The descriptions were too tempting, so with my wife's recent raise as impetus, we decided to celebrate at Gotham Building Tavern.
We didn't have a problem getting a 6:00 reservation at 4:30 this afternoon. We were seated almost immediately when we arrived.
The interior moves a step beyond clarklewis in marrying chic and industrial. Concrete floors, a garage door front, bare ceilings and exposed venting -- all give the pretense of not being pretentious. But the impressive wood beam lattice barrier separating the bar from the dining room and the cluster of futuristic wood "cocoons" in the rear suggest a more stylish, trendy, and upscale establishment. Add to these swanky bits the square leather booths and dual-color light fixtures, like large ice cubes with one half cola and one half lemonade.
Don't overlook the staff as part of Gotham's dual personality decor. Everyone's in matching black. Men are wearing oversized, retro collars. Womens' tattoos are proudly on display in sleeveless spandex tops. They're like hipster models -- you know, as if Goodwill or Transworld had a fashion mag.
The tables are simple wood. At the center of each is a pile of cloth napkins and half a dozen or so each of forks and steak knives standing tips down in little boxes. Is this a diner? It's the upscale version of chopsticks and napkins at a pho shop.
The menu maintains the motif. Morels, sweet breads, foie gras, truffles, souffles -- the ingredients and dishes of high class cuisine. But nothing is over $20. And probably three-quarters of the thirty menu items are smaller plates at $10 or less.
The menu items sound simple, but compelling:
- Cracked wheat and Monterey Bay sardines with citrus ($9)
- Mussells with tomato, fresh chilies, and mint ($9)
- Fat duck liver bruschetta with seville orange marmalade ($15)
- Crispy artichokes with romesco ($6)
- Fried cod with braised fennel and mint aioli ($16)
My wife and I ordered 7 items off the dinner menu (and we were tempted to order more!) and 2 off the dessert menu. We were also brought an amuse bouche (a simple touch that I wish was more common in Portland) of white beans on bruschetta. I don't remember the description, but it was a wonderfully balanced bite with herbs and possibly preserved lemon. We quickly ordered a ramekin of marinated olives ($2) that were fabulous -- a variety of the fatty fruits in a mixture of fennel, lemon zest, chili, and oil.
We started with the lamb sweet breads ($7) and the serrano ham plate ($9). The sweet breads were little pieces of battered and fried offal served with a side of lemon aioli and slices of fried preserved lemon. The sweet breads had a nice contrast of textures, creamy inside and crisp outside. They could have spent a little more time in the fryer to eliminate any starchiness, but they were quite good. I absolutely loved the slices of preserved lemon. I have several jars of preserved lemons curing in my kitchen and am thinking even now about heating up some oil. The bright lemon nicely balanced the lamby puffs.
The paper-thin serrano came with a slab of cana de cabra, a mild goat cheese, and sherry-macerated figs. Three ingredients, perfect flavor. Each was what they were: exquisite. And together they were even better.
Next we ordered the pork belly ($11) and the asparagus ($10). The pork belly came "laquered" in a semi-sweet reduction of some sort, perhaps port? On the side were a mint sauce, pea tendrils, and fennel fronds. On top were spicy little pork skin curly frites. An excellent dish. The fatty meat's natural sweetness was enhanced by the laquering and disrupted, but in a positive way, by the mint. The mint was most unexpected, yet worked perfectly. The piquant chichirones cut through the richness adding a high note to the dish. The greens acted as a palate cleanser.
The asparagus were the biggest let-down. They weren't bad, just lacking. The spears themselves were cooked nicely -- still green, tender, but not mushy. They were topped with a sunny-side up egg so that the yolk could be used as a sauce. There was lightly grated cheese, probably a parmeggiano-reggiano, over the whole plate, and a black truffle vinaigrette. The cheese should have added some saltiness, but it was too finely grated and there was too little of it. As is, the dish was too rich, needing both more salt and more acid. The truffle flavor and fragrance wasn't noticable, and only now that I look at the menu again do I realize this missing dimension. A bit of zest or preserved lemon with its salty citrus flavor would have gone a long way to improving this dish. It had potential. Larger shavings of cheese and shavings of truffles probably would have perfected it. (A little cracked black pepper or the ubiquitous chili flakes might have been welcome, too.)
Last among our savory dishes were the nettle ravioli ($7/$14 half/full order) and the grafton cheddar souffle ($16). The ravioli were also a little disappointing. The pasta itself was faultless, but they were underfilled. The nettles, apparently mixed with a little cheese or egg, were entirely overwhelmed. The brown butter sauce added a nutty creaminess. Again, though, the chef needed to toss aside the Microplane and break out a vegetable peeler for more substantial shavings of cheese. I could see this being a very good dish with more assertive nettles and palate-exciting salt and glutamates from the parmeggiano.
The souffle, on the other hand, was delicious. The orange, pillowy dome rose above its ceramic vessel. On the side was a little bowl of addictive morel cream sauce. I could have drank it and be ecstatic in my gluttony. Instead, I broke the middle of the souffle and spooned the sauce inside. The souffle itself had a subtle cheesiness (perhaps a little too subtle) that matched the mushroom flavor. Light, creamy, eggy, cheesy, earthy -- yum.
Originally we had planned on one dessert. But several caught our eye and we went with two: the chocolate and Italian plum tart ($8) and the rhubarb almond crostata with honey cream ($7). Truly, though, like at clarklewis, the desserts underperformed. Not terribly, but enough that I wouldn't be eager to waste the calories in the future.
The chocolate tart had a consistency somewhere between a pudding and a flourless chocolate cake. It was smooth and creamy, but still substantial. Along the bottom of the tart was a layer of plum puree. Too little, though. The plum layer needed to be twice as thick or twice as intense. A sauce featuring the flavor also would have helped it stand up against the bitter-sweet chocolate. The tart itself was quite good, but it just became too monotonous.
Similarly, the crostata could have used more balance. My wife and I enjoyed the tangy rhubarb and the nice crumbly pastry, but the whipped cream didn't offset its flavor enough. A gelato or zabaglione might have worked.
I don't want to overstate my disappointments. These are quibbles. Meaningful quibbles, but no dish failed. Some just didn't live up to the rest. And the lesser dishes could be easily improved and made good to great because the concepts and execution is there.
Gotham Building Tavern seems at least as good as clarklewis. The food is as good or better, the room is better, and the prices are about the same. The noise level is also about the same. I was definitely relieved to leave the tumultuous din.
Assuming future meals are similar (and I will be back), I'd still put them slightly behind Park Kitchen, but its a welcome addition to Portland and among the best restaurants in town.
btw, don't forget to check out the bathrooms. I think you'll go cuckoo for them.
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