Portland: The Dinner Hour

There were an overwhelming number of eateries to choose from to fill our supper hours in Portland. While we were resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to hit up every restaurant on our list, I think we managed to visit a good cross-section of establishments, from late-night lounges to supper clubs. Overall, we were impressed by the creativity and the quality exhibited by the chefs in PDX.

Saucebox

For a late-night bite, we wanted to stay close to our home base, so wandered over to Saucebox, a lounge a block away from our hotel.

It was absolutely hopping on a Thursday night, not a surprise when we realized, after flipping through five pages of cocktail options, that their specialty was drinks. Still, their Asian-inspired bites were intriguing enough for us to stay, and ordered several small plates to share.

Their beef potstickers were the star, pan-fried to a crackling crisp. The salted prawns were gorgeous, delivered on a slate board, heads on, over a bed of salt. The spring rolls (one of Mack’s favourite things), were unfortunately bland and forgettable.

Portland September 2012

Beef potstickers

Portland September 2012

Salted prawns

Simpatica Dining Hall

Primarily a catering outfit, Simpatica Dining Hall appealed to us because of their supper club concept offered on Fridays and Saturdays. With an ever-changing menu, a four-course meal could be had for under $40, and I liked the idea of communal dining.

I ended up confusing the Friday and Saturday dinner times, and we were a half hour late (it was a bit mortifying walking into the full dining room), but the staff were understanding. It was also great timing in the sense that we were seated just as the first course was being served!

The fried chicken appetizer was a strong way to start. We loved the curry flavour in the breading, and the side of cornmeal pancakes with a green tomato syrup was a fun alternative to the current trend of chicken and waffles.

Portland September 2012

Fried chicken and short stack

The salad with pickled grapes, shaved sheep’s milk cheese and a tomato vinaigrette was refreshing. The toasted pistachios were a nice touch.

Portland September 2012

Salad

The smoked pork chop with cider glaze was a mountain meant to be climbed – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such  a large serving of pork before! It was well prepared, moist all the way through, but needless to say I wasn’t able to finish it. The wilted chard could also have been cooked down more.

Portland September 2012

Smoked pork chop

After such a heavy entrée, a lighter dessert would have been appreciated, but those around the table with bigger appetites than me murmured their approval for the decadent pecan pie.

Portland September 2012

Pecan pie

Although the food and service was great (the kitchen was amazingly efficient – the courses just clipped along), the best thing about Simpatica was the experience of communal dining. Everyone else around the table happened to be from Portland (one couple was being treated to the meal as Simpatica was a candidate to cater their wedding), and when they found out Mack and I were tourists, they were eager to provide us with dining recommendations. No doubt Portlanders are proud of their food scene!

Pok Pok

Pok Pok is easily Portland’s most famous restaurant. Focusing on serving authentic Thai food, Chef Andy Ricker has been recognized with numerous awards, and has successfully exported the concept to New York. No question, it was number one on my list of establishments we had to visit, just to see what all the hype was about.

When we arrived, we had to wonder whether or not the dining district immediately around the establishment was built up before or after Pok Pok opened (including a late-night food pod across the street, featuring live music and a beer-dispensing truck!). Given their policy of no reservations for parties less than five, it would seem quite lucrative for peripheral restaurants to snap up customers who weren’t willing or able to wait.

Our own wait time numbered fifty minutes, probably not uncommon. But we probably should have been more vocal with the hostess, who seated two small parties before us, and never bothered to offer vacant bar seats to us. It wasn’t the best way to start our Pok Pok experience, but we hoped the food would make up for it.

The menu was unapologetically Thai – from the dish names listed to encouraging diners to share plates with one another. We ordered three dishes (to share, of course). The fried egg salad was a dish recommended by the Globe & Mail – but after trying it, I wondered why. Besides being deceivingly spicy, there was nothing that stood out about it.

The pork belly and shoulder curry was complex and well-balanced, with a nice back heat. The meat was fork tender, and our only quibble was being served the wrong side of rice (jasmine instead of coconut). Our favourite dish was the curried noodle soup, with a delicate house-pressed coconut milk base. I loved the added texture from the crispy noodles.

Pok Pok

Dinner at Pok Pok

Service was okay, if a bit inconsistent and breezy. I can only imagine the pressure the servers are under, but everything about our meal felt perfunctory, and never hospitable. Although the food was enjoyable, the experience as a whole was underwhelming.

Produce Row Café

Too late we found out that Olympic Provisions was closed for dinner on Monday nights, so in desperation, we turned to our Frommers guide for a recommendation within walking distance. A few blocks away, we found Produce Row Café, a gastropub tucked in between light industrial buildings.

The interior was warm and inviting, and busier than we expected for such an unassuming storefront. We later discovered that we were right in the midst of happy hour, bursting with enticing drink and food specials. I can say that my fruity bramble (gin + blackberry syrup + lemon) was my favourite drink of the trip.

Portland September 2012

Mack relaxing at happy hour

Although the food wasn’t exceptional, the comforting dishes hit the spot, and our server was friendly and present. In the wake of the wavering experience at Pok Pok, it reminded us that it never is just about the food.

Portland September 2012

Corn dog with fries

Portland September 2012

French onion soup

Clyde Common

Clyde Common has a stellar reputation, and was recommended through a variety of channels, both personal and online. So it was a bit of a shock that it turned out to be our worst meal in recent memory.

We had to wonder if the couple seated next to us knew something we didn’t – they abruptly left after looking at the menu. But everything seemed promising – the beautiful room was anchored by a bar to one side, and a glowing open kitchen on the other. Communal tables made up most of the dining seats.

Portland September 2012

Interior

Service was brisk and indifferent, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst part. The appetizer was okay, but it would have been challenging for any chef to mess up a simple seasonal combination of grilled peaches and marinated tomatoes.

Portland September 2012

Marinated tomatoes and grilled peaches

My pig’s head ravioli was delivered a good five minutes before Mack’s – neither of us were sure why it wasn’t served alongside his dish. The pasta itself could have used that cooking time – it was tough, rubbery and difficult to eat. The filling was another story, with shards of cartilage sprinkled throughout. Although I recognize the nature of the dish I ordered, being very much a textural eater, the undercooked pasta and cartilage pieces were difficult to handle.

Portland September 2012

Pig’s head ravioli

Mack’s stuffed trout was also a pretty spectacular failure. The fish itself was cooked well, but that was the end of the accolades. We couldn’t figure out why a stuffed fish wasn’t deboned, as it was impossible to eat. Moreover, the already salty fish was made even more so with a layer of bacon.

Portland September 2012

Stuffed trout

We don’t have an explanation for why both dishes were so poorly executed, and a scan of reviews indicates an overwhelmingly positive response to Clyde Common. So although we have to assume our experience was an anomaly, we would never return.

Olympic Provisions

Our penultimate dinner brought us back to Olympic Provisions. We had first tasted their salami at a food festival, and knew from that sample that we had to visit the restaurant for a full charcuterie board (one of the “iconic” items on Easter’s list of must-have Portland dishes).

Portland September 2012

Interior

We loved the glow of the “meat” sign above the open kitchen. The adjacent dining space was dimly lit, but lined with shelves of wine and spirits, felt intimate and comfortable, like we were seated in a cozy den. The vibe was relaxed, but it was clear Olympic Provisions is serious about their meat.

Portland September 2012

MEAT!

Mack and I shared some cheeses and a chef’s choice board, featuring capicola, a pork and pistachio terrine, pork liver mousse, loukanika and finocchiona. The salami is the best I’ve ever tasted, with the Greek loukanika being my favourite. It had the perfect amount of salt, a great mouth feel, and I loved the cumin flavour. We ended up taking some salami home with us, probably rationing the precious meat for a little too long. I know what I’m filling my bag with the next time we’re down in Portland!

Portland September 2012

Chef’s choice board

Portland September 2012

Cheeses

Our server was pleasant and knowledgeable, and we never felt rushed, even as we were approaching their closing hour. I would definitely recommend Olympic Provisions to those visiting Portland.

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