Wednesday, August 13, 2008

23Hoyt: A first visit (and OMG the desserts!).

For various reasons, I had never been to 23Hoyt here in Portland. Chief among them I am more than happy with my eastside choices of appetite satisfaction and I had heard uneven reports about the food and service. So the other night I was made an offer I couldn't refuse, which was to dine on their dime to get a fresh perspective. I made it clear to my enabler that this would be reported...good or bad...and they were up for it. I had been wanting to go, given the reputation of Chef Chris Israel, who has proven himself repeatedly to be one of the most talented chefs in town. Granted, I hear he's only in the kitchen maybe a couple of days a week, but one would have to assume that his staff has some chops. Of course I assume that a lot and have been disappointed, so it was with a tinch of skepticism that w and I ventured forth.

So we arrive, hungry and thirsty (as always!) and have a quick drink at the bar to get our heads straight. The whole restaurant is open and airy, with a mezzanine above the lower bar/eating area. With floor to ceiling windows, it's a great corner space on NW 23rd Avenue (or as some put it, "trendy-third"). They're going for that hip, urban feel with downtempo music pulsing in the background. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of that kind of music being the soundtrack to my dinner, but I think it makes the B&T crowd feel like they're really all hip and cool. Once at the table, we started out with a 1/2 bottle of Sancerre and two starters: the corn soup ($8) with pesto and cherry tomatoes, and the eggplant gnocchi ($10) with spicy tomato sauce. The soup was outstanding, the sweet, fresh corn coming through strong, with the drizzle of pesto providing that fresh zip. The eggplant gnocchi also really worked. Light, fluffy, with plenty of eggplant flavor and a bright tomato sauce whose acid balanced the rich gnocchi and had just enough spice to get your palates attention.

We followed that with my favorite course of the night (not counting dessert), a plate of their ahi tartare with avocado, preserved lemon, and charmoula. This was one of those dishes I could see dropping in for just to satisfy a craving with a glass of white wine. My one concern/suggestion is that they should tone down the cumin in it. It was just teetering on the edge of overpowering the whole dish. Do that and this would be one of those perfect plates of food.

When it came time to pick entrées, w opted for their grilled sea scallops ($15) with fennel, roasted red peppers, and anchoîde (a sauce of figs, walnuts, orange, garlic, anise and olive oil). She loved the sauce around the scallops, but would have preferred the scallops to have a little more of that crusty sear on the outside, which is what always plays against the tender inside. Again, a little more attention to detail would really elevate what was still a nicely composed and flavorful plate. I had the roasted Alaskan halibut $30) with green beans, roasted potatoes and sauce gribiche (tarragon, chives, parsley, capers, cornichons, chopped egg, and olive oil). For a lighter choice off their menu, I thought this was delicious. The halibut was perfectly cooked, tender and super moist. The gribiche was one of the best I've had and was an excellent compliment to the fish. Loved the potatoes (could have had more of the spud, but I'm a potato whore so for most people there would have been plenty). And the green beans were perfect. Just right cooked, tender yet with some tooth, none of that squeak that drives you crazy when you bite into most green beans. Quite simply a great bean! We washed all that down with a decent but unexciting 2005 Ecard Bourgogne. One quick word about their wine list. In these days where there are abundant choices of outstanding red wines wholesaling for $10 to $15, to only find two red wines under $40 on any list is inexcusable, especially in Portland. I get making your markup, but you're also cutting off a big portion of your customers who would love to indulge in a second bottle. My friend Mark Accuardi who owns Gino's here in PDX and has one of the best priced wine lists in town said it perfectly one day: "I just want everyone to be able to afford to drink a great bottle of wine with our food". He also knows it's highly likely they'll order another. It's my philosophy at VINO, and it totally translates to the food biz. Why more people don't get that is beyond me.

Sorry, a little off topic there, but I had to get it off my chest. So then of course there was dessert to ponder. We picked two ($8 each): a bittersweet chocolate pot de crème and the warm blueberry crisp with walnut streusel and vanilla ice cream. Um, just let me say: "Oh my fucking god these were good!" Two of the best desserts I've had together ever. The pot de crème was as deliciously decadent as you could ask for. Bittersweet chocolate has rarely been so well treated, and this absolutely took this dessert standard to a new level. The blueberry crisp was simply the best crisp I've had. You know how in most blueberry crisps the berries tend to mush out and get all soft and squishy? Remarkably, somehow almost every berry here was softly intact, and released that sweet-tart burst with each bite. Berries at their peak of ripeness, a nice crunchy crust on top, a bite of ice cream....awesome stuff! I don't know who's doing pastry here, but they rocked it. It's worth the trip to 23rd just to have this after dinner treat.

So, the bottom line here is that we both thought dinner was very good. All the plates were well presented, the eating with your eyes standard fully upheld. Our server Dana was excellent, although in a space this big it is always nice to have a few more bodies around. Not an every day place at these prices (our dinner would have been $171, with wine, before tip), but for a special splurge well worth it. I hope that they do this good a job for everyone. Even though our dinner was comped, we did order right off the regular menu, and I would hope...because they should...that they would take this much care with every plate out of the kitchen for every customer.

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