THE DINING REPORT – Old Salt Marketplace
But Perfectly New Food
As Portland is now famous for its farm to table food ethic and its often unconventional approach to restauranteering (food trucks, pop-ups) it’s no surprise we are now seeing places like Old Salt Marketplace on the scene. What could be better than a space that has a deli, cafe, butcher shop, farmer’s market, bar, commissary kitchen, cooking school and quality restaurant all in the same space? Old Salt is the vision of Ben Meyer (Grain and Gristle) and Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing). According to Meyer, formerly of Ned Ludd, his idea was to open the type of establishment he wanted to see in his neighborhood, a place to stop in and grab the fixings for a meal at home, where you can also buy an already prepared meal to go, or even just sit down and eat or have a drink at the bar. Old Salt opened in early May, and the droves came immediately to their unique space. Somewhat similar to Ned Ludd with their wood burning oven, the Old Salt Supper house does most of their cooking in an open hearth, sort of like a fireplace. Where the cooking at Ned Ludd is Industrial Revolution Revolt style, the style of cuisine at Old Salt is billed as Colonial cookery, and the deli extensively features American products. There is also a heavy emphasis on butchery, supplying the meat market, Old Salt Supperhouse, and Grain and Gristle.
N.E. 42nd Avenue, in the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods, isn’t an area I am particularly familiar with. Basically you go there if you live around there, or you need something there. In the past ten or so years I have driven down 42nd a couple of times (which is a lot compared to none) so I knew the easiest way to get there, but was surprised how quiet and neighborhoody the street is around Alberta; I thought it was a wider and more traveled boulevard. Old Salt was easy to find, and when you have a reservation as early as ours (5:30) it is easy to park. I read somewhere later that Old Salt doesn’t take reservations, but when I called up for one, they certainly had no problem giving me one, the only stipulations the somewhat unpleasant 5:30 PM or 9:00 PM. Although they offer a million “services” at this modern day marketplace, the dining area at Old Salt isn’t really very large, and we actually sat in the meat market/deli side, not on the bar side where most people looked to be, so I can see why they would offer limited group reservations. Almost all the time we were there, people were queueing up by the door to eat.
I’ve read a variety of comments by people who say they love the dining space at Old Salt, which I suppose would be called rustic American. If you are eating in the bar half, or even eating on the opposite side of the table from where I was sitting, the place might seem more atmospheric than it struck me. As my main view was of neatly arranged animal by-products all evening, I felt mostly like I was having a nice meal in a meat market. People seem to find the beautiful selection of butchery appealing though, I was one of the few at our table of nine who didn’t jump up and go and look at the meat on display. My general feeling was, it looks too nice, I probably can’t afford it ( basically in reference to the big steaks).
We had a nice turnout this dinner, and also some new faces and a returning member. Glee, who last joined us in late 2009 and early 2010 emailed me right before this dinner, saying she wanted to rejoin our group. She signed up for this dinner, and we were glad to welcome her back. Also in attendance for this dinner, Mary and John, Tracy’s aunt and uncle, making their yearly visit to our region. They were such nice people, I sat next to Mary and enjoyed our conversation immensely, and could tell they were well-traveled and astute eaters.
Most people had beer or wine at this dinner, especially red wine. I had a cocktail that I suddenly forget the name of, but is typical with any drink that contains bitters (in this case Campari) no matter what the other flavors, that was all I could taste. My tongue is very adverse to the bitter stuff.
Here’s a list of what we ordered, with comments when I heard them, or made them myself …
Ben’s Buttermilk Biscuits – I thought I had read somewhere that these were small sized, but they were actually standard sized biscuits. They were hot and fresh, and served with honey-butter, really delicious.
Beef Tartare, Pickled Cippioline, mama Lil’s Peppers, Crispy Bread – David and Shuhong found this particular tartare incredible. The crispy bread was also delicious, thin and buttery, a wonderful use of housemade rye bread.
Roasted Marrow Bone, Biscuit, Croutons, Green Tomato Pickles – Mary, who was sitting next to me ordered one of these, and while it wasn’t the easiest thing to eat, she enjoyed it totally.
Pole Bean, Beet and Blackberry Salad, Walnut Vinaigrette – So pretty!
Pickled Pole Bean and Purple Potato Salad – I’m more or less a potato salad traditionalist. As a general rule, I don’t want many crazy things in my potato salad, nothing like pickles or pimentos or dill. And certainly, no sweet tasting potato salad. Besides being really attractive from the radiant looking spuds, this was relatively traditional in flavor, so it got two thumbs up in my book.
Ricotta Gnocchi A La Bolognese – I had read that this was one of the best things to order at Old Salt, and since a lighter meal was a necessity on this gluttonous day, this is what I selected as my entree. Very tender gnocchi in very meaty sauce.
Grilled Cauliflower, Garlic, Lemon & Bread Crumbs _ This seems to be the “in” dish these days.
Buttermilk Fried Fennel, White Bean Dip, Cherry Tomato and Tuna Salad – Interesting and tunafull
Crispy Duck, Cherries, Dandelion & Green Bean Salad, Root Beer Jus – This was the only major dud of the evening, and I remembered afterwards that some review I had read wasn’t impressed either. Both Shuhong and John ordered it, and both were disappointed. John’s remark was that it was dry and salty.
Grilled Oregon Albacore, Peaches, Plums, Chicories, Olives – Glowing remarks from Glenda and Cora.
Hearth Roasted Beef, Heirloom Tomatoes, Padron Peppers & Onions – Cora had read a review that stipulated this was another must-have, and coerced returnee Glee into ordering it (they were sitting next to one another, and I’m sure Cora was mechanizing to get a sample, even if she really wanted fish). Whatever the devious plot, Glee was happy with her delicious and really hearty choice.
Grilled Pork Plate, Cheddar and Corn Polenta, Smothered Beans, Rinds – Originally I had contemplated ordering this, before I indulged in my large, late lunch. David always likes a selection of pork, however, so he made sure an order found its way in front of him. I read a review that didn’t seem happy with this entree (WW?) largely because of the polenta, but David said everything was quite good.
75 Day Dry Aged Porterhouse, The Gentleman’s Cut – although I don’t think they could be considered gentlemen (now a days you just don’t know) Tracy and Mary split this large and expensive steak as their entree. I noticed a big hunk was cut off and set on top, so maybe that’s what differentiates the Gentleman’s Cut from the Sleezebag’s Cut. Don’t tell the gentleman, however, that I snapped a photo of Tracy chomping on the bone after the meat was gone.
One comment on the plating, which you might notice from the photos. Many of the meat entrees came on a huge white plate, and were only assembled on half the plate, the other side being totally food free. Glenda asked the waitress why in the world they would do this, and the waitress answered something about it being a current trend in plating (the half empty plate?) I mentioned that our group goes to all sorts of restaurants, and had certainly never seen it before. Glenda, the waitress, and myself finally decided it was the divided Congress plate, the food laden side being the Democrat’s side, and the totally empty side being the Republican side. Still a little weird though, when your portions are more than ample, to want to serve plates that are half empty.
When dessert rolled around, most people were too stuffed to contemplate it. I had not been that hungry to begin with, having had lunch mere hours before, but if something had sounded ultra-delicious, I probably could have managed. They did have a chocolate cake that is highly recommended, but it involved fresh cherries, and I really am not a big cherry fan (black forest cake is one of the few I can almost always resist). I thought Glenda might want the chocolate cake, as I often see her eating cake-like chocolate items, but I guess this was an error on my part. SHE DOES NOT LIKE CHOCOLATE CAKE!!! (yes, I did receive a lecture on this subject) Flourless chocolate cake is fine, and chocolate torte, but according to Glenda “chocolate cake” implies layers and frosting, and she would not eat such a thing (so what if many people interchange cake and torte, especially those crafty Europeans. Head over to Papa Haydn and my guess is that you will find things labeled torte that involve both layers and frosting). I felt SO scolded!
Who knows if scolded is better than left out. Tracy, Mary and John felt ignored, as the check arrived, and no one had bothered to ask them if they wanted dessert. I think they were having a discussion at their end of the table when the waitress quietly asked the table if anyone wanted dessert (and she was probably standing at our end). They didn’t know a request for dessert orders had been pending and dismissed, so they felt left out when the check came. This actually brings me to discuss the fact that the dining room at Old Salt is really loud, with a prevalent layer of rock music on top of that, and it’s really hard to hear much conversation around you. At the west end of the table, we thought the waitress was excellent, knowledgeable, friendly, competent and attractive, but at the east end of the table they were less impressed. It might have been that most of the time the waitress was down at our end (as we were all seated first) so we had the easiest interaction with her, and could hear what she was saying better than others in our group.
All in all, everyone (with the exception of duck orderers) was happy with the diversified, interesting, and well-prepared menu at Old Salt. Although many of the dishes aren’t exactly cheap (Porterhouse Steak, $45) you can pick and choose and have a filling and tasty meal at a reasonable cost. Also, everything possible is made in-house and locally sourced. Many people in our party said they would like to come back, even if only to shop at the meat counter or drop into the deli, and Glenda was already planning her bus route for her next visit. A little out of the way perhaps, and hard to get to at rush hour if you are cross town, but an innovative idea and worth several visits to check out this multi-functional concept. Also, coming soon, an independently owned patisserie! Old Salt Marketplace is like a mini-Pike Place Market, without the crowds, fish smell, and weirdos (okay, I was there).