Ya Gotta Beat The Clock! (But deliciously)

IMG_3465As I’ve mentioned ten quatrillion times before, I love John Gorham’s restaurants. As I’ve mentioned about three times less than that, his restaurants are incredibly difficult for group dining. None of the Gorham restaurants is overly large, and they have many “table regulations” that make bringing more than four people really tricky, like the fact that you need to have at least seven people for a reservation, but can bring no more than ten, and that you need to guarantee each space you have reserved with a credit card. Since our group is all about knowing we have a place waiting for us when we get there, RR has not been able to set foot in Toro Bravo (my fave) for at least five years now, TB having the most restrictive reservation policy of the bunch (no reservations on Friday or Saturday.)

When I heard, last year, that Gorham was opening a new restaurant in downtown’s West End in the early part of 2013, I was excited, because I thought this could potentially be a bigger space, with a looser reservation policy! As it turned out, Tasty n Alder is about the same size as Gorham’s other restaurants, but at least for now, a couple of months in, they do accept three group reservations an evening, for seven to ten people. You still have to guarantee your spaces with a credit card. You also have to promise to only stay two hours as well, for they have three seatings each night, 5:30, 7:30, and 9:30.

When the hostess called to confirm my spaces the day before the dinner and to snatch my credit card number, she once against asked me if we willing to turn the table in two hours.IMG_3467 I told her we would do our best, but asked what would happen if the party before us straggled and cut into our time. She told me she would personally boot them out at 7:30. I know when we arrived at the restaurant we waited a few minutes past 7:30 for our table, and didn’t see if the party before us left on their own volition or were given the hook, but I really do wonder what happens when your two hours are up if people are still eating dessert or haven’t finished paying yet? Do they make you stand in a corner until you are done, or maybe do you have to relinquish any uneaten food, or if time is tight, do they come and tell you you don’t have time to order dessert? I really don’t know this, as I was in the restroom right before the check came, and don’t know if the waitress even offered dessert or tried to hurry us out. It wasn’t an issue on this evening anyway, as we were all over satiated with savory foodstuffs, and none of us was planning on having dessert anyway. Obviously, we could hardly wait around for our food to settle and make more room for sweet items.

IMG_3457When I sent out the RSVP notice mentioning only ten available seats for TnA, I thought I would have a glut of people wanting to join us at this dinner, and that I would have to be ruthless and turn people away. Our group has been in flux this year though (why does this always happen? I certainly make the same amount of effort to draw people in for each dinner) and I came out with just enough people that I could keep the reservation, seven. I know at some places you can show up with a person or two less than reserved and they don’t rake you over the hot coals, but I believe at Toro Bravo you get charged a set dollar figure for each person missing from your table, so it could be the same thing here. Luckily I had confidence in the group I was dining with this evening, no flakes in this bunch, so I had no real fear that my credit card would be dinged for a missing torso.

This was the return of our good dining friends Tracy and Peter, whom we haven’t seen since last Summer; they are such busy, working/traveling folks.IMG_3469 It’s actually been so long since they last joined us, at Market, that that particular establishment opened, went out of business, and is reopening as a totally different restaurant now (if it hasn’t changed hands again, it’s a challenged space.) Also joining our group were my stalwarts, those people I depend upon so I can actually have these group dinners, Glenda, David, Shuhong, and Cora. Glenda, totally playing her fashion maven roll this evening in a stylin’ red jacket and shoes, was walking totally unassisted for this dinner, not even using a cane. As most people know, Glenda was plowed over by a car the day before Thanksgiving, but each of her dinners back she has shown a progression in recovery, from wheelchair, to walker, to cane, and now, walking without a net!

This is a pleasant space, quite modern and woody, but as often happens at these popular places, there is not ample waiting room. As parking was alarming easy on this evening (truly miraculous downtown these days) Glenda and I were 20 minutes early for our reservation.IMG_3455 I knew this was not the kind of place where if you show up early your table will be waiting, so I advised Glenda that we should linger in the car until approximately 7:20, which we did. When we arrived inside T n A, Tracy and Peter were already there, lurking between the front door and the bar area. This is a narrow space, and I was constantly and embarrassingly in the way here, each server going back and forth from the bar saying excuse me or running into me. It was even worse when our three other table mates arrived. David and Shuhong actually ended up elsewhere to wait. We hardly could leave the building and wait, however, as our reservation was supposed to begin in 5 – 10 minutes, and we needed every bit of table time we could get.

Oh, let me also mention that Tasty n Alder is pretty dark, and as they have darker paper with lightish, small type, the menus are murder to read. Even Glenda, with her big honkin’ fashion glasses like telescopes asked to borrow my illuminated magnifier to see parts of the menu. Maybe this is why Tasty n Alder has house glasses for their patrons.IMG_3470 Earlier, Cora and I had been talking about glasses, and mysteriously, at that very moment, Cora’s reading glasses vanished. She (and everyone else, including the staff) looked high and low for Cora’s glasses, to no avail. Cora asked the waitress if she could check to see if anyone had turned in any glasses, and the waitress said no, but that Cora could borrow the house glasses. That struck me as pretty funny, house glasses, but perhaps they are glasses that someone left behind and never claimed. Whatever the back story, Cora borrowed the house glasses. In the end, when we were leaving, the waitress noticed that Cora’s glasses had been sitting on Glenda’s foot all night. Yes, goofy but true.

Although John Gorham’s restaurants are known for giving you decent portions of really filling food, if I was directing someone in the direction  of a good place for drinks and a snack, it probably would not be one of his restaurants. Tasty n Alder does have an afternoon happy hour from 2:30-5:30, which might actually be a good time to visit there to actually get in the door, and they do have reduced prices on some wine, beer, cocktails and snacks, but as a general rule, cocktails are pretty slight and wine pours often tend to be lacking generosity (this is one of the few complaints I’ve heard about Toro Bravo over the years.) That’s okay, given the choice of decent food portions or generosity of liquor pours, I’ll always take the ample food. I don’t need to be blotto, but I like to leave with a full belly.

I mention this because Glenda pointed to her glass of scotch and said “not a very generous pour”. I had to agree with her, as the glass was less than 5/16th full, and I thought she had been nursing it for a bit, but it turns out she had not tasted it. IMG_3449I know one should not expect a large brimming glass of scotch (or god forbid, want it) but decent scotch isn’t cheap, so you should expect more than three sips. I had decided beforehand that I would have a Twentieth Century Cocktail – gin, lillet, Crème de cacao, lemon, which was fine, and at least was a glass full (okay, it was a dainty glass.) Peter said his cocktail was a great whiskey drink, so I’m guessing he had an Improved Whiskey Cocktail – rye, maraschino, bokers bitters, herbsaint, demarrera. He said it was delicious. Tracy had two of something or other, my guess is the Bartender’s Mood, which obviously could have been anything. To be honest, I was having a really tough time hearing anything, especially at the table, because Tasty n Alder is loud, and the music was loudish too. Shuhong had a glass of red wine, I noticed, and Glenda also followed her mini Scotch up with red vino.

I didn’t really pay much attention to the beverages this dinner, because as is typical of TB and the Tasty franchises, the food starts flowing pretty rapidly. Like at TB, the concept behind Tasty n Alder is that everyone will share (even if you don’t really want to) so even if everyone has not decided on all their food, they do get some food moving for you in the kitchen and get that to the table.IMG_3450 This is probably a good idea when you have a group, and a two hour limit in which to eat. Because of the onslaught of food almost immediately, this is one of the few dinners I remember where there was too much bread. Three of us ordered Bread n Butter for $1, and it was a decent portion with really fresh tasting, unsalted butter, but it ended up we probably had about 1.5 orders of bread too many. Usually the bread disappears because people are sitting at the table waiting for some sustenance, and getting by with bread, but here food was served within the first 15-30 minutes, so the bread nibbling ceased. Also, their were complimentary homemade Spanish peanuts on the table (the equivalent of TB’s deep fried garbanzos) and as these were some of the best peanuts I’ve had, there was even less need for bread (a sentence I never thought I would type!)

One thing that sort of rubs me the wrong way, however, is when the server decides how much of an item you should have. Many members of our group tend to be radicchio salad fans, and as Toro Bravo has one of the best radicchio salads in town, so ordering it here, although a slight variation, seemed like a no brainer. Also nice, like many items at TnA, you have the choice of two sizes, $5 individual or $9 large.IMG_3468 Everyone at the table wanted to order the radicchio salad with the exception of Cora, so Glenda and I, Tracy and Peter, and David and Shuhong all decided on large orders to be split between groups of two (with overflow for Cora.) The waitress (otherwise very good) decided one large size would be enough for all of us, so brought that instead. Although it was a nice sized salad, this only gave us a few bites each, so we immediately ordered another. By and large, I would say this salad was the most well received item at our table (which is saying quite a bit) the Radicchio with lardons, manchego, and chopped six minute egg probably the best salad of this kind any of us had ever had. The TB version has always been good because they soak the greens (okay, reddish purples) for long periods of time in advance to eliminate the bitterness. Here, they are ultra delicious because the dressing is somewhat creamy, the lardons, sheep cheese, and egg a wonderful combo.

IMG_3451Basically, as it was almost required, and it might be the only way to be reunited with your food (which could have been set anywhere on the table) we shared most dishes family style, as TnA recommends. Even Glenda played along, having the first portion of her tartare and passing it around. Peter, who gave up carbs in the months since we had last seen him, obviously didn’t eat any bread or partake of the wheat oriented items, but there was lots of steak and other protein for him to try, and he and Tracy ordered a couple of vegetable side dishes, so we all got to have some of those to augment our main courses.

Here’s a list of what we ordered. Everyone said they enjoyed everything they had, although it was mentioned that one dish would not be a choice to be ordered on a second visit, and a meat dish, while flavorful, was tough.

Baked Prunes & Tallegio – A cousin of TB’s griddled bacon wrapped date. A great way to stay “regular”.

Crab Dip  – Brimming with crab and crunchy toast.

Clams Casino – Small type clams filled with bacon, breadcrumbs, and other delicious items.

Anchovy Fish & Chips  – John Gorham, as a pusher of Spanish delicacies, obviously is fond of adding anchovies to his menus. In both instances, they are deep fried crispy. At TB anchovies are intermingled with deep fried lemon, which makes for an interesting contrast. Here, they came with french fries. As they were somewhat fishy, they reminded me of fried smelt. This was the one item ordered (by Tracy and Peter) that was decided was okay, but not desirable enough to order again. In Tracy’s own words, “fishy”.

Steak Tartare with house chips – Glenda ordered this, which is most likely why she didn’t order an expected steak later. It was really wonderful, the raw beef so tender and flavor packed. First class raw bovine.

IMG_3472Lamb Chops   Anderson Ranch – Despite my general aversion to lamb, I’m pretty sure David shoved some of this at me, and I ate it. There was so much food thrusted in my direction, however, I don’t remember anything about it. This is particularly true because my plate was so full of various items, I forgot which was which. That being said, David sent me an email the next day, commenting on the lamb, as he and Shuhong wanted to be certain I set the record straight (as generally high praise was heaped upon this dinner.) David said that although the lamb had really good flavor, it was somewhat tough, probably because it was sliced quite thin and consequently it cooked on the grill too rapidly.

Grilled Spanish Octopus  Spain  – I guess this was way too good, as it didn’t make it around the table. Glenda said it was fantastic though.

Moqueca de Piexe  Brazillian fish stew  – We don’t see Cora as often as we did in earlier times, but  when she joins us, it’s often at a place where she has a hard time deciding what to order. This was one of those instances; the waitress had to skip Cora and continue further around the table to collect orders, then come back, as Cora wanted almost everything. I think she also wanted to select something different than all of us meaty folks, so that there were more things to taste at the table. She’s also a big seafood fan, perhaps because of all her years spent in Boston. Whatever the case, she found this fish stew an excellent preparation.

IMG_3463When it was established last year that John Gorham was going to open a Tasty offshoot downtown, everyone originally assumed it was going to be a second outpost of the wildly popular, brunch oriented, Tasty n Sons. Somewhere along the way, it was decided that although the new Tasty would also serve a similar brunch to TnS, with a slightly different menu (and unusual items like Bim Bop Bacon and Eggs and Korean Fried Chicken), TnA would also be a dinner house, with an emphasis on steaks and other proteins. I was excited, because I knew that as a trained butcher, Mr. Gorham would be familiar with a variety of both less expensive but flavorful cuts and fancy, high end steaks. Sure enough, there are many cuts of beef to select from here, and several are available in small plate size as well.

IMG_3454Since my tongue is discriminating but my wallet is lowbrow, when given several to choose from,  I often select steak based on the price (although I sometimes make an exception for Rib Eye, as it’s my favorite, and almost always prepared nicely.) Here, like at Ox, there are two choices of Rib Eye, a dilemma for sure. Here, both options are at a slightly smaller price point than Ox, although the serving is also probably about 75% the portion of Ox. There is also a Teres Major (Shoulder), Flat Iron, Fillet Mignon, and a Cowboy Skirt steak, prices ranging from $12-39, depending on serving size and cut.

Initially I thought about the Double Grilled Rib Eye, which was more expensive, at $29, but sounded just plain tasty (yes, tasty all over at this establishment.) IMG_3461Another reason for this, I didn’t know exactly what a 21 Day Aged Ribeye a la Plancha ( Cascade Natural ) entailed. I now know that a la Plancha doesn’t refer to some freaky Spanish sauce, it means grilled on a metal plate (yes, my fantastic Spanish language skills come into play yet again.) This was the cheaper rib eye, at $25, a pretty good deal for rib eye these days. I decided to ask the waitress about the two steaks, and see if she had an opinion (I actually rarely ask servers for their opinion, as everyone has their own sense of taste, and restaurants often encourage their staff to push certain items, no matter what they taste like).

I couldn’t tell if she had already went through this spiel with Tracy and Peter (who were sitting right next to me) because this place is so loud I couldn’t hear anyone except those right next to me (and in Glenda’s case, I still couldn’t hear her) but she patiently explained the two steaks for me. IMG_3466It turns out the Double Grilled Rib Eye was smoked, then grilled, much like the delicious Smoked Coppa Steak at Toro Bravo. I haven’t been to TB for a long time now, but each time I have been there, I have gotten the Smoked Coppa Steak, I love it so much, it’s very rich and distinctive. That being said, you have to be in the mood for smoked beef, and on this evening, I was in the mood for just plain grilled meat (maybe because I purchased a wood pellet grill this Spring, and have all kinds of smoked meat at home these days.) Also, a rib eye has such rich flavor, you want to taste that, not necessarily an added element. The waitress said she preferred the Aged Rib Eye, which was dry aged and very tender. This muddied my steak selection waters, but her argument was obviously persuasive, as three of us went for the Aged Rib Eye (it didn’t hurt to save $4.)

Although the preparation and spicing was relatively simple, this was a delicious steak, cooked perfectly, with a nice char, sliced in thick strips, full of beef flavor, and melt in your mouth tender. Of all the steaks I have had in my almost seven years running this group (can you imagine that) this was probably second only to Ox, it was that good, several dollars cheaper, and a bit less fatty (rib eye needs fat, but you don’t want to be paying for 1/2 a plate of fat.) Everyone agreed, great steak, great food all around.

Side dishes – (Like many steakhouse influenced establishments, the meats are a la carte.)

Sauteed Nettles – Looks like spinach, tastier than you would imagine. Also, no stings!

Yellow Potatoes with sour cream, lardons & chives – I got these and passed them around. Good, but like everything, dwarfed by the steak. Yummy when reheated at a later time.

Grilled Asparagus – Part of Peter’s anti-carbohydrate dinner, delicious as you would expect.

Carrots – Thanks for getting them Tracy and Peter, another of my favorite vegetables.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably good that we glutted ourselves on the abundant savory food, as there would not have been adequate time for dessert. IMG_3459To be honest, I had looked over the dessert menu earlier, and I didn’t find anything that inspiring anyway. Like Toro Bravo, desserts seem an afterthought here. Which makes it so interesting that I love John Gorham’s restaurants so much, since I also love dessert so much. One item TnA does have to finish your meal (I suppose that’s what they are for) are what they call “Grown Ass Milkshakes”. These are basically fancy milkshakes with booze added. I wonder how many of those they sell? Even I am not so hedonistic to want steak and a milkshake in the same meal (unless I am hoping for an ambulance ride later.) Maybe it would be good if you just want to drop in for atmosphere and a fun treat, have a little snack and an alcoholic milkshake. Otherwise, I don’t think so.

I know in the beginning I whined quite a bit about certain aspects of Tasty n Alder, especially  the hurdles with the reservation and the two hour time limit, and all that good stuff, but it certainly wasn’t an indication that I didn’t like the place.IMG_3453 Everyone in our group liked this place. The general opinion was that this was our best dinner since Ox (all attendees here had been at the Ox dinner.) Which answers the question, why do people put up with all this nonsense (the crowds, the noise, the restrictions) when there are so many great restaurants in Portland? The answer, because the food is so good. Also, the prices go up and down the scale from $1 (bread) to $39 (Filet Mignon) so no matter what your budget, you can probably have a decent meal here. Also, if you are not a group using the one communal table, if you just show up to eat, you have none of these crazy restrictions that make it so difficult for 7-10 people who want to be guaranteed a place to sit when they arrive. Although I understand the name Toro Bravo (brave bull) I have never really got where John Gorham came up with the name Tasty n Sons. I know when I mention the name to non-foodies, they always say WHAT??!! and wonder if you are sending them to the equivalent of a modern day Tastee Freeze (hey, at least it’s Tasty, not Tastee!) or some greasy style diner. At least with Tasty n Alder there is a precedent, and at least half the name makes geographic sense. When I was writing this review, however, the one word I was constantly wanting to reach for, to describe what we had eaten, was tasty. So maybe THAT explains THAT. Tasty is as Tasty does. If only he would swap out that crazy n for the more proper and. Afterall, this is a restaurant, not a tweet!