Polpettes and Icy Toes

IMG_2607A few years ago, the Oregonian selected Navarre as Restaurant of the Year and I rejoiced, especially when even they admitted it was a weird choice, but that the food prevailed over all the quirky things there, ambiance, service, the size of the kitchen. Although they are barely open for lunch these days (maybe still Fridays and on the weekend?) I can think of no more interesting place to pop in for a leisurely lunch, eat a few of the intriguing small plates, finish with a delicious gut busting dessert, pay the reasonable tab, and feel like you just had lunch in some small village in the French countryside. The decor has always been incredibly basic, just blond wood chairs and tables (much seating is communal) a mirror with the specials written down, and a bunch of homemade preserves and imported specialties that you can buy lining the walls.

Owner John Taboda has a new venture now, about 8 blocks down Burnside from Navarre, and at least as far as the restaurant, it’s not much larger or fancier than Navarre (although the checkerboard floor is eye-catching.) The new place is called Luce. I mention the size of the restaurant because Luce is actually two spaces, the restaurant/cafe space and an event space right next door. Luce, the eatery, only seats 20, so I’m guessing the event space is larger, unless it caters to really small events. Luce does have a large fancy kitchen though, opposed to Navarre’s galley/postage stamp sized food preparation area, so maybe that’s why Navarre’s long time chef didn’t mind going  Italian. (Navarre has always seemed to me a French, Spanish, Italian combo.) Another strong presence at Luce is John Taboda’s wife, Giovanna, who also helms the extra fancy Italian boutique, Una, also on 28th like Navarre. My guess, from her name, is that Giovanna is Italian, and perhaps much of the authenticity at Luce comes from her (although Mr. Taboda certainly know his way around various European cuisines.)

Not to classify our meal at Luce as a letdown in any way, but it certain was a more modest affair than our last rousing dinner for 13 at The Woodsman Tavern (there were 6 of us at Luce.) IMG_2601The Woodsman was very loud and flamboyant in a very NW woodsy way (WW had a glowing review a couple of weeks ago that called the Woodsman gorgeous to look at) but although Luce was as busy as a restaurant that seats 20 can be during our visit, no one would describe the decor as either flamboyant or gorgeous. During the day Luce is more of an Italian cafe, and that’s really what it looks like, it’s so simple, and you can buy food to take home or peruse the many imported kitchen wares that are displayed in a glass case between the kitchen and eating area. For most of the meal I thought some vibrantly colored kitchen towels were hosiery, and I kept thinking, oh, this is interesting, a restaurant that sells socks.

Actually, some wool long johns might be nice, as Luce is not at all a warm place during the winter.IMG_2590 It’s not a very deep space, and with the very cool December we’ve been having, each time someone opened the door (quite often) a blast of wintery air came shooting in. (It also did not help that our table was opposite the door.) Sam never removed her jacket, and borrowed Cora’s coat to to use like a wind screen, and my lower extremities were like popsicles all night. They really do need to do something with the naked door area (the waitress said they were trying to figure out a solution) as it’s not a good idea to have a restaurant that’s uncomfortable for your patrons at least four months a year. Also, the bathroom situation seems a bit “sketchy” as either you have to go walking into the kitchen to get there (that was our group’s consensus where it was) or it’s next door in the event area, so you have to go outside to find it. I really was interested in knowing where it was (which explains my rapid drive home) but like everyone else in our group, I was too chicken to go charging into the kitchen area to see if it was back there, especially as I could see all these big gleaming carts of pre-prepared food lurking, and a super-spaz like me, I would probably trip on my way through and send everything flying or suddenly have a sneezing fit upon entry, endangering open foodstuffs with my natural juices (yes, I do realize just how appetizing that sounds. Bon appetit!)

As the holiday party season appears to start about December 1st nowadays, and this was December 9th, and a Friday night to boot, I was only able to lure 6 bodies to this dinner. Also, Luce, like Navarre, has no website or online menu, only a small link on the Navarre blogspot where you can read occasional entries and see lots of pretty food pictures. Everything seems to be about minimalism with Mr. Taboda.IMG_2587 I have learned though, that whenever possible, people like to see both a menu and prices, especially if they are trying to decide if they can afford it or see if any of the food items are “must have.” Sam was inspired to come when she saw on Yelp or somewhere that Luce had all sorts of $2 antipasti, and I have the feeling I might have lured a couple of additional bodies had people known all the small little plates you could get for $2 (nearly 20 items.) I’m sure one reason the “Taboda Restaurants” don’t go for online menus is the fact that they change the menus up practically nightly, especially as much of the food at both Navarre and Luce come from local area farms and what is available at that time. In the end, I suppose it was probably better that this was a small gathering, as when you only have 20 seats to begin with, there’s not much hope of expansion of your reservation.

Actually, this was another somewhat sketchy area with Luce, whether we had a reservation or not. I had called a long time before (almost 3 weeks) to ask questions of the restaurant, to find out if they could handle a decent sized party. The person answering the phone at that time had told me a group of 10 would be no problem, they would just slide some tables together and she would write me down for 10 at the appointed time.IMG_2604 When I called them back though, Friday afternoon, to tell them there would only be 6 of us, I was told that they did not take reservations, but that our group might be okay if we came in at 6:30. They said they would sort of put me on an informal waiting list. I got to Luce after Glenda and David though, and they were told that there was no reservation, Luce did not do this, but luckily there were about 8 seats left in the restaurant, so a table was cobbled together. This never makes me happy though, when various people recite different policies on the possibility of having a reserved table.
Once we settled in, with our wind-blockers, coats, muffs, igloos and whatever, we started perusing the wine list. This was pretty easy for the likes of me, as the house white was only $5 per glass, and as a known wine cheapskate, this suited me just fine. Liz was also content with the house red, so for $10 we both got two glasses of okay wine, rather than only one. To be honest, I didn’t even look at the regular wine list once I saw the $5 pours, but since a couple of people in our party didn’t know the cheap glasses existed, I have the feeling the house wines were listed up on the board only, rather than on the regular list. I wasn’t that thrilled with the glasses the wines were served in, sort of the cheapo Motel 6 bathroom water glass variety, which made me feel like the next thing I should do was break the band on the toilet seat. (If only I knew where the bathroom was.) Sam had a hard time selecting a red wine, so the waitress bought her three pours to taste. This woman obviously doesn’t know how to get a free buzz, as she actually sent back the two tastes she didn’t like (the waitress seemed taken aback. Obviously most people accept any free liquor given to them.)

One thing we all found disconcerting, dining at an Italian restaurant but not being given bread. Not counting pizza, which comes with its own bread, Italian food and bread go together like sushi and wasabi, Mexican and beans, Indian and stomach distress.IMG_2592 At Navarre you pay $1 or $2, and are given a gigantic serving of bread (it used to be from Ken’s.) Several people said they would have gladly gone for that option. Luce did have focaccia for $3, which Sam got an order of and we all grabbed a hunk, and I thought it was really good and got another order. They had three varieties, salt, onion, and raisin, the raisin being quite good, crispy on the corners and moist but not greasy inside. I would not mind going back to the cafe for an order to go sometime. Focaccia is really more of a fancy bread though, like naan or cornbread, and people at our table wanted regular, basic  bread, sliced Italian or a baguette or something of that nature, that came with butter or olive oil. We are a finicky bunch, and these traditions need to be adhered to.

David’s birthday was about a week away, and a couple of people remembered this, so he made out like a bandit. Cora not only brought him the makings for a fine Pickleback (how clever was that?) but also some homemade potato salad, as David had told her on some previous occasion that he loves potato salad (or as Dan Quayle would have written in the old days, Potatoe Salade. IMG_2589It’s funny how the things you least want to remember stay with you your entire life.) Glenda, I believe, said she would buy his first glass of wine, and Sam proclaimed she would buy his second glass of vino (as it happened, David’s second glass cost $12. It’s too bad Sam wasn’t buying house wine for us cheapskate types instead.) I guess the waitress overheard the festivities, as when we were having dessert Luce brought David a chocolate with a candle on top, which was a kind gesture, I thought.

Just like Navarre has its mirrored board of handwritten specials, Luce has a vintage black letter board where the nightly antipasti are listed for $2 each (so many of them!) IMG_2588Since there were six of us, these small plates didn’t go overly far, but are a nice tasting sampler for one or two people. Us being us though, we made sure we got a whole lot of them. Here’s the $2 Antipasti I think we ordered, and some comments ….

Marinated Treviso radicchio
Roasted beets and onions
Marinated mushrooms
Sweet and sour onions with prosciutto
Gratinated clams
Crostini with chicken liver mousse
Carrot and leek tortine

No one knew what the heck a Polpette was, so we had to ask the waitress, who seemed quite enthusiastic to answer any questions we may have. IMG_2611If there’s one question she probably has to answer more than any other, I’m sure it’s “what’s a polpette?” as probably no one knows the answer to that except for the people who work at Luce, and perhaps people from “the Old Country.” Although nowadays, people from the Old Country are probably SO old that they only exist in the Old Cemetery. Anyway, a polpette is a meatball made of the stuff you can now put in your green yard debris bin, the meat leftovers from the real food you prepare. The polpettes were very modest looking, as you would expect the leavings to be, and no one seemed overly impressed (poor, sad little polpettes!)

At least I knew what Arancini was, although Glenda and I were the only two, I think. Nowadays, arancini have become so popular, you can actually buy them in the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. The first arancini I had were at Cafe Castagna two years ago, and they were quite good, as many of the items at Cafe Castagna tend to be. As for the Trader Joe’s version, I don’t know how good those are, as I bought them and put them in my freezer a year and a half ago, and have not eaten them yet. That’s the thing about arancini, they are great addition to the antipasti menu at Luce, they fit right in, but what do you do with them at home? IMG_2586They hardly make a whole meal, but who really thinks of just whipping themselves up an arancini snack? Obviously, not me. Anyway, for those of you who don’t know, arancini are deep fried risotto balls. Usually you get several with an order, but at Luce, $2 gets you a slightly elongated haystack of crispy rice ball, not really large enough to share with anyone, so I DIDN’T. It was tasty though, although I felt like the treat hoarder, eating it all myself while everyone else shared their marginally sized snackies with the whole table, not an easy proposition with most of the portions.

I don’t know what was wrong with me this night, maybe some migraine medicine earlier in the day, because I was a super spazzy dork at this dinner, and I’m lucky I have any teeth left.IMG_2594 First someone handed me one of the little clams to try (Gratinated clams) and I was paying no attention, and because the whole kit and caboodle was so small, I popped the entire thing into my mouth, shell and all, and started chomping away (yes, I am part seal.) After about three or four chews, I realized that you probably weren’t supposed to eat it shell and all, and spit it out as discretely as possible on my plate. Not good for the “middle-aged” dental work, for sure. The clams got high praise at our table, but somehow I found them a bit chalky. We also had lots of olives at the table, Sam and Cora both ordering them to share, and of course I kept leaving my pits on my mini plate and alternately bitting down on either a ravished olive pit or that chewed up clam shell, as the restaurant was kind of dark. This is another dilemma with Luce, and its minimalist approach to atmosphere and other dining frivolities, the tables are tiny and you only have so much room, the antipasti, no matter how many are ordered, are served together on one large plate, and you are only given a tiny little saucer thing to eat your food on. This is why the masticated clam shell and olive pits keep getting mixed in with the other items I was actively eating, I had no place to put my discards out of my voracious gobbling range. Also, the collection of antique silverware was relatively sparse, and a couple of times someone either didn’t have the eating implement they needed, or the proper plate, to try an item being offered in their direction.

An item that got really mixed reviews was the Marinated Treviso radicchio. Some places around town have become famous for their radicchio preparations, a couple coming to mind being Toro Bravo and Nostrana, both who find ways to negate some of the bitterness and successfully create a Caesar-like salad.IMG_2597 This cooked version of radicchio at Luce seemed like it wanted to emphasize the bitter nature of the “green”, and while Liz, who ordered it, liked it, both David and I found it really bitter and nasty. Speaking of our always adventurous pal Liz though, she also really enjoyed the Sweet and sour onions with prosciutto, and thought them one of the best things she had.

Glenda and I thoroughly enjoyed the Crostini with chicken liver mousse, and found it quite tasty and the crostini an appropriate and crunchy accompaniment.IMG_2602 David was disappointed however, he thought it highly inferior to the mousse he had at the Woodsman Tavern on our last outing, not liver tasting enough and the bread overly crisp. Although they were different, I liked them both and would gladly have them again (especially as this only cost $2) and excitingly, this was the third time since summer I have had an excellent chicken liver mousse or pate (the other time, 3 Doors Down.)

Sam, although this is her financially strapped time of the year, decided the table should have a Salami Plate, so ordered us one (I think it was $6.) I love good Italian salami, and this certainly fell into that category, not too surprising, as Portland is being firmly placed on the charcuterie map these days by vendors such as Olympic Provisions.

Like at Navarre, salads and some main courses (in this case pastas) can be ordered either in 1/2 size or full portions. David, a huge Caesar salad fan, had the Romaine salad with anchovy, which was whole leaves with a blop of anchovy paste on the end. I think he thought it was decent.IMG_2591 Glenda, who after she ordered, decided she might not have all the food she needed, as an afterthought ordered the Green salad with herbs. When the salad arrived, it was huge, and she immediately decided to share it with everyone, which wasn’t that easy, as many of us were lacking plates at this juncture. I have the feeling Glenda wanted the half portion of salad, and this had to be the full $10 portion. Whatever the size and price, although it looked relatively plain, it had to be the freshest tasting salad I have ever sampled, and drew raves, mainly because of the variety of greens and herbs, and the simple but hearty vinaigrette dressing, applied in just the perfect amount. Sam and I both were sure we tasted fresh mint, a nice touch, and Sam said it was her favorite thing all evening.

The last few dinners, people have expected me to get beef, and I have gotten fish. This time no beef or fish, I decided to have two half orders of the pasta, as I thought that might equal approximately one entree sized pasta serving. I had hoped they would bring one after the other, so I could concentrate on each separately, but they brought them together, which might have lessened my enjoyment a bit, as I couldn’t concentrate on the flavors individually. The two pasta combinations I had were Pappardelle with porcini and a little cream and Orecchiette with arugula and anchovy.IMG_2595 I thought they were both okay, but neither knocked my socks off (probably good, as my feet were already freezing.) The reactions were interesting when I passed samples around the table though, as half thought the wide noodles with the wild mushrooms better, while the other half thought the more dominant tasting anchovies and little ear pasta superior (it probably depended on a tolerance for anchovies.) I think both could have used a tad more sauce to bring out the flavors a bit better.

David had the pasta at Luce I keep reading about, the Spaghetti with garlic and hot peppers. As everyone keeps writing, it’s a very simple combination, but most of the comments have been incredibly favorable. David was relatively disappointed, he found it a bit too simple and lacking complexity, and knowing David, he most likely would have enjoyed the peppers added at a mouth-burning level. All the reviewers have also written that to make the pasta perfect you should pay the additional fee (I think it’s $2) for the optional clams, so maybe David would have liked it better with the added shellfish.

IMG_2600Sam, and I think Liz, had the Baked stuffed trout, and I don’t mind saying, of all the trout I have sampled over the last couple of years in RR (and there’s been a lot) this was certainly the tastiest of the bunch, it had the most wonderfully crispy crust, which seemed more fried than baked. I have no idea what it was stuffed with, I only had some of the outer regions, but as Cora commented, this is one trout where it would be extremely hard to leave the skin behind on the plate (rather than gobbling it up.) So rich and delicious.

The other highlight of the heavier dishes, the Hanger steak with garlic and rosemary. As I always do, Glenda insisted she needed her steak rare, but the waitress said that the way the meat was cooked, the best they could do was medium rare. Glenda was a bit put out, as I would be, as neither of us can handle over-cooked beef. IMG_2603That being said. when the slices of beef arrived they were still dark pink, which seemed like a positive omen, and when Glenda tasted the meat she was wowed by the flavor, and insisted on handing samples all around. Everyone was completely impressed. I read just today, in an online Portland Monthly review of Luce, that the secret is the garlic and chili rubbed into the meat, and the intense searing. I really didn’t notice the garlic or the chili, but could not miss the wonderful, rosemary infused sauce. It figures, outstanding trout and steak, and I have pasta. One final mention, one of the sides, Cabbage with garlic oil, got warm reviews with our group.

When it comes to desserts, particularly authentic Italian desserts, for some reason they tend not to be at the top of my list. Not sweet enough maybe, or too much fruit? One exception to this was the original Genoa, now that place had big, beautiful, wonderful desserts, the main problem being you were way too full to actually eat them by the time you plowed through all the other courses, even if you went back and rested awhile in that fun little reading room they used to have. Navarre has always had wonderful desserts though, heavy on pies, cakes, and tarts, all favorites of mine, but I guess when you think about it the desserts there tend to be more American or French. Here, the desserts were very modest, and really Italian sounding. I tried to have faith in the Luce cake though, as in the past Navarre has had wonderful layer cakes that come in big, hearty slices (they used to have the best Red Velvet cake I’ve ever tasted. Interestingly, I haven’t even liked any of the other Red Velvet cakes I’ve tried.)

Anyway, instead of being a big upright layer cake sort of affair (I love those things!) the Luce cake was a really moist cream cake sort of affair, with lots of pistachios, maybe dried cherries, and like a half litter of liquor poured over the center. It’s not like it was terrible or anything, if not particularly to my taste, but the big dash of liquor in the center was extremely overwhelming (rum, vin santo?) and I told the waitress I practically needed a designated driver after eating it. Hey folks, if I wanted a cocktail, I would have ordered one. Sam was practically salivating when the waitress described what the Luce cake was like, as I guess this sort of thing is right down her alley. Although she found the center rather booze laden too, I think she enjoyed it more than I did, and didn’t leave so much behind on her plate (I left about a third of mine.)

I think we actually made it a point to order one of each of the desserts, as there were only four anyway, and six of us. As per usual, David was not interested in dessert (at least not his own) and he had his candy with the candle to gnaw on anyway. Cora, who always says she isn’t into dessert, but then orders one anyway about 70% of the time, felt bad that one of the desserts had not been ordered, so sprang for the Mixed berry jam cake. I don’t really remember that much about it (I probably was comatose from alcohol intake after the Luce cake) but I think it was basically okay. Liz had the Ricotta fritters with figs, which she thought moderately tasty, but Cora took offense to their lack of sweetness.IMG_2610 Glenda originally was not going to have dessert, a game she occasionally plays but then usually retreats from (all full of salad, I guess) and decided she would try the modest looking Chocolate covered torrone, a nut and nougat kind of sweet that you see the likes of everywhere in Italian bakeries. Glenda must not have had too much room for dessert, as she distributed samples to all of us at the table, but somehow Sam’s sample got lost or someone else ate it, which sent Sam into somewhat of a Torrone tizzy. Unfortunately, once Glenda has handed out her original samples, that’s it, so no others were forthcoming. Sam had to settle for her cake o’booze.

I thought the torrone was okay, but probably nothing I’d cross a busy street to get at (especially in Italy, where you would be run over by a scooter anyway.) That’s basically the case for all the desserts at Luce, they were okay, but nothing new, noteworthy, or handstand inducing. They need to get some of those Navarre desserts over here, Tout Suite! (Rapido? Veloce?)

Although it opened last summer with no notice, over the last month Luce suddenly seems to be getting reviewed all over the place, almost all reviews favorable. Karen Brooks, probably Portland’s most “famous” restaurant critic, named it one of her favorite new restaurants of 2011 (and we’ve had some goodies this year) and said in her recent review in Portland Monthly online that the concept at Luce is to start very simply, then evolve as time goes on, to see where the winds take them. Although I have pointed out many quirks at Luce, such as being  freezing cold on a winter night, and where’s the bathroom at?, our group looked on the food very favorably, and loved all the $2 mini-plates to select from. One drawback to Navarre is always that you never know what sort of service you are going to get there, one time it’s very good, another time it’s cranky, or distracted, and then there are those times when you feel like you are being waited on by someone who should be at the local Starbucks instead. This was not an issue at Luce, the waitress was very good, friendly, knowledgeable, and competent, and when she was otherwise occupied, food was brought to us from multitudes of people, the chef, the other servers, Mr.Taboda himself (he wanted to know what our Dine Don’t Dash slips were about, those things we keep our individual totals on.)

As we’ve all seen, there’s a fine line between cute Italian Cafe and kitschy Italian restaurant, and Luce certainly stays firmly on the side of pleasant Italian cafe, not Italian stereotype (checked tablecloths, oozing candles.) IMG_2593That being said, it would be nice to have the ambience, at least during the dining hour, feel a bit less unadorned. Who knows though, perhaps everything changes in the light, when the bright dining months come, maybe it will be perfectly charming then. It has to be warmer. No matter what, John Taboda has to be one of our most interesting local chefs, it seems with him it’s all about the food, the integrity of ingredients, the freshness of the local goods he uses, the variety he presents to his patrons.IMG_2608 I admit, I like some fetching atmosphere, but really, who wants to go to a swanky place with crappy food? With our group, it’s always the food that counts most (hey, Trader Vic’s was all about the drinks!) I wish Luce well, I hope they do great, and that eventually the restaurant can expand into the event space, as 20 seats probably won’t cut it with all the good reviews they are getting already. I just hope it doesn’t detract from Navarre, I still love the multi-country menu there, the way the different European regions are featured, the fact that you can buy a plate of bread for $1 (with butter or two kinds of olive oil, fruity or grassy) and of course, those desserts. Navarre does so much with such a tiny kitchen. Let’s hope that the size of Luce (and perhaps the modest decor) can eventually catch up to their big, fancy kitchen, and their simple, but excellently prepared, rustic Italian fare.