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A Tale of Five Charcuteries

Monday 19 December 2011

So it’s been a really long time.

The last series of posts I was working on was about our trip to Portland in September. Here we are, back again, because…it’s there?

The Nines is a very nice hotel in general, but the rooms are not quite as well insulated, in terms of noise, as I would like. Now, Herself calls me “the bat” because I am very sensitive to noise. Not full-on hyperacusis or misophonia, but still. So I’m on the end of the population who down-check hotels for noise when others find it just fine. There’s some noise from the street and, since this is the holiday party season, from the ballrooms and bars. It has a nice 1950s “Mad Men” design aesthetic. Also, they put DVD players in every room, and there’s a Redbox nearby, so that’s taken care of.

But, I mention it only to set the context. We suspect that there is a market for a hotels that cater to adult travelers (no children accepted), that has no large-scale entertaining or conference facilities, and no club. That would eliminate just about all of the in-house noise sources. Noise-proof doors, double walls, and triple-pane windows are also good, but eliminating the sources would be best.

Friday:

Anyway. We came in late, hit the Max, and debouched at the hotel ahead of schedule thanks to strong tailwinds en route. Our first dining stop was Grüner. It has the usual great reviews, an interesting wine list, and enough meat-based dishes to keep any rational carnivore happy. It also was open late enough that, had our flight been on time, we still would have gotten in.

Lucky that we were early, because we nearly closed them down around 11, after one of the best meals either of us have had in a long time, and certainly the best German food ever.

Grüner is not your father’s biergarten. This is a sleek, modern, dark leather-with-maple tables sort of place. Don’t expect to find schweinshaxe or weiner schnitzel on the menu, or to hear oompah music; they were playing Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” as we were leaving. The crew is informally attired, and the service was more comfortable and relaxing than formal.

We dithered over the wine far more than usual. As frequent readers know, Herself has a very narrow range of wine acceptability, somewhere from a slightly dry Riesling to a very sweet Gewürztraminer, with side excursions to Moscato d’Asti. No reds, no dry whites. Grüner has something like seven or eight good German and Alsatian Rieslings, including a sparkling Riesling, plus another half-dozen Veltliners, plus some Gewürztraminer and other perfume-y, sweeter whites, out of a total of about 30 whites. So, it required a bit more thought.

We wound up with a 1993 Jos. Christoffel Jr. which was not on the wine list. What a find! This was perfect for Herself, and even though I often prefer a red with pork, this worked really well. If you like Reislings and can find it, get it. Wait. No. Skip that. Don’t buy this wine, you won’t like it. Just let me know where you found it, and I’ll take care of it for you. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the tarte flambée. Herself has now gotten into the habit of explaining to the waiter that She doesn’t think she likes charcuterie, but that of late She has unexpectedly been enjoying it. So I just find us places that have charcuterie on the menu, and She is delighted.

The charcuterie plate here was really good: thinly sliced speck and salami; big chunks of rabbit mortadella and country pâté, plus the usual assortment of pickles and mustard.  The tarte flambée was more like a small pizza, with onions, bacon, and cheese. I’m not sure how it’s flambée, unless it’s something done to it back in the kitchen. It was good, but I (and I expect Herself) still prefer the Alsatian onion tarte at Le Crocodile. But the charcuterie was so good, and the tarte still quite good, that no points were lost on the appetizers.

Mains. Mains were a bit more than we expected. Herself had the buckwheat noodles with chanterelles and ham; I went for the more traditional choucroute garnie, a plate of various forms of pork with sauerkraut and potatoes.

If you don’t like soba noodles, you might still like Grüner’s buckwheat noodles. They had none of the strong tastes of soba noodles, just a nice nuttiness that we both really enjoyed. With the ham and mushrooms, which She normally disdains but loved in this case, it was a rich, satisfying meal.

The plate’o’pork was a meaty extravaganza, with bratwurst, saucisson, pork belly, and pork tenderloin under a mantle of sauerkraut. All the meat was quite juicy and tender. Meat-acular.

For dessert, we went with the hazelnut powdered sugar donuts. This comes as three full-size donuts, powdered, with a ramekin of melted dark chocolate. This is when the second wine miracle occurred: we found a red that Herself not only tolerated, but enjoyed. It’s a 2006 Martin Palser Pinot Noir TBA, a very raisin-y, port-like wine that is not a port, not a pinot noir, but something in-between. Of course, it’s totally unavailable in the retail market so I have no idea when we will have another chance at it, but we will remember it.

So, back to the hotel, sleep, get up for a second day of meat-o-rama!

Saturday:

Day two: brunch at Ned Ludd. This was our first stop of the day (we are not morning people, and likely never will be; see this story).

Ned Ludd’s icon is a large axe, and their menu is replete with meat, although the current menu is not posted online so one must be a bit brave in dining here. The restaurant is located just north of what is apparently an Ethiopian neighborhood, on MLK near Failing Street. The outside is a big, shiny steel structure that looks like a big greenhouse, or a shed. Inside, it’s all rough-hewn wood, and the contrast is sudden. It’s a small place, with seating for maybe 50; make reservations. It looks like there is a nice outdoor patio for when the weather is warm.

While there are a couple of vegetarian options on the menu, Ned Ludd is mainly about the meat. Again, with the charcuterie posturing by Herself, followed by the charcuterie eating by both of us. This is a more rustic presentation, in keeping with the setting, but nothing homely about the food. Big wooden board of pâté, foie gras, really good pickled rhubarb and picked carrots, some sliced meats, and some really sublime glazed bacon, of which we could have eaten four more orders. I could probably have eaten just this, but we both wanted more, so we went on to the entrees.

I got the pork belly with turnips; She went for the terrine of…well, some sort of dead animal, served over a bed of green leafy bits. The terrine was great; basically a bigger slice of some of the stuff that had been on the charcuterie plate. The pork belly was okay, but only because I am a pork belly fan. It was grilled without having been slow-cooked at all, so the meat was a bit stiff and the fat not rendered at all. Downcheck on the pork belly, but big upcheck on the charcuterie.

Dessert: oh my, definitely save room for the s’mores. The last time I had s’mores was probably…well, never, not ever having been a Girl Scout. A s’more, I am lead to believe, is usually two graham crackers with chocolate and marshmallow in-between, and heated. These s’mores were a graham cracker on top of a slightly melted marshmallow, on a plate, drenched in Xocolatl de David chocolate. Heavenly good, I’d trade a bunch of merit badges for an order of this again. Scoop it all up with the side of the fork.

Final score: solid 4 out of 5, and likely a 5 next time when I order something other than the pork belly.

Herself wanted to go fabric shopping, and there’s a place called Bolt that is apparently renowned in…I’m not sure. Portland, for sure; the U.S. West Coast, maybe; all of space and time, that might be stretching it. But She wanted to go, and as it was just up on Alberta, a few blocks over from MLK near 22nd Street, that seemed like a fine idea.

Did I mention that it was *cold* on Saturday, like maybe all of 35F, and we had dressed for much warmer weather? No? Well take it as a given that we froze our tuckuses as we walked up from Failing to Alberta, then waited for the #72, which was delayed by some detour.

Bolt is a pretty nice fabric store. Good selection of fabrics and notions, lots of patterns; I could see where it has a solid regional reputation. But this is not why I am happy that herself likes Bolt, and wants to go back.

When I first go to a city, each place I go to–each restaurant, each store, each hotel, each everything–is in its own little locational bubble. There’s the address where whatever place is, and about fifty feet around it, and that’s it. The bubbles are distinct, with no relationship to each other. As my familiarity increases with a locale, the bubbles merge and neighborhoods are revealed. So, on our first trip to Portland, the big Powell’s and Living Room Theaters, which are only a couple of blocks apart, were each in their own bubble. Same with the Heathman and PSU, even though they almost back up to one another. But it takes exposure, and time; I still probably can’t relate Grüner to anywhere else, as we’ve only been there once.

So, as we approached Bolt, it wasn’t the patterns or fabric or notions that caught my eye. It was the sign for Pine State Biscuits, whose northern shop is across 22nd Street from Bolt. Pine State, as you may recall, is the home of the Reggie, a sandwich of fried chicken, biscuits, bacon, sausage gravy, cheese, and fried egg. And, now I see that they are also staying open from 6PM to 1AM for happy hour beer, Reggies, and cocktails. So the next time we are in Portland, I may plan an early evening snack on a weekend there, after a trip to Bolt for Herself. Or maybe just brunch there, and dessert at Ned Ludd. Would it be wrong to do charcuterie, fabric, Reggie, s’mores? We’ll have to find out.

So, post-Bolt, on to some series of busses (don’t ask me which) to Perfume House, mentioned in one of my prior postings. Herself had something on order; they were open Saturday but not Sunday; so off we went. Quick stop…oops, not so quick, the bus back downtown isn’t for 20 minutes, sure I can wait. Kill a few hundred zombies in Zombie Gunship (nice little addictive app, if one avoids the in-game booster purchases). Now bus, then Redbox for DVDs, then hotel, then…

…back on to the Yellow line, up to the #72 (yes, the same bus as before), and out to 30th and Killingsworth, right where we had been about 5 hours prior. Yes, it was repetitive, but we couldn’t get the 6PM seating at Beast, so there we were.

Beast was again fabulous, as last time. Not nearly as intimidating–nothing like the rabbit hearts–and the repeated bits, like the (drum roll) charcuterie plate was not nearly as unusual to us as it had been the first time, as we had been carving a meaty swath through many fine establishments since then. So the steak tartare with quail egg, the foie gras truffle with the gelled Sauternes, even the duck rillettes, were not outside of our comfort zone anymore.

I won’t go into details, as it doesn’t matter, as the menu changes every week. We were both amazed at the other diners who did not dive into their meals with gusto; in Service Included, the author, a former waitress at Per Se, comments on the children who would finish off their rabbit rillette while the high-maintenance adults across the room were being high-maintenance.

But the waitress remembered us (“your usual seats!”), and the service and food as usual were exceptional, so we will of course be back. Oh, but a hint to future diners: either book your cab well in advance, or plan on taking the bus. We waited for a bit for a late-summoned cab, then called the taxi service and found out that one hadn’t even been scheduled, just in time to catch the last #9 downtown.

So that was Saturday. Three charcuteries down, two to go.

Sunday:

Sunday was not our best day, but offered an opportunity we would otherwise have ignored.

We were scheduled to go to Simpatica Catering for brunch (fried chicken and waffles!) and Genoa for dinner. We’d been to Simpatica before, and found it Very Good. We hadn’t been to Genoa; it was to be the Fancy Restaurant event of the trip, listed as having a dress code and everything. Also, Bagna Cauda, an Italian fondue-like dish of meat, anchovies, oil, and cheese that sounded good ever since we first heard about it in an episode of Babylon 5 (we cast a wide net).

But, after the late prior night, caffeine intake messed up by eating at really good places that don’t serve Coke (I wouldn’t drink it at them, anyone, but one likes the opportunity), and probably too much red wine (how much is too much? Only my circulatory system knows), I was sporting a pretty good headache. Not enough to knock me out for the day, but enough to call up the reserves (Excedrin Tension Headache, in the purple bottle) and definitely enough to put the kibosh on a three-hour dinner, although we made that decision later in the day.

So we set off on the #12 bus from the hotel, towards our destination at Simpatica.

Now, the #12 runs straight up Southwest 6th Street until it heads out Burnside. As it so happens, we had planned to have breakfast on Saturday at The Original, which is right at the 6th and Oak bus stop. We had skipped it because we had slept in, three meat-centric meals seemed like overkill, and…we had slept in.

So when the bus stopped outside The Original, the conversation went something like this:

Herself: “Hey look–The Original! You want to go there instead?”

Me: “No, you wanted to go to Simpatica. Chicken and waffles, right?”

Herself: “Yeah, but you really like the chicken fried steak at The Original more than I like the fried chicken and waffles at Simpatica. We should go!”

Me: “No, we should go to Simpatica. You were counting on it.”

Herself:  “But I can get really good fried chicken at Smithfield’s, and you can’t get that chicken fried steak anywhere else.”

Me: “Look, the bus has started. Seems like a sign.”

Herself: <pulls the stop request cord>

So, we both won and lost that argument: She had her way, and I had my chicken fried steak. She’s way too nice to me that way.

After The Original, we decided to wander up to Powell’s, as she was out of books. We had been planning to go to the Rejuvenation store, but just weeks ago they were bought by Williams-Sonoma, so that’s that. I was unsure that I wasn’t being alarmist about the buyout until just today, when I got an email from them featuring, get this, holiday-themed lighting. So long, Rejuvenation, we hardly knew you…

So, Powell’s. Always lots of good stuff there, although I do believe that they hide most of the used stuff one sees on their website. No matter, we found a few interesting bits, not enough to ship back but enough to thoroughly stuff what space was left in our luggage.

After Powell’s, we walked by Living Room Theaters to check out what they had. The Lie? No. Hugo in 3D? Maybe.

Oh, another thought–while walking back from Grüner, we spied a cupcake shop that looked promising. Track it down in Maps app, ah, there it is, just a couple of blocks away.

It’s called St. Cupcake, and it’s on the corner of SW 12th and Morrison. Good spot–walking distance to downtown, to the food carts at 10th and Alder, to Powell’s. Good cupcakes, too: full size, and what they call “dots”, about 1/3rd size, just a large mouthful. Good cookies, brownies, and other sweet and some savory baked goods. Not a bread shop, so get your baguettes elsewhere. Try a squangleberry square: berries, lemon and blueberry custard, in a an oat streusel bar crust.

Back to the hotel to polish off movies we hadn’t watched last night, and eat some more cookies and stuff from St. Cupcakes.

Around 6, we knew that Genoa wasn’t happening, so I cancelled that. But we were still going to want something, and we didn’t want to go out, nor to order room service, so we headed into the Urban Farmer lounge for drinks and bar snacks (hey, fix your own headaches your own way. This worked for me.)

The lounge at Urban Farmer is on the eighth floor of the former Meier and Frank building, behind the front lobby for The Nines Hotel. It’s a big, open space, all the way up to the skylight that covers the whole atrium. They have created smaller spaces by erecting partial rooms of glass, about 20 feet square and ten tall, in a couple of spots, and leaving the rest open. It works well for large and small groups, with a good selection of seating area sizes. Lighting isn’t the best for reading in the larger areas, but it’s fine at a couple of spots that have table lamps near the chairs.

We were there for drinks and snacks. They had something called a Sidecar that wasn’t–on the rocks, in a lowball glass. It was tasty from the pear vodka, but not a Sidecar. Herself did better with what she was drinking, something that looked a lot more like a Sidecar but was sweeter.

Here is where we found our fourth charcuterie board. This one was less formal than even the one at Ned Ludd, being a board with a smear of foie gras, some salami, some other rillette, and a few cornichons. The deviled eggs with bacon were much better, fluffy egg yolk with a square of maple glazed bacon on top. Service was reasonably attentive, a good balance of leave-us-alone and where’s-our-drinks?

So, second try at Urban Farmer, and we’re still not getting what the buzz is about. It’s a decent hotel restaurant and bar, but that’s about it.

That was it for Sunday. Four charcuterie boards down, one to go.

Monday:

Our last eating day in Portland–well, mine, anyway; Herself still had two lunches. Not much to discuss for the day:  a pleasant-enough Max ride to work and back; marginal box lunches. I think Herself either went to Chipotle (crunchy tacos; She knows She is a philistine about tacos, but that’s her choice) and/or St. Cupcake for savory pastries.

So, dinner. Friends had recommended Little Bird, which handily happened to be just up the street from our hotel. It has a great pedigree, having been founded by the owners of Le Pigeon, and the menu looked appealing. So it was a reasonably easy choice.

The room: Very 1890’s French bistro. High ceilings with tin tiles (or apparently so). Long, narrow room with a balcony over the bar and kitchen. Very Victor/Victoria.

Service was spot-on: at the elbow when we needed her; friendly without getting chummy, except when we initiated it; never doing the stupid “is everything okay?” sort of questions.

Since this was our last dinner in town, we went a little off our usual beat. Yes, of course we went for the charcuterie plate; where would the title of this post have been without that? Excellent, lots of flavor, etc., etc. Definitely recommended.

But where we went off course a bit was the second appetizer: marrow bones.

Oh, my.

If you’ve never had marrow bones and you are not vegetarian: get over it! You are missing out on a hidden treasure. Yes, it’s fatty, but you’re not making a meal of it, just enough to soak into some crusty bread. This course was also served with a little apricot preserves, which nicely mellowed into that warm fattiness of the marrow. It was a special, but highly recommended if it’s up when you are there.

Mains: She had the cauliflower crêpe, I had the hanger steak. The hanger steak was excellent, a nice, juicy piece served over a blue cheese soufflé, which would have been dry by itself but worked nicely with the juice from the steak. But it was Her crêpe that was the clear winner. Layers of chopped cauliflower, caramelized onions, egg, and mornay sauce, layered with crepes, then broiled until crispy on top. I am not normally drawn to meatless mains, but in this case, I might make an exception.

For desserts we had the pear tarte tatin and the bonbons de la maison. The pear tarte tatin is a very good tarte tatin, and the blue cheese ice cream is only vaguely blue cheese-flavored, so don’t let that put you off it. The bonbons were a nice selection, lots of chocolate but I seem to recall a couple without. Really nice with a glass of Fonseca port.

That was it. Five days, five meaty meals. A couple of new additions to our “well be back” list.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Rowles permalink
    Tuesday 20 December 2011 5:24 PM

    I swear your writing is going to make Debra and I get on a plane and come West just to hang out with you guys. Who said engineers can’t write!

    • Tuesday 20 December 2011 5:38 PM

      Thanks! We’d love to have you guys out! And we can definitely recommend where to eat!

  2. Debra Rowles permalink
    Wednesday 21 December 2011 4:24 AM

    I swear this is something I could see myself reading on my Kindle curled up under an umbrella on the beach…You need to publish Steve!!! I bet NPR’s website would love to publish this blog! Send it to them….oh please do!!!! And Merry Christmas to you and Herself!!! Hugs from Alabama!

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