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Been There, Done That

Monday 12 March 2012

We’re in PDX and the Bay Area again, hitting some favorite spots and a couple of new ones.

Why? Every so often, we get the need for an urban fix–a hit of concrete jungle and midtown madness. Ashland does what it does very well, and then some; great restaurants, some good shops, bars, and outstanding theater. But so many of the highlights of the area are concentrated there that we occasionally  need some new blood to keep the juices flowing.

Residents of Medford, Talent, and the other towns and cities in Southern Oregon, take no umbrage: each of your locales has it strengths. But Medford, the biggest city for 100 miles or more, is still no match for Portland, or Seattle, or San Francisco.

Readers of Seanan McGuire, no need to send the Prices or Covenant after us–”need some new blood” is a metaphor. Really. Put down the throwing knives, ‘mkay?

So off to Portland. It’s an easy flight from Medford, and as I wrote in prior posts, now that we’re comfortable with the Trimet system, it’s easy and cheap to get to and from the airport.

Our hotel again was The Nines. I get a company rate, which helps a lot. The Nines is a very fancy-looking hotel, with lots of marble, nice carpets throughout, and all mod cons. But it’s also a big party and meeting hotel; lots of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and company parties. With the Departure lounge grinding away on the top floor and the Urban Farmer bar thumping in time on 8, it’s not the place for a serene or early night’s sleep. But it is so well-located, right next to Pioneer Courthouse Square, that it’s hard to ignore that factor. We were literally one hundred steps or less from the westbound Red Line, and only a block from the eastbound, so the temptation to be night owls and go with the flow is tempting. Oh, and the WiFi is truly rank; I was getting under 200kbits per second with a 54Mbps link. Wired was okay for a hotel, about 5M up and down. Speedtest showed the node as being in Denver, which is weird; maybe it’s all routed through some corporate network. I don’t know, but I do know that my iPhone was getting faster service from the local 3G cell.

Anyway, we were there mostly to eat, and we were there to get an eating fix, so that’s what we focused on. Our first stop was Little Bird, where we had had such a good dinner on our way out of Portland last time. It’s very close to the hotel, and it’s open late, which makes it a great place for dinner when one is arriving late.

This time was again exceptional; again with the marrow bones and charcuterie plate, Herself had the steak tartare appetizer as an entrée; I had the trout with fish stew. The trout was actually filleted, de-boned, and the sautéed, flat, and then placed on top of the stew as a sort of (not so) fishy mortar board. We also had the pineapple tarte tatin, which was quite good.

So for lunch the next day…we are back at Little Bird. Why? Well, they’re also open for lunch, and their burgers were rumored to be very good (confirmed, but not the best I’ve ever, ever had). Herself scored big with the chicken confit, a leg of chicken with the skin crisped and the meat as tender as could be (a special, don’t look for it on the regular menu). It was served on a bed of…something, but who remembers when the main part of the dish is so good?

Dinner was at Grüner, the German restaurant that’s not a biergarten on 12th near Alder. They were able to hold the corner table for us (score!) and a bottle of the Jos. Christoffel Jr. that we had so enjoyed the last time (double score!) The service was again excellent, although we threw them a bit by not ordering right after they brought drinks (the wine); their team service system failed them when all the waiters acted as though they thought someone else had taken our order. Oh well.

First amazing thing: deviled eggs with horseradish in the filling, with the shell lightly pickled in a beet-based pickling sauce. Just a bit zesty from the horseradish, very good.

Second amazing think: the fried potato snack. The waiter described the process: whole, unpeeled fingerlings, boiled until just soft, then flattened to about an eighth of an inch thick, then fried. Heaven! Served with an aioli-that’s-not-quite-an-aioli, these were the dish we were thinking of having again, for dessert.

That concluded the snack portion of the menu. Then we went on to appetizers: Maultaschen, a dish of beef/pork/onion raviolis in a thin beef and chive broth, and the charcuterie plate (you can’t really be surprised by that). The Maultaschen may be our favorite thing now from the appetizer portion of the menu; really soft skins, meaty filling, and a broth with enough chive to add some bite. I could eat those as a very light entrée.

For mains we went with the spaetzle with guinea hen ragu, and the trout (yes, I know). The spaetzle was the winner here: tender, almost fluffy noodles; the sauce was less a sauce than simply chunks (or fillets) of guinea hen, bacon, and mushrooms (Herself eating mushrooms–go figure). The trout was again a de-boned fillet, sautéed, with sides (or unders?) of roasted carrots and a buttery sauce. We were happy with both.

For dessert, lightning did strike twice–they had a couple of splashes left of the Martin Pasler 2006 TBA that we had had last time, and (of course) the hazelnut-powdered donuts with the chocolate ganache for dipping. That pretty much wiped us out…

…until the next day, of course. I had a lunch work meeting (cold cuts and buffet salads), but we made up for that, in spades, with a trip to Genoa.  Genoa is a very different restaurant for Portland–it feels inside like a modern, upscale Eastern restaurant, that one would find in Georgetown or Capitol Hill. Lots of hanging sheets of sheer fabrics to separate the nominal lobby from the rest of the house; a modern fireplace with an old-school oval, gilt-framed mirror over it. Lots of dark, square-cut wood for the tables and service areas; sort of modern/urban-meets-old money.

This is another one of those places that changes their menu regularly, so forget about finding the same dishes we did. There was a very nice mortadella, with three different sauces (something rhubarb, very sweet; something gelled, a little tart; something green, maybe mint?). There was a pasta primi of pappardelle and rabbit, oh-so-good. There were secondi of chicken, part wrapped in Prosciutto, part braised in Sangiovese, and of lamb leg roasted rare over flageolet beans and mint leaves. To finish, there was (for Herself) a pear soufflé, which was Very Good, and a chocolate torte, which was also Very Good; both recommended if they are available. The wine pairings were interesting, and the waiter went into great detail about the provenance and history behind each vineyard. He apparently heard our joking reference to Portlandia that we made about the salad greens, and took it in stride, quipping that the goat who produced the milk for the cheese is named Toby, and feeds only on organic greens in an open-range living arrangement. The sommelier was somewhat brave with the selections; in particular, he chose a white that went very, very well with the lamb, when I was expecting a red. But the pairing was excellent, and I’d do it again.

On Friday we were again on our own recognizance for lunch, and having satisfied all our favorites (we were not up for carts due to the weather), we tried Blue Plate, near 3rd SW and Washington. It’s a tiny diner, with seating for maybe 20 or 25. The menu is very short: two specials, a small number of sandwiches and salads, and that’s all.

I went with the meatloaf plate with gravy and mashed potatoes, and a bottled Coke. Herself went with the much-recommend grilled cheese (with bacon, of course) and tomato soup. This is what might be called a daring choice for her, as she doesn’t like tomato soup (or sauce, for that matter). The meatloaf was three or four thick strips of meatloaf, with a good brown gravy. None of it was fancy, but all was very good, and made a nice change from the high falutin’ food we had been eating.

At the polar extreme from lunch was dinner at Castagna. This is a relatively new restaurant in Portland. Okay, it’s not really new–a restaurant called “Castagna” has been there for many years. But the change in format, from classic French and Italian to avant-garde MG has essentially created a new restaurant.

The menu had essentially two choices: the five course “regular” prix fixe menu, or the ten course “chef’s tasting” menu. We are planning to come back to Portland in not-so-long. A normal person’s thinking might have gone this way: “we should try the five course menu, and if it’s good, come back later for the ten course”. My thoughts run more like “just in case the Mayans are right and invading space aliens kill us all, we should do the ten course menu now”. So that’s what we did. Take that, invading space aliens!

Unless one makes a practice of seeking out MG restaurants, Castagna will definitely be one of the more unusual dining experiences one has. It doesn’t top Coi for sheer weirdness, where we were once asked to smell an essential oil before eating the dish served with it, for outright unusualness, but it’s up there. We had some excellent courses:

  • a piece of slate with squares of sturgeon, crème fraiche, gelled aquavit, and radish, all about as thick as a good piece of 20 pound bond paper;
  • “eggs” of foie gras, served as on a delicate tree branch;
  • pork jowl, flattened, coated with maple sugar and crisped, served on edge in slots a blacked log

Some of the courses were more conventional, and some had more obvious MG at work (lots of late courses with things frozen by liquid nitrogen.) Wine pairings were very good, although served with almost no descriptions, just the opposite of Genoa.

Would we go back? Yes, in a heartbeat. The novelty and unusual textures were exceeded by the quality of the preparation and the taste of each dish. This is no set of green kids with their first sous vide machine or liquid nitrogen bath; these guys know their stuff, and work their magic well. Ten years from now (or less), Castagna may be regarded as Portland’s answer to Manresa.

More to follow…


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