Is there any doubt that an otherwise fine meal may be elevated to a heavenly plane by the company we keep? Earlier in the week, I was fortunate enough to again visit one of Portlands best restaurants, Gotham Building Tavern, with my friend, Emily. I have previously described the meal Emily and I shared at Lagniappe. We have supped together several other times as wellprobably every three weeks or so since we met at a strenuously somber night of literary readings in the spring.
Although I joke with Emily about being her deep backup given her semi-betrothed status to a semi-distant partner, we do make a fine pair, at least at the table. She has an interest in food and cooking that rivals mine; her appetite is good, meaning I get about 60% of everything we order; neither of us has any of those increasingly ubiquitous (and annoying) dietary restrictions; and she, like me, enjoys eating with her fingers. When we dine, we chat and laugh, and scrutinize and analyze, and exchange increasingly substantial slices of our lives. And, of course, we eat. By some alchemy I do not fully understand, the pleasure of the social interaction amplifies the euphoria of fine dining. The courses and good feelings add up, and the clock scurries along until we must head to separate compass points after another where-did-those-two-and-half-hours-go goodbye.
In at least a dozen tries, I have neverNEVERhad a bad meal at Gotham Building Tavern. A flat course on occasion, but overall, the meals have been uniformly wonderful. Great food complemented by friendly, attentive service in an attractive setting. Unlike some commentators, I am unmoved by the view of the Fremont Bridge from the front of the room. The foreground is far too cluttered by MAX tracks, a major arterial and unimpressive industrial structures. I much prefer the inside view. The little boy lamps in the bathrooms, with their naughty flip-up and -down units are a hoot. I like the lattice of fir beams that separates the main dining room from the bar and kitchen side of the room. The long narrow booths against the length of the dining room wall are odd, but still fully functional. The two pods in the back are not worth the $50 that is supposedly being charged to reserve them, but I would sit in one if it was offered. And they do look kind of cool, especially the very back one that offers a measure of real privacy. My standard, however, is the rearmost of the four-tops along the lattice divider, Table 8. It is the one directly adjacent to the kitchen. Among other benefits, from there I can watch the action at the stove and harass my friend Tommy, the chef, if he is not too busy. The seats facing the front of the house command a view of all the trendoids, turistas and fellow food enthusiasts populating the dining room.
Emily and I hunkered down at Table 8 and perused the August menu. Way too many good things this time of the year. Among the first course items not making the cut were the heirloom tomato gazpacho (I can make that at home, said she); burrata cheese, peppers and arugula with aged balsamic; frisee and blood sausage with breaded egg and dijon vinaigrette; and the smoked trout and green beans with creamy almond and herb vinaigrette. We also skipped the caesar topped with anchovy fillets, made with escarole hearts instead of romaine. That salad is a promising development in a caesar salad universe otherwise prone to entropy, suffering the health police-inspired demise of the coddled egg and the proliferation of tubed anchovy paste. Among the mains we missed on this trip was the rabbit with mustard sauce, carrots and greens. We decided to skip it after my Thumper imitation and smirking tastes like chicken remonstrance.
For our appetizer, we opted for the potted chicken and duck liver with toasts, accompanied by house pickled veggies. Potting, like confit, refers to cooking protein in fat followed by placement of the cooked item in a crock or ramekin with the liquified fat poured on top. Once the fat solidifies, it forms a seal, mitigating the need for refrigeration. The dark color of the seal for our smooth-ground liver suggested meat jelly in lieu of the fat. Perhaps it was a combination. Whatever. This course was a tongue (and tummy) pleaser, with the acidity of the vegetables cutting the sweet richness of the liver mixture.
For a pasta course, we chose the goat cheese ravioli with corn, chorizo and scallions, preferring it to the linguini with clams, pancetta and chili flakes. (Hint: with Tommys background working for Mario Batali, the prudent GBT diner will customarily order pasta.) The simple goat cheese pockets, with the sweet corn working as a sauce, topped with a few matchstick gnarls of the chorizo, was tasty enough that I would consider ordering the entree-sized portion rather than the smaller, four-piece small plate we selected. On this visit, however, we had other entrees to consume.
One main was a corn souffle with chanterelle cream on the side. The souffle was a smooth segue from the ravioli, both emphasizing the sweetness of the seasons fresh local corn. The accompanying mushroom sauce was ethereal. What the hell is it about fungus and cream? There remained yet a few bits of souffle after the early season chanterelles and mushroom-infused liquid were gone.
Our second entree was the brined pork chop from Carlton Farms. It was as juicy and hearty as I would expect a brined chop to be. We also enjoyed the grilled peach chunks accompanying the pork. The fruit might still have been hanging on the tree a day earlier. The sweet, creamy peach was the yang; the chewy saltiness of the meat the yin. They reposed in harmony on a bed of sauteed spinach, proving yet again the miracle of butter and heat rescuing otherwise boring greens.
At this point, lesser diners might have thrown in the napkin. And, frankly, to look at my petite companion you would assume she could go no further. But one of the other things I like about Emily is that she is always game for some serious dessert. So, with our coffees, we had a delightful nectarine tart with an apertif-flavored ice cream and, at Tommys insistence, an additional dessert: a chocolate souffle cake with honey nougat cream. The chocolate was deep and biased to bittersweet; the nougat provided a little crunch and a sweetness boost; and the dollop of whipped cream added a layer cool richness.
We waddled away about $100 lighter than when we arrived. Considering Emily had a neon red adult beverage to start, this meal was an excellent value for Portland high cuisine. So my marks are A+ (meal) and A (value). If you havent already been, ignore the hot new place hype and opposing howls of dogmatic derision, and enjoy GBT on its own merits. You owe it to your palate. If you have tried it, go again. It keeps getting better. And bring along your favorite dining companion. You might see stars.
(N.B.: Word reaches me from a reliable source that Naomi is out as co-chef at GBT. No confirmation or elaboration, but she was not in the kitchen the other night. FYI.)
(I'm going to cross post this to PortlandFood.org. I hope that's not going to piss anybody off)