The Dining Report – a Cena

Can I Get A Side Order of Baby?

Sorry folks, this review is not exactly starting off with a bang. First, I managed to screw up at least 2/3rds of the photos by having my camera in some weird mode (not movie though, even I know when I’ve stumbled into that strange camera setting.) Then, it’s taken me almost two weeks to even start this review, largely because the room where my computer is has just been too cold to work in. Right now the ridiculous snow is still swirling, and a million inches are still on the ground, but I’m forcing myself to at least start this review on this listless Christmas Day by sitting a foot from a space heater throbbing away on high and trying to keep the blood circulating through my fingers with some vigorous typing. (Most of it incomprehensible words.)

I must say, however, that this is the first month since Restaurant Roulette began that I was happy that I didn’t even try to schedule two dinners for the month. That second dinner would have been pretty tough with my car basically buried in a four feet high snowdrift for most of the later half of December.

Originally I thought I was going to have my largest turnout in months for the a Cena dinner, a whopping seven (these are lean days,) but after a last day flake out, we ended up with a more typical count of five bodies. Luckily these were fun and lively bodies (fun and lively makes up for late) and it was really great to have our old friends Grace and Frank rejoining us after a long absence, they are such an interesting couple.

When old favorite Assaggio bit it in fall of 2007, no matter how torturous our last dinner there was (in the last week of their existence) I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to go when I read that a new Italian place would be filling the Assaggio space. For one thing, I always loved the way Assaggio looked inside, especially the cozy and quaint wine bar area, I didn’t want to cope with how someone would wreck the wonderful little space (although Assaggio always seemed to have issues with clogged toilets, which were much too close to the dining room and kitchen for comfort.) Also, I heard or read that the people who were opening a Cena had some sort of connection to the people who bought and seemingly trashed Assaggio, which didn’t inspire much confidence in me. you should be able to take over one of the area’s favorite restaurants without wrecking it within a couple of years, especially when you don’t really change the menu. And then, there was the name, a Cena, who knows what that means or how to say it? ( ah chay na, I think is how it’s supposed to go.) Somehow I really got rubbed the wrong way when I read the owners say before opening that they had confidence that the type of clientele they were interested in drawing would know how to say it. Attention, all you really pretentious people, this is just the dining venue for you!

Once it opened, a Cena did get some pretty good reviews though, even from our own Grace and Frank, certainly discerning foodies, so it was hard to totally ignore the place. It also happened, a Cena seemed to have issues from the very beginning, and they lost their noteworthy chef almost immediately, a guy I think left Olea to work at this place (Scott Shampire???) The food was always said to be good, however, if considerably more elaborate and expensive than Assaggio. I had decided that I would look at having a dinner at a Cena soon, especially as it was about time for an Italian place, and multiple people had told me Italian was their favorite (of course, as is always the way, none of these people actually showed up for this dinner.) So a Cena was one of three choices for the next dinner, and when The A & E published a review of a Cena that was largely full of praise for their now slightly less complex, but still relatively sophisticated Italian fare, I made it our December dinner.

It seems like Portland mainly has three kinds of decor for Italian restaurants, Americanized Old Style Italian, Faux Italian, and Urbanized Modern. Everyone knows good old Americanized Old Style Italian, wine barrels, checked table cloths, melting candles in wine bottles, maybe some Frank Sinatra music. This is the kind of Italian Restaurant we grew up with. Most of the places in town who have hung onto this decor are not places I tend to frequent, although the Italian Place on Hawthorne is okie dokie for good hearty cuisine and looks totally like this, and Piazza Italia in the Pearl is a bit like this, if you add in a deli case and soccer matches. Mama Mia’s Trattoria is like this at it’s most glitzy, high end extreme, fancy, but still very old school Italian. About 10-15 years ago, Faux Italian was big here, and out of this trend came Assaggio, Tuscany Grill (gobbled up by Bar Mingo now) and the best Faux Italian place of them all, Il Piatto. I’ve always loved Faux Italian decor, the colorful, sponge painted walls, the antiques, usually very moderate lighting, usually grapes and olives on display. We currently have quite a few Italian restaurants around town that I would classify as Urbanized Modern, and they actually tend to be many of the best regarded Italian eateries in Portland, and these include Ciao Vito, Giorgios, Nostana, Fratelli (although this comes close to Faux Italian) and now a Cena. All these places are basically just tastefully decorated urban restaurants whose food is geared toward Italian cooking, although in a more European sense, rather than just a pizza and pasta sense.

I mention this because a couple of people at our a Cena dinner mentioned they found the Italian touches in the decor completely lacking (actually, everyone might have said that but me.) Strain my feeble brain as I might, it’s now been about 10 years and a couple of months, and I can’t really remember one cohesive factor in the decor I saw inside real Italian restaurants. Sadly, the one eatery that stands out the most was that Chinese place we ate in Venice. Other than that, all that leaps to mind in sitting by the Grand Canal in the dark having some substandard pasta, many old buildings with whitish stucco interior walls, a very tacky pizza place that was of the checked table cloth variety (and the pizza was like chewing a frisbee) and spending lots of money for everything. So I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “real Italian decor,” I think many of the places I ate in Italy just looked like restaurants look all over Europe and in America as well.

To be honest, despite my apprehension over how I would react to seeing different decor in the Assaggio space, I basically like how a Cena looks. The former wine bar area is rather disappointing, too light a color and with too bright lighting (compared to its predecessor that is,) but the main dining area was fine, a darkish sandalwood color with modern light fixtures and attractive contemporary art, I found it attractive and urbane. Also very pleasant, that tiny four table room between the two larger eating areas where Assaggio kept all that wine, I loved how sweet it was with the little window, velvet curtains, and modern chandelier with star shaped globes (that would look so good in my bedroom!)

Actually, I had a significant amount of time to check out the decor, as the majority of my party, with the exception of stalwart David, was stuck in a huge traffic jam on the other side of the river, and our dear friend Jody and the aforementioned Frank and Grace were all approximately 45 minutes late each. It turned out both concerned parties had called the restaurant to say they were stuck in traffic but coming, but as it happened, the host fellow answering the phone had not bothered to relay the message to me for quite some time, as the reservation was under my last name, and people were calling and mentioning my first name (I think he could have figured it out sooner, since my table was obviously missing several bodies for a long juncture.) Even more annoying, the host told Jody we weren’t even there, almost causing her to turn around and go home again. Aside from that, however, by and large the service at a Cena was either friendly or professional, or both, and at the end of the meal the waiter earned extra kudos by offering to break our tabs down individually.

David, who never met a piece of bread he didn’t want to introduce himself to (one of the reasons we get along,) after much waiting and chit chat, asked if we could have some bread. The breadbasket was an interesting combination of homemade breadsticks and rather substandard focaccia (a Cena needs to take a trip to Lovely Hula Hands to see what focaccia should taste like, not to mention what a pleasing texture is.) Complaints about the wishy washy focaccia aside, the breadsticks were wonderful, probably the best I’ve ever had. I wish more local restaurants would do in-house breadsticks, they’re such a treat, and perhaps more health conscious than normal bread, since they are basically all encompassing, completely enjoyable without either butter or olive oil. They are probably a pain to make though, especially good ones, these having a delightful texture both soft but crunchy. As a consequence, David and I finished them all before anyone else arrived, as well as some focaccia too, but luckily a Cena was willing to bring more when the other three people arrived.

Cocktails weren’t a particular highlight this evening. Jody had a very so-so Sidecar (no sugar rim!) much of which was spilled onto the table by the server, but it didn’t seem to matter, as she didn’t even finish what she had. David, Frank and I had run of the mill Rusty Nails, Mojitos, and G & T’s, none overly tickling our individual fancies. Sadly, (but obviously sensibly,) Grace didn’t have her usual alcohol sampler (or any liquor) as she and Frank are working on a new addition to the Chen/Hsu brain trust/medical practice, perhaps to arrive in May (the details seemed a tad sketchy here) a little sister or brother for their 2 and 4 year old daughters. As far as I know, this is the first time RR has had a pregnant diner (although sometimes I have my suspicions about Glenda) and this livened up our conversation for the evening greatly, especially people questioning where that tasteful term “knocked-up” might have originated. Another classy conversation, the “arousal potential” for 97 year old men, and if anyone even wanted to contemplate that particular situation (Grace, as a medical professional had added insight into 97 year old bodies.) I must say, it was nice to have these young whipper-snappers at a dinner for a change to freshen up our conversation repertoire, and get it away from the constant political chit chat that was mostly at the forefront before the election.

But on to actual food, and only 12 paragraphs in! My first question to the waiter was how tomatoey the Italian Bean Soup was, and when he said not at all, I made that my first course (I CAN’T COPE WITH SOUPS WITH TOMATOES!!) It was decent white bean soup, although not really comparable to some of the best bean soups I’ve ever had, one being a delicious white bean and quail soup in Rhonda, Spain. Now that was delicious bean soup, albeit expensive bean soup. David had a simple Romano Salad of romaine, gorgonzola, crispy pancetta, and cracked black pepper. He said it was good, but it’s hard for me to gauge from the ingredients why it would need to cost $10. (My soup was $7.) Frank had a Beet Salad which was, surprise, surprise, pretty much your standard beet salad (also $10.)

Grace, always liking a selection, went the Italian way, having a starter (a cheese plate) a pasta, an entree, and dessert. (After all, she’s eating for two.) That’s why I always like it so much when we manage to see Grace and Frank, they give the menu a real workout. It’s good they have those somewhat economically stable medical professions, as we would hate to see them not have enough money to pay the check and go home wearing just barrels, after washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen. For her first, first course, Grace had the Formaggi Sampler, a selection of Italian and NW cheeses, with bing cherry compote and olive oil crackers. Grace thought it was a delicious selection, and generously offered to share it with all takers (all of us seemed to demur, I think we were afraid what Grace had might be catching (no pregnancy for me tonight, thank you.)) For her second first course, Grace had the Pappardelle with braised rabbit, porcini and rosemary. Originally she found the pasta dish a tad bland, but once she added a bit of salt (which was not on the table and had to be asked for,) she found the preparation quite flavorful, and seemed won over.

On to those entrees. Although somewhat earth shaking, as there was a tasty sounding pollo dish on the menu, being in a pseudo Italian place, our favorite Chicken Man, David, decided to try that night’s special pasta dish, Lasagna. There was only one portion left, so we forced the waiter to make a mad dash for the kitchen to claim it for Mr. D. When it arrived, it was a very large, hearty portion in its own individual dish, and happily, David managed two days of “good eats” from his $18 investment. As Jody was sitting next to David, the task fell upon her to order the chicken (we have our rules around here) so she had the lovely looking chicken preparation, Crispy Draper Farms chicken with rosemarry roasted potato, garlic sugo, and grilled market vegetables. I think I heard her say it was very good. Frank went for the Agnello, a Sudan Farms lamb loin with grilled radicchio, goat cheese gnocchi and huckleberry agro dolce (don’t ask me, I just type this crap.) Frank, being a concerned father to be and good partner, decided to have the lamb cooked a bit more than it probably should have been, as he thought Grace would like to sample it (after all, she’s The Famous Grace) and was concerned about the health ramifications of “under-cooked meat.” (That’s why I never wanted to give birth, I couldn’t do anything that might hinder my constant undercooked meat eating.) Anyway, I got the impression he wasn’t wowed by the lamb (Frank doesn’t seem a big “WOW” guy anyway) and found it a bit overcooked and lacking in succulent juiciness (Well, that’s what he gets for worrying about his wife and unborn child, now isn’t it?)

a Cena is one of those places where I can barely read the menu, much because of dark lighting and light type (of course it’s absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I’m old and half blind and don’t have “traveling glasses.”) Before the traffic jammed people had arrived, David kindly went over the menu with me, but it’s hard to keep all the specifics in your feeble brain that way. I really should have ordered pasta, originally that’s what I wanted, and I think there was a gnocchi with rich and cheezy ingredients that probably would have been quite good. I keep remembering something about beef and horseradish though, so keep thinking about the Straccoto, even if the actual description was something to do with short ribs. Not a favorite of mine, as stewed beef falls into that overcooked category for me. Grace was mulling the Straccoto over as well though, maybe because it did sound completely cooked, and I suppose I was a bit swayed by her vote of confidence. I had to laugh when the “shortribs” arrived, as they cost $25 but were two little pillows of beef about 2.5 x1.5 inchs diameter and about 1 inch thick. So that was $12.50 per petite shortrib. As Grace observed, they were really rich and intentionally fatty, so I didn’t even eat every bite of my meat.

I think Grace’s final opinion of the Straccoto was more favorable than mine, I know its rich, intense flavor would appeal to many lovers of heavy, hearty European fare. Grace’s first comment on how the shortribs had a very intense fruit/wine reduction flavor was spot on, and I think that’s something I didn’t enjoy that much about the dish. I prefer rich, fruity sauces on pork dishes, while beef I enjoy with more subtle, natural meat flavors. I never did detect any horseradish taste, but someone later told me the horseradish was in the polenta, not on the meat, so that’s what happens when you’re not ever sure what in the world you’ve ordered (sadly, I didn’t even realize the light-colored stuff at the bottom of my bowl was polenta, it was an extra creamy preparation, and I had thought it was potatoes of some variety.) Wow, I was just dazzling this meal. I do know the whole thing came with brussel sprouts, as there is no disguising those suckers. I would say when we were finished, Grace gave the Straccoto a thumbs up for rich and flavorful, and I gave it a thumbs sideways for well-conceived, but not my particularly “bag.”

As Glenda was absent, off at a concert, there were only two takers for dessert, Grace and I once again, although I think Jody had a cappucino. Much as was true of Assaggio, the desserts were quite authentically Italian, but as it happens, Italian desserts tend not to be favorites of mine. I did think the Pannetone looked at least interesting, as did Grace, so we both ordered that. Real Italian Pannetone, I believe, it more of a drier, fruitcake/fruitbread sort of confection, and this reminded me more of bread pudding. Right before our portions were delivered, the a Cena dining room smelled intensely of burning sugar (I’m thinking they used a propane torch) so we knew caramelized something or other was coming. The pannetone was quite intense and gooey, with layers or burnt sugar, chocolate, and sliced bananas. It was good, for sure, but not something I wanted to eat my entire serving of, once again.

As a general rule, despite some clumsy ordering on my part, I think a Cena’s a good quality restaurant. I don’t know if it’s a good fit for Sellwood though, by the time we left, about 9:40, the place was largely empty, and it was Friday. Not to put Sellwood down, it’s one of our oldest and quaintest neighborhoods, but it’s totally off the beaten path, and I would imagine that you have to be either a “destination” restaurant or a relatively economical, family oriented restaurant to thrive there. a Cena really is not either. I think it would do gangbusters if it was in the Pearl, as it has many similarities to both Giorgios and Fratelli, and could compete well with those places. But how many “sophisticated Italian” places does one neighborhood need, even the Pearl, especially one where the name is so tricky? I certainly try to avoid as many tricky words as possible. Let’s hope a Cena is not cursed by fear of name pronunciation. Maybe they should try something new. How about Oppoassaggio? Now that’s catchy. Whatever this joint chooses to call itself, if you’re in the mood for sophisticated Italian fare and a nice neighborhood drive, check out a Cena. The breadsticks are killer.

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