Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Diversion:PDX/ Metrovino

Mom picked the restaurant, in fact, with my sister's interest in mind. She wanted a vibey place... somewhere fun and popular, young and energetic. Luckily, Mom chose Metrovino, with which a brief glance of its menu similarly endeared me. It is Gregory Denton's debut solo spot, his first venture out since the tragic demise of Lucier, a restaurant which was destined to be Portland, Oregon's premier destination dining venture: a high-concept, high-priced luxury restaurant complete with Chihuly glass and renowned architect Rafael Vinoly. For this, I was intending on making a cross-continental flight out just to experience... except for that it closed before I could book a flight. Much of the fault for this, I believe, can be attributed to a certain Oregonian food journalist whose britches are apparently big, but horizons and palate comparably small. At any rate, Denton picked himself up by his bootstraps and launched Metrovino in the Pearl District of restaurantophilic Portland. If there's a scene to rival New York, it very well may be Stumptown.

Fresh off being voted Best Burger by the local newspaper The Willamette Week, Metrovino was enjoying a packed house that balmy Friday night. We had a party of seven, and thus took over a semi-private annex to the main dining room, cordoned off by heavy drapery pulled to each side, thick mahogany tables and large, pendulous lanterns that balanced the sunshine streaming in from floor to ceiling windows. After a notable but not wholly offensive delay, our orders were finally assessed. With our sizeable group, we started with two bottles: one red, one white, but skeptical Mom bypassed my suggestion for the Skouros Moscofilero in favor of a reliable Sauvignon Blanc. For the second bottle of white, however, (after everyone sipped and marveled over my glass) I got my way (I love being right). This is an exceptional bottle and very moderately priced. The extensive wine list is global, and spans the extremes of pricetagging. Also available is their Enomatic machine for by-the-glass options, which is a fantastic way of sampling an array of varietals while preserving the integrity of each.

Food-wise, we began with a charcuterie board, a butcher's block slab of wood literally groaning with an array of classic pates, terrines and salamis, pickled vegetables and some quirky novelties as well. Housemade pickles perked up the palate for the variety of charcuterie: a chunky tuna sausage drizzled with a syrup of Oregon blueberries, and crispy triangles filled with meltingly tender shred of short ribs. Roasted pistachios gave texture to a meaty pork terrine, a nice contrast to a silken pate smooth as fois. There were rillettes and beets and arugula with prosciutto, all too small, however, for more than three bites per item, thus leaving a large group such as ours to some fork-sparring for the most appealing looking morsels. It would make a winsome repast, however, to share with one or two others, paired with an entree or two to follow.

The chef's dexterity with charcuterie and prize-winning burger are telling precursors of the strengths of the rest of the menu. Denton likes his flavors robust and savorous, leading me to believe this place is going to be an absolute goldmine once a bit of autumn chill sets in. On a sparkling 90 degree summer day, however, some of the dishes seemed a bit weighty. An innocent sounding starter of sugar snap peas showcased a handful of oven-softened pods, roasted down to eliminate the toil of mastication, paired with confit mushrooms heavily dolloped with creamy ricotta and shaved flakes of salty pecorino, and doused in a faintly sweet, sumptuous reduction of saba and mint, rife with umami. A broccolini salad was also a stand-out, but again, no bikini-season fare. Charred sprigs topped with a crispy poached egg (how DID he do that?) whose rich yolk burst over the broccoli from the confines of its tender white, crisped golden on the outside. (And yes, that is a large, silver anchovy elegantly draped over the egg.) These are the kinds of vegetable treatments that I crave in the winter when the offerings are more scarce, but at the peak of harvest, some of the seasonal vibrancy gets lost in such hearty treatment. Nonetheless delicious for it, though, and it could definitely convince some vegephobes to convert. A lighter option (though a bit too sweet) was the tomato gazpacho, heartened with bay shrimp and avocado, and playfully bobbing with popcorn, the best bites of which included one of each.

Another pause dawdled along before our entrees arrived, the sunlight now cached and the room taking on a more serene vibe, but retaining the energy of the full house. There would be no burgers for us that night; the house puts out just fifteen of them (exclusivity of a wanted commodity seems to be a notable trend of the moment, where a finite quantity of a certain item brings 'em in, but "sold out" means no luck). And such was the case that evening, but then again, there are much more reliable sources on the nuances of burger perfection than I. But there are lots of options on this diverse menu. A halibut entree threw in some sugar snaps and morels, but then forgot it was early summer and surrendered to a hearty stew of lentils and chorizo, again making it a terrific fish dish... for December. A curry of sea
scallops featured four meaty mollusks, perfectly cooked if not particularly flavorful, in a bright green curry with peas and peanuts, the best bites of which were graced with a morsel of pickled onion (and benefited from a slight dash of additional salt). The best entree of the night may well have been Dad's pork chop (there we go with the hearty
victuals again), so tender and juicy it yielded to just a fork, glazed with maple and spiked with chili which also seasoned the accompanying roasted kale ( it IS July, no?) and an especially corny polenta (in the best possible way). Indigenous roasted hazlenuts crowned the chop for some added crunch, and in fact, Denton uses a variety of nuts in many of his dishes, which add some novel texture to some of his more traditional dishes.

The dessert menu arrived after, again, a tedious wait. At this point, energies were lagging amongst a group of primarily jet-lagged imports, and while there were several desserts that were screaming out to me, I couldn't roust to troops to hold out for the amount of time it would've taken to order and procure them (Farewell, sweet maple panna cotta with fresh berries and hibiscus... I wish I could have known thee...), as fannies and eyelids were becoming heavy (especially the sister's for whom the restaurant was chosen. Hmph. Just kidding, Jupes). Much of the aforenoted criticism might have been dispelled, as well, had there not been so much time to dwell on it between courses. The food suits the room which fits the chef which inspires the ambiance, and was there not so much downtime to consider contextual factors, any and all complaints may have gone unnoticed. That said, each dish for what it was was exceptionally good, and in a few months the incongruity with the weather will be a moot point. And when the typical Oregon cloudcover begins to roll in is when, I believe, Gregory Denton will really start to shine.

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