french


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. (more…)

THE DINING REPORT – SAUVAGE

The Curse Of The Overdressed Salad!

I know you hear it all the time, what an exciting dining town Portland has become over the last few years. We have so many wonderful ways to buy, experience, and even grow great food in this area.IMG_3316 Over the years my members and I have talked about how much fun it would be to go to wine country, have some sips, and eat at one of the interesting sounding restaurants in the valley. Never made it though, largely because of the drive, and the thought of that fun 99W traffic, and because I’ve been too lazy to do the additional work to make it happen. Not to fear, though, this is Portland. You can actually have a French wine country themed dinner at one of the wineries in the gritty SE Industrial area, and be home in 20 minutes. Sometime last year (Fall, I think) the Fausse Piste Winery opened their own restaurant called Sauvage, and although it looks like it’s still relatively lightly patronized, it’s a fun place to grab some drinking snacks, some heartier plates, and some lovely wine sips. And, it’s at SE 6th and Ash, in the same building as the always modest J & M Cafe, just a block or two off Grand Avenue. It’s very indiscreet location, so it helps to know where you are going. They must have seen us coming though, as when Glenda and I approached the door we found it locked on the outside (but not on the inside?) and I had to yell in the window that someone needed to let us in (Glenda said to tell them there was a disabled person outside. Milking her injury, I guess.)

IMG_3305Anyway, for whatever reason, our group seems to be suffering from a reverse-kick again, so there were five of us for this dinner (2012 was up in attendance, so I guess the law of averages for independent dining groups would indicate 2013 could be an “off” year. I DON’T WANT OFF YEARS !!!) I did have my first member ever, Michael, rejoin us for this evening, however, so that was a good thing. Incredibly, he had already been to Sauvage once for happy hour, amazing since almost no one seems to have heard of or know where Sauvage is. David and Shuhong also joined us, so at least we were a bit groupy, even if we looked a bit diminutive huddled around the end of the community table.

IMG_3313Sauvage is sort of daylight basement level, so it’s somewhat dark and cozy. If you look through the doors off to the side you can see giant barrels of wine. The decor is pleasant enough, sort of rustic with dead animals and such hanging from this and that, not a really fancy space, but pleasant for both a glass of wine or a casual meal. The menu is quite interesting, made up of small plates and a tasting menu that is available if everyone participates.The cooking style is billed as French Farmhouse, and is an interesting collection of down home (Smoked Chicken Wings) and fancy (Roast Quail Skillet.) (more…)

THE DINING REPORT – ST. JACK

Tasty, But I Swear I Did Not Order Seven Butter Lettuce Salads!

I suppose this is an offshoot of some national trend, but French Bistro’s are popping up here like moss on North facing roofs. A year ago we had Allium in West Linn, then at the beginning of winter we saw Gabriel Rucker’s Little Bird. A few months ago, St. Jack ‘booooooooiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiged into being, then slightly later, Cocotte on Killingsworth. IMG_2198Now, just this week, the re-opening of Brasserie Montmarte, this latest reincarnation a French Bistro by the Allium guy. Funny thing about the Allium guy, Pascal Chureau, he’s also been on the inverse side as well, the fancy French downward spiral, he started at the now closed Fenouil, and was also  involved in the doomed from the beginning Lucier. We love our new French places full of hearty, filling, and moderately priced French tasties, but refuse to support the stuffy, high-end, really expensive, but you leave hungry, kind of places. You would think with an ever lingering recession that French would hardly be the way to go, but many “foodies” are having their economic challenges too, and want belly filling comfort food, well prepared but not costing an arm and a leg, and the French Bistros have been doing a great job filling this role.

As previous to this time, French restaurants in Portland were not places I flocked to on a regular basis (it’s that money thing) it was interesting to visit two rather similar French Bistro’s over a few months time span and compare what is going on there.IMG_2186 As many know. Little Bird Bistro has big shoes to fill, being the creation of one of Portland’s most famous chefs, and now the James Beard National winner for Best Young Chef, the aforementioned Rucker. I must admit I’d never heard of Aaron Barnett, who is at the helm of St. Jack, but his pedigree includes much admired kitchens like Paley’s Place, and the management behind St. Jack is ChefStable, already enjoying popularity for running establishments like Ping and Gruner. So there is a good pedigree at St. Jack, although not the local fame of being a Le Pigeon spin-off. (more…)

THE DINING REPORT – LITTLE BIRD BISTRO
What to Order, Thumper or Kermit?

Rarely does someone’s birthday exactly coincide with one of our dinners, and if it does, it often means that the person whose birthday it is has other “more personal” plans. IMG_1951By a weird quirk of fate (and a slight one week schedule adjustment) this year two out of the last three dinners have also functioned as birthday dinners. In October, it was that old hag, whatever her name is, and this time out it was frequently participant David having one of those milestone birthdays (you know those kind, you reach the milestone and fall off the edge.)

I asked David where he wanted to go, listened to his requests, then naturally decided to book our table elsewhere, as I often do. Hey, I even ignored my own request of where to have my birthday dinner, but luckily Andina was great, so I had to agree with me that it was a really good choice. As for David, he told me at the dinner that he wasn’t that excited about a French place for his birthday (thank Dieu that Glenda doesn’t read this thing, as that could do (dieu) her in) but that he thought the whole evening went well and the food was delicious, so it’s good that everyone bends to MY will.

Seriously though, I really would not have picked anyplace Mr. D. found truly appalling for his birthday, but I knew because of Gabriel Rucker’s reputation (Little Bird Bistro is the second restaurant from the Le Pigeon chef) that there would be some good eats coming out of the kitchen, even nine days after opening, so I was anxious to check it out before the hoarding masses came. And besides, David’s favorite, The Pink Feather, was just too scary a drive for the average person.
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THE DINING REPORT – ALLIUM

And the Mysterious Tale of That Little Town That Floated South

IMG_1649Does anyone really know where West Linn is? Sure, maybe some of the people who live there, and a few of those folks who live in Lake Oswego, but has anyone else ever been to West Linn? It seemed like no one in Restaurant Roulette had ever been there. It wasn’t really one of those places I fret about driving to, not like Tigard, Tualatin, or Beaverton, as I know the general geographic area where West Linn lays, and that it’s wedged against the Willamette River, making it not too hard to find. Where did that crazy bend in the Willamette River come from though?

Although this was over 18 years ago, for five years I worked in the old part of Lake Oswego, and almost every workday I would follow Hwy. 43 through Lake Oswego, through Marylhurst, and through the “outskirts” of West Linn to get to I-205. I had seen signs, so I knew West Linn was that place right before you got on the freeway and crossed the river above Oregon City, that place where lots of rich athletic types tended to buy homes (those who could not squeeze themselves onto the banks of Oswego Lake -actually called “Sucker Lake” in its earliest days.) (more…)

The Dining Report – Castagna

The Agony (Paying) and the Ecstasy (Yeast Rolls)

As anyone who has been in our group for any amount of time knows, I am usually drawn to the new places more than the established venues. People are always suggesting those old standards to me, or saying we should go back to a particularly enjoyable place, but I usually manage to get the new places covered first, I like to explore the unknown. Which is probably why I have never hosted a dinner at the always respected Castagna. By some weird fluke of fate though, although I had never been before, I had two meals at Cafe Castagna in December, and found both of those pleasant, and then read a recent glowing review that talked about the restaurant’s major overhaul, so decided the time had come to have a Restaurant Roulette dinner at Castagna Restaurant.

Since it opened, Castagna has continually been in the upper echelon of fine Portland dining, respected for restraint, quality, and consistency. Hundreds of interesting Portland restaurants have gained their footing though in the 12 or more years Castagna has been around, and in many ways, although still good, it was perceived as perhaps a bit long in the tooth. Owner Monique Sui seems a savvy businesswoman though, she has been the most consistent of the Zefiro expatriates, and she not only sensed a few years ago that opening a more inexpensive cafe would give a boost to her veteran Portland eatery, but that although still respected, time and the critics might be starting to pass Castagna by. Thus, a revamp of Castagna’s soothing but plain interior, a whole new chef, and a menu based on a completely new concept, emphasis on certain ingredients rather than meats or fish. So while the usual proteins are still served, other elements dominate each entree, for example “Onions” (actually a black cod dish) or “Beets” (scallops.)

Not counting a regional wine dinner I attended a couple of summers ago, the last time I had darkened the doorstep of Castagna proper was probably less than a year after they opened, perhaps 1997 or 1998?? The major things I remember about that evening, lots of bread and huge meat portions.IMG_1374 I had returned from somewhere not too much earlier before, perhaps Greece, and was craving some good Portland bread (the bread in Greece is not at all what we are used to here, it’s quite substandard, and I seem to remember, lacking salt.) I remembered we giggled that evening at Castagna, as each time we finished our individual bread on our individual bread plate, somewhat whose job it seemed was to only deliver bread, would stroll over and put a couple more slices of excellent baguette on your plate with these fancy little tongs. I’m a big bread fan, and found this continuous arrival of bread quite wonderful. Actually, this December, I saw the same thing occur at Castagna Cafe (although no one seemed to be just a dedicated bread server in these tough economic times) finish your baguette, and more appeared. Castagna is very generous with their bread products! So let me thank them for that, this being a nice policy I will allude to a bit father on in this review. (more…)

THE DINING REPORT – SEL GRIS

10 Easy Steps to Increasing Your Wasteline

I suppose when people at restaurants give you tips on finding their establishments, and you don’t even ask for them, it’s an indication that perhaps you should pay attention to what they are saying, it’s probably for a reason. I mention this due to the fact that I really did not listen, and noticed that after I somewhat lately parked my car on the narrowest street imaginable in Ladd’s Edition (the sweetest Portland neighborhood anywhere,) and went running out on Hawthorne, I had no idea where the restaurant was, although I was pretty certain I was on the right side of the street, the side with the classy restaurants (unlike the other side, with the hostile Bombay Cricket Club and the hippie nightmare Barley Mill Pub.) After making a couple of swoops back and forth in front of Castagna (how long has that building been that lovely shade of green?,) and seeing nothing in sight, I finally engaged at least a tiny section of my rather numb cerebral cortex, and decided to try going east from the non-numbered street I had emerged from Ladd’s Eddition on, as the numbering was quite oblique in this region, but I thought I was looking for 18 blah, blah something. IMG_0248.JPGI gravitated towards the first non-descript storefront with big heavy maroon velvet curtains, and sure enough, Sel Gris awaited me, as well as Pat, Regis, and Jody by then.

Although exactly when all of these great restaurants opened in the last year is starting to become a big blur to me, I’m pretty certain I started to read about Sel Gris in late summer/early fall of 07. I knew it was supposed to have really high-design French food in a super impressive space, and the initial reviews were quite positive. Then someone in the group practically pleaded with me to have a dinner there, and although the first reservation didn’t work out because Sel Gris became extremely popular in a short time frame, I kept plugging away until I managed a suitable reservation for up to 8 people (interestingly, the person who was SO anxious to have me do the Sel Gris dinner didn’t bother to attend, and also did not attend the substitute dinner they asked me to have when the first reservation did not work out. Is it any wonder your hostess has become weary and resigned to defeat?)

In the months it has been open, however, I don’t remember reading one negative review on Sel Gris, so was happy to take the willing bodies I could muster there, even though the on-line prices made me shriek “yikes. my wallet!” and even though the menu was overflowing with many of those food items the French love but I run the other way from, veal sweetbreads, foie gras, pork cheeks, lamb, and venison. Luckily they also had beef and pasta, so I knew I’d be in the clear at ordering time (except for the shrieking and shrinking wallet.) (more…)

The Dining Report – BEAST – Take This Food and Like It!

First of all, before I get to my usual endless written wanderings, there are a few other subjects I would like to spew forth on –

After our dinner at Lovely Hula Hands, I actually had a pleasant email from Sarah, at aforementioned restaurant, telling us they appreciated our appreciation of their place, and elaborating a bit on their dining space. It turns out the second floor of their building is a dining area of approximate size to the dining room on the ground floor, so they actually have double the capacity I thought they did, and probably when patio months roll around, close to triple the space. So please don’t resist going there because you might be afraid they don’t have room for you, they are certainly busy at peak times, but from what I’ve witnessed in most of these revitalized North/Northeast dining areas, most of the popular places are. So thanks Sara for illuminating me on that, and for acknowledging Restaurant Roulette’s tiny and weird contribution to the Portland Dining scene.

Another thing I wanted to mention, which I’ve been thinking about lately, is the fact that while many PDX restaurants still seem quite busy, I’ve noticed that over the last 6 months or so, I’ve generally had a much easier time getting our group in at more desirable dining times, like 7:00, rather than the 8:00 or 8:30 that seemed to plague us a year or so ago (or course I realize I should not touch this subject with a 10 ft. pole, as it could lead to a sudden reversal of fortunes.) I do tend to wonder, however, if this is a sign that Portland has become so over-saturated with excellent places to eat, that even many of the really great places that we visit now need as many patrons as the can get these days, with Portland’s gigantic thriving dining scene sprawling all over tarnation. Just something to ponder, something good perhaps for groups like ours, but bad, perhaps, for the health of a lot of good restaurants in Portland, especially many that are not viewed as the “hot” places of the moment.

But speaking of “hot” places of the moment, on to Beast ….

One reason I suppose I started with the subject of restaurant over-glut is because at least at this point in time, Beast, already making a name for itself, still isn’t too difficult to get into, small though it is. I knew there were only 30 seats available, all at communal tables, with two main reservation seatings, 6:00 and 8:30 (or so,) and I did call around nine days in advance, but this was plenty of time to reserve the spaces I needed. It was nothing like the ordeal that Adele went through tying to make a reservation at the similarly sized Le Pigeon. It could be that Beast is still quite new, and Le Pigeon is heading into its second year, and has been nationally recognized. But the two restaurants do have many parallels, with daring young chefs, similar spaces, and French tinged menus. On a basic level, Beast seems more expensive, with its fixed price menu ($45 for 5 courses, $52 for 6.) It’s also perhaps scarier, as you must eat what they put before you, or not eat, but I thought a great deal about Le Pigeon while I was eating at Beast, and wonder if Beast will make a similar upward trajectory, especially after a relatively glowing review in the A & E a couple of weeks ago.

I rather like novel approaches to dining, and I must admit I found the idea of “you pay a relatively high price, and you eat what we want you to eat, or you eat nothing” rather intriguing. It’s a bold idea, especially coming from a well-regarded chef whose entire world and reputation was seemingly imploded over the last couple of years, and especially in Portland, where quality dining and the choice of wonderful restaurants is now a given. I was also a bit scared by the proposition, as I’m famous for being close-minded about meats and their by-products I don’t want to eat, things like lamb, veal, and foie gras. And Beast has already made a name for serving a great deal of these items on their meat-centric menu. But I like to think Restaurant Roulette is not only about having great food, and unique conversation, but very importantly, about stretching one’s dining boundaries. So prodded by an insane little voice in my head (always the loudest in there, it seems,) and our most ardent diner-out and fine food lover, I decided a special dinner at Beast was in order. It’s true, not too many people took the bait for this dinner, there were only three people this outing, (with three unfortunate cancelations,) but what this dinner lacked in quantity, it whole-heartedly made up for in quality, it was a great dining experience from beginning to end.

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Special Review – Le Pigeon

Is That A Bird On The End Of The Table?

 

At least three people in the group have badgered me over the last few months, desperately wanting to go to Le Pigeon. I went to Le Pigeon almost a year ago, and thought it a fine restaurant. A fine restaurant, but a very small restaurant, a place where taking a large group was nearly unthinkable. Since I had been there the first time though, Le Pigeon had changed slightly, and while it is even more acclaimed these days, and even harder to get into, they at least take reservations at the communal tables, I think for groups of four or more. Sounds easier, but it’s not.

 

Good luck actually getting a reservation for a group over four, especially if you want to dine between the hours of 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm, when reservations are also prohibited. So you can kind of get a reservation, provided you plan far in advance and don’t mind eating really early or really late. Initially we were going to make a reservation for six, and include a couple of other people who might want to join us at this dinner, but that plan became all shot to hell in a hurry, as we could barely even come up with a reservation for four, and to do even that, we had to reserve at 5:45 pm. So sorry to all of you who we had to leave out, Le Pigeon is a great place, but I would guess, probably the hardest fine dining restaurant to get into in Portland at this time. Lauro is always busy, when I was at Lolo that joint was jumping, and Toro Bravo always has them lined up down the street. But those are decent sized restaurants. The main issue is that not only is Le Pigeon some of the finest cuisine Portland has to offer, it’s tiny (size and popularity wise, it’s hard not to compare with Pambiche, although the food and atmosphere are 180% different. And at least Pambiche does lunch, allowing more people to pass through its doors and sample the vittles there.)

 

One thing to keep in mind though,  if there is a restaurant in Portland you have really wanted to go to, but it seems inappropriate for a large group or we’ve already been there, let me know. This is the second time I’ve done one of these special smaller dinners in the last couple of months (the first one was Toro Bravo in October,) so send me an email on your special place, and I might be able to get a dinner going. After all, I certainly like eating out (if only I could find that gold mine to pay for all these dinners.)

 

Anyway, it was an extremely lousy Wednesday evening when the four of us met at Le Pigeon, pelting pouring rain and actual globs of wet snowflakes on the trip home. For once the reservation was not under my name, as Adele took the reigns on this one for me and went through all the arduous reservation rigamarole that is necessary to get a table at Le Pigeon (she was the main instigator on this dinner, a former French styled professional chef, she’s been wanting to check out Le Pigeon for a very long time.)

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A couple of bits of positive news regarding RR members who you probably all know (or they might like to think.) Our frequent co-diner Christina is soon to be released from the temporary bondage of classy retail sales, having just secured an extremely wanted and quite prestigious position in events coordination at our mutual alma mater, the always dripping in money, University of Portland. I’m purple with envy. But can she play soccer?

And a note concerning my most long timest of members, Michael, our culinary appreciating poet is off for a summer of travels, from the North, to the South, to the even farther South. Happy trails to you, until we eat again. (boy, that was special. I should be a poet too.)

Fenouil logoNow, on to my rain drenched commentary…

PLEASE, SOMEONE CALL OFF THE WINE DOMINATRIX!!!, and memories of monkey fleas….

Sometime, eons ago (or maybe it was a bit closer to a year + ago,) when I was reading a story about the soon to be open lavish French restaurant in the Pearl, someone had offered in the story a pronunciation guide to how to say the name, Fenouil (surely right up there with Laginappe in the mispronounced Hall of Fame – those crazy French sorts.) Something stuck in my feeble little brain, like Fenooey, but each time I said it that way, someone said what? and laughed like I was some sort of bumpkin queen (I may be some sort of bumpkin queen, but not THAT sort.) As our evening at this establishment grew closer, I took to calling it Fen Oui, since after all, that sounded so very French, and everyone seemed happy when I said it that way. Except for the fact that when I called to confirm the reservation, the person at the restaurant actually said Fenooey. (much like kablooey, in this case, wallet kablooey.) So I guess that just goes to prove that there are still one or two bits of useful information hidden somewhere in the depths of my goofy brain cavity.

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