Monday, January 3, 2011


A dwindling number of Portland hotspots continue to remain open on Christmas Eve, so our options diminish or demand repeat visits. But Park Kitchen, a relative newcomer on the scene, wouldn't need need this as a qualifier in order to best much of the competition. Glistening, rain-slicked city streets border the stretch of park blocks framed by the huge windows in the dining room. The restaurant is divided into two sections as you enter a small vestibule at the bottom of a steep staircase leading to office space above. A bustly, livelier section enclosing the bar and a view of the open kitchen is found through the door on your right, while a slightly more formal, and definitely more spacious room is behind the door on the right, which was our destination. Both rooms are a bit spare of decor- lots of rough hewn wood and picnic-type tables and chairs. But the food is definitely the focus, so in addition to the very gracious service, any lack of design frivolity pretty much went unnoticed.

And of course, dinner on Christmas Eve isn't just any old meal. Normally the menu is broken down into small hot and cold plates, and large plates serving as entrees or shareable portions. This evening's offerings, however, included a prix-fixe with two choices among each of four courses, or a full chef's choice tasting menu. Given the size of our group, the tasting menu was really the most prudent choice… and it proved the most delicious one, too. As well the chef, Scott Dolich, has received well-deserved national acclaim , I was happy to put my stomach in his hands. We began simply, with small crostini smeared
with creamy goat cheese cradling a small pile of tender, sweet beets and a flounce of greenery: festively hued and achieving the creamy/crunchy/sweet/salty quadrifecta. A salad that had initially tempted me towards the prix-fixe menu happily appeared also on ours: a leafy toss of richly bitter radicchio, roasted shaved butternut
squash and crunchy pepita brittle sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Another salad would have been a worthy lunchtime main: fluttery leaves of butter lettuce and rare seared flank steak with blue cheese and tangy
sherried onions- which also signaled me to slow down (or rather, share more), given that we were barely through a quarter of the meal. Luckily, next arrived my least favorite dish (strictly a matter of personal preference), which was a bright salad of shaved fennel and juicy citrus, which was … um,
"poignantly" spruced up with a school of marinated anchovies I could have done without. My brother-in-law, however, channeled his inner Chinook and cleaned that plate almost single-handedly; anchovy lovers unite. (Thank god for divergent palates.) My chance to hog a bit came with the roasted beet salad,a lovely array of sunny golden beets and vivid orange segments tossed with baby greens, crumbles of goat cheese and a nutty toasted almond tahini. The night's all-around crowd-pleaser, however, had to be the jumbo-size chickpea fries. Garbanzos mashed and mixed with a little flour and confit onions, formed into long (a good eight inches!), rectangular planks and deep-fried to a golden umber outside, rendering the inside to a nutty, earthy, beany smoothness. Pair those with some of the sweetly pungent pumpkin ketchup and everyone wanted to take some home. Another fried delicacy was the salt cod fritters with malt vinegar. Breaking open their crunchy ochre crust released an aromatic puff of steam, revealing an impossibly creamy filling of oceany salt cod puree that literally sang when dribbled with its tangy vinegar sauce.

So maybe at this point we were just shy of halfway
through, with some of the best yet to come. A pork belly dish
(for all those pork belly afficionados) nuzzled a meaty quadrangle with toothsome turnips in a sweet, rich broth underneath a frizzle of crisp, julienned celeriac remoulade. More noteworthy,
however, was a stunning dish of porky meatballs in a buttery tomato sauce with cabbage and minced herbs. Neither of those, however, were technically main courses, as the final two arrived: seared black cod
on a bed a meaty pocha beans and melted cipollinis. The fish itself had a distinct fishy flavor, not wholly off-putting, but noticeable. (I prefer black cod steamed, which usually avoids bringing out that pronounced flavor). The last savory course was a
rarer-than-rare lamb with parsnips and trumpet mushrooms. By now, as I'm doing all this by memory, the details escape me, both a fault of an undocumented menu, an abundance of plates (too many of which were superlative), a lapse of time before writing this, and a vigorous appreciation of our Gruner Veltliner. But then came the desserts as defibrillators to my food coma. I'm not so much a chocolate person, but the
crust on the warm chocolate tart was like the cookie component of an Oreo on crack. Softly poached pear fanned out languidly on top of the rich, fudgy filling, spilling into a pool of cool pear puree dusted with a gingery crumb. Even better (is it possible?) was the molten apple crisp, a humble looking dish of hot, syrupy apple chunks beneath a nutty oaten crust with a meltingur-vanilla ice cream submitting to the oven-hot concoction below. I, who never partake of dessert without the bitter balancing cup of joe, hadn't room for even a single drop more. For the eight of us dining, there were three crisps and three tarts.. and there was nary a teaspoon of any of the crisps left post-facto.

It was an inordinate amount of food, compounded by the fact that each individual dish was so good you didn't want to stop eating it to save room for the next. But it was a holiday, after all, so it was not only merry Christmas to all, but bon appetit to all… and to all a good night.

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