Yes, Mucca, Not Lucca, And Certainly Not La Buca!

Around a year ago Glenda mentioned visiting a somewhat upscale Italian restaurant downtown, although she struggled with the name and exact location.IMG_3421 She said the food was good, but the prices were on the high side. Then a bit after that, someone else in our group was talking about Mucca, and that they thought it was a worthwhile dinner venue, and it turns out this was the same place Glenda had previously alluded to. Although many of them aren’t great, we have so many Italian restaurants here, I tend to have no trouble finding one to add to our itinerary. For this reason (and the fact that the online menu did seem really expensive for casual Italian) I filed Mucca in the back recesses of my Swiss cheesy brain.

The odd thing about Mucca was that I had never heard of it before. Through daily reading and perserverance, I’m really pretty good at knowing about any decent restaurant that opens in this general area (unless they are in that crazy BeavTigard farther West than downtown area.) I think Mucca has been open about two years, and I’ve never read one reference to the name or any articles tracking their opening or a review of the food. IMG_3425This is really strange. The owner is from Rome, and usually when real Italians come here to open restaurants, someone gets hot and bothered and mentions there is real Italian cooking to be had. The location is certainly not out of the way; long ago, before the “Portland Food Revolution” this block of Morrison between 10th and 11th used to be one of the best for finding an interesting ethnic restaurant (and while this block still has a Persian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Lebanese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, and an Indian restaurant, it’s become rather passe – although a good place to find lunch if you work downtown.) Even the Mucca space, 25 years ago I used to come in here regularly, when I worked downtown, and it was Kent’s Bento (still my favorite bento.) After that, about 15 years ago, I ate at this address  a good number of times, when it was Pasta Veloce, the predecessor to Pastini. The first time I visited the Mucca website I recognized it immediately, the brick East wall and long, narrow space are very distinctive. (more…)


Welcome Challenged – But they Warm Up to You

As people in this group know, my head is always turned by those new places, so when I am selecting which restaurant will come next on our roster, the new spaces usually have the advantage, followed by old favorites where we had really good dinners before.IMG_3210 Usually the neighborhood stops that look interesting, but don’t have much publicity, are the ones it takes me awhile to get around to. Sometimes they just fall off my radar (yes, that does mean I’ve forgotten about them) and sometimes they lose their promise along the way, so then I think, okay, there must be somewhere more tantalizing than that to have the dinner. If these smaller restaurants stay in business long enough though, and I drive by them now and then, and maybe I hear a favorable comment or two, then I usually get around to them. Also, in the case of our most recent dinner, Lucca, they have managed to stay in business in one of those cursed locations, the corner of 24th and Fremont, longer than any previous restaurant that has tried to fill that spot, the original Nature’s NW grocery, so that shows they must be doing something right.

I actually had a decent turnout for this dinner, originally 11, but when Heidi and Hank both got sick the day of the dinner, we went down to the original 8 places I had reserved.  IMG_3204My depended on group of regulars was in attendance, David, Shuhong, Glenda and Cora, plus the occasional Halle family (they might protest, and say they are always the Halle family.) I never know who to expect around the holidays though, after only five at Imperial, so it was a welcome relief to have a table full. It wasn’t the most beautiful of mid-fall evenings, rainy and somewhat cold, and as the Lucca space is your typical storefront type of eatery with two glass doors on the corner, as is the case with many places like this, sitting anywhere in the path of the door draft can be chilly (which brings to mind another Italian dinner, about a year ago, at the now acclaimed Luce, where the opening of the door totally deep freezes the entire small space.) Speaking of chilly, by the way, I arrived about 10 minutes before our reservation, finding Cora, David, and Shuhong already in the bar area. Cora was not the happiest camper, as she said the hostess was pretty rude to her when she had arrived about 25 minutes before the reservation time. Having taken mass transit and knowing no place else to go, as the corner of 24th and Fremont is not exactly the best place to bide your time, as all the surrounding area is residential (oh, but such nice residential!) what was she supposed to do, knock on a neighbor’s door and say “hey, I’m 25 minutes early for my reservation at Lucca, can I use your bathtub?”  Cora said the frosty treatment also extended to David and Shuhong, who arrived next, the implication being “I have no room for you, come back at 7:00” (when our table still wasn’t quite ready.) (more…)

The Dining Report – Carpaccio Trattoria

I’ll Take A Large Order Of Our Waiter, To Go.


The last time Restaurant Roulette visited a Venetian Inspired Portland restaurant (Fratelli) I talked a bit about my one trip to Italy, and how in Venice we had some pretty lousy food, mainly because in Venice, to get good food in a nice restaurant, you need to shell out those big bucks. Our big bucks were spent on halfway “decent lodgings” (good location, on the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge, very small hotel room with rather too busy blue and white floral wallpaper, but nice and clean.) When you are in Venice in the late summer, who needs a gorgeous hotel room, you should be spending all your waking hours walking around, getting lost,  and looking at everything you can possibly see in your limited timeline.

So far, since the mixed use brick building on the intersection of MLK and Fremont was built, the corner space has not had too much luck (I can’t say how the Subway next door has done.) IMG_3072The first place that opened, Terrior, was by someone who was big on the local food scene about 6 years ago. This was before our “food explosion” here, and now I can’t remember his name, but when Terrior opened it was initially well regarded for its high end small plate menu. It soon fell into financial difficulty, however, and I seem to remember the owner skulking off in the middle of the night without paying lots of people, especially employees. After the space sat vacant for a bit, Belly opened, run by a really sweet couple, whom I’m sure, everyone who met them wanted to succeed. We had a dinner there, the staff was nice, the menu was accessible (sort of NW/American/Italian) the prices were reasonable, the portions were large, and the food was good. Perhaps Belly lacked distinction, or focus, or whatever it takes to draw patrons to this rather desolate corner, so after three years, they also had to throw in the towel.

Once again, the space was empty for quite a few months. Then, without much fanfare, a chef from Venice, Francesco Solda, decided he would give this rather long and angular space with the big bar area a whirl, naming it Carpaccio Trattoria.IMG_3056 Until this week, I don’t think I’ve read anything about this restaurant anywhere, but according to the Willamette Week from August 8th, CT has been a big neighborhood hit with their generous and late going happy hour, and WW are predicting that this might be the restaurant to break the curse at this address. Let’s just hope the generous happy hour and the expansive coupon someone brought to this dinner don’t spell a financial demise somewhere down the road. The profit margin in restaurants is exceedingly small, so unless you are incredibly popular (Toro Bravo, Screen Door, T N’ S, or Ox popular) you can’t be giving too many of your goods and services away and not be taking a major hit.)

Let’s not start predicting bad things ahead though, after all, CT (sadly, I’m already tired of typing Carpaccio Trattoria, especially since it’s not easy to spell to begin with) just opened, and the place seems once again filled with nice people. Let’s predict good things ahead, once they get their word around town and distinguish themselves from some of the other new Italian joints we’ve seen open in Portland in the last year (the trend the year before in Portland was French Bistro, this year we’re seeing Italian restaurants everywhere, especially those based around wood fired ovens. Interestingly, the CT space has a wood fired oven left over from previous tenants, but no pizza. This might be a good thing, the pizza I had in Venice was ghastly, hard crust and nothing especially tasty on top. It appears like good pizza comes from now South.) (more…)


Wine With a Side of Martini

IMG_2889I’m not a big imbiber these days (preferring to spend excessive money on food rather than liquor) so I rarely visit bars, taverns, go on wine tours or to wine tastings or even to wine bars. Probably about seven years ago I was more into drinks and sips and such, and a friend and I stopped in to Vino Paradiso in the Pearl for a glass of wine and a small snack. At the time I remember thinking the space was pleasant, there was a decent selection of wine by the glass, and the snack was tasty. This being said, we waited FOREVER for service, even though there were few patrons, and the waiter was not particularly friendly. The upshot, with wine places bursting out at the seams, especially in the Pearl (remember, this was around 2005) why bother going back to a place that makes you feel unwanted?

Several months ago, I read on that the owner of Vino Paradiso, Timothy Nishimoto (who is also the male singer in Pink Martini) had decided he wanted to upgrade his space and start serving more serious food. I also remember reading, a bit later,  that he had decided to rename his rebooted establishment Coppia. Slightly after this, I forgot about the whole situation, because as I mentioned before, my previous experience with this business was not the most positive, and since he was a local celebrity, I’m sure my disinterest in his business would hardly be a crushing blow to his entire life.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate myself about a 9, as far as keeping up with the new restaurants opening which are suitable for our group (the average food cart or pop up does not work for group dining due to size/kitchen capacity issues. They would be FUN though!)IMG_2888 Anyway, Coppia fell off my radar, as it wasn’t exactly getting heavy publicity, and I was focusing on lots of other places soon to come. Recently, however, the A&E gave Coppia a relatively decent review, especially noting the pastas made in house, so I thought, hey, here’s a “new” place I can shove on the roster until all these other new places that I’ve been talking about actually open. I was still a bit uncertain about restaurant size, but Open Table happily gobbled up our reservation, so we were all set. Although we had experienced some nicer weather, it was as relatively cold May evening, and most of us were bundled up in sweaters and other heavy layers of clothing. As this is the heart of the Pearl, I was quite glad to find a parking space about a block and a half away, as it had earlier been raining quite hard. (more…)

Polpettes and Icy Toes

IMG_2607A few years ago, the Oregonian selected Navarre as Restaurant of the Year and I rejoiced, especially when even they admitted it was a weird choice, but that the food prevailed over all the quirky things there, ambiance, service, the size of the kitchen. Although they are barely open for lunch these days (maybe still Fridays and on the weekend?) I can think of no more interesting place to pop in for a leisurely lunch, eat a few of the intriguing small plates, finish with a delicious gut busting dessert, pay the reasonable tab, and feel like you just had lunch in some small village in the French countryside. The decor has always been incredibly basic, just blond wood chairs and tables (much seating is communal) a mirror with the specials written down, and a bunch of homemade preserves and imported specialties that you can buy lining the walls.

Owner John Taboda has a new venture now, about 8 blocks down Burnside from Navarre, and at least as far as the restaurant, it’s not much larger or fancier than Navarre (although the checkerboard floor is eye-catching.) The new place is called Luce. I mention the size of the restaurant because Luce is actually two spaces, the restaurant/cafe space and an event space right next door. Luce, the eatery, only seats 20, so I’m guessing the event space is larger, unless it caters to really small events. Luce does have a large fancy kitchen though, opposed to Navarre’s galley/postage stamp sized food preparation area, so maybe that’s why Navarre’s long time chef didn’t mind going  Italian. (Navarre has always seemed to me a French, Spanish, Italian combo.) Another strong presence at Luce is John Taboda’s wife, Giovanna, who also helms the extra fancy Italian boutique, Una, also on 28th like Navarre. My guess, from her name, is that Giovanna is Italian, and perhaps much of the authenticity at Luce comes from her (although Mr. Taboda certainly know his way around various European cuisines.)


And Behind Door #3, We Have Liver Ale!

Our group is a yo-yo (hey, at least I didn’t say full of yo-yos,) one dinner we have 13, then cancel due to lack of interest, then 10 people, then 13 people, it really makes setting-up those reservations in advance a tricky situation. And when you are potentially bringing a group of 12 or more, or even 8 or more, and the restaurant is a hot commodity, or not that big, or whatever, you must give as much advance notice as possible. So I typically shoot for 10 days. But trying to guess how many people are available or interested in a particular dinner, this is not easy, and I often have to call a restaurant multiple times to get enough chairs, or to let them know we are more minicule than I had planned.

IMG_2319Sometimes this works out better than other instances. 3 Doors Down is a restaurant who has been on that same impossible to park block off Hawthorne, across from the Bagdad, for somewhere around 15 years, although it might be longer than that. For about the first 10 years of so the place was tiny, I didn’t even consider trying to wedge a group in there, as they were famous for the lines out the door and no waiting area. A couple of years (?) ago that changed, however, 3 Ds expanded into that space to the South of them as well (what was it, a high end clothing store???) and then they had double the space, a bar, a waiting area, and entertained reservations and everything. Nonetheless, 8 people is a decent sized group for them on a Friday night, and while originally they didn’t want to give me a reservation after 6:00, I guess someone thought in this economy it was better not to turn away eight eatees, so they gave me a 6:30 reservation as requested. (more…)

Basking In An Aura of Obscurity

Although I don’t know much about food carts, those restaurants in the Western suburbs, or the strip mall kinds of places, I do try to keep track of most the the “major” restaurant and bar openings in the Portland area. After all, this is basically my job as Restaurant Roulette hostess, to find the interesting new restaurants as well as visiting the established eateries. I use sources like, Portland Monthly, Portland Food and Drink, Willamette Week, and now and again, even in their sad days of food journalism, the Oregonian. Because of this, even if I’m not interested in visiting a restaurant, I still know it exists.

Not so for Gilda’s, which has been open who knows how long. (My guess is mid-2010??) Mention Gilda’s, even to a foodie, and chances are you will hear, where??? IMG_2133I still would not have heard of it were it not for Roger Porter posting a review on the Portland Food and Drink blog during late winter. I’m not even certain how he heard of Gilda’s, maybe he visited the Artist’s Repertory Theatre across the street. Anyway, Mr. Porter gave Gilda’s a decent review, and as everyone is always wanting to try a “new” Italian place, off we went, although I was still the only person in our group who had even heard of Gilda’s.

We were a decent sized bunch, there were seven of us, and we welcomed a new couple to our ranks, Cherene and Scott from Aurora. Scott is a seafood lover and Cherene not so much, but as it happens, seafood is one of the things Gilda’s does best, so both of them ordered one form or another, as did everyone in our group I think.


Thank Goodness For Seeing Eye People

First of all, a little comment (to be followed by thousands of other little comments, no doubt.)

IMG_1785When I was posting the previous review for Irving Street Kitchen on this blog, I hadn’t even finished (the words post first, and then the pictures go in) and some girl/woman was sending me negative comments on the fact that I had mentioned that the waiter at Irving Street Kitchen had highly recommended an item that wasn’t even on the menu. Blah, blah, blah, it’s all water under the bridge. I think what really irked me was that she described me as an amateur blogger and made it sound like all I did was sit in front of my keyboard all the time trying to inflict hurt and make other people’s lives miserable.

Oh Contraire, Missy, the challenge of writing this blog for me, at times, is similar to the notion of draining one’s body of all one’s blood, one tiny pin prick at a time, you squeeze and squeeze and squeeze, and most of the time, only the smallest amount dribbles out. Although many writers love blogging, and I congratulate them on their constant creativity and willingness to put forth this continual effort, I am not one of these people, and the task of documenting the dinners is no less than monumental at many times (like this one.) IMG_1803The dinners are almost always good though, and some of the restaurants actually like being written about, (okay, NOT THAT ONE) so I continue to try to get these sometimes weird and wacky (but equally often mundane and obtuse) reviews written. So what if it’s three weeks gone by now, and these are the first words I have typed on our evening at Nostrana.

Actually, this is a pretty sad situation, because our evening at Nostrana was a really good one, and deserves at least as much documentation, if not more, than some of those fair to middling dinners I have posted endless paragraphs about. Three weeks in and no still no flowing juices of inspiration, not a good sign. (more…)


The Gritty And The Glory

In about the first three months of the beginnings of Restaurant Roulette, 3.75 years ago, I took some of my earliest diners to Ciao Vito, one of my top five restaurants at that time. It’s amazing how things have changed in Portland dining during that time frame, especially the explosion of wonderful, interesting restaurants in P.Town. Nowadays, I don’t think I could even name a top five, there are just too many options. I might be able to manage a top ten, but even in that case, I probably would not be able to rate them within the top ten.

Portland, and myself, have gotten a great deal more sophisticated since this group began, and occasionally when I return to an old favorite, I find it dated or faded.IMG_1444 Always sad. Over the last few months I’ve been debating over at least three quality Italian restaurants, all of which I and other group members have been to, deciding which I would insert into the roster in early 2010. Naturally, I went with my heart and selected Ciao Vito, my favorite of the lot. When perusing C.V.s on-line menu to type up the RSVP for the last dinner, I must admit I had a couple of moments of hesitation, though, as it seemed like almost the exact same menu as the last time I ate there (with the exception of missing Razor Clams and Smoked Duck Legs, two of their early signature dishes.) I worried and fretted a tad, has Ciao Vito become dated, is it coasting on its Alberta Street location?

After our recent dinner at Ciao Vito, I would say that Ciao Vito has done a good job keeping things fresh.IMG_1451 As is the case with many restaurants, the main thing that seems dated is their on-line menu, they actually had a good variety of old standards and new, interesting items to try on our visit, and the restaurant itself seems to change very little over time. This includes the very competent but somewhat “removed” wait staff, always a bit formal and perhaps, on occasion, snooty (this is something I have read numerous times, but not experienced) the lovely, dark decor (I finally got to sit at that fun table under the big chandelier!) and the fact that while many entree prices fall within the arena of modest, starters and drinks are getting mighty spendy, like many, many of the good places around town. (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…)

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