Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Somewhat Neglected Euro Cuisine

Grüner, a restaurant serving "Alpine" cuisine opened in late December to a lot of hoopla. Christopher Israel, a chef with deep ties in Portland (the late and still lamented Zeffiro's, the Blue Room and Saucebox) was taking a risky cuisine (an oleo of German, Austrian, Hungarian, Swiss and Alsatian-French) and serving it in a very small space more appropriate to the Pearl District, and serving it at upscale prices in the middle of the worst economic downturn in Oregon in more than 50 years. Israel has earned the right to throw the dice his way. I had dinner at Zeffiro's nearly 20 years ago during a visit to friends here when I was living in New York. I thought it was one of the most exciting restaurants I've ever been to. As I was leaving, I spotted Brian Miller, then the restaurant critic of The New York Times, and sure enough several weeks later, Miller's rave about Portland's burgeoning restaurant scene was one of the first to recognize the city's emerging dining excellence. Ivy Manning, my food writer friend here thinks it is one of two outstanding restaurants (the other being Ned Judd) to open this year. I still have a lot of restaurant visits to assess if this is true. Zeffiro's, alas, is no more. I've only had pizza in the Blue Hour cocktail lounge--nice but not enough to assess it's overall quality. I had nice dinner at Saucebox, but it happened on an evening where I had been to a long outdoor barbecue, and I was hardly in the mood for a big Saturday night restaurant meal. But I had the distinct impression that this was a long-running restaurant had jumped the shark. There was nothing wrong with the place. It just had a "been there, done that" vibe.

But Ivy and I share a kind of similar sensibility--she's a distinctly downtown type of foodie. Neither of us warms up to pretentiousness. So I looked forward to going to dinner there and on Saturday, I got the chance. John Baker arranged a dinner group of five on the busiest restaurant night of the week. I hate going to dinner on Saturday night, or at least I had become sick to death of dining out on Saturday night in New York. Not for me. But Portland is strange. I went to Foster Burger at 9:45 on a Friday night and it was deserted. People lined up at 5:00 PM, but at 10:00 PM, they're closed. ON A FRIDAY NIGHT! I've been to lots of nice restaurants in this town, but I never suffer the anxiety of worrying if a restaurant will honor my reservation, which is pretty much a given in most restaurants in New York.

We had a prime-time reservation on Saturday and arrived as the din was at its highest. Two of the five of us were already there, and seated--none of this "we won't seat your party until you're all here" nonsense that is an institutionalized given in New York. As the hostess took us to our table, I had a chance to take the place in. Dark green walls, light pine paneling here and there, exposed air and heat ducts, and very tall ceilings. Every surface was hard which explained the loud din in the dining room of this very small restaurant. Okay, we would have an evening of shouting, I concluded. At the table we poured over the cocktails menu, which I usually skip. But I love cocktails these days, and Grüner's offerings are very tempting. I tried a Zeitgeist--a combination of gin, Cinzano rosso and something called Pelinkovic Croation herbal. It is somewhat reminiscent of a Negroni. A friend ordered Atlas, which combined Calvados, House Spirits Rum, Cointreau, and Angostura bitters. The Golden Rule is a mixture of Kentucky straight bourbon, something called Barenjaeger honey liquer, Dolinblan blanc and Underberg bitters. These were inventive, fun cocktails that got the evening off to a big start. We decided on the charcutrie sampler that we could graze on as we sipped our cocktails. The plate included very thin slices of speck, Hungarian salami, spicy coppa, liverwurst canape, and venison terrine, all of excellent quality. The waiter brought us a basket of breads that included a wonderful pretzel bread, which had the chewy quality of a bagel with salt, and rustic biscuits and a dark sliced bread to enjoy with the salumaria. Meanwhile, we searched the menus. I had to order the choucroute, because I have a wonderfully embarrassing story about choucroute.

Maryann and I were in Paris for ten days in 1994. She kept mispronouncing the Tuileries, which was near our hotel. I said nothing until about the fifth time and finally--arrogantly--corrected her. She was cool on the outside, but secretly biding her time. She was going to get me. And when she did, it was spectacular. Years before Sara Keene asked me to help her with her 10th wedding anniversary dinner. One of the dishes on the menu for this large party--at least 40 people were there--was choucrute garni, which she (being from Fort Worth, TX) pronounced 'shookraut', I had never heard of this dish of sauerkraut with sausages, smoked pork, bacon and potatoes. So back to Paris. Maryann and I went to a restaurant and there was Choucroute on the menu. I had to order it. I said, "I'll have the 'shookraut," I said to the waitress. "You mean shoocruute," she replied. Suddenly Maryann woke up and said "Aha! Gotcha!" Well touché! Okay sidebar over.

We ordered starters. Three of us grabbed the Grüner salad. While one of us ordered the beet-ricotta dumplings with poppy seeds and the final starter was a Frisee salad with artisanal ham, Gruyere cheese, toasted walnuts, chives and a creamy mustard vinaigrette. The Grüner salad was amazing "entree" sized mix of romaine, gruyere (though not listed on the menu), carrots, shaved fennel, pencil-thin slices of raw chiogga beets, celery, sunchokes (never saw them in the salad), chickweed, sunflower seeds and pretzel croutons. The salad could have easily been shared. As we enthusiastically consumed everything in those big bowls, I asked the waitress what vinegar was in the salad dressing. She startled me by saying "red wine." The hand that made this vinaigrette was extremely judicious. The salad was compulsively edible, and it was in no smart part due to the subtlety of this superb vinaigrette. The beet-ricotta dumplings were gossamer-light--really extraordinary.

The wine list is expensive and I struggled to find something that was affordable on then menu. I settled on a Riesling, which was the least expensive on the menu at $36. It turned out to be an inspired choice-dry, crisp, and slightly sweet but with a wonderfully arid finish and it perfectly complimented the "Alpine" food.

Which leads me to the "choucroute garni," which was a little bland. Not that all the elements weren't tasty--they were. But Choucroute is a homey, raw-boned amalgam of smoked, and cured meats, sharp sauerkraut and with juniper berries, gentled by boiled potatoes. This refined "restaurant" version's best element was the superb bratwurst. The house-cured pork tenderloin was a bit bland, though beautifully cooked with a rosy interior. The belly bacon added some smoke. The house-made bratwurst was superb. It was the sauerkraut that let me down a bit--it was rich, fatty, tender and bland. I didn't try the short ribs, which one friend ordered declaring it rich and satisfying and the dumplings that came with it looked the soul of comfort food. We finished the meal with an order of a fine poached pear in a soup of vanilla cream, and a sampler plate of delicious house-made cookies with coffee.

The service is excellent, and I especially liked our waitress's low-key, friendly and attentive manner. I'd like to try the rabbit or the duck the next time I'm there. My muted enthusiasm may be due to the fact Grüner's hybrid "Alpine" fare doesn't excite me in the same way Italian, French and Chinese cuisines do. It does demonstrate Portland's continuously warm embrace of many types of food.

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