Sunday, January 09, 2011

Eating Portland: Bar Avignon- the search for "the steak"!

It was all about the steak. There were tantalizing tweets. Tempting texts. A good friend told a story of being brought to tears. Word had spread about this piece of magical slab of beef. So it was I found myself at Bar Avignon last night.

Of course one does not just dive right into a steak at a place like Bar Avignon. Not when there are other wonders to sample, both liquid and solid. The place was jumping this Saturday night, as it so often is these days. It seems that BA has hit that elusive stride that restaurants always strive for but rarely attain, where business seems to run from busy to busier. Based on the meal we had last night that spot is exactly where they should be.

We grabbed two seats at the bar when we walked in. Not unusually drinks were first and foremost on our minds. w opted for the always lovely Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rosé, while I ordered a rye-based Vieux Carré off of their newly revamped (and I think very well thought out with a mix of old and new) cocktail list. Then it was on to the real reason for being there. There are any number of starters that look enticing on their menu. We had a half-dozen Hama Hama oysters ($14); the crostini with albacore conserva, white bean, and olivada ($7); and the wild boar ribs with tomato chutney ($8). The oysters were brilliantly briny and fresh as they should be. The wild boar ribs are not-too-tender but just right pieces of porky goodness that slide right off their bones and are slathered with a piquant, slightly sweet-sour tomato chutney that compliments them beautifully. What really surprised us both, though, was the albacore crostini. This seemingly simple preparation of tuna loin confit (done in olive oil), crumbled over a thin slice of toasted baguette that has been spread with a white bean purée, and topped with a bit of green olivada was tremendously satisfying. It was a rare instance of having something that was light, simple, but filled with so many flavors. I told co-owner Nancy Hunt I could have eaten dozens of them. Absolutely a must have that I am already craving again.

For an intermission between appetizer and entrée we shared the mixed lettuce salad ($8.50) with pomegranate seeds and sliced sunchoke, which was generously piled on the plate, easily enough for two. After eating our vegetables like responsible adults, we were very ready for the main attractions. w chose their risotto with brussels sprouts, fennel, porcini, and parmesan ($13). I, of course, had "the steak", a strip of dry aged New York with a potato-celery root gratin ($24). The risotto was excellent. The rice having that just so chew, the sprouts, fennel, and mushroom lightly interspersed throughout. Very simple, but with a fine richness. Then of course there was the New York. It is a hefty piece of organic, grass fed medium-rare (is there any other way?) beef that comes from, in a surprise to me, Wilson Ranch in Baker City, which coincidentally is owned by relatives of mine. Perfectly cooked, with that (and not to be state the obvious) beefy texture that I love New York strips for. The dry aging adds a slight layer of earthiness that only adds to the complex deliciousness of what was a remarkable piece of cow. It was topped with a light slather of what I think was pepper butter. We'd had so much by now, both on the plate and in the glass, that that little detail is a bit hazy. It was everything I had been hoping for, one of the best steaks I've had in Portland in a long time. Should you be in that carnivorous mood that only a well cooked steak will satisfy, this is where you should head. The gratin and side of kale (loved that kale!) were the perfect partners to the meat.

Throughout the meal we ordered a few glasses of different wines rather than a bottle, just to explore different flavors. Nancy's husband Randy Goodman has put together a superb wine list, filled with intriguing and approachable wines by both the glass and bottle, all at exceptionally fair prices. It is absolutely one of the best lists in town.

We finished this almost excessive night of indulgence with a decadent piece of flourless chocolate cake, surprisingly made by their chef Jeremy Eckel. Eckel is proving to one of PDX's most accomplished and under-the-radar cooks. He has a finely tuned sense of what should go with what. In my experience over several visits his ingredients always compliment each other, rather than competing for attention. The fact that he obviously has a sure hand with pastry speaks even more highly of his talents. Bar Avignon continues to impress on many levels. The food and drink of course. But also the level and professionalism of service which is not often seen at most Portland restaurants that seem to take more pride in hipster attitude rather than competent customer attention. The cost for all this is ever reasonable as well. Nancy and Randy have provided an oasis of comfort on SE Division, and I look forward to many return visits.

A note about the lack of pictures: the lighting at Bar Avignon rightfully focuses on highlighting the food and creating an intimate yet conversationally conducive atmosphere, rather than catering to needy, obsessive bloggers. Well done on their part!

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