Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eating America at 50 Plates

As any self-respecting, self-indulgent food blogger would hope, after some time a few perks trickle in. Locally here in Portland, granted they aren't that many, but somehow I've found myself on the list of a few publicists in town who send me invites to new restaurant pre-openings. Besides being shakedown runs for the kitchen, they also hope that if they ply you with enough free grub and drinks that you'll forget any bad things that happen and focus, and report, on the good (free) things. Being someone who- A) LOVES to eat; and B) loves to eat for free, I go when I can. But I also tell those who invite me that- A) I'll call it like I see it, good or bad; and B) Thanks!

So with that disclaimer in place for any skeptics out there, last week I went to a media/pre-opening dinner for a new restaurant in Portland's Pearl District called 50 Plates. The guys who opened it from Jopa Hospitality Group have a couple of lower profile ventures, and this is their first big stretch. The 50 Plates name references their American regional theme, where they're doing takes on various dishes from around the country. To me, kind of a risky move, almost trying to "be all things to all people". But on the other hand, after the dinner I went to, I have to admit that executive chef Randal St Clair seems to have this Americana shit figured out, because this whole night was pretty rocking. I know I said that I'd say something critical if deserved, but I was really impressed. From the opening drink selections (and great to see former Castagna bar pro Suzanne dishing drinks), through the appetizers, entrée samplings, and really nicely done desserts, there wasn't a whole lot not to like. Some highlights....

Of the starters, I didn't take a picture since it was a stand up appetizer reception and I not surprisingly found my hands full with food and drink, but their Dirty Rice Beignets, kind of a New Orleans take on arancini, were addictively good. Rice balls stuffed with andouille and vegetables with a Creole dipping sauce. A nice choice to wash down those pre-dinner martinis. The fresh oysters with a soy mignonette were well presented also. What didn't really work for me were the Castroville Artichoke Rolls and the Fried Green Tomato Toasts, merely acceptable and nothing to get excited by.

After the stand up app hour it was time to sit down in their comfortable mid-century-ish feeling dining room and let the kitchen roll out the goods. They sampled three salads: the Victory Salad, the R and R Chopped Salad (left), and an Heirloom Tomato Salad. These were very nice...not too fussy or overly dressed, well composed, nicely balanced. Across the board winners.

Entrées came next. Fish and meat coming out in rapid succession, three courses of each (by the way, each plate was shared by four people. It wasn't total overload). Big fish: Pan Roasted Sablefish on a Clam Chowder Mash, as crazy as it sounds, was awesome. Rich, but not too, silky smooth, the flavors of fish, potatoes, and clam bits matching perfectly. The Grilled Swordfish (right) in Summer Succotash Bouillon was also spot on as well, and really hit it for me. Seasonal beans and veggies with a perfectly cooked piece of fish on top. Who would complain? The "Clambake" was impressive to look at, the lobster and clams were certainly good, but nothing that wowed me. I know, silly to complain about lobster, but I thought the whole dish could've used a little more punch, and I find the "reward to money spent" on dishes like this to be a little out of whack.

For meaty temptations, they pretty much nailed all three selections. The BBQ Beef Shortrib (left) was as tender and succulent as you would hope for, with a nice tangy molasses 'que sauce and a good, bitey horseradish slaw on the side. I also really liked the Carpetbagger Stack, a nice surf 'n turf take with panfried oysters and filet medallions wit a warm "steak sauce", which actually, and thankfully, hit it off with both the oysters and beef. They also dished out their Steakhouse Trifecta, kind of a deconstructed twist on the classic, with a small piece of Kobe steak, crisp potato with bacon, and a small Caesar wedge rather artfully arranged across a plate. Also quite tasty.

All that, with wine flowing, and then they had to throw down three desserts so pastry chef could satisfy our childhood memories with S'More Fondue (left), a coolly modern looking treat; Blushing Betty & Strawberry Ice Cream; Citrus Chiffon Cake; and my new favorite post-dinner bite, a stellar, near perfect slice of Devil's Food Chocolate Cake (below) with Brown Sugar Ice Cream. I say near perfect, because I adore a good chocolate layer cake, and this was one of the best I've ever had, but just in case there actually is a perfect one out there, I don't want to be proven wrong about this Devilish slice of heaven. In the meantime, this one will do just fine.

So not a bad evening. Knowing how hard it is to put out that much food for forty or so people and have it all looking and tasting good, I have to say that Chef St. Clair seems to be running a tight kitchen. Hopefully it will carry over to regular service (which begins this Friday the 24th for dinner only, with the restaurant gradually expanding to lunches and light breakfast fare) because this kind of well done American comfort food would be a welcome addition to our local food scene. From the menu samples available, it looks quite reasonably priced, with appetizers running in the $7.50-$12.50 range, salads $6.50-$10.50, and entrées $10.50-$$25.50 (with the lobster dish at $28.50 or $48.50).

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