural.) A little on the sweet side, and maybe some extra pepper or other zingy spice would have ramped it up a notch. Okay though.

Cataplana Roasted Mussels with Chouriço and Peppers – It seems like Kiersi liked these, and there were quite a few of them. I’m still on the fence whether I like mussels or not, so I didn’t have any.

IMG_2505Sardines and Fennel Special – now this sounded interesting, and was certainly a large portion. This was one of those specials I didn’t hear about. Good old Liz, she likes to try the unusual items. When she passed them around the table the reactions were interesting, some finding the sardines delicious, some finding them too fishy (well, they are sardines, not Ahi) and some thinking they tasted just like sardines (yes, that was me.)

These salads were ordered, but I missed all the comments ….
Singing Pig Farm Organic Salad with White Balsamic Vinaigrette
Hearts of Romaine with Lemon, Garlic and Anchovy Dressing
Café Salad of Endive, Apple, French Blue Cheese and Hazelnuts
Roasted Beets with Oranges, Watercress, Walnuts and Spiced Yogurt – I did hear favorable remarks about the beet salad, one of Lauro’s signature dishes since they opened.

These were the main courses I saw …

IMG_2499Pork and Clams “Alentejo” with Chouriço, Peppers, Potatoes and Cilantro – David always seems to be in search of a good seafood stew, and while this might not have been the spiciest ever, he seemed to really enjoy this. Liz really liked the sample she has too, and thought it was one of the best things at the table.

Braised Beef Short Ribs with Caramelized Turnips and Rapini – I’ve noticed Cora is a fan of braised meats, especially shortribs, and she said these were really good.

IMG_2503Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breast with Quince Sauce and Spinach – I find this interesting, because I remember when Heidi and Julian first joined the group Julian steered away from chicken (I think he said it was just a phase) and he tends to avoid many cheeses, especially the strong ones. That being said, he jumped at the chance to order this, as he said he had ordered this poultry preparation on a previous occasion and found it one of his favorite entrees ever. He especially liked the quince sauce. Dimitri also had this entree, and also said it was really good.

Grilled New York Steak with Sauce Béarnaise and Salt Roasted Fingerlings – Glenda and I both had this, and thought it was very good. Much better than the culotte steak. IMG_2504The beef could have maybe been cooked one minute less, but it was still flavorful and tasty and I enjoyed the sauce. For some reason, the older I get, the less I seem to like potatoes, especially firm roasted ones. All my life I’ve been a potato lover, and it was very difficult when I hung around for quite a few years with this guy who didn’t like potatoes, since I always wanted them and he didn’t, creating mealtime complications. These days potatoes no longer seem to call out to me, unless it’s some unhealthy preparation (crispy, mashed, baked, or cheese covered.)

Tuna (Ahi, Yellowfin?) on polenta (?) with something bright red and alarming on top – Liz had this. IMG_2508Another of those specials I knew nothing about (yes, I’m a one-note song.) The weird thing is, when I asked her what she got, I thought she said pork, and it looked sort of like a pork chop. She wanted me to sample it, and I told her I didn’t know if I would be able to cut-off a hunk (I guess I should have found this suspicious, a big fat pork chop you can cut with a fork.) I thought, wow, this is tender pork. I guess this is why I found the pork a bit fishy tasting.

Broiled Rockfish on Yams – Another “who knows” specials item, Sam had this and said it was delicious and she was happy she ordered it, but she could not remember much more.

IMG_2509Pizza – Roasted Apple, Caramelized Onion, Blue Cheese and Arugula Pizza  – Heidi had this and loved it, and the crust looked perfect for my tastes in pizza crust (very important when someone else orders something, of course) sort of thin and not too chewy. Although I enjoyed my steak, I had contemplated ordering the pizza, and sort of wish I had, as there is a dearth of good pizza in my life, but always beef aplenty (my heart and colon scream!)

Lemon Sabayon Tart – this was my choice, and quite good.
Chocolate-Espresso Mousse Cake with Coffee Anglaise – Liz loved this, but had I sampled it, I would have been awake until my next birthday.
Apple Crostada with Honey and Almond Ice Cream – Looked nice, and it certainly got eaten.
Baklava with Pear Compote – The prettiest baklava I’ve ever seen.

Minor service complaints aside (I wonder if they had any specials?) this was a really good dinner, great combination of eatees, pleasant atmosphere, totally delicious food.IMG_2515 I’m sure there must have been some food item at the table that someone did not care for, but if so, I certainly didn’t hear about it. I was only mildly enthusiastic about my onion-almond soup, but I’m sure someone else might have enjoyed it totally. That’s the thing about a place like Lauro Kitchen, it seems to generate really good feelings when you dine there, so even if you’re not 100% thrilled with what you ordered, either you think it doesn’t suit your palate, or that what you really should have ordered was … blah, blah. blah (don’t forget that ho-hum on top.) The food isn’t wrong, you were only wrong in deciding. It’s good when restaurants generate positive feelings like that, rather than creating a negative vibe the minute you walk through the door, so that you’re practically on edge all evening, looking for things to complain about. Welcoming staff helps a great deal, reasonably priced, well-prepared, interesting food goes even farther. However many years Lauro’s been around now, it seems as good as ever, and proves that those popular little neighborhood spots don’t have to vegetate or degenerate, they can keep evolving and even improve as time goes on.