My wife and I said screw the diets, Hawaii can suffer our fat, white, cheesy asses, we're going out, and we did so at clarklewis this evening.
First of all, the big question: is it the best restaurant in Portland? No. However, in the same way Noble Rot received its honor from the Willamette Week, I can understand the honor for clarklewis. It's representative of a trend and style that deserves honor, and it's leading the way in that style in Portland.
I'll make some of the same caveats that the Oregonian did. It is certainly noisy. The unfinished, industrial nature of the space has nothing to dampen the noise, not to mention the occasional train. The chairs are terrible. If you have back problems, bring your own. Really. My ass hasn't been so sore since I did six hours of miserable horseback riding in Wyoming. Not only are the seats uncomfortable, but they're too small for any real food lover's behind.
However, the food is good, the menu is good, and the format is good. Because you can order almost any item in small, large, or family size portions, my wife and I tried 3 starters, a pasta, 3 entrees, and 2 desserts. A mountain of food that came out to $75. They also offer a fixed price option (chef's choice) of 3 to 4 courses for $30.
For starters, we ordered the peasant salad ($6), crostone ($7), and soup ($3). For pasta, we chose the whole wheat ($8). For entrees, we had the swordfish ($11), beef ($12), and the squab ($13). Finally, for desserts, selected the chocolate tart ($8) and the panna cotta ($6).
The peasant salad was a mix of chicories, house cured pancetta, and walnuts, with a balsamic vinaigrette. The house cured pancetta was quite tasty. I kept eating the pieces alone to try to identify the interesting subtle flavor. It was almost anisey. I think the walnuts might have been slightly candied. It was also topped with cheese shavings, probably a parmesan.
The crostone was a crispy piece of bread topped with asparagus and a runny poached egg with sage brown butter and balsamic. It also had a little grated cheese, I think. Very good. The richness of the egg was a perfect compliment to the asparagus, salty cheese, and balsamic.
The soup was good, too, though possibly the only thing under-salted (most things might have been a little over-salted since I actually thought they were about right). It was a puree of carrot, garnished with mint and prosecco, possibly a reduction, possibly as part of the puree itself, adding a little tanginess. Simple, but good.
The whole wheat pasta came in the form of pappardelle dressed in truffled pork sugo. I have mixed feelings about this dish, though you should note that I'm not often a big fan of pasta. To me it's a side. But this was tasty, I just don't know that the sauce had much depth. It had a nice truffly flavor and porkiness, but it didn't have a very rounded flavor and was a bit salty. However, I felt like finishing it, it just was a bit too pastaroni-ish, ultimately. That's a bit unfair since the pasta is obviously much better quality house-made stuff -- and it had truffle flavor. But the flavors weren't rounded and it was salty.
The swordfish was amazingly juicy. Can you brine swordfish? It came grilled topped with a "sicilian preserved blood orange salsa". I didn't notice the orange too much, but the salsa was quite good with golden raisins and pine nuts and a tanginess. It also came with a grilled scallion. A truly small portion, maybe 3 ozs at most with a very small side, but it was quite good.
The beef was on the edge of being fabulous. With just a little more depth in the sauce, I think it would have been. As it was, it was still very good with a strong beefy piece of braised, tender meat in a rich porcini-red wine sauce. On the side were some tasty dark sauteed or braised greens.
The best dish of the night was the squab. It was well seasoned and "hearth roasted", with a nice, crispy skin. The sauce was what put this over the top and made it fabulous. It came with dried mission figs in some sort of rich, tangy (the menu says aged balsamic) sauce. It pleasantly excited all parts of the tongue. I kept scooping up forkful after forkful of the stuff, and dipping in the little leg bones and sucking off the sauce. Mmm. This was also a pretty small portion with almost no side, especially at $13.
The desserts were the only strongly disappointing thing about the meal. To have a claim at the truly best restaurant in Portland, I think they have to work on the pastry menu.
The chocolate tart was quite bitter with a dagoba chocolate ganache and orange caramel sauce and hazelnuts. The menu said candied hazelnuts, but I think they were just roasted. There was very little orange sauce. And without the hazelnuts being candied there wasn't anything to balance the tart, the chocolate of which was left rather unsweetened. The texture of the tart was excellent. But the flavors weren't balanced and the portion was quite small, just a small slice with some whipped cream on top.
The panna cotta was slightly better. Lemon-flavored, the custard came with a pine nut biscotti on the side and a tangy sauce. It was decent, again quite small, but decent. Custards aren't my favorite desserts, but I've had enough panna cottas at places like French Laundry to know a good one when I taste one. The was decent, but certainly not even close to the realm of the best I've had.
The desserts are very simple, which is fine. But I think it's very important to balance flavors and textures, especially with simple desserts. There's a restaurant-within-a-restaurant in Dallas, Lola's Tasting Room which does this to perfection. You can read my report of a visit there here (which includes a panna cotta that was fantastic):
[BROKEN LINK REMOVED]
Overall, a very good addition to Portland. There is a clear style here, like a small plates Chez Panisse or Oliveto, with no loss of Portland character, including thrift-store clad staff. In fact, I'm not sure if it was a result of the Oregonian article, but it was quite an interesting juxtaposition of the thrift-store clad, long-hair male staff, short-hair women staff in an industrial, unfinished room in contrast to the button-up plaid, long-sleeve shirted men and sweater around the neck women with big rocks in beamers as patrons. I wore shorts.
Give it a try. I'll be interested to hear what everyone thinks. Just bring a butt donut.