THE DINING REPORT – RIFFLE NW
No Firearms Involved, But Lots of Fishing Poles.
According to those informative folks at Wikipedia …. “A Riffle is a short, relatively shallow and coarse-bedded length of stream over which the stream flows at higher velocity and higher turbulence than it normally does in comparison to a pool. As a result of the increased velocity and heightened turbulence, small ripples are frequently found. Riffles are usually caused by an increase in a stream bed’s slope or an obstruction in the water.” My guess would be that lots of fishermen don’t even know this term, although they are probably acquainted with the phenomenon. Maybe it’s more of an East Coast thing.
Many months ago, I read on my source for much local food news, eater.com, that a couple of high-end chefs (and/or high-end chefs that are also a couple) from New York were scouting out downtown locations for their catch-inspired seafood restaurant (no, I don’t really know what catch-inspired means either, but I would assume it refers to seafood fresher than you can find in your local dumpster.) After much passing time the Norris duo, Ken and Jennifer, decided the now vacant 50 Plates space (I NEVER wanted to go to that place, retro food, ick) looked good, so they started remodeling their new eatery in their vision, a block from Andina and right across from the always charming Cargo. They also settled on a name, Riffle NW. I would guess that about 25% of the people who have gone to the restaurant or have heard about the restaurant have any clue what the name refers to. I am very anti-firearm, so I associated the name with some weapon, despite the added r, and thought maybe they shot the fish out of the water (which could be a bit rough if you wanted intact product. Fish sticks, maybe.)
People in P-Town are always saying to me, it’s hard go to a decent restaurant here and find fresh seafood, beyond salmon, halibut, and recently, an onslaught of trout. As we are a coastal state, people find this mighty peculiar, but maybe it’s because Portland is inland, not on a big body of water like San Francisco or Seattle (we just have our Willamette Sewer System.) I remember in those old timey days, before there was any place good to eat here, going to McCormick and Schmicks and seeing this gigantic list of fish called their “fresh sheet” which seems like it had lots of seafood. That whole chain fell into distain long ago, and who knows what the local outposts like Jake’s sell as fresh local fish these days. Also, all those Pacific coast Rockfish breeds became over-fished nearly to extinction, so that lessened the Left-coast seafood selection even more. Fin opened ever so briefly, and people loved the fresh seafood and intriguing preparations, but most of that was fancy fish flown in from Hawaii, and didn’t seem catch inspired (if only I knew what that means.)
Anyway, when I heard that a really quality seafood restaurant was opening in Portland (that wasn’t affiliated with an expensive steakhouse) I followed the developments, and added Riffle NW to our dining roster, a little more than a week after they opened. Because people are always bemoaning the lack of good seafood here, I thought this dinner would be a big hit with our group, but I guess I picked the wrong time of the year (too close to late spring holidays/travel) as we were a marginal group of six at this dinner (volume-wise, not identity-wise.) Also, being very Pearl, Riffle NW is not the cheapest place ever, so anyone on a strict budget probably avoided this dinner like an ocean-borne plague (watch out for that rapidly approaching tsunami dock behind you!)
Anyway, had more people found it in their schedules and wallets to join us, I think they probably would have liked Riffle NW, it’s an interesting restaurant. I had read that the owners went all out on the nautical decor, which sounded horrifying (Skippers in the Pearl) but it’s actually an attractive place, and makes one think of Irving Street Kitchen, as far as being filled with funky, re-purposed items like kooky light fixtures, in their former life crab nets (although it’s certainly smaller than the gigantic Irving Street Kitchen.) It was only 10 days in when we visited, but the place seemed packed, even in the bar, and unless something drastically bad happens, it’s hard to believe Riffle NW won’t be a huge hit for years to come (contrast this to that fiasco called Bay 13, which was only about three blocks down the alley [where ISK is now] a chain restaurant that started going down the tubes the moment it opened.) Well thought out can get you a long way on the Portland dining scene.
As I had left my home rather late, and was parking in the Pearl, I had fears of turning up really late. Luckily I had found a vehicle placement right in front of Andina, so I actually showed up about mid-stream, David drinking in the bar (nothing new there) and Liz and her nice friend Joel had just been seated at our table. I probably would have met Liz and Joel at the door, but I was too stupid to figure out how to get into the restaurant, and had to make about three passes. As one of those converted warehouse restaurants, Riffle NW has patio dining all along the elevated loading dock, and while I headed up there the first time, assuming that must be the way in, all I saw were beautiful Pearl people outside eating, no entrance. Then I decided to go back down, and head around the corner to Flanders, where there’s also a door, and a sign that says “please use main entrance (BUT WHERE IS IT!!!.) Feeling like a total dork, it was back amongst the diners on the loading dock (being the Pearl, I’m sure there were some pets out there laughing at me too) still not spotting anything resembling a door. What to do, what to do, I could not figure out how to get in. Finally I saw some staff waiting on a table, and begged them to please tell me if I needed to drop from a low-flying plane onto the roof to enter (it turns out there was a door in the middle area of the loading dock, it just was invisible to the embarrassed and easily intimidated.)
I really don’t go out to bars these days, despite Portland having so many interesting spots where you can get great small plates to nosh on with your drinks, but one bar associated name I have constantly read over the last three years or so is Dave Shenault, head of the Bartenders Guild of Portland. Mr. Shenault is supposed to be Mr. Fancy Shaker in these parts, and Riffle NW brought him on-board to get its liquor program up to shakes (tee hee) from the beginning. Really, though, how many ways can you keep mixing these same ingredients together and end up with a drinkable combination, so instead of merely focusing on the booze involved, Riffle NW follows the East Coast trend of also being obsessed with the ice (which I think has also been tinkered with in places like Beaker and Flask, where they have things like coconut ice cubes.) RNW (as they refer to themselves on the menu) actually take a 400 lbs. block of ice, and carve it to fit your glass (seeing all these gigantic glass-filling ice cubes made me wonder though, is some of the room that would normally be filled by fire-water now filled with ice instead? How much liquor really fits in a glass that is 90% cube?) As the restaurant is in its very early days, the waiter was still enthusiastic about talking about their ice program, and how the gigantic block is frozen to amazing coldness, the less desirable ice is shaved off the top (I told Barbara that’s probably what was in her Mojito, as it looked like chips) and then the “cubes” are individually chiseled out. Sounds like kind of a lot of work though, for something that just sits in the glass, un-melted, after the good stuff is gone. Believe me, no one is going to be chewing on this left over ice, with a size of something like 2″ x 5″, I’d like to see someone even get that in their mouth. It made for fun photos though.
David already had his drink going when I got there, but I’m sure it was some approximation of a Rusty Nail. The Halle’s are Mojito people, so Barbara and John had those, but the other three of us had fancy RNW drinks, many having quaint names. Sadly, I managed to get a drink that had no fun ice (which might mean I lucked out with more liquor) but had a fun name, the Hovercraft (Pepper Vodka, Peach, Lemon, Honey, Egg White.) I’m not overly thrilled with eggy drinks, as they usually don’t have ice, and I like ice, but this was pretty, delicate, and moderately tasty. Liz’s drink, which came with a giganto cube, was a Manzanito (Tequila, Lime, Cinnamon, Pomagranite Cider.) Joel also had a drink, although my memory banks are failing me as to what it was. I think it might have been a Queen’s Consent (or was that Queen’s Consort?) with Cava, Rhubarb, and Rosemary, another big ice cubed drink. Simple folk that I am, I was even more fascinated by the drink menus than the actual drinks, as they were suspended in slots cut into the table, hanging by little wooden boards. You want a drink, viola! you just grab the small wooden board and pull the menu out from under the table. The menu stays relatively clean and takes up no table space. Another thing I enjoyed, pleasing on a dramatically changing late Spring evening, the large warehouse windows that opened out. When we got to the restaurant it was pretty nice out and sunny. About 2/3rds of the way through, the sky turned totally black and we had thunder, lightening, hail, and pouring rain, all witnessed through the large, open windows. That must have been really exciting for all the people eating on the loading dock.
The waiter was an intriguing fellow, a dead ringer for a slimmer, better looking Jack Black (although this waiter was really good, and it’s hard to imagine Mr. Black being an overly competent server.) It turns out he moved here from Detroit a few years ago, where he once had a job in a gas station and was hit twice by random gunfire (one incident, two bullets.) Liz especially found this story interesting, as she’s from Lansing, Michigan, really not too far away from Detroit. Anyway, he came across as rather a quirky guy with a tiny bit of attitude, but he did a great job all night, and even showed some interest in our group (servers are never sure what to make of our “dine don’t dash” slips. My favorite comment, so far (where was that, maybe the now sadly gone Lauro?) the waitress saying “what are those for, are you playing a game?” Yes, it’s a game where you spend way too much money in every round, and never get any money back in return. Hey, change doesn’t count, that’s your money to begin with.)
As alluded to before, Riffle NW being a nice place, with really fresh fish, and in the Pearl, it isn’t exactly the cheapest meal out there (although it still came across as a better deal than RFH.) With their list of raw fish, and their list of small plates, plus their list of specials that are both small and entree sized, and their dinner menu, if you select from here and there, and also have a drink and dessert, the tab can certainly add up. Not helping the situation, everything is basically ala carte, so if you want something with your whole fish or octopus or whatever, you have to throw in at least $5 more on top of that (although the salmon entree came with some sort of hash underneath, the tuna roll was a sandwich, and the octopus was a whole conglomeration of stuff, so you might be able to get by okay without a side.) Generally when I’m at a good restaurant though, I want something to go along with my big hunk of meat or my whole fish. I remember those days of nice, balanced meals, as I was born 2/3rd of the way through the last century. Even if I’m at home by myself, and in a hurry, I still never have just meat, or fish, or chicken, I have to have an accompaniment of some kind.
Poor Liz, on this evening she had three starter/special plates, and when the waiter brought her last two plates at once it filled about a quarter of the table, but it was all plates and bones, so she didn’t actually have much nourishment at all this evening, but spent a healthy amount of money (plus the table ate most of her flatbread pizza thing.) She did have what was probably the best starter, the Beet Cured Salmon Carpaccio (Sweet Bacon Aioli, Toasted Filberts.) It wasn’t exactly the largest hunk of sea flesh to begin with (Fin had a fish carpaccio that was about double this size) but what it lacked in portion, it made up for in taste. It seemed weird to have beet cured fish, but between the slightly sweet nature of the curing and the smokiness of the preparation, it was incredibly delicious.
For her entree Liz had two other smaller sized preparations (on giant sized white China) the Tarte Flambee & Littleneck Clams and the Roasted Bone Marrow (Roasted Garlic and Fig Compote.) The Tarte Flambee was delicious, sort of like thin, flat bread pizza with clams on the top, and this was really rich and crispy, but by the time we all had a piece, there really wasn’t too much left for Liz to make a meal out of. As anyone who has had marrow bones knows, they are rich enough, but the amount of marrow to the amount of bone is about 10% to 90%, so that’s hardly a belly busting amount of food either. I too was faked out by plate size, but when Liz mentioned toward the end that she didn’t really have much food, I thought about it and realized she hadn’t had lots to eat. Everything she has was really tasty though.
Liz’ human accompaniment for the evening, Joel, seemed like a really good guy, and said he had heard many nice things about our group from Liz (maybe that was one of those evenings where she was hitting the Picklebacks.) He and David had the same starter, which was a mound of seafood tartare. I know I had a bite, but a couple of weeks later I can’t remember if it was salmon or the more common tuna, but it was mild, fresh, and delicious. I’m thinking salmon, and it was good, but I think everyone thought the smoking made the carpaccio slightly superior. The Tartare did come with some really pretty homemade potato chips on top though. Joel also had the one non-seafood item at the table (except for Liz’ bones) the night’s pasta, which was Pappadelle with Chicken Ragu. Liz really took a shine to this dish, and thought is was second best at the table (eclipsed only by her carpaccio.)
Barbara decided to try the Market Salad to start with, and it was good-sized and really chock full of vegetables. It also had the cutest carrot ever featured in a salad, a miniature carrot perfectly sliced into a one dimensional carrot. Who comes up with these fun ideas in this place? (That was actually a thing I appreciated about RNW, opposed to that other pretty but stuffy upper-end fish house in the tower, Riffle NW seemed to have both humor and imagination going on behind the scenes, but it still came across as polished and professional.)
Barbara also threw caution to the wind, and after getting a description from the waiter, decided the Octopus sounded like it might actually be correctly prepared. When the plate arrived, there was no mistaking the tentacled beast (RNW Octopus, Potatoes, Chorizo Cream) for anything else, it had some pretty big arms jutting of the plate. Semi-creepiness aside, Barbara said it was tender and terrifically prepared, and she enjoyed it totally.
John joined us quite a bit after his wife, as he could not find parking for a long time (believe me, I felt fortunate to have parked so easily mid-Pearl) but luckily Barbara had a Mojito all ordered up for him, so when he finally made it to the table, he had a reward. John also ordered a bottle of a varietal white wine, which he and Barbara shared with all takers. Although I think he came to somewhat regret it, John ordered the shrimp starter, Salt Roasted Spot Prawns, and you could tell just by looking at them, they would be a pain to eat, as they had shells, heads, tails, eyeballs, feelers, the whole shebang. John asked the waiter if there was any easy way to peel these little monsters, and the waiter’s only answer was to instruct John to do just what he was doing, struggle and get all shrimpy. John said they had really good flavor, but they were probably more trouble than they were worth. I think he then went off to take a bath.
From the minute the menus came out, the waiter was all jacked-up about that night’s whole roasted fish, which was a striped bass. John was one of three of us that had this as their entree, David being another. John had a side of asparagus with his, perhaps being like me as far as not being able to cope without side-dishes to go with his cooked protein. Of course I’ve had whole roasted trout lots of times, but other than that I’m not really the sort who orders a whole cooked fish. I remember Red Snapper used to be one of those fish you saw served whole, but I never really liked Red Snapper, which is probably a good thing, since the rest of you gluttonous types have eaten them practically into extinction. I have a friend who, when she goes to Mexico, can’t wait to run to a scary beachside shack for a whole deep fried fish with extra garlic sauce, but I’m more picky about my fish that that, and while I will eat almost any fish put on my plate, I’m not necessarily a fan of tons (My preferences, Salmon, Trout, Tuna, Kokanie, Halibut, Sole and Sturgeon. Also, good Catfish.) Anyway, what I’m getting at here with this boring discourse of my likes and don’t likes, is, that I’m not one to particularly select a fish out of my comfort zone, and consequently, I don’t think I’ve actually eaten any sort of Bass before, Striped, Big Mouth, Sea, or any other.
Before the Bass, however, I had my starter, which was the Albacore Tuna Salad. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly Bumblebee Tuna, and the salad was a decent size and had lettuce, and crunchy bits, and French Green Beans, cooked just right (Liz had a sample, and said it was probably the best green bean she ever had. Of course, as we have now ascertained, the girl was basically on a starvation diet this evening.) Anyway, good tuna salad, not something you would find at your supermarket deli counter.
Getting back to the fish though (Whole Roasted Striped Bass with Citrus Salad) when the three portions arrived at the table, there were oohs and ahhhs, as the fish looked so dramatic, grilled and slightly alarmed. I do have a complaint though, mine was not perfect, it was missing the tail. Why was I given the only defective fish? Didn’t RNW know I have a blog where I complain about practically EVERYTHING??? The missing tail had its consequences. I know people who will not eat trout because they are afraid of choking on a bone (these people should come to RNW, where the sole is actually served with a side of its own crispy fried bones) and if a fish is not perfectly deboned, it ruins the entire fish for them, as they are so consumed by fear. Having eaten my share of delicious smoked fish, where you often have to pick around bones, I am not one of these paranoid people. I do not eat bony fish with trepidation. That being said, a striped bass has really big, sharp bones, and they were everywhere, and this is one time where I think it would have been desirable if the restaurant offered to debone your fish at the table. I really did end up eating a lot of pointy, large bones, and so I probably only ate about two thirds of my fish, as I got tired of working around the bones. This is the major reason I mention the missing tail, when you have an intact tail fin it helps you pull almost all the bones out as a unit, but mine seems to have had some sort of incident, and the bones came out in little chunks. This was a big contrast to David’s fish, when he was done I saw him waving around and playing with his big intact bone at the other end of the table. I’m just saying. It didn’t seem fair!
Am I a big fan of Bass now? I don’t think so. Despite the choking hazard, it was nicely prepared, but Bass seems to have a distinct flavor that does not put it amongst my favorites of fishies. I must commend it for not making me hurl later, though. The only three times I have eaten at a decent restaurant and gotten extremely ill within hours, I have consumed fish, twice Steelhead and once Sole. This makes me worry about eating cooked seafood in a restaurant, as I know there is a great deal of illegal fish switching that goes on in the seafood industry these days. So I was quite worried, looking at this big, honking fish looking back at me on my plate, would it make me ill? Thankfully, no problem. Perhaps the richness of the fish was offset by my modest little side order of English Peas (opposed to something else more rich and filling.) They were nicely prepared as well.
The dessert list was exceedingly tiny (a work in progress?) only three items, a Chocolate Pudding, Strawberry Shortcake, and Warm Cookies (all $6.) Melissa Halle, who had been involved with a function at the Art Museum, dropped in toward the end of the dinner to join her parents. She decided she didn’t want anything substantial, just nibbles and noshes from various plates (it was a good way to jettison my “citrus salad” from the fish, basically a couple of slices of orange type things, that thanks to Melissa didn’t go to waste.) She didn’t mind joining in when it came to her parents dessert, however, in their case cookies and Strawberry Shortcake. Joel also had the shortcake, and I think he liked it so much he could have licked the pattern off the plate. There was no pattern on the plate, however, so it must have been pre-licked (or we’ll be sanitary sorts, and say white china.) Anyway, needless to say, this wasn’t exactly shortcake from Cash and Carry, fresh berries, shortcake, fresh whipped cream, and rather unusually, a garnish of basil.
I had decided before I came that I would try the Warm Cookies, unless they were a flavor that sounded repulsive (bunion and liver chip are not favorites of mine, not to mention tofurkey and cinnamon swirl.) The serving was five cookies, on this night tea cakes, chocolate-espresso chip and a sugar cookie. Almost any cookies are better warm (except for those two I alluded to earlier) and after doing some minor sharing, I managed to choke them down. My favorite was the flower shaped tea cakes, although Barbara at first thought they couldn’t be tea cakes because there was no powdered sugar, but once I pointed out to her that they tasted like tea cakes sprinkled with coarse salt rather than powdered sugar, she agreed that they were tea cakes. There was also a question whether the chip cookies really had espresso chips, but when I mentioned that if you smelled your fingers you would get an aroma of coffee, it was agreed that the cookies were also as advertised. No one questioned the lone sugar cookie, I suppose because it tasted like a small but fresh sugar cookie. So the cookies were relatively decent, but it would still be better to have more things to select from (mainly because I’m a shameless glutton.) If you’re only going to have a few things, certainly make a trio of warm cookies one of them!
So, what was our opinion of Riffle NW? By and large, I think we all thought it was very good, and something we need more of in these parts, an interesting, somewhat sophisticated seafood restaurant with really nice fish. I had mentioned to Joel early on that the restaurant had opened the week before, and he was amazed, as the place was so competent and well put together. These people really hit the ground running, and the eatery already seemed a great success both in terms of execution and volume of clientele. It’s true, the entire thing with the super-monster ice seems a bit pretentious, and not the kind of thing a really good restaurant needs to draw people in to eat (although I could see a high-end bar luring people in this way) and my guess is that this seafood house will be so busy on the average night, the last thing they will need is for the bar to bring in more business. I guess if you want to have one of the major bartenders in town work for you, you have to let him do special things too, even those involving big blocks of ice.
This is probably about the fifth seafood place our group has visited, and I must say I enjoyed this one the most (the others, Southpark, Cabezon. Ringside Fish House, and Fin. Fin was good, but barely counts because it was in business such a blip in time – although I hear Trent Pierce is trying to resurrect Fin.) Most people would find RFH really nice, but their seafood list was pretty standard in these parts, and I find those fancy looking corporate places so stuffy and humorless. It’s true Riffle NW is in the Pearl, and we all know how THOSE places can be, but the decor has a feeling of whimsy to it (okay, tasteful whimsy) and the staff is edgy enough that you don’t have to worry that you’re not acting like an appropriate patron. It’s true, it’s not cheap, these ala carte places are hard on the wallet, and good quality seafood always seems to cost a premium price to begin with. It was a good dinner though, even if when we entered it was a warm, sunny evening, and when we left it was a dark and wet night. Global warming, I hope the fish like it better than we do (but I doubt it.)