November 2012


THE DINING REPORT – LUCCA

Welcome Challenged – But they Warm Up to You

As people in this group know, my head is always turned by those new places, so when I am selecting which restaurant will come next on our roster, the new spaces usually have the advantage, followed by old favorites where we had really good dinners before.IMG_3210 Usually the neighborhood stops that look interesting, but don’t have much publicity, are the ones it takes me awhile to get around to. Sometimes they just fall off my radar (yes, that does mean I’ve forgotten about them) and sometimes they lose their promise along the way, so then I think, okay, there must be somewhere more tantalizing than that to have the dinner. If these smaller restaurants stay in business long enough though, and I drive by them now and then, and maybe I hear a favorable comment or two, then I usually get around to them. Also, in the case of our most recent dinner, Lucca, they have managed to stay in business in one of those cursed locations, the corner of 24th and Fremont, longer than any previous restaurant that has tried to fill that spot, the original Nature’s NW grocery, so that shows they must be doing something right.

I actually had a decent turnout for this dinner, originally 11, but when Heidi and Hank both got sick the day of the dinner, we went down to the original 8 places I had reserved.  IMG_3204My depended on group of regulars was in attendance, David, Shuhong, Glenda and Cora, plus the occasional Halle family (they might protest, and say they are always the Halle family.) I never know who to expect around the holidays though, after only five at Imperial, so it was a welcome relief to have a table full. It wasn’t the most beautiful of mid-fall evenings, rainy and somewhat cold, and as the Lucca space is your typical storefront type of eatery with two glass doors on the corner, as is the case with many places like this, sitting anywhere in the path of the door draft can be chilly (which brings to mind another Italian dinner, about a year ago, at the now acclaimed Luce, where the opening of the door totally deep freezes the entire small space.) Speaking of chilly, by the way, I arrived about 10 minutes before our reservation, finding Cora, David, and Shuhong already in the bar area. Cora was not the happiest camper, as she said the hostess was pretty rude to her when she had arrived about 25 minutes before the reservation time. Having taken mass transit and knowing no place else to go, as the corner of 24th and Fremont is not exactly the best place to bide your time, as all the surrounding area is residential (oh, but such nice residential!) what was she supposed to do, knock on a neighbor’s door and say “hey, I’m 25 minutes early for my reservation at Lucca, can I use your bathtub?”  Cora said the frosty treatment also extended to David and Shuhong, who arrived next, the implication being “I have no room for you, come back at 7:00” (when our table still wasn’t quite ready.) (more…)

THE DINING REPORT – IMPERIAL

Where Graciousness Overcomes Salt

IMG_3178Vitaly Paley has to be one of Portland’s most famous chefs, not only a James Beard award nominee, but an actual winner of this prestigious cooking award. Another distinction, he’s one of the few local chefs who has managed to bridge the gap between Portland restaurant food of old and Portland’s current explosive dining scene, Paley’s Place still respected and going strong after 18 years. Obviously, Mr. Paley is also a deliberate, careful man, having one of Portland’s upper echelon dining houses for at least 15 years, but never opening a second restaurant until this Fall. Contrast this to Duane Sorenson, owner of Stumptown Coffee, he opened the Woodsman Tavern last fall, then the Woodsman Market, is about to open the Italian influenced Ava Genes on Division, a separate pizza parlor nearby, and I think a “beer hall” as well. Of course, Mr. Sorenson last year sold part of Stumptown to New York investors, so his capital is probably a great deal more fluid than Vitaly Paley’s. That being said, I also get the impression that Mr. Paley didn’t want to have his name associated with any venture that might besmirch his fine reputation (did someone say Corazon?) but at the same time wanted to go in a direction new and distinctive. (Of course, Duane Sorenson is not a chef to begin with, he’s a coffee magnet and owner, so he didn’t really have a food related reputation to damage. It doesn’t matter, as The Woodsman’s really good anyway.)

Anyway, back to the cautious Vitaly Paley and his new joint, Imperial. Were I to have a meal at Paley’s Place (it’s been a long time, it’s kind of spendy) and then be blindfolded, and taken inside 10 restaurants to guess which one was Paley’s new venture, the Imperial would most likely be guess 9 or 10. It’s black inside, it’s kooky, much of the decor is actually edgy. Paley’s Place, for all its hospitality and quaintness, is rather staid. It’s in an old house, and it’s much like eating in an old house in NW Portland (not that I don’t love old NW houses.) It’s classy, and refined, and even somewhat delicate. Imperial has big, dark chandeliers made from bicycle chains (they reminded me of something from the Addams Family.) Imperial has garish yellow/gold wallpaper with a loud tattoo pattern right next to fancy neutral colored tiles that look like they are from a high-end subway tunnel near to booths that don’t really match with either. Imperial has roughly poured concrete beams right next to your table, a ceiling with all the plaster knocked off, and turn of the 20th century exposed brick in the bar area. Imperial is LOUD, and full of buzz, and does weird things like bring parts of your meal on big hunks o’ polished wood. Since it’s a hotel restaurant (Hotel Lucia) the bathroom is about a mile away, down many stairs. The closest restaurant I can think of with a high-end pedigree and respected chef but such a weird conglomeration of decor is Irving Street Kitchen, but that whole place is so kooky inside, it works for them. When we were at Imperial, three of us were having a discussion on how non-homogeneous and discordant the whole of Imperial comes across, so much so that David told us “hey, quit picking the place apart.” And pick though we did, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t sectors of Imperial I didn’t find attractive, over by the bar seemed nice in a very black, modern, industrial way, it’s just SOOOOOO hard to believe this decor could be associated with the “sedate” Vitaly and Kimberly Paley (reputation-wise, of course. I don’t know them personally. For all I know, they are edgy and out of control in person.) (more…)