Archive for ‘Restaurant Review’

January 26, 2012

Restaurant Review – Le Pigeon Portland, OR.

Last week, Margie and I made a reservation to go to one of our most favorite restaurants in Portland; Le Pigeon.  Chef Gabe Rucker has created a uniquely Portland restaurant, with it’s small dining area, open kitchen, reservations made long in advance, communal table, mismatched tableware, and amazing good, simple food.  I have had the pleasure of eating here five or six times over the years and can honestly say I have never had anything I did not like.  I don’t know of many restaurants I can say that about.

On this particular night, we got a seat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen.  This is a great spot to sit and just watch all the work that goes into each creation.  Every order is made to order, one at a time with at least three people checking it over before it goes to the table.  The attention to detail is something to behold.  If you get seated at one of the longer communal tables, I think you will find it a fun experience eating next to strangers.  You never know what you might over hear and you might even make some new friends by the end of the night.

We stared at the small menu for about 10 minutes, not being able to decide just what to have.  I found at least three entrees that I really wanted that night, but between the two of us, we had to formulate our plan to order the top two we liked best.

Once we had the entrée portion figured out, we had to find an hors d’oeuvres to try as well.  We chose the Gnocchi with Pheasant, Pears and Parsnips, as gnocchi is a favorite of both of us.

After a short while, the beautifully plated gnocchi was presented in front of us.  It smelled amazing.  There was a nice earthy aroma that came from it and we dug in.  The mix of the creamy gnocchi with the pulled pheasant meat was delicious and the pear and parsnip added a nice contrast of taste and texture.  If this dish is on the menu, it is a must have.

I usually end up ordering the classic Rucker inspired Beef Cheek Bourguignon, but tonight I promised I would try something new.  Before moving along to what we actually ordered, I thought this dish deserved a little praise.  The Bourguignon is a dish I have had here a couple of times before and it is just hard not to love this dish.  It is a wonderful take on a classic French dish that has the pieces of beef cheek melting in your mouth.  There is a good smoky richness to the meat and vegetables that just feels so comforting.  It’s awesome.  There’s no denying it.

On this particular night the Beef Duo had called my name.  The pairing of a Rib Eye and a Short Rib with Celery Root and Hedgehog Mushrooms was too much to pass over.  The dish came out and I was surprised at the immensity of the portion.  Exactly what I like to see with a good cut of meat!  The mushroom sauce was very earthy and rich and suited the beef very well.  Margie asked me what I thought of it and all I could say was “this is one beefy sauce!”  It’s complexity and depth of flavor really enhanced the cuts of meat and were a perfect fit for a rainy Portland winter night.

Margie decided on a very interesting dish for her entrée; one that I was eyeing as well.  The Chicken with Spätzle, Truffle, and Turnips was also delicious as we both heartily approved.  The dis had a nice rustic flavor and was beautifully plated as are nearly every dish they serve.  The chicken was perfectly cooked and very moist.  Spätzle is a fun little accompaniment that you don’t see often.  I have had it a couple of times and it is a nice change of pace for a starch component to a dish.

We managed to get persuaded to try dessert and settled on a Smoked Almond Cake with S’mores, Huckleberry, and Chocolate Mousse.  It was a very tasty dessert to finish the meal with and was just right as I finished up my glass of Oregon Pinot Noir.

This is easily one of the best restaurants in Portland, in my opinion and is one you should definitely try if you are ever in town.  If you do live in Portland and haven’t been here, you are really missing out.  The food is beautifully superb.  The atmosphere is bustling and unique.  It’s truly a great culinary experience.

 

 

Le Pigeonhttp://lepigeon.com/

 

also try their sister restaurant, Little Birdhttp://littlebirdbistro.com/

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January 16, 2012

Restaurant review – Smokehouse 21, Portland, OR

There’s no denying it. We are spoiled when it comes to the myriad of dining options just outside our front door. One of the few types of cuisine we’ve been needing to round things out magically appeared around the corner (literally) on 21st Street a month or so ago. BBQ. The addition of this tiny neighborhood BBQ joint is the perfect complement to the even tinier establishment next door – M Bar. Mike, who seems to suffer frequent cravings for BBQ (which is odd since he’s mainly a California and Oregon boy) was also eager to try it out. We have now been there twice.

To me, a good sauce is one of the most important things about BBQ. When I was growing up, there was a public service announcement that featured animated foods and warned kids about “not drowning your food.” I never bought into that doctrine and am a proud and frequent food drowner. So I am very happy to report that Smokehouse 21 rated highly with both of us on the sauce front. And all four of their delightful sauces are perched on every table: classic, spicy, vinegar and mustard. According to Mike (since I won’t touch it), the only sauce not to get top marks was their spicy. And it’ll be interesting to see what our Carolina BBQ-lovin’ friend says about their mustard sauce.

Now for the meats. The pulled pork sandwich is the way to go with their menu. The meat is tender and pairs well with the mustard and the vinegar sauces. It is served on a brioche bun from Ken’s Bakery (across the street). Mike tried the pulled pork platter the second time we visited and he was disappointed by the fact that he paid a bit more for it and there didn’t seem to be any more meat than was on the sandwich. However, you do get a second side when you order the platter. Since we tried a combo platter the first time we visited, we can report on the spare ribs and brisket as well. I thought the spare ribs were nicely smoked but could’ve been a little more tender.  The classic bbq sauce tasted wonderful on them though. The brisket looked tough to me and Mike confirmed my assessment more than once. The second time I visited, I ordered the smoked lamb rib special. They were relatively inexpensive for lamb and it had just the right amount of smoky flavor to it, but Mike observed that the meat wasn’t cleaned of its tough silver skin.

As for the sides, we sampled the mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, and fingerling potato salad. The potato salad was decent but we probably won’t feel compelled to order it again. The baked beans are pretty good with big hunks of meat mixed in. Just be careful in case you chomp down on a bone fragment in the beans like Mike did. Both the beans and the mac ‘n cheese are topped with a sweet crumbled corn bread. I liked this addition to both sides. The mac ‘n cheese really hit the spot with a good blend of cheese and bacon pieces mixed in.

Will we be back? Most definitely, but we’ll go mainly for the pulled pork sandwich, the sauces, the convenience factor, and the neighborhood feel. I’m definitely more excited about the place than Mike is. Mike was disappointed with the ratio of meat to cost for the three platters we tried on our 2 visits as well as the tenderness (or lack thereof) of the brisket and ribs.

Link to Smokehouse 21’s website:

http://smokehouse21.com/

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September 27, 2011

Lobster…and more lobster

Lobster!

 

I like lobster.  On a recent trip back east to Maine for a wedding, i just couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  Out here in Oregon, we don’t get lobster much, so it’s pretty much a delicacy to me.  In the months leading up to our trip, I started my research.  I was going to get my fill of lobster in every way I could.  I wanted it fresh.  I wanted it cooked to order.  I wanted it in a roll.  I wanted it any which way I could get it…and get it I did!

In Portland, Maine, Margie and I wandered down to the waterfront in search of fresh lobster from Three Sons Lobster & Fish for some fresh from the boat lobster action.  This place did not disappoint.  We walked down the grimey, working wharf and into the warehouse dock.  Tanks of salty water greeted us along with a chalkboard menu of the day’s catch.  There were lots of things on the menu, but I only saw lobster.  After pleading my rookie-ness to the employees, they directed me to a nice 1.8 pound lobster that they pulled from one of the many tanks. It was a quick introduction, as I did not have anything to say, but “he’ll do.”   20 minutes later the lobster was properly steamed and ready for its butter bath.  Really, there is nothing better that comes from the sea, than lobster and melted butter.

 

 

Looking for a little variety in my lobster diet, I was directed to Red’s Eats, in Wiscasset, ME.  This is not a fancy place by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s is simply a roadside stand with the best lobster roll I have ever had.  If you don’t believe me on that, there are plenty of other’s that will back me up.  Red’s consistently gets voted the state’s top lobster roll.  This was a MUST STOP on our drive from Portland to Bar Harbor.

Lobster rolls traditionally come is some sort of bun (usually those silly east coast top cut hot dog buns), fresh chunk lobster meat, and a mayonnaise base sauce, sometimes with celery.  Red’s is something different though.  Their simplicity is admirable.  Their lobster roll is not only humungous in size (over a whole lobster is packed in it), but comes with the choice of the mayo sauce or melted butter.  Now what do you think I picked?  Darn right….melted butter!!!   I don’t think I could have it any other way after this.  This was THE PERFECT LOBSTER ROLL.

Red's Eats lobster roll

 

Overall, I could not have asked for anything better with our Lobsterfest Tour this summer in Maine.  The lobster and the wedding (the real reason we went to Maine) were both amazing.  If you are ever in Maine, try either of these places and you will not be disappointed.

All this lobster talk has now made me crave it again.  Mmmm.

July 28, 2011

Walla Walla, Washington

This post is a bit out of sequence. We’d actually never planned to blog about the trip but Walla Walla was a special request and it’s in keeping with our theme – culinary expeditions. You’ll have to excuse the lack of appropriate and useful photojournalism that resulted from our lack of planning.

We’d actually visited Walla Walla in 2009 and it held a special pre-engagement place in our hearts. We thought it would be fun to visit once again since things had settled down ever-so-slightly. It’s also a fun change of pace from the Pinot scene of the Willamette Valley (although we do love our Pinots!).

View of Scenic Walla Walla Wine Country

View of Scenic Walla Walla Wine Country

When to go?

There are many special events in this town known for its university, sweet onions and its burgeoning wine community, so check the calendar of events before you go. Your choice of dates can greatly impact hotel rates and dining options since this is a small town.

http://www.wallawalla.org/calendar.cfm

Restaurants

Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen:

We went to this place on our first trip and we decided it had to remain in the mix. We noshed on a lamb flatbread appetizer (Gozleme) that was perfectly seasoned and cooked. Don’t let them mislead you – it’s large and could be a meal in and of itself. We both then ate homemade pastas for dinner. The quality of the pasta in both dishes was really good, but the flavor of the accompanying ingredients was a little bland in my dish (the stinging nettle pappardelle with lamb ragu).  On the other hand, Mike’s Agnolotti (pork ragu with morel mushrooms and organic kale) was quite flavorful.

http://www.saffronmediterraneankitchen.com/

South Fork Restaurant:

The Green Curry Halibut was Mike’s inspiration for the last blog post. His dish was quite tasty but I think there are some negative details about the restaurant I should disclose. My crab cannelloni was lackluster, more soupy and soggy than flavorful. The main reason I don’t want to recommend it is because I don’t want this to be your memory of the Walla Walla restaurant scenee. Both ambience and location are less than desirable for the price point. I walk almost everywhere in Portland and I had to concede that we couldn’t walk there.

Graze (sandwiches):

If you’d like to picnic at a vineyard, Graze’s sandwiches might be the answer for you. They are sizable, simple and fresh. They have a limited selection of cold sandwiches (which is probably what you want), but we can at least recommend the turkey/avocado. Side salad is an option.

http://www.grazeevents.com/files/GrazeMenu.pdf

Sapolil Cellars:

The only reasons I’m listing Sapolil are for its fun live music and downtown location. I’m listing it as a restaurant because it’s downtown and offers bar food. Word of warning à their wines were pretty poor.

Clarette’s:

We ate breakfast here on both trips. It has inexpensive, large breakfasts but nothing inspirational. The interior is outdated and probably didn’t win any awards 40 years ago when it was last decorated.

Lodging

Walla Walla Faces Inn:

This is where we stayed on both visits. We like the boutique nature of the inn. If you’re able to ignore the dusty pink corridor walls, you can enjoy the fairly contemporary units. They are more than just rooms. Some of them are essentially one bedroom apartments, complete with kitchen and washer/dryer.

Living Room in our Walla Walla Rental

Living Room in our Walla Walla Rental

Other rooms (like the one we stayed in previously) are more compact but still have a large bathroom, mini fridge, etc. They even supply you with a complimentary ½ bottle of their award-winning signature Walla Walla Faces Syrah. I figured it was too gimmicky to be good, but I was wrong.

Welcome Gift of Walla Faces Syrah

Welcome Gift of Walla Faces Syrah

The inn still has a special place in my heart but I did end up visiting the chiropractor after awakening to find my neck on a 45 degree downhill slope. The bed and pillows (at least in this unit) were way too soft. It didn’t seem to phase Mike but I’m pretty sure he could sleep soundly on an active volcano.

That said, it’s downtown and easy walking to restaurants and shops.

Marcus Whitman Hotel:

Since I married into the Marcus name, I thought we should consider this hotel. It looked quite nice and you can occasionally get decent rates. Unfortunately, it was completely booked on one of the nights we were planning to visit and the rates were too high on an alternative weekend.

It’s the tallest building in town. It’s also conveniently located in downtown o downtown Walla Walla.

http://www.wallawalla.org/calendar.cfm

Best Western:

The Best Western seemed like the best combination of value, location, and price. Unfortunately they were also booked the weekends we considered.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g60992-d72515-Reviews-BEST_WESTERN_Walla_Walla_Suites_Inn-Walla_Walla_Washington.html

Vineyards

Now for the good stuff. I’m going to offer notes about vineyards from this visit and our previous visit. Please keep in mind that changes seem to brew in Walla Walla and an old review could lead you astray. The vineyards are listed with our favorites roughly towards the top. I’m also including some we didn’t love so we can spare you the visit.

Wine tasting strategy (perhaps a questionable one): The fees are only $5 at most places in Walla Walla (seems cheap after the price inflation in the Willamette Valley). If you buy a bottle, most places will waive your tasting fee. We ended up with quite a few bottles.

There are several distinct vineyard/winery areas:

  • Westside
  • East Walla Walla and Airport Wineries: Some quality wineries are located here but the airport scene is basically a trailer park. I would visit only for the best quality wines.
  • South: This is my favorite area as far as the scenery goes.
  • Downtown: Good for some late afternoon, early evening lazy tastings.

Here is a map: http://www.winesnw.com/wallamap.html

Typical Walla Walla Vines

Typical Walla Walla Vines

Waters:     This was our second visit to what is probably our favorite vineyard due to the quality of the wines, the friendliness of the staff, and the location. We picnicked here as they were setting up for an annual wine cookout. Must try the Interlude and Capella blends! Advice: Walk in wearing matching themed glittery shirts and tell them how you hate all blends, how you will only drink Shiraz from Australia, and then confirm to them that their wine isn’t very good (as you’d suspected).

http://waterswinery.com/

Gramercy Cellars:      We love their wine, their labels, and their vibe. We tasted back in 2009 when they offered a guest vineyard tasting at Waters. It was excellent so we decided to track them down. They moved into the old Amavi tasting room right outside of town. It’s not situated at a vineyard with panoramic views, but the atmosphere makes up for it. You walk into the man cave and immediately feel relaxed. You can sit at the bar with the friendly, tats-laden server or sink into the deep brown leather couches, or enjoy a game of darts. By merely finding the place, you will feel like a member of an exclusive club. They don’t even have a sign out front announcing their presence. You are in the club.

https://gramercycellars.com/

Buty:      The airport thing sounds cool, but it’s really just a series of trailer type places that serve as tasting rooms. Pretty limited in terms of ambience and basically no scenery. HOWEVER, if you’re going to hit the airport wine tasting rooms, this is the place to go. Their wines are quite good.

Sleight of Hand:       Listing this because it has pretty good wines and is in a scenic area. You’ll want to split at this place because they give you about a million tastes. The labels contain funky, dark, magician-inspired themes that are carried over to the tasting room décor.

Walla Faces:       This tasting room is next to our downtown boutique inn and is owned by the same people who own the inn. They gave us a half bottle of their wine as a welcome gift. Instead of drinking it, we went next door and tried a glass of their wines (they don’t have a tasting flight). I loved their award-winning Syrah, but didn’t love Mike’s Cabernet as much. We enjoyed their lounge chairs and live music. We even chatted for a while with the artist behind the wine labels – Candice Johnson. From Candice, I learned that Walla Walla is not a good place to be single (unless you’re in college), she previously lived in Paris, and she hasn’t yet tired of painting tons of psychedelic faces.

Basel Cellars:     This is a beautiful setting for a picnic. We didn’t visit this time, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Their wines are not as pricey as some (and also not as good), but the setting was really cool. The tasting room was elevated above the vineyard, somewhat like a fortress. The facility is large with manicured grounds. It was definitely groomed for weddings.

Beresan:  Across from Sleight of Hand, we didn’t visit this time, but I did enjoy it last time. I liked their Carmenere/Cab blend as a novelty, but I wish I’d purchased the Cab instead of the Carmenere. The Carmenere didn’t stand alone.

Beresan Vineyards

Beresan Vineyards

Rulo:   Reasonably priced, enjoyable wines.

Woodward Canyon:    As our second vineyard ever visited in Walla Walla, this redeemed Walla Walla in our eyes (after the first stop). They had several tasty wines, especially their high-end “artist series” Cabernet Sauvignon wine. They buy an oil painting every year and then reproduce it for their artist series label.  We drove in from the Westside of town.

Amavi:    I loved their wines last time. This time they upgraded to a cool facility on site at their vineyard but their wines didn’t seem as good.

The New Amavi Vineyard

The New Amavi Vineyard Tasting Room

Other places (still in order):

  • Waterbook:   Large, somewhat cool facility. Fairly institutional feel though. Decent whites.
  • Russell Creek:   NOT a scenic location, inside or out. This is one of the airport tasting rooms. I liked their Syrahs but Mike wasn’t a fan. They’re a bit on the heavy side.
  • Va Piano:   Looks BEAUTIFUL in their pics but I didn’t love their wines. And I really didn’t think the setting was as great in real life as in the marketing literature.
  • L’Ecole:   If the Wine Spectator awarded “cute points” for the vineyard house/tasting room, this would rate highly. Otherwise, thumbs down. This was our very first stop in 2009 and I poured out most of it.
  • Tertulia:   Had to mention because we really didn’t like this place. Friendly but their wines were not good. The only good thing was that they were cheap. Somehow they’d managed to score high marks with wine spectator for their Cabernet Sauvignon, but we both agreed it wasn’t great.
June 7, 2011

Restaurant review – Aviary

In thinking about what our blog would be comprised of, we thought it might be fun to add some diversity and also do restaurant reviews.  Most restaurant reviews will be in our home city of Portland, Oregon, but if we come across any notable restaurants on our CULINARY EXPEDITIONS out of town, we will be sure to include them.

First up… Aviary  (www.aviarypdx.com)

The restaurant is a fairly new one in the PDX scene and had recently gotten some good reviews online, as well as an endorsement from a friend that had eaten there.  It is in the trendy up-and-coming Alberta area, which is one that I have not spent a lot of time, but intend to explore more in the future.  The restaurant is located in the lower courtyard level of and new building on NE Alberta, between 16th and 17th.  The decor is a nice, contemporary industrial chic space with some seating available outside in the courtyard.  Portland got its first sunny and warm weekend of 2011 (finally!) and we were lucky enough to score a table outside.

The menu is very interesting at first glance, with a great diversity of items.  The waitress explained that the menu was mostly small plate dishes with a couple of entrée-esque items that were a touch bigger.  There was a variety of foods that you don’t often see on menus such as pig’s ears, sea urchin and the relatively tame octopus.  It was shaping up to be an interesting adventure.

Our group of four decided to get three “appetizers” to share and then each order an “entrée.”  Tempura Pumpkin, a Dungeness Crab Strudel and a Seared Octopus Salad were ordered for sharing.  They all came out looking amazing.  It was obvious that a lot of care was taken in the presentation and I always appreciate that.  Good tasting food MUST also look good!  I was suspicious of the pumpkin, with it being a vegetable and all, but they deep-fried it, so I figured it was worth a try!  It was very good and the spicy curry sauce that accompanied it was what really made the dish.  That sauce was tasty!  The other two appetizers really didn’t impress me too much.  They looked good, but both were pretty plain and one noted.  The Crab Strudel really sounded like it had potential, but I think pastry most often over powers the delicate, sweet crab flavor.  Maybe I just like crab in its pure form….with melted butter, of course.

I was feeling brave this night and ordered the Crispy Pig Ears.  It was described as being braised and then fried, with a bacon-like taste.  With a description like that, I thought I had a sure winner.  The dish came out in a small skillet, which was a nice touch, giving it much more of a table presence.  On the bottom was a bed of rice, topped by the crispy pig ears and sausage, all with some avocado slices and micro greens.  I searched for what I was expecting to see in pig’s ears, but they were thin, chip-like pieces, not the thicker appendage I was expecting.  The sauce on them tasted good, but overall, I was disappointed with the dish.  It wasn’t nearly what i had hoped.

The other entrées ordered were a Shao Xing Chicken, NY Strip Steak and Brioche Crusted Halibut.  I didn’t get enough of a sample of the three to give a thorough review, but the small tastes I did get were not all that impressive.  They all appeared well presented and interesting to look at, but fell flat on taste.  I think it was mostly just a lack of flavor throughout.  The dishes looked and sounded like they would pack a good punch, but nothing showed up.

Dessert came through for them though.  With Beer Ice Cream on the menu, it was a MUST ORDER.  It was subtly beer flavored and topped with a nice caramel sauce.  I gotta say, it was good and I would definitely order it again.

With the bill came a nice treat; they included a breakfast curry muffin for each person.  I thought that was a great touch that I rarely see.

Overall, it was a fun experience, but the food was underwhelming.  I really wanted to like Aviary.  It was well crafted food that had high hopes, but the lack of flavor couldn’t be overcome. Opening a restaurant in the culinary city of Portland is tough, and with it being a relatively new restaurant, I will likely give it another try after some months pass. We are so fortunate that there are just so many other “great” restaurants to choose from, so restaurants really need to make you HAVE to come back.

 

Addendum: Call Aviary before you attempt to go. Aviary closed temporarily due to a fire on the 4th of July.