(Not) the Coolest


Am I not that fun? Am I just a debbie :-( because the idea of a cooler with an integrated stereo, charging station, and blender doesn’t sound that cool? Because my idea of a fun cooler is one that keeps food cold, with ice, for a really long time? You know what I think would be super fun? Quality hinges! A stainless compression latch! A lid gasket! Durable construction! Not running to the store 36 hours into the camping trip because the ice all melted! Not hearing a goddamn sorority party at the campground! The sounds of birds and running water, rather than Skrillex shrieking from someone’s shitty itunes lineup! Cold beer and a whiskey on ice, rather than a fake-ass margarita made with sour mix, blue caracao, Coach perfume, and a little acetone.

I can’t even keep my stereotypes straight with this fucking thing. Who does it appeal to? Sorority sisters or tech-brofessionals? Besides gender (and having a job), is there even a difference between those?

Margaritas. I think maybe the way you make (or take) a margarita is the difference. So tech-brofessionals, feel free to repurpose that blender motor as a percussion instrument when you get all buzzed up on Hoptimus Prime double IPAs (and shaken Partida margaritas, por supuesto) and decide to pretend you’re actually up there on stage with Skrillex like a backup DJ. Only you’re actually just having a tailgate party in the Subie in the parking lot, after the soccer game.

Here, play these both at the same time:



You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. Maybe this won’t be so bad.

Salad Bitch

Curly endive with egg and olives in red wine and red chili vinaigrette.

This gangster just finished off three plates of salad: endives, grapefruit, Kalamata Olives, pepperoncini, Myzithra and red wine-grapefruit vinaigrette. You may be asking yourself, “what kind of gangster eats loads of salad? Does he also carry a snubnose .38 that he just lobs at his rivals as he wheels away in terror?” No tough guy, I don’t. I vanquish my rivals with an assertive vinaigrette and equally assertive leaves. When I make salad a goddamn turf war is fought upon the plate. I eat salad because when it is made well, it’s delicious; and I know how to make salad.

And if you don’t know how to make salad, you can’t get good salad because, and I do not exaggerate here, there are no restaurants in this city, and mostly in this entire cheeseburger country, that make good salad. If by chance some clever restaurateur or chef type guy stumbles upon a good salad, they make sure to serve it in the tiniest portion imaginable so that no thinking person would ever order it. Many restaurants still serve that godawful mesclun mix that tastes of nothing and does even less to satisfy the stomach. I’m sure it’s wonderful in its original home of Provence, where it has a specific composition that inlcudes endives, chervil, arugula and lettuce, but have you ever seen chervil in a mesclun salad this side of the Pacific? No, and the reason is that people here perceive salad as something to be endured, a palliative for the guilt of consuming sugar with a side of fat and a protein garniture.

Restaurant chefs, accordingly, assign the youngest, newest and lowest-skilled employees to what is euphemistically referred to as the garde-manger, officially referred to as the “pantry”, and usually denigrated as the “salad bitch” station. The phrase “salad bitch” is a testament to both the implicit sexism of (most) restaurant kitchens and the disrespect thrusted toward cold, vegetal foods in our contemporary American understanding of cuisine. It’s a goddamn hate crime.

great iceberg salad

Iceberg lettuce, along with a little Romaine, at it's very best. Hey Madhur Jaffrey, check out my blog!

I found my time as a salad bitch extremely enlightening. It’s hard to make good cold food. It’s hard to make it look nice and taste nice and it’s even harder to garner a lick of respect for it. The fatty fat public remembers well their Brobdingnagian repast of starchy mounds of polysaccharides, dripping with flavor-enhancing salt and lipids. Who can soon forget the preternatural appeal of the cut of a hearty, tannic Barolo through the fat and blood ambrosia of a perfectly rare grilled porterhouse? Not this gangster. Dieters, with their obsessive- compulsive eating behaviors, existential ennui and irritability have done little positive for the genre’s reputation.

Let me give you a few ideas for a nice salad. Primarily, people like food to be, or at least appear to be, abundant. I personally recommend serving a lot of salad. Pile it high, put it on a plate, and avoid atrophied greens. I can’t stress enough how much pre-made mesclun sucks. If you think it’s good, you’re probably a foodie and should go read this site.

Dressing should be assertive, almost offensively so. Dressing should remind you of me after four or five drinks, not me after nine or ten; add sugar or fat if this becomes the case. The traditional ratio of vinaigrette is three parts oil to one of vinegar. Traditionally, one should rub the inside of the salad bowl with garlic and dispose of the clove, attend church every sunday and religious holidays, and beat one’s wife only in the privacy of home. Make it to taste, but don’t make it like the balsamic vinaigrette that came (hah!) on my greens last night: the oil masking the taste of the lettuce with the vinegar contributing little but a brownish color and an annoyingly subtle sweetness. Speaking of Balsamic vinegar, I recommend disposing of it. If you can afford it, it sucks. And it doesn’t belong in this country anyway. If you insist on using it, good luck. Caesar dressing and the like should be made with coddled whole eggs, put them in boiling water for one minute and stir gently, make sure to scrape out the cooked white from the shell when using. Don’t let your foodie sentiments get in the way of enjoying yourself; Thousand Island is possibly the best sauce for iceberg that god hath wrought.

curly endive salad

Curly endive with parmigiano and raw sliced matsutake. Raw matsutake is not for all stomachs.

I’ve been waiting to tell you about iceberg lettuce. Actually just one variety of “crisphead” or what used to be called “cabbage” lettuces, it is quite possibly the zenith of lettuce horticulture. I once grew a “chocolate iceberg” in my garden. It was good, but not great, because crisphead lettuces are so very difficult to grow. It has acquired a reputation amongst people who think about what they eat as a leper of lettuce, pariah of produce. This extreme prejudice is usually rationalized as a nutritional concern. “Iceberg has so little vitamins, why would I waste my valuable stomach space eating it?” the foodie whines. Because it’s delicious. And if you don’t believe some self-proclaimed gangster writing on the internet, you can ask Madhur Jaffrey what she thinks about it. What? you think you’re smarter than Madhur Jaffrey?

Who cares about the nutritional composition of lettuce? It’s just lettuce. It won’t fill you up, the 8 calories per serving can be empty without hurting your precious health. What may damage your health is the bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, diced beets (not so bad) and Thousand Island that I recommend slathering great wedges and torn shards of iceberg with. You should make your own Thousand Island as all bottled salad dressing is awful; it should include copious horseradish, lemon, tabasco and worcestershire.

The Holiday Salad: Bibb lettuce, Satsuma mandarins and candied pecans in poppy seed dressing with cranberry gelée (jello mold) garnish.

Endive (or chicory) whether curly, belgian, escarole, friseé, raddichio, treviso or otherwise, requires an assertive, really aggresive, dressing. Red wine vinegar, mustard (powdered or strong prepared), copious garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes (or, better yet, Tutto Calabrias) blended with a judicious measure of olive oil usually does the trick. Garnishes should include some combination of olives, garlicky croutons, pepperoncini, country ham, raw mushrooms, dry cheese, citrus fruit (probably best to hold back the garlic in this case) bacon or anchovies.

Like my German forebears, I pick dandelions in the earliest days of spring. These I toss in hot bacon dressing. Render bacon of its fat, add apple cider vinegar, sugar, mustard and scallions. Pour this immediately over the greens and serve post-haste.

Another derided tradition is the use of gelatin-set fruit juices as a garnish for salad. Salad serves, among other puposes, to make your mouth wet, and gelée, if you have to get fancy about it, makes your mouth wet without drenching the salad (although a salad should be, despite fancy chefs’ assertions to the contrary, a wet thing). The holiday salad here consisted of bib lettuce, satsuma mandarins and candied pecans dressed in a sweet- sour poppy seed dressing with a cranberry and white wine gelée for garnish. I can only tell you that it was fantastic.

Mushrooms, Maggots and Fusion Cuisine.

Fusion cuisine is ridiculous. I think it’s practitioners think that they’re “transcending cultural barriers” and that “flavors exist without contextual association” which are infuriating pseudo- intellectual sentiments. To be perfectly honest, the gangster doesn’t even know any proponents of fusion cuisine, but he commits crimes of culturally perverse flavor building on an increasingly frequent basis.

I first learned the horrific wrongfulness of interbreeding flavors or ingredients of the cuisines of two or more distinct cultures at the Higgins, which restaurant, paradoxically, taught me that flavors are just flavors. Sambal Oleck was a staple of the house, now it’s a staple in mine. Sambal does what cayenne does, only better. It’s fruitier, less abrasive, and disburses more easily. So, secretly I’m a fusion chef too. The case in point is Cauliflower Mushroom and potato soup. By which I mean Sparassis crispa, the mushroom that vaguely resembles cauliflower, not Brassica oleracea var. botrytis, the genetic mutant of broccoli, mixed up with Agaricus bisporous, the supermarket mushroom, as most internet sources seem to understand.

We found this particular sparassisafter a long wet slog through the thick underbrush of Larch Mountain. It was, like all encounters with this bizarre mushroom, a little surreal. It grows from the base of fir trees, right out of the area where the roots meet the ground, and it can be massive. This particular one was about twice the size of my head.

Leona with cauliflower mushroom

Leona with cauliflower mushroom

I left it in the refrigerator for a week, I have my excuses. I didn’t know that it hosted maggots. I pulled it out to make soup and some pickles and found that the base was home to not quite a swarm, but definitely a family of writhing grubs. So I did what any conscientious fungivore would do; I sliced it up and started picking them out with a paring knife. If you think that’s disgusting you should take a close look at the next piece of predatory fish that you buy at the supermarket, especially tuna. I’m just saying, at least I dig out my parasites before I eat.

Potato cauliflower soup is sort of a classic of mycological cuisine, if that “cuisine” could be said to have “classics”. So normally I would start with some salty cured pork product and render the fat out of that, then sauteé the onions, celery and a little bit of garlic in that, then add wine, then milk and potatoes. The mushrooms, previously blanched, come about 15 minute before the end. Finish with pepper, parsley, a touch of vinegar or a little lemon and serve it up with bread. But this time I forgot about the pork. I started with butter which especially sucked because I had some Armandino Guanciale that I brought back from Seattle.

The soup was lacking. Savoryness. What it lacked was something that I always thought could only be gotten from cured pork or, occasionally, from anchovies. But it was too late now and I was determined to not make a fucking mess out of it after all that. Serendipitously I happened to have a little shot glass on the counter half full of toasted, powdered dried shrimp that I needed for some Malaysian crab nonsense. So, in desperation, I added a little and simmered.  When it had had time to blossom, it tasted more better. So I added a little more. The same as with the cayenne trick, the shrimp didn’t assert itself. There was nothing fishy about it, it was simply more savory, more satisfying. So you see that I am a fusion chef too. Just like all the fusion chefs from the 1990’s who made up pan- asian and Franco- Japanese and Russo- North African and….

So here you go interweb, here is something that you really need, recipes for “cauliflower mushroom” not cauliflower with mushrooms.

Cauliflower mushroom soup:

Maybe 1 big onion, diced

Maybe 2 ribs of celery, also diced

about a clove of garlic, thin sliced


2,3 or 4 bay leaves, as you wish

a little bundle of thyme sprigs

pinch of cayenne or 1/4 t Sambal

1/4 t toasted powdered dried shrimp

white wine (whatever you have, provide it’s not white zinfandel, is, I’m sure, just fine) or white vermouth

a quart of chicken stock

a half pint of cream

4 yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed (not red, they won’t thicken the soup properly)

a goodly chunk, maybe a pound, of dewormed, blanched, bite sized chunks of cauliflower mushrooms

parsley, chives

It’s fairly straightforward: melt the butter in your best pot, sauteé your onion, celery and garlic along with the bay leaf, but do not brown. Add the white wine, the cayenne and the shrimp powder and simmer briefly. Add the stock and the potatoes  and season the soup well with salt (it should taste close to how the finished product will tase) and simmer, add the thyme in about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms a little before the potatoes are done and when the potatoes are done fish out about a half cup, mash them well, mix them with a little stock and cream and stir them back into the soup. Then add the cream, cook until the soup thickens up nice then add the finely chopped parsley and chives and whatever else the soup needs including, perhaps, a squeeze of lemon or a little vinegar.

Old Fat Republicans Eat the Best

If you’re new to Portland (or have the misfortune of living elsewhere in the US), vote democratic, are under 55 years of age and 250 pounds of weight or are, most unfortunately, a vegetarian, you may have never been to Tad’s Chicken and Dumplings. A situation that you will soon need to rectify.

When you enter Tad’s, the nostalgia envelopes your senses like your own mother’s breath on your infant face. The brass, the wood grain, the canvas- shaded table lamps and, most importantly, the red gingham checked curtains. Forget the Sandy River view, those dirty hick children can frolic out of my sight, I want to be immersed in the setting that Tad so thoughtfully envisioned. Okay, so Tad is long dead and the location of Tad’s now was opened by subsequent owners in the 1940’s.

There is a bar, which is fabulous, but is unfortunately manned by youngsters. Some of these youngsters have proven capable, but there is no substitution for experience, or at least the appearance of such. I really wish they would get rid of all those kids and hire some stiff old men who wear bow ties and who know many cocktails but only dispense a half dozen or so. But I cavil.

What’s good about the place is its seamlessness. One is seated courteously, then brought a “relish tray”, which is a silver serving dish filled with raw vegetables and a little paper cup of creamy dill dressing which could use a little acidity and salt. Whenever I see the term “relish tray” on a menu I envision watermelon rind pickles, chow chow and green tomato jam. Alas, I am almost always disappointed. The service is prompt.

I have ordered many things, my favorite is razor clam cakes. Well seasoned, tender and well executed (that is to say, fried), they are the signature appetizer. The fried chicken livers are routinely terrible (what a fucking crime it is). The onion rings are fairly good and the bay shrimp cocktail is (inexplicably) hit and miss.

So skip the appetizers and head straight for the mains. Who needs ’em when you’ve got a rocks manhattan in your hand anyway? The green beans are standard, you can have as many as you like, and you will like many. They’re not, um, how do you say in your language? al dente. Which I must assume means bland and crunchy. They are, as we say in my language, stewed. With ham.

The chicken and dumplings is very large. It is rich and fatty. It is almost seasoned well enough. Unlike many restaurants in the metro area, salt is on the table. Is this what is meant by the colloquialism, the salt of the earth? I remember sitting down to my first meal where a salt dispenser was not in evidence, it was at a restaurant called “Mint” (capital M, lower case m? the website makes it unclear. This sounds like a job for my wife). What was certain was that the food required salt.

The dumplings are dumplings. They are steamed, they are heavy, they are white. They make an excellent accompaniment to gravy. The fried chicken is also good. It lacks the colonel’s secret blend, but who can compete with the Colonel of the Food Scientists? Certainly not I.

In summary, if you ever find yourself out on the Old Columbia Highway near Troutdale, hightail it to your nearest KFC. They have a seven piece meal deal going on right now for ten bucks or something like that. They don’t have drinks, or ambience, and the clientelle and staff are largely ignorant and/or addicted to drugs. But they have managed to, through the genius of food science, transform chicken feces into an incredibly crispy, deliciously spicy, fried nugget that, when dipped in honey mustard sauce, resembles fowl in flavor.

Shaped by Shish Kabob

I remember a certain variety show from the early 80’s called “Evening Magazine”. Nobody else, except my own family, seems to know what I’m talking about. On this show, there was a chef guy who in retrospect probably wasn’t very good, but he was my hero. His name was Chef Tell and he made all sorts of (to my young eyes and palate) exotic and fancy foods. I remember shish kabob was a favorite and you can see what a boss Chef Tell was at preparation here. I begged my mother to make the food that Chef Tell made. I wanted sirloin tips skewered with cherry tomatoes and peppers so badly I could taste them. Chef Tell probably served them with rice pilaf, as cous cous was probably not yet available in this country.

I don’t remember liking Julia Child, but apparently she was a childhood favorite as well. I do remember buying my mother a copy of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in probably 1987. I don’t remember ever once having “Chilled Shrimp and Cucumber Soup” nor even “caviar dip” (which includes cream cheese). This book now sits on my shelf, and I’ve never prepared any of these dishes either. My closest brushes with the “fancy foods” of the eighties were lobster (from Red Lobster), chicken liver paté, and medium- rare T-bone steaks with my grandfather. Come to think of it, he ate more like the sixties.

I thought that my chances of regularly enjoying the Yuppie foods that graced the tables of the cognoscenti, the Seavers, the Keatons, The Strattons of my childhood had passed into obscurity. I mean I’m not gonna cook that shit, I’ve had those ideas beaten out of my conscious will through years of working in more “contemporary” restaurants (a thoughtless position that I’m strongly reconsidering).

It didn’t really occur to me when I saw it that it would dredge up so much nostalgia, but I knew what type of restaurant it was at first site. I knew from the font, from the first time I gazed upon the metallic geo-scrawl of a nameplate that crowned the wall rising above a heavily-foliaged veranda. This restaurant is a relic. The type of place that might unabashedly serve cultivated mushroom caps stuffed with seafood and bechamel, or a fancy stuffed baked potato, or a molten chocolate filled cake. I always knew that I would someday eat at Perry’s on Fremont.

And what awaited us on that patio was exactly what we might have expected. Families, the men in rugbys and polo shirts, the women in conservative floral print dresses, kids in their easter- egg colored gear, laughing under a giant Japanese maple (these people knew it was cool before it was really cool). The bar looked like a pickup lounge for Tom Selleck or Jack Lord, funky and Modern (note the capital M). I had a Manhattan, Leona had the “Champagne Perry” both truly wonderful, the Manhattan large and strong, the Champagne Cocktail bracing and refreshing. The menu informed us that the owners had previously owned a burger joint further up the road and that they had opened Perry’s in 1984, the same year  that The Police released Synchronicity.

I had the burger; it seemed to be their specialty.  Only one burger was offered, with blue cheese and bacon; weren’t fancy burgers invented in the eighties? It was delicious. The meat was hardly pattied, formed would be a better verb, the result was tender beyond my realm of understanding. The bun was… 80’s, soft, toasted, large, yeasty. What more could I want, toasted onions? Leona, at my urging, had a salad that included asparagus, chicken, hard boiled egg and lemon vinaigrette. It was the quintessence of simple and modern. It lacked salt and acid, yet was perfectly acceptable.
I was passing out by dessert, on account of the five shots or so of whisky I had consumed. But Leona insisted. So I chose the molten chocolate spice cake. What a revelation. So, this is what the college professors, the marketing exec’s, the TV advertising account representatives of the 1980’s were enjoying at their dinner parties. And probably still are. Asparagus, chicken and eggs found what they were looking for, were completed by: warm, runny chocolate and spice.
Say what you like, the ground work for “cuisine” in this country was laid in the nineteen eighties. Yuppies have become (to me anyway) the butt of every joke concerning nouveau riche pretension, but a friend of Leona’s put it best, “the yuppies were seeking authenticity”. Authentic to what, I honestly don’t fucking know, but my nostalgic yearning has been fulfilled.

Whenever they give you something good…they take it away.

So let’s say you live in a city with a lot of bars, and you want to open another one. What would you do? Open another smoky dive in which 20 somethings could acclimate themselves to adult society? A fancy beer haven with the ambience of an office depot? A hipster den, replete with hummus and Bulleit bourbon (the milk and honey of the edgy crowd)? Oh, how about a third floor dance complex for out-of- town “white hats” and the slutty little things that love them? Any of these ventures would provide a steady stream of low- investment, easily- managed income to just about any sleazeball in the country who’s willing to show his sallow, sagging, dirty little face around the place once a month or so. They have two class of prey:  the old and stupid, and the young and ignorant (and probably stupid) .

Why pay $4.75 American for a pint of the same beer that’s available in every convenience store and supermarket in the city? “To meet members of the opposite sex, gangster, to impress them with our sophistication and prowess”. This is not enough, especially for the married among us. I expect something special from a bar.

I want atmosphere. “Lived in” is nice, as is “bizarre”. But the seating needs to be comfortable, and preferably leave me with a similar point of view to that which I had while standing. Simply fancy is not good enough, unless it’s really fancy and has character. Like the Maria Cristina in San Sebastian. If your going to be fancy, I want to feel a little mentally uncomfortable. The fancy bars here are a bit of a joke in that, if your fleece is expensive enough, you’ll fit right in. Now I’m just wearing a flannel amongst the nouveau riche which is only mildly amusing.

But mostly what I want is a truly knowledgeable selection of drinks. By which I definitively do not mean a collection of cocktails made with major brand liquors. A bottle of Grey Goose and some Lillet Blanc doth not a cocktelier make. I don’t care if you have the hoppiest IPA from Vancouver BC to Salinas nor that you make your own “bitters”. Here’s a hint: bitters should actually be bitter, if you infuse vanilla pods into grain alcohol, that’s just a liqueur.

A competent, thoughtful selection of esoteric liqueuers from the farthest flung corners of Europe is a reason to go out. Especially when they come at a reasonable price. If you refuse to pollute or cheapen them by mixing them into clever little “creations” and referring to yourself as a “mixologist”, then we’re speaking the same language. Unfortunately, that sassy little hussy that Mr. nine to five just picked up from behind the counter at the tea shop is not in accordance with my views, hence the demise of Apotheke. Really the best bar in the city for a time. Zwack Unicum, Chartreuse (several varieties), Rip Van Winkle 15 year; they had it all. Not to mention a selection of esoteric, yet delicious draft beers not to be found elsewhere in the city. I like to think that the Pearl District location was their downfall, but I know better. That place wouldn’t have fit in anywhere in Portland.

And now it’s gone. So where to drink? Where to take the friends? Higgins has a nice selection of bottles, but it’s a little pricey for just any old night. Pix, well chosen beers, wines and liquors, they even got the Rip Van Winkle. But it is always so incredibly crowded, totally understaffed and just hipster, hipster, hipster. Enter Saraveza.

My new favorite bar is smartly located in an underserved neighborhood and right next to Portland Community College (these people are savvy) and has just the right mix of up and downscale. Best of all, its never busy when I go in. Even at night one can find a seat. The selection is thoughtful, the service is friendly and the food is good and best of all, it’s  American.

Saraveza serves about eight beers on tap and countless more in bottles. the selection rotates often and usually features a couple of European brews in addition to the obligatory Northwestern IPA and pales. Resin covered bottle cap mosaics in the tabletops, dark wood and lots of really truly vintage midwestern beer paraphenalia make up the decor. The tables sit at bar height, which is what I like, but they got a handful of chairs that are ridiculously uncomfortable (hope you all see this) like they’re just broken. The food though.

The speciality of the house is the pasty. An Upper -Midwest staple, it is essentially a savory turnover. Think mom’s potroast, only wrapped in shortcrust. This they serve with a doctored up bottle of Heinz chili sauce and some house-made pickles, and some ambitious pickles at that (maybe balance the acid little more please?). They also got deviled eggs, the whites being pickled, chex mix, summer sausage with cheese and crackers (just like home) and a trio of Old Country Meats sausages with mustard. Not my favorite sausages in town, but better than most.

So what’s so special? Nothing, except it’s thoughful and that’s rare. And by thoughtful I don’t mean really ambitious or super- creative or niche- driven. I mean details are almost effortlessly orchestrated to give an overall  impression of ease and abundance. No need for homemade “bitters” when you got beer and atmosphere.

Where critics fear to tread

I hate going out to dinner in this town. Rarely am I surprised or even incredibly impressed. More often than not, I get let down. I had a rule for a while wherein there were only about six “fancy” restaurants that we were allowed to eat at. I won’t mention what they were.

But then one of them let me down terribly. I had taken a bunch of cooks there for dinner and everything was sub-par, but I gave it another chance. This time I wasn’t with restaurant people and that was, in some ways, worse. Worse because they weren’t tasting the mistakes and foibles of execution and recognizing exactly what went wrong where, they were simply underwhelmed. Especially because the chef in question has gotten so much press. I think Food and Wine called him, “The Prince of Modern Gastronomy” and the New York Times raved, “The Prometheus of Portland”. I think they overstated the case.

To be perfectly fair I had only eaten at Le Pigeon once before and the food was good. The atmosphere was good too. So it really had no place in my little canon. But I really believed in the place for its seeming lack of pretension and its willingness to experiment. We had a linguine with pickled pig’s ears and I appreciated the playfulness. This time the menu seemed a little more straightforward, but there were some things that grabbed my attention.

So we started with a grilled romaine salad with salt cod, pine nuts and sherry vinegar marinated red onions. This would have been great, the lettuce was nicely grilled, the pine nuts well toasted, the onions sweet and tart (although I didn’t really get the sherry, maybe too much sugar?), and the salt cod nonexistent. I literally don’t think there was any salt cod. But there were other things on the table and I got too caught up in the moment to think to send it back. Who needs salt cod when you have sweetbreads and lamb trio?

The sweetbreads were great. Fried crisp and served up with quartered, slightly sauteéd grapes, some pancetta, a little friseé and red onion salad and some nice big slices of Oregon black truffle. I only wished it were bigger. But good critics don’t complain about portion sizes, so I won’t here either. I just miss the way it was in Donostia in Spain, where sweetbreads came sliced thin, fried crisp, and piled high on a grease-paper lined basket with lemon and aioli. That’s living.

The lamb was where things really started to go downhill for me. The dish was advertised as ribs, belly and tongue. The ribs were dry and over-salted, not to mention bland. The belly came in the form of rillete, which was also over-seasoned yet bland, not to mention fatty even by the standards of belly rillete. And the tongue, which drew my eye to the dish in the first place, failed to satisfy not only on the above scores (bland, salty,) but also by virtue of it’s long experience as a disembodied organ. Offal can be cured or pickled and be great, this was neither. Maybe somebody forgot the pink salt.

For dinner I got braised pork (shoulder, jowl?) served atop a mound of excellent polenta, coated with sauce naturelle and covered with a nice flurry of Parmegiano. The pork was burnt. Not over-carmelized. It wasn’t just the fond. The meat itself was bitter as a coffee bean with that aroma that comes if you’ve ever tried to toast a tortilla on an electric burner. I couldn’t finish it, and I was hungry. So I moved over to Leona’s plate, rabbit with English peas, pancetta and Raclette.

This one was pretty good. The peas were delicious. Who doesn’t like Raclette? Pancetta is a food group in my house (or it would be if anybody in this town would proffer a decent log, besides Todd, who doesn’t make enough). The rabbit itself was a little, je ne sais quoi; plain, dry? But after my encounter with the pork, Leona was lucky I left the bones. Sauce would have helped this one, the Raclette was unfortunately just a semi-melted chunk in the bottom of the earthenware dish. But the aesthetic was true, a rustic ensemble of simple, hearty lapin garni.

We had some great wines including a Refosco from Vigne de Zamo, 2006 I think. The price, $40.00, not too bad. This one was a little dense and chewy but still with those nice refined Italian tannins that make it go so well with food or, for that matter, drunken revelry.

I don’t want to say that I don’t recommend this restaurant. The atmosphere is nice, the prices right, and the food playful and sometimes spot on. I just hate having my expectations shattered. It was probably just an off night. But I figure, if you got your picture on the cover of Food and Wine, the food should blow little-old-me away on a balls-to-the-wall shit night with no dishwasher and a new pantry cook.

Land of the Misfit Restaurants

Some zip codes just aren’t hip enough for critical review. 97220 in the Parkrose neighborhood, home of The German Bakery, is one of those.

The unassuming storefront on Sandy Boulevard could do more to showcase the array of central european delights that await the intrepid germanophile. Long overshadowed by their far more popular competitor, Edelweiss, in the considerably trendier 97202 area code; the plucky volksdeutsche out there in no hipster land toil away at their jaegerbrot, marzipan, and their baerentatze in relative obscurity. Two glass display cases are filled with rolls, cookies and impossibly beautiful pastries. Behind the counter hangs another glass case filled (well, mostly empty past noon) with house baked- rye and white flour breads.

Not ready to venture beyond the motherly embrace of inner southeast Portland for a couple of pastries and some marzipan cookies? The Bakery just happens to be connected to The Bavarian Sausage Company whose main location is in the true hinterlands of Tigard. The selection ranges from 18-inch long thuringer bratwurst to dinner franks and spicy beer sausage. No New Seasons’ “loose-lean-ground meat seasoned with a haphazard quantity of spice dust, and placed in the general vicinity of a pig’s intestine.” These are the real Bavarian deal. The seasoning could, to my mind, be a little more forward but that’s probably just the Cincinnati in me talking. The sausages have snap and the smoke (on those that are) is just right.

When Leona and I go, we’re usually heading out of town to do some hiking and we want something that we can eat cold on rolls (the laugenwecke, pretzel rolls, are delicious). So we go for the cold cuts and cheese. Head cheese comes in a couple of incantations and it’s delicious. Lyoner, Black Forest Ham and Westphalian ham, like the less-aged German version of prosciutto are also on display and well executed. Bavarian mustard, gherkins, pickled beets, saurkraut, and various other, stranger, German condiments fill a couple of shelves. Butterkaese is one cheese you should stop living without. The variety they carry here appears to be a mass market example but it’s incredibly satisfying nonetheless. As the name implies, it tastes like butter, but its a semi- soft cow’s milk cheese that’s aged for about a month. What could be nicer with a liter of hellesbier?  Nothing, that’s what.

Speaking of beer, they’ve got about thirty labels, mostly mass market stuff, but a couple of treats, and they serve breakfast and lunch.

Breakfast, referred to simply as “German Breakfast” consists of a variety of cold cuts, some butterkaese, a selction of rolls (usually plain seeming “milk rolls”), butter, apricot jam, and a soft boiled egg. Perfect. Lunch, I have yet to try. I will only mention here that they serve a dish called rouladen which is a stuffed, stewed beef roll, pork chops, and stuffed cabbage. I believe that they serve these with a selection of sides, like german potato salad.

There are other misfit restaurants that I intend to bring to you in the very near future. Following the example of gastronomes like Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern one can find a plethora of great, authentic eateries that survive not through fanfare, deep pockets, and critical reviews, but through the loyal patronage of a loyal clientelle. The original intent of those authors, which has now been largely perverted on the websites chowhound.com and roadfood.com, was to showcase regional American institutions, places that fed generations of people the sort of familiar fare that they truly, earnestly desired. What today we refer to, sometimes derisively, other times simply condescendingly, as comfort food. The problem is that as the generation that frequents these institutions dies off or retires to Florida, their offspring do not step up to take their places. They go either the way of Safeway, Wal Mart, and Wendy’s or the way of Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Toro Bravo (not to pick on that restaurant per se, but you know what I mean, don’t act like you don’t).  The problem is, to my mind, especially keen in the area of retail food. American butchers, bakers and greengrocers are practically extinct. The trades themselves are going fast as well, considering that at the average American supermarket they train people only as “meat cutters” as opposed to butchers (most actually only train them to be “meat wrappers”), the bread is generally of low quality and often made from mixes, and the deli counter is more a showcase of the travesties of modern industrial food supply than a display of proudly crafted artisan goods.

If urban young people continue to ignore these institutions they will disappear. With them will go a large chunk of our awareness of our past and America will continue to be regarded in some circles (europeans, trendy American “foodies”) as lacking a serious food culture.