Well, tomorrow's my birthday and since I'm making a gazillion course menu on Saturday, we decided to go out tonight. I knew more than a month ago it'd be Hurley's.
I didn't dislike Cafe des Amis (here's my Chowhound report from my first visit: [BROKEN LINK REMOVED]), but I wasn't impressed by it. It was okay French food, nice but a little boring. A tarragon-mustard sauce I had there was fabulous, but the lauded blackberry duck was overly sweet, many of their other dishes, and especially their dessert menu, were lacking, or at best unimpressive especially for the price. The location is a nice little corner place with large windows close to the heart of NW, but still removed. However, it had felt cold and a little stark when Cafe des Amis was there. Hurley's has improved the spot in every way, I think.
They've obvioulsy decided to set the tone for the dinners with the service. It's quite professional four star level service. Your coat is hung for you. You're shown to the restroom. Your napkin is folded when you get up. Place settings are promptly removed and silverware replaced. You're offered mineral water (though not gratis like at William's). They ask you for any special circumstances on the phone. Little things like that.
The inside has been painted a wonderfully warm red. Signed Monterrey Jazz Festival posters hung around us. The chairs are a little uncomfortable, just hard wood, but the tables are padded, ironically. There were pointsettias everywhere tonight. The presentations for the dishes were four star level -- less rustic than what you get in most Portland restaurants. There's some symmetry, some height, some layering on stark white china often in interesting shapes.
The menu is divided into five sections (plus a dessert menu): vegetables, fish, fowl, flan, and game/meat (they could really go nuts with alliteration if they did flora, fish, fowl, and forest or fuzzies). The vegetables dishes range from $7-$9, the fish from $13-$22, the poultry from $16-23, the savory flan from $9-$11, and the beef and wild game from $19-30. Portions are small, like you'd find on a 5-7 course tasting menu or similar to places like Tabla or Buckman Bistro. Here's my first complaint: why with this small plate orientation, not offer actual tasting menus or fixed price menu options like you find in every other decent damned food city in the country? (Why does this almost never exist in Portland, is it just because we're cheap?) They're doing small plates, and it's going to be rare that people order less than 3 courses. Why not have a 4 and 5 course fixed price option where you choose something like any 3 dinner items, not from the same section, for $60, plus you get dessert, or any 4 dinner items for $70, plus you get dessert. Something like that. It seems like they have an opportunity, too, to add a chef's selection menu page with a course from each section chosen for a fixed price. I imagine they could add wine pairings, too. Why does this not exist in Portland (except, sort of, at Genoa)?
We were offered an aperitif of some sort of sparkling wine. I don't drink, but I had a taste of my wife's. It tickled my nose. :wink: I wasn't offered a replacement, which was a little disappointing. Restaurants that are really on the ball always are preapred for that sort of thing and make sure that no one is left out.
I was also disappointed that with the prices and obvious attempt at being a step in in dining that no "extra" courses are offered. There was no amuse, no palate cleanser, no mignardises, not even bread. While I don't think the food at William's is quite as luxurious as that at Hurley's. William's goes the extra mile offering an amuse and an extra course and bread. I really don't understand the lack of bread. It's so universal that it's certainly going to result in disappointment.
My wife ordered 3 dinner courses: the tart flambe ($8), the sauteed diver scallops ($14), and the poeled breast of pheasant ($19). For dessert she ordered the profiterolles ($7). I ordered 4 dinner courses: the cream of chanterelle mushroom soup ($8), the seared Hudson Valley foie gras steak ($23), the sweet pea flan ($9), and the mushroom and truffle stuffed saddle of rabbit ($22). For dessert I ordered the tartellete aux chocolate blanc et citron compote de myrtille sauvage ($7).
Like I said, no bread, no amuse, no palate cleanser, no cheese course, or anything like that, but they did keep the courses coming very regularly. My wife's tartlet was tasty with a very flaky puff pastry crust piled with carmelized onions, cheese, and meaty chunks of bacon. It also came with a side salad of mixed greens. It was decent, but probably the most immemorable dish of the evening. Her diver scallops were buttery and tender with a wondefully intense truffle flavor for balance. The aroma was fabulous and when someone at the table next to us ordered the scallops we could smell them, like when you're at a Chili's or Mexican restaurant and they bring out the fajitas sizzling, the smell of charred beef and onions assaulting your nose. But instead of beef and onions the smell was truffles, that glorious stink. (btw, it's 5 hours later and I'm still belching up truffle; great belches because they have such an intensely pleasant fragrance.) My wife had mixed results with the pheasant, though I think I liked it more than her. She just got done eating scallops, yet the taste of the crayfish that came with the pheasant was too intense for her. The brussel sprouts also went noticeably unfinished. But I think this was more her tastes than the dish. The truffles here, again, were wonderful. My only complaint was that the meat was probably a little overdone. Not overdone according to the USDA, probably, but game birds should be a little underdone, if anything, in my mind to keep them moist. It wasn't bad, just I would have preferred it juicier on the inside. Her dessert was a better rendition of profiterroles than I've had before. No pastry cream or whipped cream inside, just ice cream, which made them seem more substantial. The chocolate sauce was tasty, too, which crushed pistachios adding texture around the plate. Still, though, just profiterroles.
My soup was very good. It was a very smooth base garnished with creme fraiche and truffle oil which gave it a great aroma. It wasn't intense overall, but just about right so that you still wanted spoonfull after spoonfull. The foie gras, served on a peppered brioche toast and covered in a huckleberry sauce was very good. It was melt in your mouth juicy and tender on the inside with a little bit of a crust. The sweet sauce countered the bitter aspect of the foie gras and the brioche offered a crispy texture to contrast with the creamy liver. Very good. I think some (not me) could complain that the foie gras is being masked to some degree, but in my mind it's just a balance of strong flavors and extreme textures. The flan was fantastic. Great. I love when peas are used in interesting ways. The flan itself was ultra-creamy inside, like a soft brie or molten chocolate cake that just holds together instead of spilling its center. The brilliant green pea-truffle sauce looked like it'd been through a chinois more than once, smooth like thickened green water. Peas and mushrooms also garnished the plate and the flan was topped with prociutto. What a truly wonderful reinterpretation of pea soup with ham. The saddle or rabbit somewhat suffered from the same fate as my wife's pheasant -- a little overcooked for my tastes -- but was very good nonetheless. It was stuffed and wrapped around a mixture of mushrooms and truffle. It sat atop braised cabbage and parsnip puree, an underused tastier alternative to mashed potatoes. It was also topped with microgreens and sat in a rich burgundy riesling-chanterelle sauce. Very good. My dessert was again underwhelming and a little weird. It was a tart shell filled with a foam, essentially, almost like very lightly whipped eggwhites, like a very frothy mousse, with a hint of white chocolate flavor and a bright lemon base. Around it were crushed white chocolate and two tasty fruit sauces. But I don't know that the dessert was good, just decent.
The dessert menu is a weakness, I think. Either they should have some more interesting pastry work or they should more aggressively re-interpret the classic French options that are on the menu: creme brulee, ice cream, profiterroles, apple tart with vanilla ice cream, and my lemon tart. Doesn't that sound boring? Portland is lacking since Lemieux left in the pastry department and I was hoping Hurley's would have something interesting to offer.
Overall, Hurley's does raise the bar for luxurious dishes in Portland, although there wasn't any caviar on the menu and no oysters (surprisingly, considering the season). It also raised the price per pound ratio. But that's fine if they offer interesting dishes. I'd rather get smaller plates and taste more things. I do think there's room for improvement, however, or competition. There were busy on a Thursday night in a down economy. At least get in there and try some of the cheaper dishes, and one of the flans, if nothing else. Then go fill up on a burrito at Cha, Cha, Cha or something.
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