16 February 2006

Food Queen

For ten years I've been carrying around an idea -- ok, a fantasy -- for a restaurant at which I would truly love to eat. The restaurant wouldn't be elaborate -- but it would have big tables, comfortable chairs, an attentive, attractive, and knowledgeable staff, and -- most important of all -- a menu designed to suprise and satisfy with a kitchen that delivers the goods. The restaurant would be called “Food Queen.”

Now, given that I'm not in the hospitality business, the chance of me creating this restaurant is zero. Since I live in Washington DC, the chance of me finding a restaurant like this is also zero. And I'm OK with this.

I never expected that I would find such a restaurant. But I have -- and I found not one, but two restaurants that match the Food Queen fantasy. They are all I expected from Food Queen and more.

Both restaurants are in Portland, Oregon. BlueHour is the more conventional of the two. It serves as the corporate kitchen for Portland's advertising community. At the same time BlueHour's menu and staff (both kitchen and hospitality) strike the balance between haute cuisine and comfort. The potential for a pretentious horror of a place is huge. But Blue Hour confounds that expectation.

I've had two memorable meals there -- the first at table, with the DP and our professorial friends, the second at the bar. The drinks are strong, the flavors intense, and it matters not if you're dressed in jeans and fleece or fine Italian woolens and hand-sewn shoes. The menu is smart, not clever, and the food is sumptuous without the pretentious luxury (truffled, Kobe beef hamburgers, anyone?) in which many high-end restaurants indulge. And the restaurant takes up my late friend Jim Brunsman's challenge – no, taunt -- of Portland acquiring the patina of New York with a room that is as elegant as Manhattan's Four Seasons -- but every-so-subtly better and more fun. (Mark Brunsman, if, by some odd chance you’re reading this, call or write. You and Pippa are very much missed.)

If imitation is the sincerest form of appreciation, then I appreciate Blue Hour very, very much. We’ve adopted the ginger gimlet as the house drink for 2006. And the pureed chestnuts that were served with my venison proved equally appropriate with our New Year’s Eve roast goose. The burger is definitely best of show – and to the best of my knowledge, used no truffle or Kobe beef to achieve its greatness.

The Gotham Building Tavern eschews New York style for Northwest vernacular: the wood interior glows in the relatively low light. The restaurant evokes Timberline Lodge without apeing it. But the building that houses the restaurant is an old industrial building in North Portland, in the margin between what was industrial Portland and the wave front of the ever-expanding post-industrial Portland of advertising, new media, and marketing. The building and the restaurant are true to a Portland theme of hiding beauty inside a drab exterior. Somehow, the food and service reflect that same collision and transition of old and new Portland.

The night I ate there (see here) I was full of retail therapy and a deep desire not to be back in my mother’s apartment. I sat at the bar, and started out writing in my journal. The staff quickly brought me around. A wine list was offered; I found a perfect Rhône. The waiter and I chatted about the wine and the menu. I’m not used to having wait staff be truly knowledgeable about food and wine – no offense to waiters, but the chef and maitre’d briefing you on the day’s menu, and possibly the sommelier’s update on the wine list do not make you an expert on food and wine.

The waiter at Gotham was talking about wine. Not about the list – about wine. Like I was a friend – not someone he’s to whom he’s trying to sell a more expensive bottle. And then we talked about food. I confessed that I like to eat at restaurants what I can’t – or won’t – make at home. A second waiter came over. The three of us walked through the menu, talking about cooking, ingredients, and flavors. Finally, I decided on roast marrow bones with bitter herbs, and a fish stew with battered skate, mussels, a perfect scallop, fava beans, and a saffron fumé (I think). (Both were specials. You can see the regular menu here.)

Needless to say, the meal rocked. I was joined at the bar by a very attractive woman, who commented on the bones. I commented on her drink. We started chatting, and we talked more about food, community, sharing meals, and the ritual of the restaurant. It turned out she was married to him. Sweetie, I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name, but that meal, and our conversation was truly a great experience.

Now, if only Portland were a little closer to Washington, DC.


Double-A Ron said...

Cheers mate - Sean mentioned you to me - check out my blog - subwaystate.blogspot.com

and when you get a second I've also been doing some of the same mixtaping sean has -


Matt said...

You have some of the best food experiences it would seem. I'm jealous. :-p

Hope your father is doing better.