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…)

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