Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sel Gris: you know what they say about expectations

When our friends J&K asked us if we wanted to join them...or did we invite ourselves?....out for dinner at Sel Gris here in Portland I was really looking forward to it. I'd been reading, talking, and listening to endless (mostly positive, some not so) opinions about the food chef Daniel Mondok was sending out of his kitchen at the tiny spot on SE Hawthorne Blvd. The local Sel Gris zeitgeist was that the space itself is very tastefully done (see below in a photo from their website. sorry to say that my photos of the evening inexplicably did not come out), Mondok has no fear of the foie gras police, and he's serving very artfully presented food.
So with that as the expectation we wandered in and were indeed very warmly greeted by their host (who was a different host thankfully than the one who treated not only J&K when they stopped by once to look at the menu, but also my friend DOR, somewhat rudely in previous visits). And the dining room is really nicely done. Cozy, but not too. Comfortable chairs, warm lighting. A great view into the kitchen. Okay, first expectation met. And there on the starter menu was the "foie gras of the moment", which we all immediately agreed to share. Nice, two for two on the zeitgeist meter.

And then there's the artfully presented food, which also turned out to be very true. Our starters of the foie, a confit chicken leg on a frisee salad, and some citrusy calamari were not only very nice to look at, but quite delicious. The foie was it's typical indulgent self, seared and served on a perfect buttery biscuit, which was overkill so of course I loved it! The confit was moist, tender, nicely seasoned, and the calamari was excellent, the citrusy tang adding a nice edge to the tender fried octopi. Oh, and the wine list does offer several good values in the $35 a bottle range. We had the 2007 Chateau Graville-Lacoste Blanc, a white Bordeaux that went perfectly with our apps (they also welcomed the bottle I brought from the cellar at a reasonable $20 corkage). All three starters had us very eager to see what would come next.

So out came our entrées. Lamb Two Ways for J and me, scallops for K, while w opted for an apple wrapped sturgeon. Again, Mondok's artful eye was in evidence, as all three fed the eyes before the stomach. And then we tried them.....and that is precisely the moment where the train went careening off the tracks. Let's see...the lamb. A braised shank and slices of roasted leg. Braised meat should be moist and tender. Mine was neither. Some pieces were marginally fine, but others were tough enough to require something stronger than the teeth god gave me. The roast leg was perfectly medium-rare, but again where was the tenderness? J felt much the same about his. K's scallop entrée also fell far short of expectations. The scallops were not that tender, the sauce bland...the whole leaving her wanting more. Then there was w's sturgeon, which I have to say was pretty amazing to look at. Thinly sliced apple wrapped around the fillet, topped by a jaunty apple hat made from more sliced apples. But again that is where her enjoyment of the dish ended. Cutting into it required serious effort, causing the whole thing to smush all over the plate. The fish itself was, and these are her words, "like rubber". She said the sauce surrounding it was an overly complicated melange that did nothing to compliment the sturgeon itself. It seemed a case of just because you have all these ingredients, doesn't mean you need to use the majority of them in one dish. Okay, that is an overstatement, but you get my drift. After the promising start, we were left defeated by the main event, so much so that we skipped dessert because the energy had left the night. Not a good way to end things, especially when this isn't an inexpensive place to look for satisfaction.

It's curious, unfortunately so, that all three entrées fell so flat. Mondok was on the line, so he must have been paying attention. And again the food looked fine, so maybe that's all he saw. Hard to tell, but as J said in an email exchange the next day, "We were talking about it on the way home, and basically a high price joint like that had better nail almost every dish. They didn’t come close on the entrees. They get one chance with folks like us at that price, and we wont be back." This from two people who know food, are great cooks and can afford to eat out pretty much when they want. I never want to say never, but especially now when discretionary dollars are even more precious I'd think twice about it.
Sel Gris on Urbanspoon

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one year ago today @ E.D.T.: how smart is your blog?


Dee said...

Wow! That's really surprising! Maybe I don't need to try it out right away.

bb said...

Well, like I said I would never say never, and I have heard some good things, so maybe we hit it on an off night. But it should never be that off!

Anonymous said...

Hey Bruce! We went on the 5th for our anniversary and really liked it. Actually the calamari was not one of our highlights, mostly because everything else was so good, and because the calamari seemed a bit...much. Lobster gnocchi melted in our mouths. Lisa had the lamb and it was super tender (as it should be!). I had the Ribeye with truffle shavings, no complaints there and the bone marrow "butter" was delish.

One thing to note is that Mondok wasn't there (it was a Monday). His sous chef was great though. He looked like the youngest person there, but he did a great job, even when the waitress messed up Lisa's order.

bb said...

MandL...I'm glad you guys had a good dinner. I know it is good some of the time, 'cause some people love it. I talked to another friend (a local restauarnt owner) who was there this week and he had a similar experience to ours. I hope they get over the apparent inconsistency.
Hey, Happy Anniversary, too!!

Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed the calamari when I ate at Sel Gris. You might give Sel Gris another try. They have a new line chef who does a great job and I know the staff is working on other improvements to their restaurant as well.

Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

bb said...

anon....I was just talking w/ someone and saying I was thinking of going again. Fairly close to my house, so would love the option!