A couple appropriate disclosures before I give my report. I met the chef, Alan Lake, online a couple months back when he emailed me looking to learn more about the Portland food scene. We met, he showed me around the construction site, and we had lunch at Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon (which he loved, especially their salsas).
Then I met him another day and drove him out to Uwajimaya. He's lived in Japan and seemed to really love Asian flavors. He has asked me for recommendations on where to get ingredients along the way and invited me to both the VIP/Media opening party and the soft opening tonight. The food was free at both. Other than this, I have no connection to the place, except a hope for good food less than 5 minutes from my house. I'll try to be a hell of a lot more fair and balanced than Bill O'Reilly. On to the report...
You enter through the main doors, same as the theater patrons. That may ultimately be a mistake because while the restaurant is great inside, with a glowing bar, nice lighting, limitless ceilings, etc, you have to walk past the popcorn and nacho bar to get there. It's a minor thing, really, but I think they would do better to have put the typical theater foods on the other side. Otherwise, they do a good job of separating the theater from the restaurant. Unlike most theaters, they've obviously well sound-proofed because you can't hear even Star Wars III through the walls. They have live piano in the restaurant that also helps you forget you're in a movie theater. There's a semi-private room near the back of the main room as well.
We sat on the patio. It's planted with tropical plants, including palms and banana trees. When it begins to get dark, they have sconce lighting and a fire pit.
The dishes are small plates, including traditional tapas, with about 30 items. The prices range from about $4-15. We ordered six items: Oregon Wild Mushroom Strudel, Dungeness Crab, Carnitas, Pinot Short Rib, Carne, and Queso Slate.
We were immediately brought out bread and olives gratis. The bread, sliced baguette, was a little stale, but otherwise good quality. There was no butter or olive oil on the side. The olives were quite tasty, however.
The Oregon Wild Mushroom strudel had great potential for a vegetarian dish, but fell short primarily due to being under-seasoned. The creamy spinach on which the strudel lay would have been quite good just with a touch of salt. Cipolline balsamico, little tangy onions, were served around the plate adding a wonderful balance to the creaminess. While the menu notes there is Pernod, I didn't notice it. The strudel itself had a nice texture and wasn't soggy at all. There was a nice mix of wild mushrooms, but they needed salt as well. Perhaps the chef was trying to control for moisture but I would have liked to have the mushrooms more aggressively sauteed in butter or olive oil and salted. Perhaps a little goat cheese or blue cheese would have done the job without making the pastry, which was perfect, soggy. This was our least favorite dish, but still not bad, and very close to being good.
The Dungeness crab came mostly shredded on a plate of asparagus, avocado, hearts of palm, and mango. Everything was lightly sauced with a toasted pine nut vinaigrette. All items here were cooked perfectly and the crab was quite good. I really liked the addition of the hearts of palm, which added another texture and a bit of tanginess. The vinaigrette was really unnecessary, or just a little too bright. I think a lightly flavored oil with just a touch of vinegar would have been better. Perhaps just a squeeze of citrus, such as orange or grapefruit. The palm already provided a bright note. My wife loved it overall, though, and just stayed away from the excess dressing.
I like to think that our lunch at de Leon encouraged Chef Lake to include carnitas on the menu. It was an excellent rendition that combined Mexican style with Southern flavors. It was almost like an alternative to BBQ since it was served with braised greens. The carnitas themselves were quite good, crispy on the outside and tender and succulent on the inside. The greens underneath were fantastic, both rich and tangy. This was one of those dishes that when you get done, you're disappointed there isn't more, and you have to put the bowl up to your mouth or break out the bread to get every last drop. Simple flavors, but excellent.
The best dish of the night, though, imo, was the short ribs, which were cooked sous vide and glazed in a reduced pinot with demi-glace, I believe. The ribs were served over smashed red potatoes and roasted carrots. Best short ribs I've had in Portland metro and short ribs are one of my favorite things to order. Kicks Tabla's ass for short ribs. The ribs themselves were cooked perfectly. Ultra tender and rich, but not so mushy that they just fall apart. Tons of flavor. The sauce was perfect. Meaty with that reduced pinot sweetness. The mashed potatoes were excellent. My wife loves mashed potatoes more than any other starch. It's her number one request. She devoured these. btw, this was a huge portion. Just huge. If this is going to be under $15 it's going to be a very good deal.
The carne was a selection of three cold meats: filet carpaccio, prosciutto di parma, and spicy chorizo. The carpaccio needed a bit of something, maybe some citrus or a light vinaigrette. It was nice, but totally lost on the tongue in comparison to the prosciutto and chorizo, both of which were tasty. The dry chorizo was actually quite addictive.
The queso slate was an all too generous selection of cheeses and accompaniments. I wouldn't be surprised if this shrinks. You'll see in my photos that they've given way more than most in town would give. My wife's favorite was the honey goat cheese, apparently ordered in from NY. It was wonderful. My favorite was the parmesan fritte, a thin, rolled tuile of crisped parmesan. There was also a cabrale crostini, quite pungent in a good way, and a wedge of manchego topped with quince paste. Typical, but quite good. There was a cheese flavored with herbs d' provence. Personally, I'm not a fan of herbs d' provence, but it seemed fine otherwise. Other accompaniments were roasted or lightly cooked and flavored peach chunks, a misture of mango, papaya, and jalapeno, and champagne grapes.
We also got a dessert, a trio of tastes including banana bread, flourless chocolate cake, and a filo basket with fruit. This was probably my least favorite course. The different items just didn't seem like they worked together or belonged together. Each was decent on its own, but not anything special. The chocolate flavor could have been more intense (though the texture was right). The banana bread could have been more moist and flavorful. The filo seemed a little burnt. It wasn't bad, especially as compared with the state of Portland desserts, but I would have been happier with a bowl of Haagen Daz dulce de leche and a cruncy cookie. I had much better dessert tastes at the VIP/Media dinner.
I was a little worried, but also hopeful tonight. Last week at the VIP dinner, items were inconsistent. But I was quite aware that they had probably 2 or 3 times the number of diners of a full house, all eating for free, and that they were serving tasting-sized courses much smaller than the small plates they would eventually serve.
Which is why when I saw the Willamette Week's Bite Club this Wednesday I ranted to the pain of my wife's ears about a really laaaame (as my toddler niece says) preview/review. Wasn't the WW one of the periodicals that complained about the Mercury's "review" of Gotham? Then why oh why was Clarke complaining about prices/sizes of dishes when neither were even finalized and the kitchen wasn't even serving full dishes? Perhaps she was pre-disposed to dislike the place? It is in Vancouver. That's like getting someone from the "City" to accept that there might be anything worthwhile in Jersey. It certainly wouldn't be the first time Portland food critics put their own aesthetic prejudices ahead of concerns about food. More on this later.
My worries were largely put aside tonight. For an opening, it was fantastic and even this early it's clearly the best meal I've had in Vancouver. I've been to Roots several times, which would give several Portland restaurants in the top 20 a run any night of the week, and I haven't been this pleased.
I see this place most directly competing with Tabla and Noble Rot, where you have small plates and an emphasis on wine. There are even some similarities in style of dishes. If they maintain or improve, I won't have any need to return to those. I would like to see the menu more actively make use of Northwest ingredients, but only because Vancouver lacks that.
A note on wine. Clarke complained about the enomatics primarily on an aesthetic basis. It's too vending machine like for her. Fine. I can understand that, but she did a real disservice to her readership by not at least noting what makes those enomatics so damned fantastic: 70+ wines by the glass or by the ounce. Most people who read my stuff know that I don't really drink. On occasion I'll taste, but I don't really like alcohol. I bought wine tonight.
The only wines I had ever tasted and truly enjoyed were damned expensive, multiple hundreds per bottle. I'd promptly turn a pauper if I became a drinker. (I have a friend who doesn't really drink but has found that he only enjoys multiple hudred dollar bottles of scotch.) But tonight I could buy and taste by the ounce and so I did. I put 20 bucks on a card, talked to the wine guy, looked through their little touch-screen wine education system, and chose an expensive wine and an inexpensive wine, both similar blends, and compared. (The expensive one was better, even to my uneducated palate and nose.) How many other restaurants have sold me wine in the last 10 years that I've been seriously dining? None. The enomatic makes wine accessible and fun, frankly. And you can always have them bring you something off the normal list if you prefer.
A friend often points out that what makes Roger Ebert such a good movie reviewer isn't that he's "right" all the time or that most people agree with him. What makes him so good is that even if someone's tastes differ from Ebert's, that person will still know whether they might enjoy the movie from reading one of Ebert's reviews. Clarke should try to remember that. It's not enough to give an opinion.
I hope food lovers and wine lovers will overcome their prejudices against Vancouver and give it a try. It's an easy trip up 205 to the second exit over the river. Oh, and the movie theaters are terrific. Watched a bit of Star Wars Ep III at the VIP/Media night and my wife and I immediately noticed how brilliant the picture was. The difference between their theaters and Regal's is like the difference between my 10 year old Magnavox and a Plasma screen. And the seats are leather and recline and you can take your wine in with you.