Every seven years Valentine’s Day arrives on a weekend providing restaurants with the schizophrenic opportunity for profit and pain. Like Mother’s Day and New Year's Eve, this ridiculous marketing scheme of a holiday is an excuse for everyone to go out for dinner. Normally good restaurants lose their minds, adding tables, seatings, and failing miserably at sorting out problems. I usually avoid restaurants on these holidays like the plague, but my friends, Jean-Francois and Jay took me to dinner last night, the second night of this three-day marathon. We had a reservation at Saucebox, a popular restaurant that seems tired to me. But when we got there, tables in the dining room were full and the only available space was in the dark and noisy bar. Worse, Saucebox seemed to be saying, "sorry, suck it up." Jean-Francois who hates this kind of situation decided to settle, but Jay wasn't having it (thank god) and with cell phone in hand, attempted to rescue our evening. He called Nel Centro, a fairly new Mediterranean-style restaurant that has been much in the news of late. The hostess said she would have a table in one-hour (it was now 7:15). That sounded just fine to us. We got in the car and drove over with more than 30 minutes to spare, but the gracious hostess said she thought a good table would be ours in 10 minutes. Great. We decided to have a cocktail at their attractive bar.
Nel Centro is located at the The Modera, a very cool, very stylish retro-50s boutique hotel in downtown Portland. The restaurant's modern style is totally in sync with the hotel with its white marble floors and handsome walnut paneling. The well-spaced tables and booths are made of re-claimed Douglas Fir. In addition to the generous-sized interior bar, the there is also a fabulous looking outdoor patio bar area with fire pits offering warmth and drama. This would be a fantastic space for meeting friends for drinks in the late-spring-through-fall season. The brightly colored globe lights of various sizes are hand-blown. David Machado, who owns Lauro (a marvelous restaurant near my home where I have dine on several occasions) and the equally popular Vindalho, is much admired. In a recent story in the Oregonian, Machado had taken over the kitchen. The founding chef failed to add consistency to his culinary gifts and in this troublesome economy, Machado could not afford such an expensive failure. Machado will work the restaurant while he searches around for a replacement. Smart move. The food we ate last night was outstanding. Better yet, there is a wonderful sense of service here with really knowledgeable staff who want to make sure you’re having a great time.
We had a cocktail at the bar and I loved my vodka Gimlet with its fresh zing of limejuice. The large space with its hard surfaces is surprisingly un-noisy. We scored a large and comfortable booth that could easily sit six, and finished our cocktails while we studied the menu. Jean-Francois asked me to find a red wine. I settled on several choices, and our waitress helped me zero in on a Mocali Rosso di Montalcino. This 2007 vintage was a delicious medium-bodied red and would prove to be an excellent accompaniment to our entrees. It was surprising how fast we made our choices. I wanted the salad of winter chicories, Gorgonzola, applies and candied walnuts to start. Jean-Francois settled on the country pate/chicken liver mousse and duck rillettes plate with mustard and cornichons, while Jay opted for the excellent and tender fried calamari with red pepper rouille and sauce Gribiche. All three were solid, well-executed starters. I’ve learned to live with rubbery fried calamari as long as it is fresh. Even at restaurants famous for their calamari (Union Square Café in New York), it often arrives in a chewy state. Our waitress said they cut it on an angle and soak the calamari rings in buttermilk. I won’t argue with results as tender as this. These calamari just melt on the tongue and the fine red pepper rouille was enhanced by an aromatic dash of smoked paprika picante. I generally prefer to start a meal with a salad, and the chicories married well with the Gorgonzola and a creamy dressing. The apples and candied walnuts added more structure to the salad. I had a smear of the chicken liver mousse and the duck rillettes, and both were excellent.
I haven’t eaten much pasta since I arrived in Portland, so it was pleasure to eat this robust bowl of thick, al dente, bucatini with a mild red sauce, and gamey lamb meatballs with freshly grated aged ricotta. There is nothing refined about this wonderful dish, which would be a welcome sight on a Roman trattoria menu (if Italians ate lamb meatballs). I’ve eaten a similar dish in New York at Vice Versa, but the meatballs were tiny, and this dish had a more rustic feel to it. Jay ordered the house-made ravioli of beef, house-cured bacon and ricotta with a sauce of Nicoise olives, butter and Parmesan. I didn’t try it, but you could visually tell how tender the ravioli were and they certainly made him smile. Sticking to his French roots, Jean-Francois pronounced himself pleased with his big shallow bowl of daube of short ribs with red wine, olives and fried Panisse (good-sized chick pea flour batons fried in olive oil). I speared a thickly cut slice of carrot, impressed that it still had some bite to it while admiring the full-bodied sauce. Our good wine never fought this boldly flavored food.
Never intrusive, our waitress checked on us periodically, asking our opinions and what aspects we liked about our plates. I enjoyed her culinary knowledge, which was delivered with a light touch and without a trace of foodie superiority. This lady clearly enjoys her work.
These days I find I want a bite of something sweet and avoid ordering a full dessert. So we selected a lemon semifreddo with a hazelnut dacquoise, a spectacular and oddly unusual version. I’m used to chocolate and caramel semi-freddo. Our waitress placed in front of us a generous slice with a spoonful of Pernod-infused whipped cream and thin surrounding rings of caramel to soften the citrus tang.
Having missed the previous chef, I’d say David Machado has righted this ship rather quickly. Nel Centro looks like an excellent addition to Portland’s ever-growing reputation as a restaurant town. We avoided the fiasco of Valentine’s “date night” by a hair, due to Jay’s quick thinking, and Nel Centro proved to be right new restaurant. I’ll be back!