THE DINING REPORT, OBA!

Can’t chew your meat? Just take $50 off!

IMG_2702The Pearl District is an odd sort of place. You would think that the new, trendy eateries would have the most luck there, but it’s some of those stalwarts from the beginning that seem to have the most luck hanging on, Oba!, Georgios, Piazza Italia, Paragon, PF Chang’s. Although Piazza Italia occasionally makes best of Portland lists, as it’s just so Italian, the rest of them, no accolades for years. Wouldn’t you think the Pearl would have to always have the best of everything? They did get the return of Trader Vic’s, which was an amazingly expensive remodeling project for that location, but as everyone knows, the food at TVs can be very hit or miss (so maybe it WILL survive.) Irving Street Kitchen had lots of buzz in its first year or so, but I haven’t heard too much about it lately, and our group gave it very mixed reviews when we visited there. Kin always gets great press, but that’s another place I haven’t heard any buzz about for months and months, but I assume it’s hanging on. Oven and Shaker seems to be drawing in the masses so far, but the menu is pretty one dimension for fine dining, mostly just pizza. Why doesn’t the Pearl attract and keep destination, fine dining restaurants? (Actually I just thought of one, Metrovino, but that’s far off the beaten track and has lost their highly acclaimed chef to his own restaurant.)

But back to Oba! As I’ve alluded to before, and mentioned back in 2007, when we had our last dinner here, I’ve always had a fond spot in my heart for Oba! (despite her somewhat fading reputation over the last 4-5 years.) It was one of the first restaurants in Portland that defined really cool, cutting edge, from its conversion from warehouse (garage?)  to gorgeous eatery space, to its Nuevo Latin menu, to the packed and crazy happy hour in the bar. IMG_2701In the beginning it was a bit on the more expensive side, but the food always lived up to the hype. During the middle years the prices hit a Pearl District stride, but the menu didn’t necessarily up the ante from a quality standpoint. Nowadays, Oba! is really expensive (I painfully laughed when in the three days between me deciding to do Oba! and sending out the RSVP a whole new website appeared, with higher prices!) but although many of the favorites are still really good, other items seem prepared with a lack of consistency, perhaps a bit surprising since Oba! has kept its chef, Scott Neumann, from day one.

There continue to be plenty of good things about Oba! worth mentioning, and it is a good place for a special occasion dinner if you have lots of bucks (a category that eliminates most of the people who actually attended this dinner.) When I made the reservation, they asked me if it was a special occasion, a question I get quite often if I’m asking for a table for 8 or more. I said that as it happened, one of the attendees was having a birthday (close enough, one day off.) When we arrived at the restaurant, one of the staff walked over and placed a card at our table that said “Happy Birthday.” Inside was a certificate for a free dessert. I know all kinds of places give you free desserts for your birthday (Andina gave me one a couple of birthday’s ago) but they usually don’t do it in such a classy manner, and it was a really nice touch, especially as the recipient was a big Latin dessert gobbler.

Naturally, in true Sam fashion, the birthday girl was the last to arrive, having forgotten exactly where Oba! was (which to me seems a bit like not being able to find your big toe on your foot) but she’s never been to Oba!, so we’ll cut her some slack.IMG_2717 Sam is a careful contemplater of both drink and food, plus there was much chit chat before she even looked at the menu, but luckily we got some food going before her next birthday. I must congratulate Oba!, however, because although there were only 6 of us in our party, we hogged the table for nearly 3 hours, and I never felt like we were being rushed along in the least or that the staff had grown weary of us in any way (believe me, I do witness this at some dinners, especially the rush to turn tables or staff less civil toward the end, except at tip time, naturally.) This is something I had heard had slipped at Oba! over the last few years, service, but at least for us this evening, the service was excellent and professional, especially the waiter.

When I had started planning this dinner I had decided, as times are tight for many of us, particularly right before tax refund time, that I would have a salad, which is much cheaper than the starters at Oba! (these are all a shocking $14 now, except for the Fundido Dip, which is a couple of dollars less) and an entree, no drink, no dessert. I mentioned this to a co-worker earlier, and he felt bad for me, so slipped me $5 (for a glass of wine) which made me feel bad for him, thinking Oba! would have a $5 glass of vino. I appreciated his gesture, however, and since this entitled me to have one of the cheaper cocktails for only $3.50 out of my pocket, I went for it. Oba! has always had a really extensive line of Margaritas, Mojitos, and all those fun South of the Border drinks that I love so much, and while I used to love something called a Hibiscus Frou Frou (which I don’t even think exists these days) on this night I selected from the value Mojitos (of course Oba! doesn’t call them value Mojitos, they call them Bacardi Mojitos, or something of that nature) my choice being the Cucumber Mojito.

Most of the time Cora just has a vodka and tonic, but a couple of the Oba! specialty drinks looked good to her this evening, and she decided on what I did, the Cucumber Mojito, which was both balanced and refreshing, as a cucumber drink mixed correctly should be.IMG_2703 David, who is an adventurous eater (except when it comes to root vegetables) but a weenie drinker, had his typically boring rum and coke (the favorite drink of high schoolers everywhere!) his substitute for whenever Drambuie is not available for his Rusty Nail fix (although now and then he does do a tequila beverage.) Glenda, in a manly mood, had a Oban Scotch. Liz had a Ginger Sour, which gives me reflux just thinking about it. Birthday Girl had a couple of drinks, as David was buying one of them. She seemed to suck up the Oba-Tini, but had issues with her Caipirinha (who knows) so Liz ended up drinking most of it. What a lame birthday drunkard.

IMG_2696David, exercising his usual kind impulses, got an order of Fundido Dip (Queso Fundido – traditional Mexican cheese dip with crispy tortilla chips) for the table, after all these years still coming with those red, blue and flesh toned tortilla chips, which are always warmed but who knows where from (I guess it could be Oba!, but as they only average, not outstanding, why bother?) Fundido Dip used to be one of my favorite happy hour orders at Oba!, where it cost $5 in the bar, although I’ve been told the happy hour snacks are more these days. It’s an alarming $12 in the restaurant. I’m not sure what happened with Fundido dip, I noticed about five years ago it didn’t seem half as tasty as it was in Oba’s early years, I think they changed the recipe, perhaps less chorizo and a different cheese. I didn’t mind having some of David’s though, as this was a slow developing evening and I was really getting hungry.

Liz was also kind and generous, and got an order of Tostones with Beef Carnitas (twice-fried plantains topped with braised beef & avocado)  for whomever at the table wanted to check them out. I hate horning in on anyone’s snack when it costs them $14, but I thought they were really tasty in a slightly spicy sort of way, seemingly involving the same beef Oba! stuffs inside their beef flautas.

As Valentine’s Day was just four days away, and Oba! has got to be exactly the sort of spot people seek out for such an occasion, they were already advertising a Valentine’s Day fixed price menu for $50, featuring two starters, an entree, and dessert. IMG_2699Glenda and Cora both had interest in the special, Glenda finally deciding it sounded like too much food, but Cora going for it, as Oba! said they had done a massive order and had all the supplies in the kitchen already, so were prepared to whip up the 4 course meal whenever someone ordered it. The first starter was scallops, which, as per usual, was a modest size portion, but there is no portion too small to share in Cora’s book (man, our group is completely overflowing with kind, generous souls) so we all had samples of the tasty seared scallops. (Reviewing the photos, I now see that Cora was allowed four scallops, quite a generous portion.) As one whom is unfamiliar with seafood harvesting (which is fine with me, I don’t need yet another food related guilt trip) I lack understanding why scallops are so expensive, and you get so few (yes, I know we all pretend they are so rich we only want a couple per sitting.) My guess, complex harvesting? One more, of millions of things, to add to my list to google someday.

Oba!, like everyone else, has an upscale beet salad on their menu (hey, beet salads, aren’t those like SO five years ago. IMG_2710They don’t seem to be going away though.) Glenda, as is often her way, decided to have that, as perhaps it was lacking many of the South of the Border elements I know she shies away from. Sam and I both had the hearty sized butter lettuce salad that came with Spanish blue cheese and walnuts. As it was sharable size, I shared some with Liz, as I had to share something with someone. IMG_2708The Spanish must make their blue cheese extra salty, since while I enjoyed the salad, it stuck me as a bit salt laden. Sam thought hers was pretty good, especially the nuts. I had found my salad light on the nut meats.  Maybe this was the issue, since it’s highly likely that both salads were whipped up together in the same bowl, but mixing and distribution might vary, perhaps I got the majority of the salty cheese, and Sam got more of the nuts in her portion (Sam dates online, like many in our little group and beyond, so she’s probably used to getting more nuts in her portion, so to speak. )

IMG_2706David had a bowl of tortilla soup. I didn’t hear what he thought of it, but I noticed he had a hard time dealing with his dinner later, the same portion I myself totally gobbled down, so I think the tortilla soup might have been filling. At least he had a hearty breakfast the next day awaiting his hopefully renewed appetite. I know he didn’t fill up on bread before his entree at Oba!, as they don’t seem to give you bread these days. That’s sad, as they used to have this yummy cream cheese, garlic, hot pepper spread as an accompaniment, and that was tasty, indeed.

Cora’s second course was a lovely presentation of bacon wrapped (or was it pancetta or prosciutto wrapped?) asparagus with a poached egg on top, Very pretty indeed, and she found it delicious. I’m not sure why I didn’t accept a sample, it’s probably because my world is overflowing with eggs.

When planning the dinners, I try to consider the people in our group who don’t eat meat, or even fish, and at least try to look in advance  to see if there are meatless options available. (Interestingly, if you look at Oba’s online menu they mention having special vegetarian, vegan, and low-fat menus, and having a dietician on staff. IMG_2705They don’t seem to roll these out with the regular menus though.) Sam is always a major gray area, as she prefers to not eat animals, but will still eat beef or pork, and doesn’t mind seafood at all. The one thing I do keep forgetting about, however, is the one established food allergy in our group, Liz is totally allergic to shrimp. You would think I could remember this, as it has arisen in unpleasant ways in the past, especially at places like Southpark, where the menu didn’t bother to mention that her entree included shrimp, and when it arrived she had to send it back and start over. I allude to this fact because there were shrimp at our table this evening, and as they were being passed around, I blithely handed them Liz’s way. Why can’t I remember this poor girl’s allergy? It makes me feel like a poor hostess!!!! I think shrimp is just too prevalent in our society, and allergies to it very rare.

Sam was the Crustacean Queen this evening, having two starters for her main meal rather than an entree (at $14 a starter, she certainly wasn’t saving any bucks this way.) IMG_2712Her first was the shrimp dish, it’s always been one of the best things Oba! has had from the start, Crispy Coconut Prawns with jalapeño-citrus marmalade. I used to get this at happy hour all the time, not a bad deal then for $5, but reviewing the happy hour menu nowadays, I see that you can get a tiny portion for $6.50, and a medium portion for $14. In the old timey days, I think the happy hour portion was basically the same size as the starter in the dining room, but nowadays you have to pay $14 for more than a couple small bites. Whatever the charge, these are always a delicious starter, largely because the citrus marmalade  has the perfect orange/jalapeno balance, not too hot and not too sweet, and the prawns are never too coconutty, you don’t want them tasting like a shrimp Almond Joy (you certainly DO NOT!!!) I’ve had samples of this shrimp dish created at people’s homes, and while the shrimp often turn out pretty good, the citrus marmalade is never as good, and that’s what makes the dish delish.

Langostinos, where have those things been? I remember from my much, much younger days those annoying Sizzler commercials with the Caribbean voice talking about those incredible langostinos, and then soon after those crazy little sea creatures just disappeared from the map (menu, whatever.) IMG_2704It was like Sizzler killed off langostinos, which is entirely possible. What exactly is a langostino supposed to be, anyway, part lobster and part shrimp? (I know, google again.) Does this mean that Liz would only be half allergic to a langostino? (or that she could eat 50% of one, and spit the rest under the table?)

Incredibly, I am discussing this ridiculous subject for a reason, it’s not that I’ve ventured all the way around the bend (a quarter of the way doesn’t count, right?) Sam’s other small plate was: Sauteed Langostinos with Citrus-Jalapeño Crema in a rich South American sauce. Maybe because you don’t see much of those critters here commonly, Sam thought this was the better of her two shellfish, although her stated reason was that she really loved the sauce, not that they are scarce.

Liz’s choice of entree was one of Oba’s signature dishes, Pez Espada con Puré de Cilantro -macadamia nut crusted pacific swordfish, pan-seared with cilantro pesto, grilled tomatoes & sherry glaze. IMG_2714I personally have never understood people’s excitement over certain white fish, Mai Mai and Swordfish being two of the main offenders, they seem relatively flavorless to me (maybe that’s why people like them, they don’t taste fishy or anything else.) Liz paid a high tariff for this entree, $31, and she told me she found the fish itself rather disappointing, but luckily the sauce was really great, so that saved the entire dish for her. Hmm, cilantro, cooked tomatoes, and sherry, three of my least favorite ingredients. Clearly this is not a preparation for me, it’s good it was at least in tune with Liz’s palate (although I wish more people would pay a fortune for items with my palate in mind. People are so self-involved!)

 As we all know, our dear friend Glenda (aka Fashion Maven) likes what she likes, and while occasionally you can push her slightly in a direction she would not normally go (Trebol, Yakuza) the results likely will not be what you might desire.

IMG_2713Two or three years ago,  I was somewhat surprised to hear that she had never been to Oba!, because although food like Mexican, South American and Caribbean are certainly not down her alley, it is a Pearl District mainstay, and a place where the beautiful folks flocked for years, especially as it used to be surrounded by small art galleries. I figured she was on the fence about joining us, but as she says she always enjoys the dining company, she consented to break Oba! bread with us. (Even if there was none.) She was totally on the other side of a large round table from me, so even when she was trying to make me hear her, I largely could not, so I didn’t catch many comments. She did look favorably at the fixed price meal though (even if she decided not to get it) and I thought she made it through her beet salad okay, and she appeared to find the service good. Then came those STUPID, RECALCITRANT BEANS!

I’m a person who never enjoys cooking vegetables, but when it comes to eating them, I’m relatively flexible as to how they are prepared.IMG_2720 Although I will eat asparagus the way most chefs claim it should be cooked, sometimes it seems like they go overboard, and I don’t find it that pleasurable to eat when it’s so al dente that it’s tough and chewy. Also, when I’m cooking it for myself only, if it gets a bit too overcooked and limp, it doesn’t bother me, as that’s when I most taste true asparagus flavor. Another item I’m pretty flexible about are green beans, if they are way overdone and completely soft, no problem, I can still handle them. I also don’t mind chomping on a few raw. If they are supposed to be cooked, however, they need to be somewhat pliant and chewable, there’s nothing worse than a half raw, mealy, tough green bean.

Obviously, Glenda shares this opinion. I wasn’t sure what Glenda was going to select as her main dish, but it didn’t surprise me that she went with beef, as Oba! has several beef presentations, so she had enough options that she could avoid any preparation too spicy or “latin.” Despite the South American moniker, her choice, Bistek Asado (gaucho-style 10 oz. prime rib, cooked on the mesquite grill, with Scott’s steak butter) was pretty mainstream, and one of the dishes Oba! has always been praised for. Glenda, although not the youngest member of our group (okay, she’s the oldest, so far) is possessed with a game appetite, so she ordered the larger, more expensive cut ($32) which came with mashed potatoes and what looked similar to succotash, as I spied corn and green beans from across the table. Glenda took a couple of bites of her food, and discovered the green beans were practically raw, so she alerted the waiter, who immediately went back to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a new plate of beans, according to Glenda, no better prepared than the first batch.IMG_2694 I don’t know if Glenda enjoyed her big honking piece of beef (I thought maybe she said something about it being fine) or how much she ate, or her opinion on her dessert, or anything else after this, because from the moment she rejected that second serving of beans, Oba! became a restaurant with a big X through their name. A restaurant who cannot cook green beans is not a restaurant worth visiting!!!! When we were going our somewhat separate ways after the dinner, and people asked me what was next, I said I did not know, only that it would be someplace cheaper. Glenda’s remark to this, “Someplace BETTER!” Somehow it was hard to not feel a bit wounded, as I thought I had selected a decent restaurant. I rue those green beans.

Actually, it’s pretty funny that Glenda held a grudge against Oba! over $3 green beans (I know, because they removed the charge from the bill) but Cora was so understanding about her situation.IMG_2711 The entree on her fixed price meal was some steak and other fancy goop underneath (I think she said it was NY Strip, but it was sort of a weird presentation, and I didn’t notice what it was supposed to be on the menu.) It came, as requested, medium rare (there was part of the problem there, medium beef, danger) lots of big hunks of steak, sliced really thick, and stacked in a pyramid over the accompaniments below. It looked pretty fancy. Cora took a couple of bites, though, and insisted I needed to try some and see what I thought, as she knows I’m really into beef. I could tell she thought something was not right. Sure enough, besides being overcooked for my palate, I found the meat very chewy, okay for Applebee’s or somewhere, but not what you would expect at Oba! It seemed more like a big piece of chuck or something that might be okay if it was sliced against the grain, but was sliced without regard to anything at all. I think David and Liz also had samples and agreed, took chewy. Cora took a couple more bites, and ate almost everything else on her plate, but decided she wasn’t going to eat more of the steak, but instead tell the waiter it probably wasn’t up to standards when he bussed her plate. She explained the situation to the waiter in a concerned manner when he came, and while she was offered another steak, she refused, saying she was not unhappy, but wanted the kitchen to know that something was askew with the beef. The next time the waiter returned to our table he said he had consulted the kitchen, who had also checked out the steak and agreed it was tough and chewy. He said the chef insisted the item be removed from our bill, that he was quite embarrassed it had been served. When the bill came at the end of the night, Cora looked to see how much they had deducted for the steak, and was flabbergasted to see they had comped her entire $50 meal! She argued to the waiter that this was excessive, that she had enjoyed everything but the steak, but the waiter said the chef was adamant about removing the entire charge from the bill. Even Glenda was surprised. I think we all agree, Oba! may be somewhat inconsistent in their execution after these years in business, but they are classy!

David and I both had a beef experience untainted by either tough beans or chewy meat, as we both selected the Carne Gordo (prime rib smoked on the mesquite rotisserie then roasted under rock salt with chipotle horseradish cream & poblano mashed potatoes.)IMG_2715 Growing up, Prime Rib was our special occasion meal, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world, although I eat it, if I’m lucky, once a year. Usually around Christmas time I splurge and buy one (I blanch at speeding over $20 on anything in the grocery store to feed one person) but then I wreck my colon trying to eat the entire thing by myself over a number of days. Prime Rib is not really something you find at the sort of restaurants our group visits, it’s totally lacking in trendiness, and the times I’ve visited Oba!, I’ve never wanted to spend quite that much money. I’ve always coveted it though, as it’s always been one of the best meals at Oba!. They do have a smaller cut these days (this clocks in at $29, no more expensive than many of the entrees) so I was committed to ordering Prime Rib this evening, and the fact that this cut had the added touch of being somewhat smoked added to its allure. As is generally true with a prime rib, truly rare is an elusive quality, but this was still juicy, and tender, and rich in that wonderful rib meat way, and I enjoyed it completely with the tasty chipotle horseradish and poblano mashed potatoes (Oba! always adds hot peppers in a very restrained fashion.) I think David liked his as well, but as I said, he seemed pretty wiped out by the tortilla soup and took most of his meat home.

Sam had her Oba! certificate for her free birthday dessert, and Cora’s meal also came with dessert (it was supposed to be cheesecake, but they told her she could have anything on the menu) so dessert was in order.IMG_2721 I had made the earlier commitment to not having dessert because of the price of my entree, but naturally I wavered, especially as all the desserts were $7, nowadays a reasonable price. Sam was in a tizzy trying to decide, as almost all the desserts had a latin vibe, her favorite, and she ended up having the same thing I did, Banana Malasaddas. described by the waiter as Oba’s most popular dessert. They were deep fried, and banana filled, and came with really soft, vanilla-laden ice cream. Cora had the chocolate filled empanadas, which were tasty enough, but everyone agreed her accompanying ice cream was rather weird and sour.

I guess if someone was to ask me about the best restaurants in Portland, I probably would no longer lump Oba! into that category, although I did for many years.IMG_2722 I still think their approach to cuisine is really unique, I love the latin flair, and I always enjoy the dramatic atmosphere, but I don’t know if the uneven execution is worth paying the high prices for. Even with all the deductions to our bill, $50 for Cora’s dinner, $7 for Sam’s dessert, $3 for Glenda’s nasty beans, the bill was $380.74, with the mandatory gratuity for a table of six (although the waiter was worth every penny he got.) My food and drinks were good, and so was the majority of what was served, but the kitchen should not be sending tough, untested meat out of the kitchen on a $50 dinner, and even if it’s the way the kitchen likes to prepare beans, if someone sends them back as raw, the second time you send them to the table, you should be sure they are more fully cooked. Oba! continues to put on a nice show though, the plates of food are large and pretty, the staff is professional, and they do come across as humbled by their defeats, rather than haughty. They might need to shake up their thinking a bit though, you can’t coast forever, and they have to be facing major competition from their neighbor next door, the also incredibly expensive, special occasion oriented Trader Vic’s (where the food is even more hit and miss.) I certainly don’t mind still going to Oba!, I just wish someone else would foot the bill. Maybe I should have complained that my Prime Rib was impossible to chew or my potatoes were too spicy. Unfortunately, my food was totally edible!

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