Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sips and Vittles in Portland

It was pouring on Wednesday in Portland. Sometimes it would slow to a drizzle, but mostly it rained hard, from about 2 pm onward. I don't own a car and I don't often drive. Imagine a Brooklynguy hunched up behind the wheel of a rental Ford, straining to see the street signs through the rain, occasionally missing a stop sign, generally posing a bit of a danger to the drivers and pedestrians of lovely Portland. Hoping against hope that the drive would soon be over and I could just unwind from a day of meetings and have some Oregon Pinot.

So you understand that by the time I parked (safe and sound, no one injured) outside of Noble Rot, I was pretty psyched to settle in at the bar. It was early and I was the only one there but the staff interrupted their various set-up duties to make sure I was comfortable and felt welcome. Can I just take this opportunity to say that I find Portlanders to be so genuinely helpful and friendly to strangers - a breath of fresh air, it is. But back to Noble Rot - a stylish but unaffected place, really nice looking. Comfortable space at the bar, plenty of booths, an upstairs party space, rows and rows of wine bottles on shelves lining the walls, framed wine maps too.

There were no fewer than 25 wines by the glass. They emphasize flights of three 2 oz. pours, at reasonable prices. On Wednesday there was a Crozes Hermitage flight, a Portuguese red flight, a New- World Sauvignon Blanc flight, and a flight of local wines from the Willamette Valley. Other by the glass options included mostly younger wines from South Africa to Burgundy, and there was a 1993 Leoville Barton for $16/glass, if you like that kind of thing.

I ordered an onion tart that was truly excellent. Rich and sweet caramelized onions on a short and flaky crust. So far so good. No way I'm drinking anything other than Oregon Pinot when I visit Portland. The first in the flight was a wine I'd never heard of called Matella (I think), and it was borderline undrinkable. High pitched with a turpentine edge to the nose, all out of balance, simple candied cherry fruit flavors. Bad wine, bad bad bad.

Then came the 2006 Chehalem 3 Vineyards Pinot Noir. I've enjoyed Chehalem's Pinot in the past, particularly the Corral Creek single vineyard bottling. There are Corral Creek grapes in this wine, also Ridgecrest and Stoller vineyard grapes. I think this is Chehalem's entry level Pinot, but I'm not positive. This didn't do anything for me. The nose was dark with some earthy blueberry fruit, but it was pretty one dimensional. And the palate was somewhat dilute. It lacked vibrancy and had none of the inspiring floral, earthy, or fruit notes that excite me in Pinot.

I was excited to taste the last Pinot in the flight, the 2006 Ken Wright McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir. I've heard some good things about Ken Wright's wines, abut I've never tasted. Probably because they cost at least $40 a bottle, a lot to spend on a wine I've never tried. It had the best nose of the bunch, with a mellow cinnamon and blue fruit character. But the palate was completely uninspiring. Just no punch to it whatsoever, nothing to get excited about. No acidity that I could discern, the wine seemed flaccid.

It bothered me that these were the wines they're pouring at Noble Rot. I mean, don't they taste the wines they feature on their flights? They can't honestly be recommending these as the stars of the currently available local scene...can they? These bottles were opened and re-corked before I arrived and I noticed that the fill levels were pretty high on each of them. They weren't open too long and dead or anything. They just were very mediocre. Sad, because there are plenty of great current releases they could pour. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but they should know the local wines better than that. How am I supposed to want to go back there if that Oregon flight is the product of their tasting and deciding what to offer their customers?

I was so disheartened that I decided to race back over the river to Oregon Wines on Broadway, a wine bar that offers 15-20 Oregon Pinots by the glass, including the heavy hitters, which I craved by that time. I found this place back in March on another trip to Portland. I breathed a sigh of relief as I dug into a flight that included the 2005 Evesham Wood Cuvée Broadway, the 2005 Cristom Louise Vineyard, and the Ayres Piper Vineyard (which I actually didn't like so much, although it seems to be the new wine on the block).

Okay, sated with local Pinot, time for dinner.

Le Pigeon was fun, but I'm sorry to say that in the end it left me wanting more. Not more butter though, as I had about a half pound clogging my gut when I left. I sat at the cook's counter so I can tell you that the chef and the two cooks have lots of funky tattoos, laboriously mussy hairdos, they keep up a steady stream of hipster banter, and the music is loud (but good). There is a silver sautée pan hanging on the wall with the following engraving: "Best New Chef 2007 , Food and Wine Magazine. There is no mistaking it: you are in a hip place that has received lots of critical acclaim so far. The chef knows it, and you know it.

The menu was the most interesting I've seen in a long time. I enjoyed a flute of NV Ampelidae Armance, a Loire Valley bubbly that Nick G. recommended while perusing. Nothing like a glass of bubbly while looking over a menu. It just makes everything sound better. It wasn't easy, but I chose the bone marrow gnocchi with parsley, garlic, and snails for an appetizer. I could have ordered beef neck terrine, or scallops with sea urchin, or egg noodles with truffles, or bitter greens salad. So many nice sounding things!

Imagine my sadness upon discovering that this dish was completely overrun by one, and only one flavor: burned garlic. No surprise, as there must have been two or three tablespoons of the stuff in the dish. And at least an small ice cream scoop of butter (I saw it happen people, it was a lot of butter). Blindfolded, there would be no way at all to know what you were eating. Bone marrow? Parsley? Forget it. The snails were really good though, so I ate those and tried to make it through some of the gnocchi, because after all, the chef was standing right there.

I chose beef Bourgignone for an entrée because the server said it is the signature dish. It was perfectly fine, but nothing special. Beef cheeks braised to ultimate tenderness, some veg, an intensely rich and buttery stock reduction. A nice touch was the (maybe slightly pickled) red onions, which added a welcome shock of acidity to cut through the heart-stoppage. No way to think about dessert after a meal like this. I still feel kind of full.

The cooks bar was a lot of fun, very social. I spent the evening talking with guy named Benoit, a French guy living in northern California also in Portland alone on business. And this place was packed on a rainy Wednesday. I'm talking an hour wait for a party of two people. So as always, take everything I say with a grain of artisanal sea salt as there clearly are plenty of people who love this place. Unlike with Noble rot, I would happily go back to Le Pigeon and order differently (Benoit said his pork loin was excellent). Only I would sit at the communal tables because I don't want to know how much butter goes into my food, in situations like this.

Anyway...I hope you don't take this to mean that I didn't enjoy myself. I had a great time. And I appreciate very much all of your suggestions about where to go. I'm just an opinionated SOB, that's all, and I find the food at most restaurants with lofty aspirations to be disappointing. I'm looking forward to trying the other places next time - I am undeterred. And I brought back one hell of a case of Oregon wine too - another time though because somehow this post is already 4 miles long.


Joe Manekin said...

BKguy -

The hipsters have taken over Portland. It's official.

So you're just 35 miles or so from Williamette valley and you're having a fairly tough time getting good PN, huh? Now you see what I was getting at? I'm sure you'll be drinking better stuff tomorrow though.

Glad you're getting some quality time in the Pac NW.

Anonymous said...

I feel a bit guilty for not responding about Le Pigeon. The answer is "no", I have not been there. My wife and I have a 3 year old, so going out is a rare treat. So I'm always hesitant to be too experimental. I've heard mixed reviews of Le Pigeon and your described experience reflects exactly what I feared it really was: a bit too hip for its own good. When we can get out to dinner, we like good wine, good food, and preferably decent service.

As for the wine, what a bummer! Ken Wright is -- in my experience -- consistently good, though I have not tried the McCrone. Try the Shea or Carter sometime -- they really are stellar. Chehalem can be good, though I've had their Reserve, and it was not as good as I thought it should have been for the cost (like $60 for the bottle). 3 Vineyards is definitely their "entry" level bottle, and isn't reflective of their other offerings. I'd say 3V is a decent table wine, but certainly no fly-into-PDX-for-a-treat wine.

If you have the opportunity, may I suggest Beaux Freres (their 2006 offerings are insanely good), Ken Wright (Shea, Carter, or Guadalupe), Carabella, Domaine Serene (even the bottom-end one is great), Daedalus (Labyrinth is also insane, but even their "Willamette Valley" is quite nice ... and cheaper), and finally Domaine Drouhin ("Laurene" is another great one).

Yeah, these are all fairly pricey, but that's the problem these days: the demand is too much for the supply that all these small producers can muster. And that's likely the cause of your experience: good Oregon Pinot disappears as soon as it hits the market.

In fact, some of the better plots are getting bought up by out-of-staters for their own purposes -- Seven Springs was a tragic loss. I loved to get wine from there (St Innocent's was really good). But alas, no more as those grapes are now owned by some California restaurant consortium.

Anyway, I'm rambling now. Hope you enjoyed Portland regardless.

Brooklynguy said...

hey joe m - only a tough time at that particular wine bar. There was plenty of good local wine in stores and in the other wine bar. it was a great trip, thanks.

Jason - thank you for your thoughtful comments. i just spent some time on your site and now understand why they are as well informed as they are. Anyway...we are on exactly the same page re going out to dinner. my 11 month old makes it a rare treat also, and its tough to pick a place because you don't want to risk sub-par food. so we wind up going back to the same few places in brooklyn...

i have never tasted beaux freres (and the part parker ownership turns me off, to be honest) or carabella, but i've had the others. i actually drink quite a bit of oregon wine. my favorite producer of those you mention is daedalus - i have written about the wines on this site. and yes, the seven springs and anden story is very sad. but i guess everyone has the right to try to make a lot of money. thanks again for your comments - take it easy. and by the way, i think i should be a "guest reviewer" with you next time i'm in portland!

Anonymous said...

I've been to Portland twice. Both luckily in the spring. Both times it was jaw-droppingly beautiful due to the green of spring and blooming flowers. Visit the Japanese/Chinese/Rose Gardens if or when you go back. One of my first and best wine experiences was visiting and drinking excellent wines at the Willakenzie (I think thats the name)Winery .
DanB from WI

Anonymous said...

brooklynguy, next time in Portland- come by my house. In my cellar I have lots of St. Innocent, also Cristom, Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin, Shea, Blackcap, Bethel Heights, plus some good ones that are so limited in production I can't mention them or I won't get any next year. Anyway we could open a couple.


Anonymous said...

brooklynguy: Absolutely. Contact me next time your due into PDX. We'd love to have you as a guest critic.

Wicker Parker said...

I wish I'd checked in earlier, I could have directed you to my sister and brother-in-law's restaurant, Terroir; and among other things, they feature some only-available-locally Pinot among many other wines that are hard to find.

Well, next time you're in Portland, I suppose...

On another note, I always pitch a flag for J.K. Carriere Willamette Valley Pinots. Winemaker Jim Prosser favors balance over extraction, and the "standard" mid-level bottlings are actually worth the asking price of $40. They're available in Chicago, so hopefully you can find them in New York.

Brooklynguy said...

hi anon - i've never been to those gardens but i keep hearing i have to go. in the spring, for sure. and i agree about tasting onsite. nothing better, in my opinion, if you're trying to get to know a procuer's wines.

thanks for your offer cruxsola. sounds like a plan.

you too jason. i am soooo there.

and mike, i'm taking you up on that next time. never tried carriere. it's on the list.

thanks for all of your comments.

Anonymous said...

We were in PDX twice this month and ate at Pigeon the first visit. I actually like the portland hipster feel and enjoyed the atmosphere at Pigeon. Surprised you didn't mention the wine list. An '82 Madiran for, what, $80? Come'on! 2002 Olga Raffault Les Picasses for $36? I could go there every night for a month just to work the list.

We didn't like the food much, though. The beef neck terrine was overpowered by cornichons (or sweet pickles of some kind) and the sweetness didn't match well with the richness of the beef. The sweetbreads were in some kind of candied glaze and that didn't work either. The pigeon was fine and the scallops were OK, too.

On the Oregon pinots, there are a lot of misses, especially in the ripe vintages like 2006. I've generally liked Cameron, EW, Brickhouse, JK Carriere and McKinlay. I'm planning to go back and retry Eyrie and Erath after the nice write ups they got from Allen Meadows.