Friday, August 31, 2012


Following, I am, true to form.  From MetroVino, where I was not only impressed by Greg Denton's food, but by the amicable chef himself, I tracked him to his relatively new venture, Ox.  Not far from two of my other favorite Portland haunts, Toro Bravo and Ned Ludd, this North Portland nabe is quickly becoming a haven of deliciousness.  Described as "Argentine inspired Portland food", Ox isn't ascribing to be an authentic South American grill, but instead conjoining the best of both worlds to a current and festive end.

We sat in a skylit backroom adjunct to the main dining room, just adjacent to the woodfired stove, which pumped out heat that we couldn't feel, but was readily evident in the beaded foreheads of the chefs manning the grill.  The dining room was full upon our arrival, and the annex where we sat soon the same.  No reservations for parties less than six, so don your blue wig, or perhaps bide your time at Whey Bar next door, the jovial drink hall primarily opened up as a holding tank for waiting diners.

Ox features not only the obvious prime carnivorous options, but also a wealth of uniquely prepared produce- that which the ox would till.   Ox is just fancy enough to begin our repast with a complimentary amuse: a delectable chilled potato soup drizzled with chive oil, cool and mildly peppery.  We ordered three dishes from Del Huerto (the garden), two of which we chose to arrive as starters, a bi-bean salad composed of green beans and romanos, bedecked in shaved radishes and those indigenous Oregon filberts (hazelnuts) nuzzled in a delectable romesco featuring those nuts instead of the classic almonds.  Another could've practically sufficed as a small meal: blistered (and they truly were) padron peppers (alert! there were

 some spicy ones in there!) topped a hearty bowl of pochon beans stewed with grilled Ox Garden tomatoes slicked with a rich lemon mayonnaise.  Salty and zesty and creamy and rich and bowl-lickingly good.

With a name like Ox, we had to try an undebatably carnivorous option: flanken-style beef short rib differed from the more common braised preparation, perhaps sacrificing some tenderness that a slow braise accomplished, but heightening the true beefy intensity of this meaty cut.    Selections from the Asados section of the menu are served simply with bread and a bracing chimichurri sauce, wonderful for anointing the meat but just as good to absorb with the chewy, crusty bread.  A Flintstonian T-Bone of wild Alaskan

 halibut might've outmeated the meat, though.  This behemoth cut charred like pitch but flaked like snow, crusted with a savory rub and almost comically decorated in delicate edible flowers, which just emphasized its stature.  Served alone, these Asados demand some accoutrements- not to beef them up (no pun intended) but to round things out.

  The ash roasted Walla Walla sweet mingled with buttered snap peas in a luxurious sauce enriched with fourme d'Ambert blue like no peas 'n pearl onions your mom ever made.  It paired especially well with the short ribs.   A maitake mushroom with smoked salt (which could be supersized as an entree) celebrated the mushroom's earthy flavor, simply sprinkled with chives and bachelor's buttons.  I liked it with the halibut, and plus, their flowers sort of matched.

On the cheffier side are a category of Braises & Roasts, more "one plate" type of options from which I tried a sautee of scallops, clams and mussels in a sumptuous puttanesca sauce fortified with roasted fennel and potatoes.  It didn't need anything aside except a wide spoon and a big appetite.  Made sure none of the remaining bread went to waste with it, too.

Chef Denton's wife, Gabi, is in charge of pastry, and I'm not sure whether Greg is more exuberant about his own cooking or the sweet finales she creates.  The restaurant seems to discourage you at all costs from leaving before dessert, and be sure to heed their commands.  A crowd favorite is the Magic- a nostalgic elevation of the grocery store novelty, Magic Shell.  Intensely dark chocolate armors a scoop of robust roasted peach-blackberry sorbet, surrounded by a battalion of exquisite summer fruits, the blackberries and cherries big as walnuts, the peaches would've required a sink had you been eating them out of hand.   For my part, however, I must wax poetic on the Torte- a warm hazelnut brown butter blondie with orgasmic honey-chamomile ice cream and a towering shard of crisp, sweet honeycomb.  Certainly we were too full from dinner to finish them, but then somehow they were gone.

The menu descriptions are simple, but the food here really is anything but.  No tweezers, no, or foams or pearls, but profoundly satisfying flavors and exciting tweaks of genius.  The name might lead you to expect a steakhouse vibe, but there is a tremendous lot more going on here than just that.  Even the humble slogan, "Argentine inspired Portland food" leaves something out; it should read "Argentine inspired GREAT Portland food".

2225 NE Martin Luther King Boulevard
5 'til close/Tuesday through Sunday

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


A view out the front window.
Funny thing that one of New York's press darlings of the moment is helmed by a Portland-based chef, Matt Lightner's Atera (previously reviewed here:  So back in Portland, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see where his magic began to effloresce at Castagna, now in the deft charge of Justin Woodward.  And magical it is, but strikingly different.   Where Lightner's intrigue tends hauntingly mysterious, Woodward's artistry exudes a brilliant lightness.  Of course, some of this is due to the seasons of my visits, where Portland is now at the height of summer productivity and my Atera visit occurred just as New York was emerging from a dank winter hibernation.   Still, it is an attribute that is a welcome respite to Portland's 37.5 inches of annual rainfall.     

The dining room is pale and soothing, in creamy tones of ivory and moss, with a muted soundtrack played perhaps even too softly.  This palette provides a perfect neutral backdrop for Woodward's food, which often comes bedecked in vivid edible flowers or whorls of brilliantly hued herb reductions.  The owner, Monique Siu, keeps a keen eye over the scene, but the waitstaff themselves hardly need guidance.  Their synchronized pacings flow like they were choreographed, with ready answers and grace, and are seemingly as content to be there as you are.  

Castagna offers and a la carte menu, but I opted the ten course (plus, with Woodward's compliments) chef's menu (also available vegetarian with 24 hours notice), an experience I couldn't recommend more.  You will not suffer, of course, by going the traditional app/dinner/dessert route, but there is such whimsy and levity in Woodward's dishes that trying as many of them as possible seems the most rewarding tactic.  I was tempted by the Wine Pairing option, but, flying solo, and thus driving myself home, one glass would have to suffice.  It was a spectacular Rioja Blanco (who knew?), lush, crisp and  clear.

A series of snacks began my repast, my favorite of which was an ethereal button of buttermilk meringue which dissolved like an evanescent dairy cloud to reveal an unctuous tarragon emulsion within.    Next, a mild shock of deja vu eventually subsided from the savory disc of granola: apparently this is one of the dishes Matt adopted from Justin to use at Atera.  It was identical but for a jewel-like droplet of rosehip puree atop.

 Two delicate caraway crackers perched akimbo shielded a rich smear of duck liver puree underneath a flounce of crisp clover sprouts, perhaps a nod to a duck's natural forage.  A crisp furl of bright green, tart apple spooned around a creamy dollop of dense yogurt, a refreshing interval that bridged sweet and savory.

Cucumbers with yogurt and nasturtiums
Dungeness consomme
The first real course arrived next, a parapet of seeded cucumber chunks lanced with shards of freeze dried yogurt, with tiny parasols of nasturtiums leaves and petals hovering to protect their precious interior.   Woodward alleviated the menu version of the too lightly-cypress-cured salmon (per my request of no raw fish) with zero disservice to the final product.  Preferences like these are executed effortlessly.  A Dungeness crab consomme set to a delicate, creamy aspic with one gobbet of crabmeat across from another of tender New Zealand spinach, decorated with sprigs and florets of fennel.
Shrimp, radish, lime, melon
A transluscent sheath of frozen sheets of bracing lime hooded mild bay shrimp nestling with thinly sliced radish and and juicy melon.  So far, all the intensity of flavors were presented with a cool, refreshing lightness.  My appetite was still provoked with each dish, rather than compromised- a good thing with still over half the courses yet to discover.

Parmesan water being poured a table.
I think my favorite dish was the tomatoes with lemon verbena, enriched with water... parmesan water.  Which I know might sound insipid, but it was a revelation- and like nothing I've ever tasted before.  The crystal clear broth, gently saline, was poured a table, perfuming the jewel-like orbs with pure parmesan essence, but preserving the delicate fruitiness of the tomatoes.  Powdered parmesan heightened the flavor even more, brightened by lemon verbena.  This is simply the most perfect of dishes.  Warm, cool, salty, sweet, light but profoundly flavorful.
Corn puree, Iberico
  Next, a surprise addition of a small puddle of sweet corn puree heartened with dried Iberico ham arrived cool and opulent, acting as a an introduction to the rest of the dishes, which were more entree-formulaic.

The contents of that new onion...
Sole, spot prawn, geranium, onion
A translucent swath of new onion unfurled into a creamy geranium puree to reveal a pristine filet of sole and a meaty spot prawn.  The pale, creamy tones of the dish reflected its smooth, subtle flavors.
Chicken, squash, duck cracker
More assertive was the crisp, bacon-y duck cracker paired with an exquisitely tender sous-vide nugget of chicken nestled between a trio of golden squash renditions:  a virgin ribbon poised aside an ethereal puree crowned with a crisp blossom, bejeweled with tiny borage flowers.  Another unexpected dish also celebrated a single ingredient with a tumble of sauteed chanterelles atop a daub of creamy mushroom puree, perched with paper-thin crisped potato skins: a fete of the forest.

Beef, various peppers, marrow
Finally, a tiny (which was the only sane proportion at this point) rectangle of rare beef nuzzled against a rich wad of smoked marrow and a menagerie of various mild peppers, charred into submission.  Lacy discs of toasted brioche looked burnt but tasted golden-brown.

Raspberries, olive, licorice, hibiscus
Of course, this was only a "finally" as to the savory courses, as a barrage of desserts was yet to be presented.  The first was a simple composition of raspberries nestled into a powdery black olive and almond streusel, with a licorice meringue bomb filled with a mind-blowingly intense raspberry puree and a quenelle of raspberry-hibiscus sorbet: ingredients that might sound incongruous but melded seamlessly on their black slate backdrop, like rubies and garnets on black velvet.
Chocolate, Praline, coffee, date
Cherries, almond ice cream, birch
My favorite came next, the cherries behemoth Bings) with smooth, mellow almond ice cream and charming twigs of meringue, sassed up with malic acid for tang and formed into twiggy scrolls painted with stripes of chocolate to resemble birch- also which was used to inoculate the cherries with its earthy rootbeer-ish like flavor.   They always save the chocolate for last, but this finale didn't alight with a thud.  A light meringue shaped like a Portland raindrop encased a molten center of rich chocolate, propped up against a perch of praline ice cream and a puddle of zesty date puree.  A small sastruga of snowy white coffee powder (how'd he do that?) melts in your mouth like snow in this town: a fleeting joy that only lasts for a moment.

I left Portland for New York before I developed much of a nose, ear and tongue for the whole restaurant scene.  Atera was the first place that literally titillated all the above, and now I see where his reputation began.  Dish for dish, I think Woodward's artistry appeals more to my taste, although this could just have to do with timing: I benefitted from the full force of a Pacific Northwest peak harvest.
In any case, the magic and brilliance that began with Lightner is holding steady with Chef Woodward.  Apparently chestnuts grow in Wonderland as well.  

1752 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Wed - Sat for dinner at 5:30pm
Reservations recommended

Monday, August 27, 2012


My first exposure to Rosemary's was a postprandial stroll, where it's festive, sparkly string lights and airy, rustic interior warranted a second glance, even when sated and content from dinner at Bell Book & Candle.  Perusing the attractive menu posted outside, a threesome of girls exited the restaurant, squawking violently about the horrors just endured there... not so much the food, they said, but the service was abominable, and frankly, the eats weren't good enough to override that trauma.  I noted the chef: Batali-vet Wade Moises.  To myself, I thought "Give it time".  A colleague of Mario's shouldn't necessarily need so much of a buffer period, but it's worth keeping an eye on.  And so I did, and in due time, figuring the ruffles should be ironed out and a visit due.

They're doing a lot of good stuff here: the whitewashed brick and pale wood finishings recollect a dining room I might design myself.  And more importantly, the rooftop boasts an admirable garden, burgeoning peppers and eggplants, tomatoes and herbs on my visit.  (Take a gander before sundown, though, because it's cordoned off after dark.)  The menu makes good use of the bounty, too... although the additional of brussels sprouts (however desirable) to the sides menu was a little odd for August.  But it's also a hint at one of the downsides to Rosemary's- they're definitely vying for a popularity vote.  A no-reservation policy demands early or late noshing, or willingness to wait.  We snuck in on the early side and procured a window seat that faced a somewhat unattractive view of the intersection: at that point the seat facing in was preferable.  But when the sun sets and obscures the deli storefront, gazing out the big windows onto Jefferson Market Gardens can be lovely.

Indicative of their farm-to-table efforts, the first section of the menu is Verdure (vegetables).  A little confusing, however, as there are also Contorni and Insalate that would also qualify.  But cross-referencing the prices gives you a slightly better idea of their intentions, even though the Beets, Dandelion and Hazelnuts ended up to be a deceptively bigger portion than it initially appeared after we unloaded it onto a platter to share (a good idea, too, because they are a little oily, some of which disperses when unconstrained).  Sweet and tender are these roots, but almost entirely bereft of any dandelion but for a few tiny shreds in such sparse quantity as is usually reserved for a pungent herb.  There was another indeterminate ingredient atop though, too: I noted it's floral, earthy flavor but couldn't place it.  Turned out to be bee pollen, a precious ingredient, but totally unmentioned on the menu... even the waitress didn't know what it was until I pressed her for inquiry.  They definitely should've written Bee Pollen instead of Dandelion, the former which was abundant and the latter all but absent.  I would've appreciated the weedy green, though, which would've rounded out the nutty beets.  Then again, I guess if I wanted a salad I should've ordered from Insalate, but those options seemed a little hefty with a mozzarella one, a celery caesar with anchovies and breadcrumbs, and the chopped, which included a little bit of everything from beans, seeds, raisins, cheese, olives and capers.  So much for summertime delicacy.  Simplicity, however, is paramount.  Spaghetti al pomodoro couldn't have been more straightforward, and shone for that.

Subtle nuance isn't the point at Rosemary's, though.  The Market Fish (striped bass, that night) was a simple skin-on filet seared and bedded by snap peas and melted cherry tomatoes.  According to the menu, it should have radishes as well, but they were strangely absent, like the dandelion.    Skirt steak, on the other hand, boasted a forest of greens, and none of those were mentioned in its description, either.
but none of those were mentioned in its description, either.  It did include some fine, crispy potatoes and a rich drizzle of balsamic jus, and benefitted from the greens for roughage.  And then came those brussels sprouts, which were quite wonderful specimens.... so much that my dining companion couldn't seem to keep his fork out of them, and consequently ordered a side of his own, upon reprimand.  Thou Shalt not Covet Thy Neighbor's Crucifers.  You want extra veggies?  Order your own.  'Cause they were good, roasted tender and nutty  and sweet.  Even if it was August (although to be fair, there are braised greens and summer squash as Contorni as well).

There are a scant number of dessert options, but our waitress was effusive about the olive oil cake with blueberries, so we went with that as opposed to a quaint little glass coppetta of traditional looking tiramisu, a gianduja semifreddo or some biscotti.  It was tasty enough, with a nice sugary crust, but could've used twice or thrice the amount of blueberries, and a little bit more whip to the whipped cream, which spread out languidly on the plate.  

For what it is, though, Rosemary's will stay popular for a spell, and perhaps a long one.  It's got enough assets to please the masses, and most of the kinks have been addressed since that trio of girls proffered their warning.  A little more accuracy needs to be executed on the menu, but as long as the quality keeps up with its popularity, Rosemary's will be grow beyond just being Moises' baby.

18 Greenwich Avenue
No phone

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Greenwich Avenue might never be restaurant row, but then again the West 46th street "Restaurant Row" boasts some of the most unremarkable restaurants in the city.  Quite contrarily, Greenwich Ave. has a handful of some the most enjoyable ones, including the new Aussie-staffed English gastro-bistro, Whitehall.  Speaking of streets, the name derives from the grand boulevard that was home for many English monarchs before a fire decimated all but its banqueting hall in 1968.  Thus, the only remaining structure of the original Palace of Whitehall was, appropriately, a building designated for feasts.  Whitehall on Greenwich (another British moniker) has nonesuch grandeur, but a charming hospitality and, more importantly, remarkably appealing food.

A smiling staff circulates the dining room with pink roses clothes-pinned to their collars or suspenders: a nice touch.  Since I couldn't decide how to begin my repast, our waitress helped determine that the signature Whitehall salad, with its cheese, bacon, egg and nuts, was quite a hefty starter, and that the creamless chili corn bisque might be more appealing on a heavy, humid summer night.  The soup was still hearty, but sweetly corny, studded with juicy whole kernels and a gentle underlying zing of chili-heat.

It seems that pasta with crabmeat has become a requisite app, so for comparative purposes we chose their crab linguine with chili, a brothy tangle of the flat noddles and burst cherry tomatoes flecked with snipped oregano.  Perhaps not as memorable as some similar recently essayed versions, but still solid.

Brothy, too, was a lovely seared seabass, with jewel-bright peas and pearl onions.  Despite an August calendar, the menu seemed to be dragging its toes in typically springtime novelties: ramps, asparagus and spring peas still bumbled about as ingredients.   Rack of lamb came with peas as well, both in whole pea form and a mushy pea croquette, fried to a crunch and nestled into a thick bed of cool yogurt.  Mum's mint sauce that accompanied was a disappointing slurry of chopped mint in oil that wouldn't have had quite enough zip to balance a gamey rack, but luckily the medium-rare (ordered medium-well) meat was mild and flavorful without much funk.  The croquette, who's falafel-like quality made it a joy to eat (it would make a nice lunch salad anointed with that yogurt sauce and some bitey greens).
  A side of asparagus (again, more April than August) was lightly roasted, but then smothered in an asphyxiating blob of aioli, rife with pignoli.  It had a deliciously rich, zesty flavor, but the monstrous dollop overwhelmed the poor spears below: it needed about half as much.  You could use it as a bread spread, but in their own right, the buttery-soft, salt-flecked rolls are good enough without accoutrements.

Wrapping things up, springtime struck again with a strawberry-rhubarb crumble... but I'm not complaining- I'll take piefruit whenever I can get it.  I would've preferred a little more of it, however, proportional to the pastry, but a smooth orange sherbet was a novel counter that heightened the fruit component for the better, and the crumby top was rich and buttery.

Whitehall is a wonderful neighborhood gem with glimmers and warmth that make it feel special.  And if you're not convinced, swing by to admire their almost limitless selection of gins and the fantastic cocktails that are inspired by them (I'm particular to the No. 3, but they make a mean Pimm's Cup as well).  My bet is you'll like the Grog and the hall well enough to stick around for the Grub, too.

19 Greenwich Avenue
tel. (212)675-7261