THE DINING REPORT – THE COUNTRY CAT

Youngest Member Ever Plays Restaurant Roulette!

THIS DINNER WAS JANUARY 20th, BUT I’VE BEEN CREATIVELY LAME.

It’s hard to know what to say about our evening at the Country Cat. In December of 2008 we had a dinner there, and as per usual, I blathered on about Montavilla, the restaurant itself, and chef Adam Sappington. Adam is famous for knowing his way around a pig, and when he competes in local famous chef cooking competitions, he more often than not wins them.

IMG_2687Back then I whined (and am still doing that) about the fact that although for 13 years I lived about seven blocks from here, at that time this area of SE Stark Street was an incredible wasteland, and while Ya Hala got going toward the end of my North Tabor residency, it wasn’t until the opening of the Country Cat that things really seemed to hum around here, and now the entire area between 76th and 82nd is nothing but cool shops, eateries, bakeries, bars, and even a second run theater (The Academy.) Where was all this great stuff (the Observatory, Tanuki, Pastry Girl etc.) when I wanted to eat out and had to drive five miles away for yummy eats? I must say gentrification only goes so far, however, gingerly step one block North of CC and you are still in the sleazy, tavern ridden, drug house and tenement apartment neighborhood I used to always ride my bike through to go up fancier Mt. Tabor. Better one really good commercial street than none though, although that tavern right next to the restaurant still draws that charming sort of patron who rides, screaming, on the hood area of moving vehicles (yes, Glenda and I did enjoy that spectacle, or at least try to avoid it.)

The Country Cat is one of those restaurants you enter, and it smells wonderful, like BBQ pork, and the space is modern and attractive, but friendly and casual (word of warning to the feeble bodied, though, which must include me, the elaborate wooden door weighs several hundred pounds and can be quite a chore to open.) IMG_2677Usually there are neighborhood families and friends inside, and children, so it was probably appropriate that Heidi and Julian brought their young un, Hank, to his first dinner, at the advanced age of 4 months. Yes, we have a new “youngest member ever in RR”, 4 months old! Glenda didn’t seem to approve of the hat Julian wore to the dinner, but did not complain about Hank’s headgear, so I think we are making progress!

IMG_2662This was a decent sized dinner, and originally 12.25 people wanted to join us (Hank’s still little, so only takes up a quarter space) but luckily 2 people cancelled, as the restaurant had told me they could not do over 10.25 (and 10.50 would not have fit.) As it was, because of a sizable group next to us, things were a bit cramped at the infant end of the table, and at one point I saw this rude woman slam into the little Hankster while getting up from her seat (it’s a baby, lady, not a rhino, be careful!) making him cry, but other than that the seating was not bad, and Hank was mostly a little gentleman (we are still working on DD though, that rascal.)

Several of us ordered cocktails this evening, but I don’t remember any of us doing big handstands over what we had (not to mention remembering what we had) with the exception of Peter, who loved his French 69 cocktail because of the delightful Elderflower overtones.IMG_2657 Peter was all Frenchified this evening, as he told us about struggling through the French class he is taking for an upcoming trip he and Tracy are taking to Paris in the Spring (those poor folks, sounds like an ordeal.) Perhaps this is why, on the car ride home, Glenda asked me, “where did you find those wonderful people?” We all know Glenda’s opinion on anything to do with those tri-color folks. Anyway, it was interesting that Peter thought French was so hard, when most people think it’s English that is totally whacked. We’ll cut him some slack though, as he already speaks Swedish, English, and Polish. I didn’t find out what languages Tracy knows, although her American seems mighty fine (I do know she speaks “Art Gallery” which is a language of its own) but I do remember she wasn’t enthralled with her cocktail, which was something pretty common, but I can’t remember what. Sakes alive (who is sake anyway, and why aren’t they dead?) I can’t even remember the cocktail I had, only that I think it was a spicy Margarita take-off, which was okay except for a weird aftertaste, and that Liz had the same drink and liked hers more than I liked mine.

Here’s some of the eats we experienced at the Country Cat …

Deviled Eggs – Although I liked the deviled egg I had at the Woodsman, I complained about the cost, $2 for two egg halves. IMG_2668The Country Cat was more generous, three lavishly stuffed egg halves, the problem was, I didn’t especially like these, they had a very non-egg taste, which I think was dill. I like my deviled eggs pretty basic, egg, salt, pepper, mayonnaise, mustard, paprika. David got an order too, and he wasn’t thrilled either, and kept shoving them around the table. Luckily Peter and Liz both thought they were good, perhaps because they were both major Pickleback proponents (enamored with dill.)

IMG_2666Potted “Judy” Cheese Spread with House Pickles & Crackers – Just the term “cheese spread” scares many people, shades of artificiality, but Cora, our old fashioned gal, ordered this, and everyone thought it was pretty good. Nice hard crackers, nice zesty cheese.

House Potato Bread and Butter – I think a couple of us ordered this, which was like $2. The bread was really soft, I guess sort of “down home” fashion, but it almost reminded me of Hawaiian bread. I guess potato bread always is soft, now that I think about it. I’ve noticed before, I don’t care too much for Country Cat’s butter, although I know sweet cream butter is a pleasant thing, each time I have butter here, I think “this seriously needs salt.” I’ve even noticed this when eating Country Cat’s buttermilk biscuits, which I love tons of heaps, I always think the biscuits are wonderful, but the butter and homemade preserves don’t improve them really, as the butter is too flat. Sadly, no buttermilk biscuits at our table this evening, I didn’t need to be spending an additional $7 and stuffing three probably fat laden biscuits into my gob. They do make brunch at CC a wonderful experience though.

Here’s some starters we had. (The above can be more adequately described as “drinking snacks.”)

Fennel, Bacon Soup – This soup had a third major ingredient, and I could not remember what it was the next day, let alone weeks later.IMG_2673 Whatever it was, Liz said it was totally marvelous, smoky, rich and creamy, one of her favorite things ever. She was actually eager to share it, as she wanted other people to taste how good it was, but she was the only person who seemed to have a spoon, and I’ve commented before on how delightful it is trying to share soup without a spoon. She did figure out though she could give samples by dunking bread hunks in her bowl. I like fennel as well as the next person, but it gets overwhelming really fast. Not in this case though, the soup was delicious, and as I love a good cream soup, I wish I would have had it instead of my starter. The starter I had was …

IMG_2671Wild Rice, Blue Cheese, & Pear Salad – with salted pecan brittle – It’s not like this wasn’t good, and it was nicely unusual, it just didn’t seem to hit the spot I wanted hit this evening. I did share it around the table though, and Tracy and Heidi seemed to like it quite well, especially the nice big wedge of blue cheese. It’s interesting how you don’t see rice used in more salads around town. Maybe you need to go to a “granola-head” kind of place (danger, server with dreadlocks!) and then you can find salads with rice in them. Rice salad, not cutting edge.

Mixed Salad of Local Greens – With an awe-inspiring description like that, what can you really say. Tracy ordered it. Tracy ate it. Tracy did not turn green or hurl. (Actually I think she liked it.)

IMG_2670Sauteed Chard with Preserved Lemon, Garlic, & Chili – I’m not sure who ordered this, Peter or Cora maybe? Whomever was the perpetrator, it seemed to circle the table many times without getting gobbled up. Too healthy for me. I think maybe it might have been too chewy, too, as I heard Tracy say she wasn’t used to eating chard without the center spine removed.

IMG_2669Moscato Marinated Beets, Goat Cheese, Mint, & Rosemary Walnuts – As she often does, Glenda went for the beets. It looked really pretty, but is often the case with Glenda and that bellowing voice or hers, I didn’t  catch any comments she was making. I might have heard a couple of those happy yipping sounds she makes when she enjoys something though.

Here come the entrees …..

Grilled Idaho Trout –  Swiss chard with roasted garlic, sage, & herbed bread crumbs. IMG_2659As she doesn’t eat “meat,” after she and Julian joined our group, it seems like Heidi basically subsisted on halibut at the dinners, as that tends to be the non-meat option that is available in these here parts. It seems the tide has turned (get it, the tide has turned, har, har) over the last year and a half to two years, more often than not her option these days seems to be trout. Even I’ve had a boatload of trout recently (get it, boatload, har, har.) I keep reading everywhere about that wonderful trout (in crazy water) at Woodsman, but I had that, and it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I did think Sam’s baked trout at Luce was divine, though. The major reason I’m talking about all these other place’s trout, I didn’t hear what Heidi thought of the trout at CC, she was so busy baby wrangling and answering questions about Hank, I don’t know if she really talked much about her meal. (Just so we make it clear this is 50/50 parenthood, Julian baby wrangled too. Even Tracy baby wrangled, and I got the impression it was a highlight of her night. No baby wrangling for me, I’m unskilled, and would probably be like the gerbil mother who gets agitated and eats her young. Besides, eating someone’s baby at a restaurant, it just does not sound like a good idea. There’s so much other food to choose from. ya know?)

IMG_2678Braised Lamb Neck Creppinette – On shell beans with fennel pollen gremolata – That Liz, sometimes she just has to go for the creepy sounding thing. (Which is funny, since she told us that away from the dinners she tends to go meat-free these days.) I didn’t try this, as people can rarely inspire me to try their lamb, but I think she found it decent, but put to shame by the soup that preceded it.

IMG_2676Braised Beef – with fried potatoes & chanterelles – I know both Glenda and Peter had the braised beef, but I wasn’t sure if it was this exact preparation as far as fried potatoes being involved. Peter loved his, so tender and rich he said, but Glenda thought that although her portion was flavorful, it was a bit dry (I think Glenda is like me, and has a hard time eating beef that isn’t totally rare, unless it’s really fatty, which takes away some of the dry, chewiness.)

The Country Cat Whole Hog – Cora, who brings a big banner that says ” I love pork” with her everywhere she goes, decided this was right down her alley. She seems to have had a childhood full of delicious, old-fashioned, hearty type eats, which she alludes to quite often. IMG_2661I think I heard her say it had something to do with her family being Dutch, so I guess we should have cross-referenced Julian to find out if his early years in the Netherlands were full of pig consumption. Whatever the case, this is one of the two signature Adam Sappington dishes on the menu that always garners heaps of praise, and might be one reason the Country Cat smells a bit like an old fashioned smokehouse (in a good way, not in a gasping for breath, my eyes are burning way.) Whatever the case, Cora found it through and through wonderful, and I think she said at our next dinner it made the Country Cat one of her favorite places we’ve visited. I think she was also the person who ordered the bacon braised collard greens, which got a hearty thumbs up opposed to the thumbs down the kale seemed to garner (Could it be the fact that one involved bacon, and one did not?)

Cast-Iron Skillet Fried Chicken – with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy – The Country Cat’s other go-to dish, and there were four orders at our table. IMG_2675I think I read after the CC opened that Mr. Sappington got this recipe from his Aunt or somewhere, who worked in a prison. What makes it unique is that it’s boneless, incredibly crispy, but still moist. I seem to remember that in the early days it was around $19, and I think you got a larger portion. Now it’s $13, and it’s just a thigh and a breast, but with the mashed potatoes and gravy, plenty of food. If you get it at brunch, it still comes with the pecan spoon bread and maple syrup poured over the top (David’s preference) but at dinner it’s with the potatoes and gravy (I prefer it this way, as a non-maple person.) I actually visited the CC twice within a three week span, once for dinner, once for brunch, and had the chicken both times. Although the chicken was excellent both outings (as I don’t do dry poultry well, it’s a testament to the quality of this recipe that I ate my entire chicken breast at both sittings) I greatly preferred the savory to the sweet accompaniments, especially since I forgot to ask for the syrup on the side. Anyway, everyone this evening thought the fried chicken was delicious, and was happy with their choice.

As the entrees at Country Cat are a tad on the filling side (fried chicken, braised beef, whole hog) there wasn’t too much dessert enthusiasm going around. We did manage three though. IMG_2684Glenda had that chocolate monkey on her back (I hate it when that thing starts screeching for cocao!) so she had the chocolate choice, the Chocolate Torte. I’m pretty sure it was pretty, and she ate it (so much for paying attantion, I think the monkey was distracting me.) The North end of the table and Peter all decided they just wanted a tiny sample of dessert, the Trio of Pudding – Butterscotch, Chocolate, & Crème Brulée with baked-to-order cookies. Since this was three small puddings, and there were four consumes, it was a bit awkward, but with the addition of the cookies, I think they all got a taste and liked the different flavors.

IMG_2686It seems like I was one of the few that heard the waitress mention that night’s dessert special, which was Carrot Cake with cream cheese icing and candied walnuts, as everyone kept saying “what is that?” and “that wasn’t on the menu.” It was a really handsome, nice large slice, so there was plenty to share with everyone, but silverware was at a minimum, they didn’t bring extras for the non-orderers, and the service seemed a bit vague towards the end of the meal, no one coming near the corner where our table was located. Anyway, anyone who wanted some eventually got a taste, but everyone seemed to agree the cake itself was merely good, not great. It seemed a bit under-sweetened, perhaps, and was really heavy on the spices. The frosting was good though.

I think it’s fair to say that everyone who liked the Country Cat the last time we went there with Restaurant Roulette (three of us) enjoyed it again, and the people who had never been there before thought it was a good find, and many seemed interested in checking out the brunch (which basically goes from breakfast to late in the afternoon every day.)IMG_2663 I was happy when planning this dinner to see how much the Country Cat has expanded their menu, especially when it comes to seafood and non-meat options, Especially nowadays, this is a problem with CC, there are always several things on the menu that you really want to try, but you can’t break yourself away from your favorites. Several months ago the Sunday Oregonian had a long feature story on Adam Sappington, and his wife Jackie, and Adam mentioned he was getting somewhat burnt out and might retire in the next couple of years. Panicked diners came running to the restaurant begging him to reconsider, and at that point he somewhat modified his statements, saying he wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a number of years. One of the great things about the Country Cat is that even though you have one of Portland’s most acclaimed chefs at the helm, the place is so warm, friendly, and non-pretentious. This has to come from the Sappington’s themselves, they don’t seem to be interested in accolades, just producing delicious, down home, locally sourced food at a reasonable price. Should someone else take over the eatery in the next few years, it’s hard to imagine them being able to fill the Sappington’s shoes, at least as far as producing that same warm and friendly vibe, not to mention keeping the quality quite as high.

IMG_2658 IMG_2682

IMG_2656

Advertisements