Tuesday, January 25, 2011


"A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives you flowers." This ancient Chinese proverb is probably my favorite saying ever, and it's Michael White's newest restaurant, Ai Fiori, that is the incarnation of that bouquet. Located in a no-man's-land stretch of 5th Avenue just below Lord & Taylor, there is little else going on down the block. An unbroken stream of tchotchke tourist shops, fast food restaurants and chain drug stores taper off and is overcome by a glowing light of the Setai hotel, spilling out onto the sidewalk as you approach, and suddenly the ambiance of the mundane neighborhood transmutes into an entirely different experience. A uniformed doorman opens the door before you even realize he's seen you, and up you go to the staircase on your left into this most recent manifestation of White's culinary artistry.

The room is warmly lit, and bright spotlights mimic the way
sunlight filters through lofty tree branches in hours of gloaming. Flower and branch arrangements spring up throughout the dining room, and the motif continues with floral and nature-themed photographs. The sparsely populated dining room gave greater opportunity to admire the decor; at the early hour we arrived, only two other tables were seated. As the evening progressed, few more filled up. Part of this might be attributed to the temperature, topping out at about 16 degrees earlier in the day, and also that it was the first night ofRestaurant Week, in which Ai Fiori was not particpating, which I'm sure caused a dent in their reservation numbers. It's such a serene and inviting atmosphere, though, that the restaurant's emptiness was easily overlooked. That, in addition to the gracious staff, welcome and attentive (which well they should have been, given the workload for the evening). We perused the vast tome of a wine list, choosing a Dolcetta for the red and a spry little Muscat for white upon the recommendation of our dashing sommelier.

Briskly, a complimentary amuse-bouche was presented, a tall shot glass full of a frothy white soup our waiter described as... something unintelligible. I asked him to repeat it (twice) but any comprehension was lost in his thick Latin accent (Sencha? Like tea soup? . At any rate, it smelled heavenly, so instead of pestering him further we decided to figure it out ourselves. Bright, acidic notes of tart apple arrived first (good job, Luca) and I mused on the rest... turnip? No, artichoke! Oh, jerusalem artichoke... SUNCHOKE, not Sencha. It all made sense now. It might've been nice not to have to go through the guessing game, but in the end, it was rewarding to have independently nailed it with such precision. Then the empty glasses were whisked away, along with the impressive gilt chargers (you know those things are ex-pen-sive) and onto the main event.

I opted for the four course prix-fixe menu (really, a much better deal at $79 than a la carte), so I started light with a salad so lightly dressed I thought it
might levitate right off the plate. Any oiliness was indetectable, with just a perfect hint of sherry and salt, and surprisingly flavorful autumn greens. Striking leaves of Trevisano mingled with ruffly lettuces and thinly sliced wedges of pickled delicata squash and slips of sharp manchego so thin you could see through them. The kitchen shows mad dexterity with the mandolin, with many dishes augmented by ingredients sliced so impossibly thin you'd be afraid to break them- if it mattered. My companion chose sardines with ceci mille folie and a tomato confit so vivid in color it looked like ripe salmon roe.

Next up was Michael's strong suit: le paste. From the five on offer, the trofie nero stood out. And I'm glad it did, because when the inky twists arrived in their small, deep bowl, it was immediately obvious why he receives such accolades. The noodles were actually a little scary looking... in a slinky, seductive, even dangerous way. Or else like a slithering bowl of
glistening black worms, but either way it feels slightly scandalous to eat it... although a crime worth committing. Canoodling with the twisted squid-ink pasta were pearl-sized morsels of pristine scallops and curling tentacles of seppia, topped with a crunchy spritz of buttery spiced mollica (basically fried bread crumbs). Portions are the perfect mid-course size, supplying enough to fully appreciate all the layers of flavor but not enough to render your appetite defunct for the delicacies to come.

We both went for fish entrees, although in retrospect this is the perfect place for an occasional meat-eater to indulge in carne. Portion sizes are diminutive enough to avoid overstuffing, and he is really a master with the with heavier proteins. That said, he knows his way around the piscine, as well, having enough practice at the stellar Marea a mile north.
Branzino Nero a la plancha showcases three triangular medallions flanked by chorizo-stuffed piquilla peppers and slices of roasted fennel bulb. The skinned pepper comprised a flavor that wasn't my favorite, a bit mineral-heavy that reminded me of canned, and the stuffing was somewhat mushy, but the fish was expertly cooked, crisp of skin and tender of flesh, and the fennel was buttery and melting and sweet. Laid out on the plate, however, it was a bit of a study in geometry, and less gorgeous than all the other dishes we order or saw. A better option... nay, according to the NY Post, it is no less than The Greatest Dish in The World. Yes, people... the world. I wouldn't say that (I'm still partial to Psilakis), but this little plate was definitely the winner of the night. A butter poached lobster, hovering on that delicate edge of raw versus done, fork-tender and as white as the snow falling outside the big picture windows over 5th
Avenue. I actually sent it back to enjoy a little more time under the heat, as I still harbor a little sushi-anxiety and like my proteins cooked probably more than they should be. After asking whether it was adequately cooked, our server checked with the kitchen and answered in the affirmative, but said they would be more than happy to give it a little more fire if I preferred. Which I did, so they did, and it was all the better for it. (Service here is grand that way.) Regardless of your predilection of doneness, this dish is exceptional. Buttery Chateau Chalon sauce with a just a gentle lemony tang and tinge of white wine coddles chunks of lobster meat and a precious array of the tiniest root vegetables. Were plate-licking acceptable, it would have been justified, but instead any of the four varieties of dainty little rolls (I liked the seven grain) lessen the shame in mopping up that sauce.

Our waiter offered to replenish our wines for the third or fourth time, making it feel as if, especially on such a slow night, they were a bit desperate to fleece our tab by pushing the vino a little too enthusiastically. But soon they brought what we really wanted: the dessert menu. While there is a selection of a carefully curated cheeses, I prefer to investigate the talents on the sweet side. Deciding between a bright vacherin with persimmon and Meyer lemon, and a somewhat enigmatically titled Mandorle-Cremeux, we decided on the latter, richer option, befitting of the wintery clime.
Plus, what couldn't be wonderful about something basically called "almond creaminess"? What appeared before long was a small puck of thick white chocolate almond custard, with a cheesecake-like richness, bedecked with chewy morsels of candied citrus, tiny balls of juicy apple flesh and a drizzle of rosemary olive oil. A quenelle-shaped dollop of deep purple cassis sorbet is anchored atop by ribbons of apple, razor-thin and coaxed into curls. Even my white chocolate-averse dining companion swooned.

So Chef White appears to be continuing with his string of successes, even after having severed ties from his original pair which he left to his prior partner, Chris Cannon. How this taxed economy can support such lofty establishments still confuses me, but if anybody is able to pull it off, it is White. It's funny to imagine such a big guy, his sturdy fingers finessing such delicate creations, coming up with this precious food. But I'd guess some of his potency stems from the adage: his food feels like a gift (albeit one your pay significantly for), and the perfume that remains with him the sweet smell of success.

Ai Fiori
400 5th Ave, New York

Phone: (212) 613-8660

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Blaue Gans

Expectations have an enormous effect on restaurant experiences. My familiarity with chef, Kurt Gutenbrunner, harkens back to a memorably good dinner at Wallse', an elegant, upscale Austrian bistro in the West Village. His reputation is strong, his experience vast, and his empire expanding. I perused the website prior to visiting Blaue Gans, so I felt like I had a decent grip on the experience to be had. This, unfortunately, did not turn out to be the case. Had I been aware of what kind of a joint this place is, I might just have opted elsewhere; I am, admittedly, not the best judge for a place that designates itself a wirstshaus. But the website was deceptively sophisticated, the photographed dishes primarily exceptions to a more rustic and meat-centric menu. (http://kg-ny.com ... Tell me what you think.) Somewhat limited by that in selection, I still tried to get a good take on what Gutenbrunner was doing here. And mostly I felt like he was probably paying more attention to his newly opened and hyper-buzzy Cafe Kristall.

The room is sparse, containing much of the decor left by its predecessor , Le Zinc. It suits a sausage-and-beer house more aptly than the aesthetic I had gleaned from the website, too; I almost expected to see gritty sawdust strewn across the unfinished hardwood floors when I looked down. But appearances can be deceptive, so we tucked into ordering as best we could. but not quite knowing whixh choices might be strongest. Thus, we opted from both ends of the spectrum. Beet salad with arugula was nicely executed, a zippy tangle of greens, lightly dressed, teamed up with sweet, tender beets. A more interesting salad option might be the red cabbage with apples, or bibb lettuce with pumpkin seeds, but I'm still trying to trying to overcome my apparent beet addiction. Fresh herbed spatzle was pretty generic, the dumplings perfectly cooked but dressed in a bland, creamy sauce scant of vegetables and bereft of herbs. And salt, for that matter, a sprinkle of which improved things substantially, but didn't elevate the dish much higher than buttered noodles.

The best bargain on the menu might be the Wurst Platter, at $18 for four impressive sausages nestled in a hearty bed of expert sauerkraut... not that acrid, bitey stuff you might have encountered prior, but luxurious, meltingly tender cabbage, slightly sweet and buttery rich with just a punch of vinegar to augment the cabbage's vegetal edge. Two generous dollops of mustard (one exquisite honey-sweet, the other a sharp grainy Dijon) flank a small haystack of finely shredded, snowy white horseradish. Turns out to be an inordinate amount of food, and quite nominally priced compared to the rest of the menu. Less satisfying was a wild striped bass with cauliflower, golden raisins and pignoli. The small florets of cauliflower remained noticeably firm, while they would've melded into the dish effortlessly had they been roasted along with the fish, which itself had a pronounced fishy flavor, as if yesterday or prior it might have also been on offer. Surrounding the fish puddled a rather insipid brothy sauce, not particularly flavorful of anything... maybe a thin cauliflower broth or a watered down bechamel, which was then aerated to a foam of nothingness sort of purposelessly deposited on top. The raisins just stood out as chewy. I can reimagine the dish, though, as how I was expecting it to appear, with toasted sprigs of tender cauliflower whose earthiness balanced the sugary raisins, plumped in the juices of the fish, and maybe a lofty puree of the creamed crucifer beneath. That was what I would've wanted from this place. Instead, the food came acoss a bit too plain.. all of the austere and less of the Austrian. Brussels sprouts with bacon should have been listed Bacon with brussels sprouts. Leafed-out little cabbages belied their scant volume; there were probably five entire sprouts there, deceptively puffed up in salad form, but there was a least one littlecubed lardon for each separate leaf of sprout, which for me, was painfully disproportionate. I guess a bacon fiend would rejoice. I can't figure out for the life of me why, as chefs scourge the planet and harvest prematurely just to procure baby vegetables, they insist on messing around with the one that nature created perfectly. Leave the brussels alone. Halve them, score them, but don't destroy their meaty texture by turning them into a pile of leaves.

If ever a dessert was to set things straight, however, raspberry nockerl stepped up to the plate. Three sumptuous mounds of marshmallowy meringue, perfectly golden and and smooth that would make the Taj Mahal blush. Underneath hovers a somewhat skimpy smear of raspberry compote, but brightly flavorful to compensate. Apple strudel is another crowd-pleaser. Our server informed us that a lot of people return after dinners elsewhere, solely to enjoy one of those two desserts. Which, in retrospect, might be a phenomenon that the chef should investigate a little more thoroughly.

Blaue Gans
139 Duane Street

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

ILILI: Lebanese Hedonism

There's no question Philippe Massoud can cook. I've sampled evidence at Meatopias (www.meatopia.org) of yore, from juicy grilled lamb shawarma to a two and a half years-ago memorable carrot and tahini salad with black sesame. So I was expecting great things from Ilili, his midtown Mediterranean hotspot that's no newcomer to New York's restaurant scene. Still, I hadn't been there personally, so I took a frigid winter night as opportunity to get the whole picture. The restaurant itself was surprisingly gigantic. For some reason, I had fathomed it a more boutique atmosphere. Instead I found myself within New York's Spice Market/Buddhakan/ Matsuri/(Carmine's?) of Middle Eastern cuisine.

The giant space is riddled with tables and compartmentalized rooms; little off-set nooks have more private tables, and a walled-off room adjacent from the bustling center scene offer even more. A mezzanine floats above, allowing even more seating (Note: on a busy night such as it was, the restaurant looked none so austere as these photos, stolen from their website. It was as laden with bodies, coats and noise as were the plates with sauce and spice.) I'm guessing that the sheer volume of potential diners taxes the quality of the food that is put out. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to afford much more attention to detail dealing with these kinds of numbers. We were seated in the back of the back, at a wobbly, shadowy-cursed little table with a prime view of the shuttle-system of food-laden and emptied plates, and easy access to the restrooms a stone's throw further. It had to be the worst table in the restaurant, but I'll not let that influence me too much. I am used to enjoying better seating arrangements, but it's not the point for which I visit a restaurant. The point is the food, and I wish I could be more complimentary about how it panned out.

Ilili is touted as modern Lebanese with Mediterranean accents, which describes it to a tee. It's not authentic anything, and it can be wildly tasty, but in a sort of indulgent, careless way. I suppose other people eat at dodgy Chinese joints or even splurge on a burger-and-fries for this kind of satisfaction. I just don't normally tend to frequent places like that, so for me, this (expensively) fills that niche. Everything is powerfully seasoned, rigorously cooked, lavishly sauced, highly spiced, generously salted, and for the most part, indulgently tasty. It is just that, given Massoud's pedigree and capability, I expected something a little more nuanced- a little more thoughtful. Truth be told, it felt a little sloppy.

But like Jean-Georges who lets the precision quality of most of his establishments peter out as they gain in popularity, so has Ilili (if it ever began as such). The joint was bumpin'. The restaurant is packed with people packed into tables packed with food. And some of it is quite good, in a hedonistic way. We wanted to order smattering of several dishes, as I inferred was the point to themezze-style menu. But the servings were too large to warrant ordering so wantonly (as was the table too small to handle any more than three plates at a time), unless a doggie bag, or excessive amounts of wasted food, are viable alternative. Or if you're coming here with a group. A large group. In fact, if you come here, I highly recommend you do just that; enlisting the troops is the only way to really successfully navigate this menu. We began with Arnabeet Mekle , uber-roasted cauliflower with chili, mint and labne tahini. The latter is slathered thickly on the plate, a finger's width deep and drizzled with oil. I take this like I'd take French fries- a couple of florets are drool-worthy. A whole plate is Tums-worthy. The infamous brussels
sprouts ("You went to Ilili? Did you get the brussels sprouts? OMG!") read the same; there was little brussel-sprouty about them. There was, on the other hand, a lot salty, creamy, walnutty, and fruity about them. Nothing shy in flavor, but barely retaining its membership to the vegetable family. The majority of dishes follow this suit: copious amounts of labne, hummous, tahini are ubiquitous. Beef and lamb have a strong showing as well, from tartares to kebabs to meatballs, sausages, steaks and chops. We couldn't miss the highly touted Lobster Hummous, however, although it again reiterated the same flavors we incurred over and over. Beautiful nodes of meaty lobster and a few token mushrooms are somewhat lost in a rich hummous, made even unnecessarily richer with a luxurious daub ofbeurre monte'. If there are more spartan dishes lurking somewhere in the menu, we didn't encounter them.

After this, we really were at the point of no return.... so we ordered dessert. This was mostly just out of curiosity (we hadn't even finished the entrees), to see if perhaps a lighter turn was taken for finishing things up (plus, I was tempted by the "liquorish" in the Kalabij Halab). Turned out tobe thick, shortbread-style pistachio biscuits (four of them) perfumed with orange peel and served with a bowl of licorice-scented soft marshmallow. Because exactly what we needed at this point was more creamy, gooey, sugary decadence to nail shut the coffin. There really are no "light" desserts, except for a sorbet selection, but even with that they make you choose three.

Not that any of this is catergorically bad; it just wasn't the cleaner, truer Middle Eastern that I was expecting. This is no Mediterranean-diet Mediterranean. But judging from the popularity of the place, it is entirely impervious to any of my criticisms. Even I wouldn't not go back, if I could figure out some of the less sauced-up options, or else had an occasion with a big enough group to join forces with. In either case, I'd wear a looser belt.

236 5th Ave
(Btwn 27th & 28th St)

Phone: (212) 683-2929

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Sometimes when you follow the chef, you pay no attention whatsoever to what the restaurant you're going to is all about; you just trust the man at the helm. Or in this case, the woman. And normally you're not going to encounter anything much that would throw you off.... a restaurant being a restaurant being a restaurant, and all. Well, I'll attribute my stint in Portland as to why I wasn't in on the buzz around The Darby, a buzz which is simply electric. At any rate, I ended up there sort of spur of the moment. I called to make a reservation (ah! New York! A city that will actually hold a table for you), and effortlessly procured a two-top, prime-time. I had actually tried here once before a few weeks back, only to be told that there was nothing available. So this time the facility of reserving actually gave me some hesitance... was The Darby not living up to the hype? We arrived at the restaurant to find the joint practically empty, with only two tables seated. More reason for pause. But the restaurant itself inspired surprise of a different sort. Dimly lit (dark, actually) and swanky, swathed in a metallic webbing across
the floors and ceiling, the room exudes a modern take on 1940's glamour and speakeasy sexiness. Glittering chandeliers of slinky silver chains drip from above, and flittering votive candles reflect their flickering light across the myriad shiny surfaces. We were seated just stage left of a swinging four piece band, who in the middle of their set, were creating a jubilant but cacophonous soundtrack for the evening. Luckily, as our waitress informed us, they played in spurts, so conversation COULD be had... it just had to wait for their set breaks. It was great once we knew what was going on, but a bit daunting given the impression that there was going to be zero audible conversation to be had throughout the night without yelling. And as it turned out, the music is fantastic. The glitzy decor starts to really make sense as soon as the evening's entertainment, singer Ron Grant, laid into some of his bluesy funk. The night was off to an exceptional start... and we hadn't even ordered yet.

With all the emphases on the live music and the gorgeous decor, I was a little fearful that the food might take second fiddle. I needn't have worried. Our waitress, however her sparkling eyes and dazzling smile suited the atmosphere, recited verbatim practically the entire menu, as if they were specials.... of which there are none. At first I peeled my ears against the music's volume and tried to determine if there was some difference between what she was saying and the printed matter in front of me, but as there was none, I just tuned her out and enjoyed some pre-prandial tunes. I still can't figure out why they
would have her (or why she took it upon herself) to reiterate the menu, but I suppose I'm getting away from the point. Alex Guarnaschelli, whom I initially met at Butter (still hers as well), presides over The Darby, offering an updated array of American classics (all of which are on the menu- your server will tell you nothing new). It's a simple enough menu with some luxurious flourish. We
started with the yellowfin tuna with fois gras on toast... thick, toasty bread cut into four generous chunks, slathered with fois and silky slices of lightly cured tuna. Easily a shareable appetizer. Raw is popular, with both a steak and a tuna tartare, daily special oysters, caviar service, as well as a small selection of charcuterie.
It will behoove you to embrace that the prices include the entertainment, because they might otherwise incur a bit of sticker-shock.

Main dishes are bereft of many sidekicks. Despite the '40's fabulousness, you'll find no meat and two sides. Colorado rack of lamb consists of two meaty ribs, juicy and plump, but little else on the plate. An afterthought of eggplant caponata cushions the meat, but there is barely enough to accompany each bite of lamb with a spoonful. The meat doesn't need much help, though; in terms of flavor, it can hold its own. Roasted beets from the side dish menu would round this out well. Grilled striped bass is similarly lonely on its plate, though its perfectly crisp skin is bedecked with gem-like pomegranate seeds and a ruby-tinged mince of crunchy rutabaga. I was glad for the brussels sprouts I ordered alongside, especially since they were buttery, nutty little devils, tender inside but their outer leaves crisped like chips. The bill can mount up, though, so try to opt for one of their more reasonably priced wines if you're tippling. There are two $100 dishes for two, and Mr. Cutlets himself raved about the Lobster Newburg over the seared dry-aged Tomahawk Steak (rest assured if Josh Ozersky prefers something over the meat that it must have something special going on). Not cheap, though, and we preferred to save a few pennies on regular entrees... and then blew them on dessert.

The dessert menu reads straight out of Joy of Cooking, First Edition. Classic American confections, but these too are tweaked. Each night offers up a Cake of the Day (this evening's was red velvet), but we were between the candied apple tart and the Baked Alaska. They just seemed too appropriate to surpass... so we ordered both. (The Darby inspires this kind of abandon.) The small, round tart is baked with four different kinds of local apples, each was its own particular flavor but enriched by a sticky, syrupy caramel glaze. A moat of custardy cream pools beneath- an a la mode where the melting's been done for you. All that's left to do is inhale it, which is easy enough. As for the Baked Alaska, it arrives like the world's cutest snowball, a little igloo crust
around a smooth, sassy orb of lemon sorbet. Its meringue shell of carefully piped florets, which looks like a tightly clustered mountain laurel, is baked to a soft, golden brown... and that's before they light it on fire. The mini-inferno is fleeting, but this is all part of the show. Which, at The Darby, is just the beginning of its magic.

The Darby
244 W 14th St, New York 10011
Phone: (212) 242-4411

Diversion:PDX/Cafe Castagna

The night after visiting Cafe Castagna, my dad (only sort of jokingly) asked me to go back all the way across town just to bring him another one of the bread puddings we had devoured. And while he was waxing poetic on dessert, I wished I had leftovers of my roasted shrimp with chickpeas to enjoy again... and again. Castagna was voted Best Restaurant in 2011 by The Oregonian's Diner, and has experienced much change from its opening over ten years ago. It now finds itself in the capable hands of chef Matt Lightner, who is enjoying accolades near and far. During the busy holiday season in which we were amidst, I couldn't justify another fancy dinner out, but I made a convincing enough argument to visit Cafe Castagna, its less formal counterpart housed at the same address. It seems that many of the buzzy Portland restaurants are concentrated in this south east section of the city, a previous no-man's land, probably much like was the East Village in New York (or EVERY dingy nabe in New York) which now hosts one of the city's most bustling restaurant scenes. The glowy light of the restaurant cast a warm aura onto the slushy sidewalks outside, a harbinger of the softly lit dining room with walls painted golden. An airy mobile dangled from the ceiling, echoing the shadows of bare-branched winter trees that cast their silhouettes on the translucent windows in front . A table was immediately available (yes, of course, no reservations taken for parties smaller than five), mostly due to the early hour. Still, every table remained filled throughout the course of the evening, for all the good reasons to follow.

The menu is extremely well-priced, even by Portland (as opposed to New York) standards. For the exquisite flavors, thoughtful preparations, beautiful platings and substantial portions, the price points are astounding. (Perhaps they make some of it up by the upscale mother restaurant next door?) A steaming puree of celeriac soup, in a bowl deep and wide, arrived drizzled with a spiral of creme fraiche and floating tiny brioche croutons, crunchy and light, sprinkled with green onion. Roasted beets came soused
in a mustardy puree paired with pristine sprigs of mache (ah, my favorite salad green!), untossed, so that the delicate lettuce didn't succumb to the substantial dressing. I am always so thankful for a beet dish NOT paired with goat cheese (it's a true, but predictable combination), and this one was exemplary. The most expensive starter is a half dozen oysters at $16, but some, like roasted shrimp with chickpeas, or calamari with chorizo (both $13), are big and robust enough to pair with a side dish as a main course. Five jumbo roasted shrimp mingle with a generous dose of meaty chickpeas in a rich, oily tomato sauce, flecked with minced emerald green herbs. Be sure to use the sliced baguette to mop up the sauce (skip the kitschy little pats of foil wrapped butter... I guess they're saving the good stuff for next door).

Speaking of main courses, the burgers (eleven measly dollars) were literally flying out of the kitchen; there must have been one at every table but ours, skinny little golden fries tumbling off the plate in their excess, tantalizing burger-less bystanders. I must learn to overcome my aversion to sandwiches for dinner, or else tote along more Josh Ozersky-types as eating companions (although I doubt he'd share a bite). At any rate, their highly acclaimed popularity was more than well-illustrated on this particular evening. Other entrees maintain a modest disposition, but are more sophisticated in practice. A house-made garlic sausage didn't burn with garlic, but with pungent horseradish, nestled on a bed of braised cabbage, fragrant with lardons, and joined by some roasted fingerlings. It's a typical choucroute type of dish, but a little less rustic . In the same vein was a humble zuppa di pesce, which arrived in an unexpectedly creamy broth, fragrant with leeks and saffron. A buttery filet of meltingly soft white fish folded itself the seafood-laden soup, touting a jauntily perched crouton with a generous slather of lemony aioli. So much seafood and such nuanced flavor for couple of Jacksons... and only a cassoulet at $25 and a flat iron steak at $22 were any pricier. Side dishes aren't required to fill out any of the entrees, which come with their fare share of accoutrements, but with such reasonable prices, any of them will be another $6 well spent. The brussels sprouts with bacon were irresistable little nuggets of nutty vegetable flavored with smoky bacon and a nice over char. I had to fend off too many forks invading these; I wanted them all.

The crowning glory of the dinner, however, may just have been its finale. None of us needed dessert (I mean, honestly, to you ever need dessert?), but one look at the menu convinced my dad that there was one more course to be had. Bread pudding, when available, is strictly forbidden to be overlooked. After a slight delay (we were wondering if they were baking the bread to be baked into the pudding? Or perhaps grinding the flour?), it arrived like a pillow on a plate. An eggy, ethereal cloud of the tenderest brioche, with barely detectable cubes at one with the sweet custard. It spooned up more like a souffle than your average pudding, caramelized on top to a rich, golden brown and dusted with a flounce of powdered sugar. We requested it a la mode with a scoop of their house-made vanilla ice cream. If you blinked you might have missed this dessert entirely; it was gone as quickly as three spoons could navigate their way from plate to mouth and back.

The whole night unfolded under the watchful eye of the owner, Monique Siu, who circulates through the adjoined restaurants to ensure everything is going smoothly. She exudes a motherly calmness, and it was so nice to see her proudly at the helm of just a successful venture. She handpicked Lightener to oversee both restaurants, and it appears to be a match made in heaven. If my experience at the Cafe is an accurate indication of his talent (and I'm doubtless it is), I'm anxious for the opportunity to see what is happening next door, whatever the price.

1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd. corner of Poplar Street
Portland, Oregon 97214

Monday, January 3, 2011


Olympic Provisions is the quintessential Portland restaurant of 2010. A snarky, understated, bare-bones celebration of carnivorey. (M)EAT flashes in marquis block letters as you enter through the old fashioned wooden door, past the meat hook coast hangers on the painted wall, and into the cement-floored, bare-beamed, garage-like "dining room". A long counter separates the cooking from the eating, but because of the limited number of tables and inescapable no-reservations policy, you're as likely as not to catch a seat there, which puts you about two and half feet away from your meal throughout its preparation. As an added bonus, you can ogle the chefs' exquisite tatooage, another Portland standard. There is also a narrow communal table towards the far end, but it stands chairless, as will you if you opt to dine there. Now, I'm all for minimalism, but I do like to be seated to enjoy my meal. I can eat standing up at the kitchen counter at home (though probably rarely this well), which made the bar a more appealing option.

There are no cocktails (probably that would be deemed a little frou-frou for this restaurant/market), but the wine list is positively enormous. I was drawn to an unfamiliar Picpoul de Pinet solely by the way the charming name rolled off the tongue, and our super-friendly, highly knowledgeable and helpful server recommended it as well. Coincidentally, the word means "lip-stinging", because of it's voluptuous lemony tartness. I could not stop saying the name all night. We started off with a cute little plate of pickly things: some ribs of rhubarb which made nice finger food, sweet bread and butter chips, crunchy onions and traditional cornichons. They're a good balance for the rich little bites of cheese and a variety of salumi and charcuterie listed individually for making up a personalized antipasto-type starter. A side of cold, citrus-spiked beets came next, teamed with chunky green olives and buttery quartered avocados. These were the best of the veggie dishes on hand that evening, the rest of which failed to enjoy the same indulgent love as the cooked dishes and meats. Brussels sprouts were a bit disappointing, frankly: a voluminous haystack of leafed-out sprouts mingling with more of those olives and juicy thin slices of sunchoke dressed with anchovy vinaigrette. It was a perfectly acceptable salad, admittedly, but unexpectedly raw, and thus dousing all the anticipation of the deeply roasted, hearty little cabbages I was jonesing for. We had considered also a side of lacinato kale, but upon its deliverance to another diner, saw that it, too, was a raw chiffonade and opted against. I guess one could appreciate the minimalist preparations as a refreshing counter to the more substantial courses, but I found them wanting. Notably, I now see some more interesting options under the Vegetable Dish section of the menu online, like braised turnips and seared leeks, but none were on offer that night. Perhaps the chef read my mind.

On a higher note (like, Mt. Hood high) comes the kitchen's proficiency with meat and heat. Rich, stewed octopus in tomatoey sauce thick with beans and bacon arrived steaming from its earthenware bowl. I wanted more bread for the sauce.... as well as just more of the dish, period, even though it was of reasonable proportions. Just as wonderful was a meaty sugo topped with crisped cubes of firm polenta and a generousshaving of grana. Speaking of proportions, this was an inverted take on a traditional polenta al sugo, featuring the saucy meat (meaty sauce?) and using the humble cornmeal as an accoutrement. Our server recommended just two dishes per person, but looking back, I think that didn't include the vegetable ones, and I felt like I definitely had room for more food after what we ordered here. I saw the roasted cod destined for someone else's plate, as well as a ground lamb with Moroccan flavors, that I would definitely return for. Even a chicken with braised greens, beans, lemon and chile would warrant a repeat visit, and that is CHICKEN. I never order chicken. But it looked amazing. Instead, we utilized our remaining appetite to enjoy a delightful citrus tart, plump with lemon curd in a buttery crust and topped with impossibly juicy wedges of grapefruit and mandarin orange, and festively sprinkled with glimmering pomegranate seeds. Another tempting option was a scoop of dense black walnut ice cream, served affogato-style in a warmed vin santo... that just might serve as dessert if and when I get back to order that chicken.

107 SE Washington St.
Portland, OR 97214