Hey, Someone Stole All My Money, Legally!

Repeat Performance – Restaurant Roulette has previously experienced an evening at Gruner, a little over two years ago, and at that time I talked about Swiss and German cuisine, owner Chris Israel, and the particulars of that dinner, which was lightly attended (only three of us.)IMG_2979 Because of this, I should not have to literarily spew on and on over the same tired subjects this time out (instead, selecting new tired subjects.) Consequently,  this particular dinner review could be a bit more succinct and less meandering than usual, as there will be fewer topics to discuss. You notice I use the “could” word though, as the word “will” is SO limiting. And I do need to dribble on long enough to have room to add all my blurry and over-exposed photos, sadly a real consideration in my writing (I’m often conscious of the fact that each paragraph needs to be long enough to wrap around a photo.

Most people familiar with our group know we don’t repeat restaurants particularly often, in a dining town like Portland there’s often a new restaurant to try with every dinner (and I’m only referring to “nice’ restaurants, not the zillions of places not suitable for our group.) Restaurant Roulette manages about 18 dinners a year, and most of the time we end up going to eateries we have not experienced before. Sometimes I do dust off a place we haven’t been to since the early days, when most of my regulars were a different crowd; sometimes I stage a repeat for a reason (I need a certain style of place) and sometimes we experience a meal at a restaurant which is just too good not to go back to for years, especially if there is inner-group demand (we had two dinners at St. Jack in 2011 within a short time frame, largely because several in the group were going to go back without me – the nerve!!) Twice in a couple of years is a pretty tight turnaround for Restaurant Roulette though, and why we doubled up on Gruner in that time frame was largely due to a couple of parties mentioning how they liked Gruner, and also the fact that so few of my current members made it to the previous dinner (there was a whopping three that first evening.) I’ve also read a few things about the new German/Alpine restaurant that went into the Il Piatto space, The Slide Inn, by the same owners, the Binghams. As a side comment on The Slide Inn, first of all, let me say I hate the name, it sounds like a sleazy tavern, and secondly, let me mention that our group will most likely not be visiting there, because although Il Piatto was the cutest, coziest place imaginable, the food was always incredibly marginal, and that doesn’t cut it in Portland these days. Anyway, because of The Slide Inn, I had Alpine on my brain (yes, I do have a mighty pointy head.)

Before when we visited Gruner, it was just getting going, but in the interim it has become one of Portland’s most respected eateries, and one of those high and mighty magazines (Esquire perhaps?) actually mentioned they found Gruner one of the most exciting restaurants in the USA.IMG_2977 Also, as per usual, owner Chris Israel was once again nominated for a James Beard award for Best Young Chef, although every time I hear about that honor it makes me wonder where the dividing line falls between best young chef and best chef, as Mr. Israel has more than a few gray hairs, and his co-nominee, Cathy Whims, has been in Portland kitchens since the beginning of time, practically (no insult meant to Cathy, I don’t mean you are old, but that you are really experienced in this town.) Maybe they need a new award, Best Young, Middle Aged Chef.) Gruner was always a relatively sophisticated place for a nice dinner, but now it is totally full of beautiful people with big bucks (they still allowed RR to eat there, but they did make us sit in the back, but we were treated relatively nicely .) The waiter was a tad on the stiff side, though, like eating at Gruner should be a refined experience for those having taste (like I said, they did let us in.

A baffling occurrence though, this is like the first time I have ever made an Open Table reservation where I didn’t call the restaurant a day before or so to make sure we really did have a reservation, and to firm up the number (I guess I’m getting blase about the whole Open Table thing, and actually trust them now, although it’s still almost impossible to modify a reservation on the site, or at least a group reservation.) (Okay, this is not the bizarre part yet.) Anyway, as I try to be the best patron possible (at least BEFORE I get to the restaurant) I started calling Gruner about 4:00 PM on the day of the dinner to tell them that I was one person short of my reserved body count. Each time I called I got a recorded message (from the phone company, not Gruner) that said “the number _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ IS in service, please try again” then that annoying “you’ve screwed up, dummy” phone company error noise. WHAT? THE NUMBER IS IN SERVICE? I still do not understand! Why wasn’t I allowed to talk to the restaurant then? This went on about 10 times over the next hour and a half, this stupid message saying “the number is in service,” then me checking that I had the correct number through multiple sources. The situation has still not been explained to me. Has “the number is in service, try again” replaced “the number is busy”? How is this any better? And is it likely that Gruner’s number was busy all 10 times I called? I started to wonder if maybe Gruner didn’t allow phone calls from lower income phone prefixes like mine (rather pathetically, I actually did wonder this.)

I don’t know what it is about Gruner, but for awhile there I thought I was only going to have three or four people again, but then luckily two people came through with dates, so we could bump that number up to seven. None of us was overly excited about where we were seated, however, as it was both lifeless and busy (with staff) at the same time. This area was a small one tabled room off of the main dining room next to the employee station and restroom/kitchen corridor. I knew right where we were sitting before I even got inside the restaurant, as it was dinner #2 in a row  where I was too stupid to figure out how to enter (really bad, because I’ve been to Gruner before.) IMG_2966I was already frazzled from being late due to a huge backup on I-84 westbound, then I was running in circles around the building trying to find the door. While I was doing this I ran to a no admittance door and could see Glenda, Liz, Gina and her friend Rich on the other side, so I knew entry was possible somehow, but I finally, pathetically had to ask a nice girl dining outside “how do you get into this place?” The problem was that there were two facing doors in a little indentation on the building’s facade, but I only saw the door opposite to Gruner’s, which had a big CLOSED sign (I was easily confused after the weird phone message fiasco.) Later I blamed my issue on Gruner having done some remodeling, and Glenda agreed with me, as she thought the dining area looked different too, but then a couple of days after that I did remember we previously went through an east facing entrance on the side of the building, since I remembered Mr. Israel had helped the waitress decide where best to seat us as only three (and that he was wearing a red plaid shirt.) I have a weird memory, I could remember what the owner was wearing over two years ago, but not how to get inside the restaurant.

Gruner is one of those popular places that jams a whole lot of tables into a space not quite large enough, so usually you are really cozy with the people on both sides of you, whether you want to be or not (one of those butt in the face places, where you or your neighbor can’t enter or leave the table without someone’s posterior being in your upper anterior space.) but at least that brings some life to the proceedings.IMG_2964 Where we were sitting it was pretty dark (gray walls I seem to remember) and as I pointed out last time, the type on Gruner’s menu’s is basically microscopic, not making for fun reading (in fact Liz had to actually read the dessert menu to me. I felt like I just needed a gray wig (not there yet!) a shawl, and maybe a wheelchair to complete the picture.Oh, and an ear-horn. WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY???) Anyway, David said he didn’t like where we were sitting, and we didn’t see too many other folks this night, except for the staff constantly going up and down the hall and to the little wait station to get things. It was very tempting though. Oh, the bread crimes we could have perpetrated! Last time we had a Gruner dinner I had commented on the fact that you were given a plate with three types of bread, yummy drop biscuits, small slices of multigrain bread, and a big soft pretzel thing. This time our table of seven was given two pretzel things and some multigrain bread, which seemed a bit stingy (especially as the drop biscuits were the tastiest thing last time.) All through our dinner people kept commenting on the fact that we were sitting right next to the containers of big pretzels, and someone could sneak over and grab some. (We love our bread.) I guess Gruner is cutting back on the freebies these days. It can’t be to keep prices low, as this was my most expensive RR dinner ever, and I even decided to forgo a cocktail to keep my bill from skyrocketing. Although the Gruner salad is large and appears to be a good deal, everything else is now about $3-$5 too expensive. I guess reputation gets you $$$$.

Since Gruner has been so popular, but has no real waiting area, and only a tiny bar, Chris Israel opened up Kask next door in 2011. This intimate little bar has been really well received, and has actually gotten national press recently. It’s known for having great drinks, but expensive drinks. Naturally, it would make sense that Gruner also has nice cocktails, but that they aren’t exactly the cheapest in town (this is not the Delta.) IMG_2984I was already anticipating a really expensive night, so I decided to forgo the real drink, instead having a $4 bottle of Elderberry Soda. I didn’t actually enjoy it that much, as I don’t really care for any berry sodas, but I did save probably $6, and it looked like I was drinking something interesting or at least more festive than water. A couple of people did have cocktails though, but as they were ordered before I got there, I don’t know what they were, but I did notice more big, honkin, glass-filing ice cubes. It seemed mostly a beer and wine dinner, David really enjoying the beer he got, until he found out it cost $9. Gina was doing the “purse full of bugs” trick that Glenda always does (drink part of your wine, then add bug so you get new, full wine) and consequently had some sips then got a new glass of red wine. Actually, I don’t think Gina was really doing Glenda’s trick, as she had not one but TWO insects in her wine, not at all within her non-meat eating realm. Liz decided to forgo dessert, instead having a rum, coffee and maybe banana cocktail, as she was going to have a long night putting together fancy goo-gaws for a friend’s wedding the next day (poor Liz, she had about 3000 to assemble. What a nice person, as she was doing it for free.)

Okay, I must admit that one reason Gruner was extra expensive for me on this night was because I had two starters.IMG_2969 Gruner is always mentioned as having excellent salads, and I remembered that last time we had two or three and they were really good (but not cheap) so that was my plan, no drink, salad, entree, dessert. Unfortunately, one of the special starters was Deep-fried Willapa Bay oysters, with sauce remoulade, and I love a good oyster, raw or fried. It seems rather weird to think of Alpine locales and oysters, but whatever. Anyway, I started off with those, which were tasty with a good sauce, but that was one area where my budget got wrecked.

Gina and her friend Rich were ordering together and sharing, and somehow her attention to detail momentarily wavered, as she ordered and started to consume the Maultaschen – swabian “ravioli” filled with beef, pork, onions & spinach, served in broth with chives.IMG_2965 Although it’s always good having Gina at the dinners (she and I get carried away with the wonderful world of “chicken chat”) we haven’t seen her in a bit over a year, but a couple of you might remember that Gina does not eat meat, only fish. Obviously, ravioli filled with beef and pork wasn’t really in her ballpark of desires (although she certainly recognized the meaty flavor right away) so Rich ended up eating that one. They did share Sockeye Salmon cured with gin and pine liqueuer, horseradish creme fraiche, frisee, chives and dill. I think David might have also gotten this. Gina said it was delicious, although the portion wasn’t exactly over abundant, and it sounds like a really interesting brine they have going (I remember how yummy the beet cured salmon was at Riffle NW) but it sounds like kind of a waste of gin to me, soak fish in it then throw it away.

Three of the house salads were ordered, “Gruner” salad – lettuces, carrots, celery, beets, cucumber, fennel, scallions, pretzel croutons, sunflower seeds, red wine vinaigrette, and while they are very large (and should be for around $10) despite all the ingredients, no one was that enamored with them.IMG_2968 Part of the problem was heavy ingredient syndrome, which is a problem with many salads, all the good stuff sinks to the bottom and the top of the salad is BORING, and part of the problem was a pretty ho-hum vinaigrette (although if you stirred everything up a whole lot, you did start to get some interesting herby flavor.) Anyway, although everyone agreed that the bottom was better than the top (the opposite of muffins) no one could really understand why this had the distinction of being the “Gruner Salad.”

Better was this salad – Shaved radishes, pumpkin seed oil, cider vinegar, dill, chervil, chives, savory, toasted pumpkin seeds – which was the salad I ordered. IMG_2970Judging from the circular, overlaying pattern of really thinly sliced radishes, this salad is probably a major pain to assemble. It definitely had many complex, interesting flavors going on at the same time. Maybe it was the chervil. To be honest, although I’ve heard the name a good number of times and know it’s an herb, I have no idea what chervil is or tastes like. I really hate the name though, to me it sounds like what you would call a demented gerbil (yes, a gerbil with mental issues.)

After this dinner I decided to review what I posted on the blog from our last dinner, to see why the salads didn’t seem as yummy and interesting this time. It turns out all of the previous salads had rotated off the menu, except for the “meh” Gruner salad.

Actually, Glenda had a salad too, but it sort of messed up the flow of the entire dinner (at least for Glenda) as Gruner couldn’t seem to get the after dinner salad sequencing where it should be. Every once in a while Glenda can’t be a normal folk like the rest of us, she decides she’s going to behave like a European instead, thus ordering a salad but requesting it after her entree.IMG_2973 Because of this, while the rest of us were having salads or whatever, Glenda was delivered a large plate of fried stuff, potatoes, and vegetables (her main course, which was Duck Breast Schnitzel, rhubarb relish, duck demi-glace, warm potato salad, spiced red cabbage) I guess because it came so early, even Glenda had no idea what it was, and insisted at first she did not order it. The waiter was very firm though (he wasn’t the most flexible and light-hearted guy anyway) and finally a light came on that this was her main course, arriving while everyone else was having starters. I know it throws everything off when one person asks for a salad after the entree, but the delivery seemed all wrong, the entree should have come with everyone else’s, and the salad squeezed in before the dessert course. Glenda did like the Schnitzel though, and the radish salad after. She liked everything she had this evening (a direct quote!)

David’s friend Shouhong, who it was really nice to meet at this dinner, had some sort of Mixed Seafood Stew for her entree, Spicy fish and Shellfish Guylas with Alaskan Spot prawns, walleye pike, blue mussels and manilla clams in a rich lobster broth with sweet and hot paprika, and potato dumpling.)IMG_2974 I asked her what she thought, and she said it was okay, but not really spicy. This was also David’s opinion, but he is never that happy with the spice level when he orders seafood stew, which he does quite often. His opinion seems to be, if you don’t want to grab a steak knife and hack your tongue off, it’s not spicy enough. I would think when you are discussing spice levels, you probably have to have two totally different categories for Asian spice level and Alpine spice level. Switzerland, Germany, and Austria just don’t strike me as countries laden with hot and spicy cuisine.

David had an entree very Alpine sounding, Choucroute Garnie – Bratwurst & saucisson, braised pork belly, cured pork tenderloin, sauerkraut, sweet mustard, and yukon gold potatoes. He had a mixed reaction to various items on his plate. IMG_2976He had a couple of sausages, and one of them he liked and one of them he didn’t care for. I’m guessing the one he liked was the Bratwurst, and perhaps the one not to his liking was the saucisson. I say this because I googled saucisson to find out why it has a fancy-pants name, rather than just being referred to as sausage, and saw that it’s a French sausage dating back to Roman times made of 75% lean pork meat, 25% fat, spices, and saltpeter. Hey, what man would like sausage made with saltpeter? Seriously though, I think it was the spices he was not thrilled about, as he handed this sausage around the table as many times as he could, and it did have some really sweet, strong, unusual spices, Rich thought maybe cinnamon. Not typical Germanic tasting sausage. I mentioned to David that last time Julian had raved about the sauerkraut, saying it was very genuinely European (Julian was born in the Netherlands) but David didn’t seem to be overwhelmed by its greatness, admitting he didn’t know too much about sauerkraut (the thing I know about sauerkraut is … I HATE IT!!) David did seem to like the non-sausag-ized items on his plate though.

The entree Gina and Rich shared was the trout, which seemed to not be hiding any non-fish oriented meat. It did have some green spears that might have been asparagus, some round items that could have been taters and something sloshed over the top (rice or sauce?) Despite my inelegant description, they both said it was delicious.

As last time I really liked what I had as my main course, and I’m not that keen on tons of Alpine delicacies, I thought I had once again selected the same item, a chicken and spaetzel dish. Last time the chicken was in little hunks mixed with the “dumplings” (sort of a casserole affair) and this time the chicken was whole pieces with the spaetzle in a separate dish, so I guess it was different.IMG_2978 Either way, Liz and I both selected this main dish, Braised Chicken alsacienne with morels, nesling, creme fraiche, crisp shallots & tarragon, served with spaetzle. I’m not much for tarragon, but Liz and I both agreed this was delicious. I have no idea what “nesling” is (yes, I’m tired of googling things now, I spend as much time googling and writing about googling as doing the cotton picking dinner summary) but it sounds like a sweet baby bird to me, so we’ll hope that was not one of the ingredients. I have enough trouble with a full grown chicken. I always pretend when I get home that mine are inedible species. Well, they must be, as they are completely spoiled.

I guess because the food was pretty hearty, and everyone had already tossed out a major wad of money ($448 for seven people) only a couple of us wanted dessert. I had sacrificed my real drink so I could have dessert though, and Glenda usually likes something sweet after all the heavy stuff (or in her case, after her salad) so dessert it was. Glenda hardly selected what sounded like a lavish dessert, some sort of cornmeal cake with rosewater, and Gina and I both stifled a little gag, as we had visions of a soapy flavor.IMG_2983 As it happens, I once had some sort of inexpensive rose water cookie at Ya Hala quite a number of years ago, as it was much like eating a bar of Dove soap. Luckily Glenda almost never shares dessert, because most of us didn’t want any. She seemed to enjoy it though, I guess she hadn’t consumed her daily soap requirement.

I selected something a bit more decadent, Creme Fraiche Cheesecake Tartlette, graham cracker crust, sugared walnuts, with strawberries and apricot coulees. Sometimes when only one or two people in a larger sized group are having dessert, and the rest of the bunch are sitting around waiting for you to finish so we can get the check and they can finally hit the road, it can be a bit awkward (especially as I’m almost always one of the people they are waiting for.) I only eat out once every three weeks though, so it’s somewhat important to me to be able to have a nice professionally prepared dessert, instead of sitting at home in front of my TV shoving some lousy store bought thing in my face as rapidly as possible.

To make me feel a bit better about this situation, I often try to share my dessert, especially as I might already be semi-loaded with food. Many of my co-diners this night looked at my dessert and oohed and awed, and seemed like they might really want a bite, but all the silverware was gone from the table except for the fork I was using and the fork Glenda was using. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years that many good restaurants are not as generous with the extra dessert silverware as they used to be (it might be a water conservation thing) but I really did not want to start my dessert until I could give tastes to everyone else at the table. Suddenly there was no staff around to provide extra utensils, everyone had vanished (even though we were in a service corridor) and by the time I got the extra silverware, Glenda was almost finished with her dessert. I mention this because towards the end of the dinner the service at Gruner seemed quite a bit more lax than the much more attentive service we had experienced earlier. It also took a long time to get the bank cards processed. Sometimes I think restaurants get weary of serving our larger groups, even when we behave ourselves totally, and once they slap on that mandatory 20% tip for a group over six, they don’t care too much about the service they give you toward the end (but don’t they know, I have a blog where I write all sorts of nonsense?) Anyway, back to my dessert, everyone agreed it was tasty, but it wasn’t that easy to share, even once we had adequate silverware, because the graham cracker crust was really tough and hard to cut. I guess I’m a lowbrow, I love graham cracker crust, so this was a disappointment.

I would say this was a dinner of mixed reviews. David had things he liked, but seemed really deflated after hearing his delicious beer was $9, and I think he might have said that he wasn’t sure Gruner was worth the prices. Everything I had was certainly good, and the chicken preparation totally above average, but I’m really not a major fan of Alpine cooking, and I’m sure I could have gotten equally good oysters many, many other places.IMG_2971 So if I have lots of money to spend in the future, I’m probably not going to run off to Gruner, two dinners there is plenty for me. Gina and Rich enjoyed most of what they had, but I think much of it was enjoying the group dining thing. Liz loved her main course, but certainly could have lived without the Gruner salad. As already mentioned, Glenda loved everything, but I know she’s a big Chris Israel fan. On this evening, some of the service struck me as indifferent, while last time I remember that we had excellent service throughout the evening. I could put the service issues down to Mr. Israel having divided interests, his new place Corazon opened recently just a few blocks away, but I saw him at Gruner most of the evening. I hope he’s not coasting on his laurels, many “great” Portland spots have lost their reputations because of attitudes like this, Wildwood and Higgins being a couple that pop into my head, and Gruner’s only been around a couple of years. With so many excellent restaurants in Portland, and new ones opening all the time, I think the rule needs to be, you must wait 10 years before you can kick back and exist totally on your reputation. I’ve still got 4 years to go (I didn’t say dubious reputations didn’t count.)