The Dining Report – Bistro Marquee

This Ain’t No Market

I really don’t know how Carafe did it, staying in business for quite a few years in this dubious location. IMG_3643At least Restaurant Murata has the benefit of traveling and local Japanese diners to boost their patronage. The corner of 2nd and Market might be busy at midday during the week, but in the evening, unless the Keller Auditorium has something going on, the surrounding concrete city blocks are empty, empty, empty, except, perhaps, for some shouts from people dousing themselves in the Fourcourt Fountain. These people (mostly under the age of 25) rarely frequent restaurants, which is probably good, as they are known to sport wet clothing and dripping bathing ensembles.

Although I long ago worked downtown for many years, I have never eaten at any of the restaurants in the 200 Market building until almost exactly a year ago, when we had a dinner at Market, Kurt Huffman’s newest ChefStable enterprise. Since I had not visited Carafe, I didn’t know if the space had been renovated much for Market or not, but people who joined me for that dinner said the decor was pretty similar with minor changes.IMG_3647 This glassy box is not the best environment to work with, but Market seemed light and airy, and the food was fresh, interesting, beautifully presented and tasty. All of us was impressed. Unfortunately, not long after this (was it even a month?) Kurt Huffman, who had experienced many successes before this, and one gigantic failure, Corazon, decided he didn’t want another massive failure slowly draining his resources, so he closed Market abruptly, no matter how good the food, and how annoyed the building management was (lawsuits soon followed). I read in a later interview with Mr. Huffman that other issues besides the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the patronage were the unpleasantly small indoor space, poor building repairs, and building management demands that the lunch menu needed  to cater to the office building tenants and the dinner menu to theater goers.

I was sad at the time, because Market was quite good, with an intriguing chef and bartender, and the people working there were pleasant and seemed competent, and I thought what Market really needed was a little time to get its foundation built, to establish itself as a delicious, innovative place to eat in its own right, not to be thought of as that restaurant close to the play. Having visited the new restaurant, Bistro Marquee, for our latest dinner, however, on a performance night, I no longer believe this location is viable for a decent restaurant. No wonder Mr. Huffman turned tail and skedaddled out of this bleak region of our city with such rapidity. This location largely sucks.

It was a tad confusing to me why this dinner drew such a crowd, after The Bent Brick was so lightly attended, maybe it was the mention that the long time chef of the ever popular Screen Door had jumped ship and turned up here.IMG_3653The menu also covered many bases, and while it was billed as “French Inspired Fare” the assembled food roster didn’t strike me that way, although items like Duck Confit and Steak Frites were included, much of the menu sounded more Southern, but not in a French Creole way. There were also several pastas, Italian inspired and American mainstays like Beef Stroganoff. My general impression was that it was basically a mishmash geared to keep as many people happy as possible, not the creation of a kitchen with any particular vision. Also, the prices managed to fall over a wide range, probably to appease as many theater going folk as possible. Whatever the case, I managed to fill 10 seats at this dinner, my most populated outing this year besides Tasty N’ Alder.

I didn’t see too many changes in the decor between Market and Bistro Marquee, but maybe they were there, but less noticeable because of a similar color palette. Interestingly though, where Market struck me as light and airy, Bistro M (I’m trying to compromise between typing out Bistro Marquee each time and not calling it BM) struck me as dark and pedestrian. IMG_3637This is hard for me to understand, because on our previous visit I was sitting facing the center of the restaurant and back wall, and this time I was facing towards the outside and all the glass. Maybe my eyeballs were dirty? Anyway, this space will always have major issues, the inside is somewhat small and is all glass on two sides (drafty in the winter) and when seating is tight people are bumped to a tent like enclosure on the patio, which I’ve read is not at all pleasant on a cold and rainy winter evening. Hey honey, let’s eat in a tent then go to the play!

Just to crabbily complain a bit more, the acoustics in this space are awful, I was going crazy all night trying to talk to and hear people. Also, it smelled odd. You know how you walk into a restaurant with a wood fired something or other and think “man this smells great! ” (and secondarily “man, how will I get this out of my clothes?”) or how you smell delightful Italian aromas in many places? My first thought, when I entered Bistro M was, “man, I hope I don’t accidentally order whatever that is!.”

Due to not having a vacation for over 10 years now, and some time consuming and stress-inducing projects at my home, I’ve been feeling somewhat physically and mentally trampled for at least the last month. It showed in the adeptness I displayed setting up this reservation.IMG_3636 I decided at the last second (about 10 days beforehand) that I would select Bistro M for our next dinner, so I made an Open Table reservation and sent out the RSVP notice that evening. The problem was, I was mentally drained, so I made the reservation for the wrong week, for the Friday just two days later. Soon after I sent out the RSVP I figured this out, and was a little stressed thinking that I might not be able to get a reservation for the correct date, 10 days later. No problem, however, Bistro Marquee had the necessary space. All this availability made me think that this meant there could not be a play at the Keller on our dinner evening, so we would be lucky and miss out on the pre-theater zoo-like atmosphere I’ve read about that plagues this space.A few days before the dinner, I found out the Addams Family was indeed scheduled across the street (what will they think of to make a play out of next, a Kibbles n Bits commercial?) so I knew there would have to be some chaos. Also, during the early part of the week Bistro M called me to inquire whether our group on 10 would be trying to make the performance, and when I said no, they said that was good, because they could not get our food turned around that quickly (our reservation was at 6:30.) I was a little confused, since I guessed the performance would probably start around 8:00, wouldn’t that mean the masses would be still overlapping with our dinner? But see what I know about theater crowds, by around 7:00 or so, the teaming eaters who were there when we arrived had largely dispersed, and there were few mouths achewin’ at this point.

As Bistro Marquee had only been open around a month at this time, I could tell the staff was still having issues dealing with the feast then famine onslaught, and the servers appeared overtaxed, worn-out, and a bit inflexible at this point. John mentioned that he had been waiting at least 20 minutes for his drink to arrive, and questions and requests to the staff were being answered in ways you would not expect in a fine dining establishment. IMG_3651I noticed on her way in that Heidi knew the waitress, so I cut her some slack and tried to be patient, and it paid off later in the dinner, once the hordes were gone the service was much better. The mouthy sorts on the other side of the table were rather firm in their negativity about the harried customer service, and there was some tension at our table this evening between those who knew the waitress personally and those who want to be treated like royalty when they dine out. The throne is down the hall. Hooray, a conflict that did not involve me! Seriously though, there were some weird customer service lapses that I would not expect to see in a restaurant that I think considers itself fine dining, but these came from not only our server, but also the guy I assumed was either the boss or owner. The general attitude seemed to be “we get really sick of people on theater nights, so don’t expect too much from us”.

Glenda and I were somewhat early, but when we arrived, Cora following us in, John, Barbara, and Melissa Halle and David and Shuhong were already there, having or waiting for drinks. Melissa had some sort of cocktail, and I know Barbara had a Ginger Daiquiri, which she said was excellent. I was trying to save a few bucks, so I just had ice tea, but it was a bit too plain for me, so I eventually lassoed the waitress asking for sugar. This was when the restaurant was busy, and no sugar arrived, so I finally asked the manager fellow for some sugar, which eventually arrived with a somewhat put-upon look. The sugar was of the lowest common denominator selection (yes, I am demanding!) I had hoped for cubes or lumps or something unbleached and interesting, but it was only diner-worthy packets. Hey, if I can’t afford booze, I want playful sugar for free!

One “amusing” drink story, as per usual David had gotten some Scotch. I guess they had asked him if he wanted it on the rocks or neat. He said he wanted ice. When the bill came I was looking it over, and after scotch I saw a $1 charge for ice listed.IMG_3642 When I told David he was incensed. He called the waitress over and asked if they charged for ice. She said of course they did not charge for ice, but when we pointed out the dollar charge, she made some funny comment like “that’s crap” grabbed the bill, and went stomping off toward the bar. When she came back she had some weird sort of story about how the bartender had told her that a typical scotch pour was so much, but that David had gotten an extra large amount, so was charged an additional $1. If it was the bartender’s mistake, wouldn’t the classy thing be to eat the extra charge? If they are making your cocktail and accidentally get a little extra booze in, do they charge you more than the listed price on the menu? This makes me think back to that great little casual pasta place that used to be on Mississippi called Pasta Bangs (where Miss Delta is now). They had really wonderful drinks there, like the Otter Pop, and they made them so large they would often overflow the glass. They would then take the extra left in the shaker and poor it in small glasses and give those to your friends. Now those were cocktails! I miss that place, and the good spirit behind it, especially in contrast to places where they tack more onto your drink for a heavy pour.

Bistro M did provide free bread, not always a given these days, and really delicious, sweet butter. Naturally the butter was so good, the very run of the mill bread disappeared almost immediately. We asked for more, however, and while it took a bit, another plate was brought (although we did not get more butter, the waitress commenting we still had some).

Here’s a list of what we ate this evening. Some of the food comments were extremely positive, while others were somewhat less ecstatic.IMG_3634 I didn’t hear anyone say anything was loathsome, but then again, I couldn’t hear much of the conversation due to all the the racket. Obviously, when the theater folk were still milling around, the food was sputtering out of the kitchen, but after they left, it all came out in a hurry. In some cases, the spacing didn’t seem quite right, as Shuhong had ordered two small plates with the intent of having one as her main meal, but they both came together, and I felt relatively rushed by my food delivery since I had a starter, a salad, and an entree. As has been the case quite often recently, I didn’t hear many of the remarks made, so will list many items without commenting on them.

Anyway, let’s open the curtain on those eats ….

Apple Salad – Mixed organic lettuces, raspberry poppy seed vinaigrette, toasted almonds, sheep’s milk feta, dried cherries. I asked David and Shuhong what they thought of this salad, and they both said “it was okay”. In David and Shuhong language, this means they were not thrilled to bits, but did not HATE IT!

Black Mission Fig Salad – Seasonal lettuces, spice walnuts, balsamic, blue cheese crumbles. This was a big salad, and very tasty. It was nice to see figs incorporated for a change. Melissa was sitting next to me, and likes to forage, so I tried to give her some of the abundant figs, but she was only interested in the blue cheese (going for those big ticket items, I guess).

Roasted Gold Beet Salad – local stawberries, Portland creamery goat cheese, arugula, toasted pistachio, sherry-honey vinaigrette. This was the opposite of my salad, Heidi said it tasted good, but was way too small.

Crispy Cornmeal Fried Yaquina Bay Oysters – Remoulade sauce – Maybe because Executive Chef Rick Widmeyer came from Screen Door Cafe, this place knows how to fry an oyster. These were really good, some of the best I’ve had, not greasy and exceptionally crispy. I made sure Cora had one, as I know she likes fried oysters, as she made some for me once. Her remark, “oh, those are good!”. Sounds positive to me.

Steamed Mussels – Fennel, garlic, pickled red chile, white wine, evoo, grilled baguette – They looked pretty.

Oregon Lamb Meatballs – Slow cooked polenta, tomato sauce, sheep’s milk cheese

Manchego Potato Croquettes – Harissa, arugula, radish – These were really strange, because the color was so dark I kept thinking they were meatballs. I guess they were well browned. I think someone said they didn’t look right, but tasted okay.

Duck Confit – Frog legs, French lentils, carrots, lardons, red-wine reduction – The most French sounding item on the menu, so naturally Glenda ordered it. Really rave reviews!

10 oz. Steak Frites – Sauteed spinach, red wine sauce, herbed butter – Believe it or not, before I came I was planning on not having steak, because for one thing I really don’t enjoy a ton of fries with my meat. The item I selected in advance though, a thick-cut pork chop with liquor based sauce, was no longer on the menu. I was disappointed, as Southern-oriented chefs often do pork chops really well. I used to love those Blackberry Jack Daniels Pork Chops at the Cajun Cafe, Portland’s original upscale, good quality Southern joint. I didn’t want fish, as sometimes it doesn’t go down so well, and I don’t eat lamb or duck, and the menu at this place seemed too wide ranging to do really good pasta, so that left the steak. When we were swapping out plates between courses, and deciding on silverware, I asked the waitress if I would need a knife, and she said no, the steak was incredibly tender. Most of the time when you get Steak Frites it’s some lesser cut of beef, flat iron or skirt or something of that nature, and it is made tender through careful cooking and slicing against the grain. This was also one of those indistinguishable beef cuts sliced in hunks. Since there were 10 of us, the entrees came out in sections, and my steak was delivered with a couple of other entrees. Something, and I thought it was my steak, had a weird vinegary smell, which didn’t exactly whet my appetite, as I hate the aroma of vinegar (maybe the wine sauce was some sort of vinegar/wine reduction). As far as fork tender, no way Jose, few steaks are fork tender, and I ended up having to use my butter knife to chainsaw this baby. I’ve certainly struggled through my share of difficult steaks, but I found the temperature of this one disturbing. I understand the concept that if you want rare steak it might not be as warm in the center as a well-done steak, but any adequate cook can usually manage even very rare and warm to the center. This wasn’t like this, the entire steak was the same temperature throughout, sort of lukewarm. Obviously, if it had just come off the grill the outside would have been hot, so either it sat around for a bit (waiting for the frites to cook, perhaps) or it was a previously cooked steak improperly rewarmed, but I really cannot imagine any restaurant attempting that, would they?

As for those frites, Heidi and Julian absolutely love frites, but Heidi mentioned they thought the ones with Julian’s burger were dried out. When I was eating mine, I didn’t really think dried out, it was more like too thick and brown. Luckily, Melissa likes fries better than figs, so I didn’t leave a huge amount languishing on the plate.

Lamb Duo – Leg and Belly, corona beans, oil-cured olive tampenade, broccolini, rich lamb jus – more rave reviews!

Half Pound Dry-Aged House Ground Beef Burger, beecher cheddar, pork belly, crispy onion straws, caper aioli – This was not the standard burger, it had add-ons  recommended by the chef (there are lots of beef and vegetarian burger add-ons so you can bump up that burger price! ) Heidi said Julian thought it was quite good, and boy, was it big!

Sauteed Gulf Shrimp, pork belly, crispy fried grits, creole shrimp sauce – Sounds like it fell off the Screen Door menu. The shrimp looked to be a nice size.

Seasonal Foraged Mushroom Crepe In Puff Pastry with soup – I’m thinking this is what Heidi had, as I thought I saw soup in front of her. It sounds like a likely item for someone who doesn’t eat meat, unless the soup is like lardo or something. I emailed Heidi later asking what she and Julian thought of the food, and she said she really liked her entree, but it was exceptionally filling (probably good after the diminutive beet salad).

Beef Stroganoff – Wide egg noodles, red wine marinated slow cooked beef, mushrooms, brown gravy, creme fraiche – This is definitely something you really don’t see in Portland fine dining these days, you’re more likely to corral it in the freezer case at the grocery store. Oh well, whatever, David said it was very good

With the exception of myself, Glenda and the Halle trio, this was a no dessert crowd (evil sorts!) The dessert selection was pretty limited, however, and of course they were sold out of the one item with potential, lemon ricotta profiteroles. So both Glenda and I declined, very unusual. The Halle’s had a couple though, after come arm twisting.IMG_3633 The first item was on the regular menu, panna cotta. The second item, some sort of butterscotch pudding, was part of an Addams Family themed special menu that was there because it was still June, Portland Dining Month. I actually managed to select two restaurants in June that were participating in Portland Dining Month, but no one at either of the dinners partook. That’s the thing about Portland Dining Month, generally the restaurants come up with special items that are more economical, that way they can serve three courses for $30. Usually they don’t sound as tasty as the regular stuff though, and since we are seasoned eating folk, we want the more interesting stuff, even if it costs more.

But back to our dessert story … The Halle’s asked if they could have the dessert from the fixed price menu. IMG_3649The waitress said “no, you can only have that if you order the special dinner.” Of course, this makes no sense, because chances are this particular dessert is cheaper to produce, and the kitchen would want to also get rid of them. Barbara suggested to the waitress that maybe she could just ask if the dessert could be ordered by itself, and sure enough, it turned out to be no problem. Obviously it takes a law background to get what you want at Bistro Marquee! Seriously though, this was really more of an illustration of how the customer service at Bistro M was a bit sketchy at times, you had to prod people to take that little extra step.

Although over half the food at Bistro Marquee got positive reviews from our group, this dinner just did not have a positive vibe. If it seems like the staff isn’t really happy to serve you, it doesn’t help the situation. IMG_3654I’m sure it’s not easy to keep a good attitude going at a place where one minute you are buried by customers in a big hurry, but then, by 7:30 PM, your establishment is less than half full, if even that. On non-event nights it’s hard to imagine half full, even on weekend evenings. I could see perhaps a few loyal Screen Door folks wanting to follow Mr. Widmeyer to his next job, but the menu here is nothing like Screen Door (except for those oysters) so would people come back again? It seems unlikely; the location is weird, the atmosphere is ho-hum, the service and management don’t appear overly thrilled you are there, and the outdoor seating is boring (and we know how Portlanders love sitting outside). The kitchen seems to have a deft hand with more complex items like duck and lamb, but then easier items like fries and steak aren’t particularly well executed. Oh well, this space seems to have some bad voodoo that might be impossible to overcome, so it’s probably better to not be overly attached to whatever restaurant happens to be there anyway!