Carolyn and I celebrated her birthday last night by going to Paley's Place. We were a bit wary because our last visit there for a friend's birthday about 2 years ago was very spotty, with rubbery mussels and tough sweetbreads. But, we'd heard so many good things from others lately that we figured it was time to try again.
This time our meal was superb. While waiting for the wine we brought (1998 Chevillon Nuits-St-George Perrieres) to open up, we asked what whites were available by the glass and that would go with the mussels. Seeing that we were wine geeks, the server asked if we'd be interested in a half bottle of Vouvray (2003 Francois Chidaine Les Argiles for those keeping score at home) that wasn't on the list because they only had one bottle left. Vouvray...uh, yeah! The mussels were done perfectly, very tender, with a lovely garlicky broth that also worked as a dipping sauce for the bread and the frites as well as being good enough to eat as a soup. I would have preferred the fries to have been a little more crisp, but the server said that this batch of fresh potatoes just wouldn't crisp up like they normally do.
Carolyn ordered the sweetbreads (she was testing the same favorite dishes that weren't right last time), and this time they were perfect. Slightly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. I had what is called "Pork Three Ways", which is a good chunk of pork belly, some pork shoulder confit, and two packets (I forget the exact term they used) that were filled with trotters. All of this was on top of a buckwheat crepe and were judiciously covered with a bit of mustard sauce that added some flavor but didn't cover the amazing goodness of the pork itself. I was in hog heaven here, and I told Kimberly Paley that the dish should be called "The Glory of Pork" instead. Both of these dishes were excellent with the Chevillon.
For dessert, I had the peanut butter and chocolate cake, covered with a sour cream and brown sugar ice cream. Both were excellent. Carolyn had the creme brulee which was delicious, although maybe a bit too soft on the bottom of the thick bowl. Although a minor quibble, a wider, thinner bowl might give a more consistent texture. Ironically, as we were eating, the "King of Portland Creme Brulee", ex-Scarlet Begonias chef/owner Ronnie Vance, came in. We hadn't seen Ronnie in a long time, and were pleased to see him. While catching up with Ronnie, we found out that he's going to be starting a once a month family supper in June.
One thing I need to mention about our dinner was that the service was fantastic, and up there with the best we've ever received in Portland. We received the proper glasses for our wine, and as usual we told the server to get a glass for himself if he was interested in trying it. A few minutes later, he brought over a small sample of Chablis that someone had poured for him. Then, a few minutes later, a sample of a Burgundy from another table. Later, a second vintage of the same Burgundy, along with an introduction to Karen Hinsdale, who had provided these wines. Not only was the wine service professional, yet friendly, but the rest of the staff was equally accomodating. Instead of the standard sommelier/server/water/busboy heirarchy, they all worked as a team, cleaning off plates, filling water glasses, doing whatever was necessary to make our dinner smooth and properly paced.
Overall, one of the best meals we've had in Portland, and coming on the heels of another excellent dinner last week at the Heathman.
The Heathman dinner was a winemaker dinner featuring Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John, a small winery in California. Steve makes what I consider to be the best interpretations of Rhone varieties in California, combining CA fruit with French sensibility and balance to create something somewhat familiar, yet unique. We had seen Steve and his local Portland rep, Don Heistuman, at Hospice du Rhone the week before, and were interested in seeing them at a smaller event as well as getting to eat at the Heathman, which we had never been to.
Where Paley's was an example of great service and smoothness, Heathman was a bit off track at first. The tables in the winemaker dinner area were set up as individual tables, where every other dinner I've been to has been set up as a large table or a couple of large tables if it's a popular one. We informed the staff that we would like to sit at the same table, and then were told that they'd start bringing the wines and food soon. "Without the winemaker here yet?" I asked. "Yeah, we were just going to start serving when people got here...Steve is running late." Every other winemaker dinner I've attended has been coreographed so that the winemaker discusses the wines that accompany each dish, so we said that we'd wait for the rest of the group. Carolyn and I looked at each other a bit nervously, and both of us were thinking "this seems very disorganized." We actually thought about leaving, but we enjoy Steve and his wines and thought we'd just be patient.
Once everyone arrived, things got on track, and the wine and food started arriving. Whatever kinks were there in the beginning were smoothed out by food, which was creative, flavorful, and matched very well with Steve's wines. I forgot to take a menu, so I don't remember all of the individual dishes, but the seared tuna (outside only...inside was beautiful and rare) on a slice of pork belly was particularly inspiring, and the entire 6-course meal was delicious with the exception of the escargot, which seemed a bit overdone. It appeared that most of the cooking was being done by Chef Boulot, so that may explain our mostly fantastic dinner. I've heard that the Heathman can have off nights, but this wasn't one of them, at least as far as food goes.
We've generally had bad luck when going out for birthday or anniversary dinners (a disaster at Higgins a couple of years ago, and a mediocre showing at Wildwood last year) so we're almost afraid to go out on these occasions, but except for the initial lapse in planning at Heathman this last week has been an excellent food week.