Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I had bypassed an invitation to Le Philosophe on one prior occasion: the menu read traditional, classic (read: uninspired?) French bistro, and at the moment was seeking a little more vim and buzz.  But as Le Philosophe began creating it's own buzz, it seems the menu belies its intrigue.  Located in an increasingly restaurant-centric hub (although, where isn't?) in NoLiTa, its unassuming facade is similarly modest.  Inside is dark and loud.  The decor is minimalist aside from the east wall featuring immense portraits of notable philosophers.  Rumor has it that if you can name all the philosophers, your meal is free.  So while that sounds like a lot of work (I think I maybe positively identified one), your reward would fully warrant the effort.

The staff circulates the room but seems to be preoccupied (perhaps they are pondering more existential conundra?), but will eventually lay down menus with negligible fanfare.  In fact, there is a list of "Plat du Jour" on the wall, but the plats are listed without a corresponding jour, and by the time our server finally got around to taking our orders, I had forgotten to even ask her about them.  Tap water is provided as a default, so you'd have to actually effortfully request bottled (commendable).  There are no cocktails, however, which was surprising given the volume of gimmicky tipples that could be proffered (I had absinthe on the mind due to the cerebral theme, but to no avail).  The wine list is ample, and beers are plentiful, so there needn't be an issue of sober contemplation, were that to present itself.   It didn't take long to
contemplate the menu, and of what we tried, there wasn't a misstep among the options.  I hesitated to order a cauliflower soup with crispy capers and truffle oil simply because of Julia Child's quote boldly printed on the back of the menu "If you're afraid of butter, use cream".  Not that I'm afraid of butter (OR cream) but I feared it might be a little heavy... when in fact it was quite the opposite.  Creamy and dense, check and check, but with a luxurious pureed cauliflower rather than a surfeit of dairy, the fried capers adding richness and bite to an otherwise mellifluous pabulum.  Market greens with vegetables and herbs were piled in a steep bale of leaflets, shrouding a treasure trove of various vegetable surprises beneath:  coins of roasted sunchoke, a rainbow of steamed, halved baby carrots, salty sauteed radishes, tiny parapets of diced turnips, and dabs of sunny yellow lemon curd.  Do  not to be tricked into thinking this is just an average pile of greens lest you give up before the real dirt candy is unearthed.

  Frogs legs wallowed in a verdant puddle of garlicky watercress puree, sauteed without the common bready crust that masks their delicate, slightly marine flavor, and paired with meaty shreds matsutake mushrooms and woodsy sunchoke.  A bountiful tureen of Bouchot mussels could easily have served as an entree (especially given that entrees tend toward the small side).

 But their flavor is BIG: the crustaceans are choice
specimens, bulbous and sweet, sauced in a thick broth redolent with aleppo pepper and mild leeks, rich with creme fraiche.  Two thick slabs of crusty grilled toast accompany the dish, but you could enlist another basket of bread (a tender-crumbed, crusty baguette and nutty multi-grain) in order to capitalize on every drop.

Entrees continue in fine flavor.  Our chef here at Le Philosophe is a an alum of the Jean-Georges conglomerate, and the sweet-salty-sour balance for which Vongerichten is so talented is not lost on chef Matthew Aita.  The main components of the entrees read like a menu from the 1950's:  Duck a l'Orange, Tournedos Rossini (both of which the host with whom I spoke post-prandially recommended after the fact) Blanquette de Veau, etc.  But they are not your typical renditions, not in
 the least.  Lobster Thermidor, far from the leaden classic featuring egg yolks and cream, arrives refreshed with a bright concasse of Meyer lemon atop a raft of emerald haricots verts swathed with a Lucullan tarragon-mustard sauce.   A roasted hake arrives skin-on in a hearty stew of cranberry beans flavored with zesty ribbons of Cabacero
 Iberico and fronds of peppery arugula, gently wilted in the steaming heat of the terra cotta casserole.   A modest portion of flat iron steak is ruby red in contrast to the ebony char of its grilled exterior, pooled in a marvelous, winy Bordelaise.  It's served with a mountain of crisp frites with a creamy sauce Choron in which to dip them.  Could've done with more steak and less frites, but execution was spot on.  Similarly, like all the entrees we tried, it is noticeably bereft of vegetation, and while the "Sides" menu offers a variety of rice and potatoes, there is but one Jardiniere, which turned out to be a somewhat oily, saline hodge-podge of radishes, celery and turnips- not at all undelicious, but almost more condimenty than vegetal.  Perhaps in this respect the philosophers still cling to the antiquated myth of vegetables filching energy from cogitation to facilitate their effortful digestion.

Desserts are also updated classics- tweaked antiquity- and all the better for it.  Be forewarned that the profiteroles balk the pattern of portion temperance.  Priced a dollar cheaper than the two other plated sweets, you might errantly think this a dessert for one.  But the three enormous doughnuts could easily satisfy three or four people;  I wondered if the kitchen wasn't making up for the more modestly sized entrees.   They are delicious for a bite, in their careless way: too big and too sloppy with too many hazelnuts strewn atop- but a tasty gloss of chocolate and thick caramel gelato make one bite a treat.  A delightful tart tatin was of perfect proportion on the other hand,  with a singular slab of roasted Mutsu atop a slightly tough crust .  But the tart cider glaze and dense, zesty apple puree played sour to the creamy sweetness of a luscious buttermilk ice cream.  My decaf Americano was unexpectedly unspectacular, but regular caffeinated coffees were good: I guess place inspired by the great thinkers focuses on the brews that would fuel a contemplative late night.

But by far the most disappointing aspect of Le Philosophe is the restroom.  Not only is there only one, unisex facility, you open the door to be welcomed by a gaping urinal immediately to your right: an unsightly, unseemly, and somewhat repugnant installation that would seem to be unnecessary.  Unless they were considering Duchamp a philosopher and thus providing tribute.  Methinks not.

 No. 55 Bond Street 


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

DIVERSION PDX: Taste of Sichuan

I'd say the best Chinese restaurants probably look the most suspect, and Taste of Sichuan is no different.  Sure, there are some really high end ones that play grown-up and glamorous, but usually their food is worse than the divey little Cantonese down the block.  This little gem in Beaverton is housed in a defunct Marie Callender's, but despite the new signage, looks pretty much the same as its predecessor.   Except that everyone dining inside is Chinese.

Well, at least 90%.  Which is a good... no, a GREAT sign.  The natives know what they are talking about, and Taste of Sichuan serves up some of the best Chinese food I've ever had.  Better than Joe's Shanghai here in New York, better than our Grand Sichuan on 9th Ave.   Convincing Dad to get take-out from somewhere other than the abominable nearer-by China Rim was a labor, though.  But as it turns out, a labor of love (and gluttony).

They were busy, this New Year's eve night.  The phone rang and rang with only a busy signal in response, until finally a chipper voice interceded to tell us that orders would take up to 45 minutes (as opposed to what usually takes 15-20 in these parts).  That was okay (Sorry, Dad): I would've waited two hours not to have to eat from China Rim or Chiam again.

We drove the short stint to fetch our vittles, which disappointingly came in black plastic take-out containers, and not those quaint little white boxes.  The aromas that hurtled through the doors opened into the cold air more than mollified that upset, though.  And our order was ready as they said it would be, neatly stacked box upon box and tightly secured in a plastic bag, just like a good batch of finished laundry.

That bag didn't contain extra soy (you won't need it), no cloying duck sauce (which you always threw out, anyways), but it also was bereft of fortune cookies.  This, however, must have been an oversight, because I saw the cartons of cookies being loaded behind the counter, so they must have just been in the middle of restocking.  (I know fortune cookies aren't authentic Chinese, but they're SO good...)  Anyways, our order was abundant without them.  Taste of Sichuan offers a Wild Side menu which we didn't explore (I was dining with less ambitious companions), but a return visit might include live ("until you order") stir-fried crab with green onion and garlic, dry cooked frog or Chong Qing hot chicken... for certain the signature Swimming Fire Fish.  It probably will NOT, however, include The Other Parts of the Pig, or Fish Morsels and Intestines Fire Pot (http://tasteofsichuan.com/pdf/Wildside-Menu-4-2012.pdf)   Although if its offered here, I bet it's as good as can be.

We tried four dishes, as well as a side of perfectly sticky, fragrant steamed rice for just a buck.  The least wonderful was chopped pepper chicken, but it certainly was what it said it was, that little spice-indicating chile pepper next to it as well.  The chicken was almost a large grind, making a loose hash of spicy poultry, fiery dried red chiles, some celery and onion, and chopped green beans.  It would've worked well to lump with wads of sticky rice rolled up in iceberg lettuce, but we made do with rice alone to tamp its fiery heat.
Three Flavor of Chow Mein is apparently my dad's go-to dish, but I subersively selected the hand shaven noodles over the more pedestrian egg noodles, and there was a palpable tension when he
looked at the dish, poking a chopstick through to find noodles, which masqueraded among the chicken, shrimp and beef, making the mung bean sprouts looking like the only noodly thing.   I only scarcely avoided a panic attack when he took at bite... because this rendition of his favorite dish was so supremely superior that the shape and size of the noodles be damned.  They were, however, works of art: traditionally carved dan-dan noodles, thick and chewy and coated in a saline, umami-rich glaze with  spikes of spring onion.   If this was my introduction to Three Flavor Chow Mein, I'd order it every time, too.

The best dish that night, however, was Three Kinds of Mushroom w/ Chinese Broccoli.  The broccoli was fresh, crisp and verdant, smothered in a rich, dark gravy with shiitakes, button and oyster mushrooms, sliced into half-moons.  I hoarded this dish, unabashedly.  I mean, think of all the times I suffered through China Rim.  Hunan Prawns in a Black Bean Sauce didn't sport a red chile indicator, but they had a bit of kick.  The big prawns were cooked just right, and tasted extremely fresh, jumbled with chunks of red and

 green pepper and wedges of onion in a peppery black bean sauce.   And while we didn't need an extra vegetable, Mom's favorite dish is Dry Cooked String Beans ( it had a thumbs-up "most popular" indicator, AND it was New Year's eve, so splurging was almost in order).  Unfortunately, they weren't quite spectacular, although the beans were fresh and cooked to tender toothsomeness  , with a tinge of char and a salty slick of soy... something just didn't amalgamate entirely.  That is, not until the next day, when a few plucked cold from the leftovers completely overturned that assessment.  Maybe they just needed a little time to.... acclimate.  Dry Cooked String Beans Next Day-Style were outstanding.  And that's half of take-out Chinese food, anyways, right?

Taste Of Sichuan
16261 NW Cornell Rd
Beaverton, OR 97006
Phone: (503)-629-7001
Fax: (503)-629-7033

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I didn't have grand expectations coming to Ken & Cook, a yearling contemporary American in Nolita.  I just wanted something fun, yummy and energetic, and given the nabe and recent press, Ken & Cook seemed to fit the bill.  So I was pretty surprised to show up to a virtually vacant space at 8pm on a Friday night, despite the chill that was blustering about outside (practically balmy compared to New York winters of yore) and post-holidays lull.  But there we were, welcomed by a charmingly French hostess and flickery candles warming the whitewashed exposed brick and simple decor.

Ken & Cook is a hospitable little enclave on an otherwise gritty stretch of Kenmare which has recently been shirking off its notorious history and now houses a handful of boutiques and galleries and, with fits and starts, restaurants.   None seem to thrive so much as this neighborhood gets its footing, but Ken & Cook, from what I've seen, is a strong a contender as any for longevity.  Chefs Artan Gonje and Richard Diamante (Jean Georges alumni) collaborate on spiffed up American classics, and mostly to good end.    But though we were practically alone in the restaurant when seated, service was notably lackadaisical, which only worsened as the tables filled.

The cocktail menu seemed important- the bar stash is impressively illuminated and forms the entire north wall of the dining room- so we ordered one.  Our choice from a long list of snarkily named tipples took longer than it should have, and then I kind of wish it would have never come.  My fault for not heeding the warnings from our server... the sambuca-spiked gin drink was harsh and unbalanced, hinting of a thin Robitussin at best.  But we got the worst out of the way in the beginning, because from then on, things brightened substantially.  The wine list is a bit on the pricey side, but there are reasonable by-the-glass options, and ours were generously filled.

To start, a platter of flavorful ruby and golden beets huddled amongst sastrugi of unctuous whipped ricotta flecked with tiny leaves of thyme and nubby pistachios.  The cheese may have been slathered on with a heavy hand, but it was thick
and smooth and hard to resist.  The ubiquitous kale salad was a nice rendition, roughly torn leaves fraternizing with shaved parmesan, a fruity edge offered by shiny, plump pomegranate seeds and juicy blood orange.  Toasted pinenuts added crunch.

After a more extended lag (a table adjacent who had been seated much after us received their entrees before our appetizers had even been cleared) we received our second course.  Of mains, there were four pastas spanning the twenty dollar range: fois and porcini pappardelle topping out at $29 and a simple clam linguine at $22.  But speaking of prices, an $11 difference between the black bass and the monkfish seemed unjustified (luckily I wanted the monkfish, anyways).  It arrived as moist a piece as ever, languishing in a bell pepper-heavy romesco, and stacked atop fragrant fennel, thickly sliced and grilled tender.  The ample romesco served double-duty as a laudable dipping sauce for the fried chicken, too.
 Served up with an admirable drop biscuit topped with sweet butter, these hulking cuts of juicy poultry tasted gently lemony underneath a salty, crusty coat.  The biscuit was crisp of edge and tender of crumb- a thing of greatness.  It was just soft enough to absorb the honey-drizzled pat of butter and firm enough not to crumble from your fingers.  Avoid polluting it or the chicken with the cloying honey-mustard sauce accompanying in a little silver tub; you're better off meting bits of the tangy-crisp rounds of deep-fried lemon that crowned the pile of legs, thighs and breast... or a swath of that romesco swiped from the monkfish.

A side of toasty Brussels sprouts bridged the vegetable chasm, and were roasted to a distinct nuttiness with a flutter of shredded Parmesan atop.  This is the kind of place not too fancy to offer you mac & cheese (sic), but maybe it should be: Ken & Cook's

was comprised of a woefully overcooked orecchiette ( not macaroni) so much that the little ears collapsed in on themselves in their wan, oily sauce... so unnaturally slick it conjured up images of Velveeta, if it had a "white cheddar" version .

By the time our plates were cleared we really hadn't time for dessert- one of our party had a more pressing engagement following dinner- but we ordered it before realizing the inordinate amount of time that had elapsed for a fairly simple meal.  Service here is uncomfortably sluggish.  But eating it, even at a harried rate, minimized the fret.  We decided on a pear/oat/crumbly deal over a more predictable sounding apple pie, something chocolate, and a cinnamon bread pudding (relying on memory, here, 'cause their dessert menu isn't listed online).  The warm fruit was cut into thin, slippery slices, gently cooked to retain its texture and a smidgen of tartness as it wallowed in syrupy juices amongst crags of oaten granola, enriched with a scoop of vanilla that quickly melted into the composite.

Having entered with only moderate expectations, I emerged pretty pleased with Ken & Cook.  I couldn't help noticing quite a bit of online-bellyaching regarding brunch, so I'd recommend relegating your visit to the evening hours.  Plus, it's in an area of town on the edge of the nightlife scene of the boisterous East Village- much more so than a convenient roll-out-of-bed brunch staple.  But Ken & Cook shows they cook, and that they just might be the restaurant that will ground stone an otherwise under-capitalized block.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

DIVERSION PDX: The Woodsman Tavern

To me, The Woodsman Tavern IS Portland.  The city's alternate moniker (Stumptown) perpetuates the sylvan theme that inspires the restaurant.  The Woodsman's founder is Duane Sorenson, the admirable kingpin of Stumptown Coffee, so we know it's coming from respectable roots.  The chef Jason Barwikowski, on the other hand, has perhaps a slightly more controversial reputation, but I'll leave that for bickering amongst his peers.

The entrance abuts the end of a formidable bar, displaying an array of oysters and lemons wedged into a sparkly bed of ice, and a huge bouquet of sprawling branches cast spindly shadows from their perch.  One of the lovely hostesses welcomes potential diners, either arriving with much sought-after reservations or else in hopes of procuring one of the remaining tables, half of which are reserved for just those individuals.  The flanneled, tatooed and mustachioed (gender-specific) staff is smiling as they bustle about the u-shaped space- they move briskly to keep up with the boisterous pace of the busy restaurant- but they look happy to be there... much as if they were welcoming you into their own homes.  If lumberjacks host fancy dinner parties, that is.

 And I did feel right at home here.  Except for the rickety, wobbly spinning chairs that rival a Coney Island roller-coaster in terms of stability.  Mine refused to stay centered toward the table and kept rotating my legs away from my plate, clunking awkwardly every time I shifted my weight.  The waitress said this was to keep patrons from getting too drunk and falling out of their seats, but I felt like it might be a ruse to get me to fall out of mine stone-cold sober.  At any rate, it was a mild distraction from the excellence which was beginning to arrive on our plates, and for food this good, I'll tolerate an unwieldy chaise.

I began with a Brussels sprout salad (of course I did) leafed-out, raw and roasted, and shuffled with big green Castelvetrano olives and bracing morsels of white anchovy.  Not an olive lover myself, these were mild and forgiving, while the pungent anchovies might have been a tad overpopulated, especially since they were only recognized as part of the vinaigrette on the menu, which also touted the presence of sunchokes I never detected.  But it's easy to enjoy the melange as a lump sum, even if a few tidbits of one element or

another get left behind.  Another salad was a unique conglomeration of raw cauliflorets and husky smoked barley, roasted walnuts and ruby gems of pomegranate, and lots and lots of parsley.  Parsley is not relegated to garnish here, instead shining as a worthy green in and of itself.  I predict the elevation of parsley (and perhaps other herbs?) beyond a meager sprig will be a trend in the coming year.

The Woodsman's signature dish- a trout in crazy water- seemed to grace every table at least once, and thus ours, as well.  An untraditional acqua pazza sang boldly of tarragon, anointing the moist flakes of fish with its herbal flavor, joined with robust halves of sundried tomato and more flounces of parsley.  The sizable catch with its crispy, tasty edges might be almost big enough for two, but similarly hard to share.  Be sure to request bread to put to use on the extra juices: a precious hunk of Little T's baguette makes for a fine sponge.   Another fish entree was a seared hunk of ling cod, meaty but tender, crisped to a crust of bronze and
 studded with caperberries.  To live up the rusticity of a tavern, the cod sits atop hefty planks of grilled king oyster mushroom nestled in a bed of smoky lentils in a rich yellow curry.   Made me ponder the unfortunate conflict of pairing bacon with traditional curries and why "nouvelle" Indian hasn't yet embraced smoking their dal (Floyd Cardoz, are you listening?)  Anyways, it was magnificent: a pescatarian option to satisfy a carnivore.  Not that carnivorous options are lacking: a mixed grill of lamb, a stewy beef brisket with squash and grits in gravy, and a notable chicken cassoulet round out the meatier
 options.  In fact, the only scarcity here here might be vegetables (we ordered everything they had on offer), but then again, a December's visit finds the farmer market in shorter supply... and this place is boldly local and seasonal.   We went for their sole green side plate besides salad greens: a roast of mapley glazed carrots and Brussels sprouts that might've waxed a tad too sweet paired with our entrees, but were nonetheless delicious for it themselves.

Not to miss out on the wonders of dessert, we had a tough time choosing between a spiced pumpkin bread pudding, the waitress's recommendation of the ginger cake, and our final selection, a homey, butter-crusted pear pie-lette topped with a creamy white chocolate gelato that was a decadent step up from traditional vanilla.  Plus, we needed a sweet to accompany our Chemex-brewed Stumptown, artistically prepared tableside in its wooden corsetted carafe.

In the end, I never did fall off my stool, despite its constant attempts to throw me.  But The Woodsman Tavern exudes a festive warmth that more than atones for its precarious seating.

 You can find us at 4537 Southeast Division Street, Portland Ore. We are open from 5 to 10 PM every night for dinner and Saturdays and Sundays from 9 to 2 for brunch. Call us at 971-373-8264.