I want to thank everyone who came to our Q&A/reading/booksigning for the new Fearless Critic Portland Restaurant Guide
and The Wine Trials 2010
(the new edition of our blind-tasting guide to wines under $15) at Powell's last night. It was a great turnout, and I'm very appreciative.
Fearless Critic books: finally in the store!
The other panelists and I are also just thrilled to see that the Fearless Critic Portland book is finally in stock at Powell's. It just arrived from the warehouse and is now in stock all over the store, thanks to the heroic last-minute efforts of legendary Workman book rep Kurtis Lowe, who singlehandely compensated for the inadequacy of Thanksgiving-weekend UPS operations by turning into a one-man book-distribution machine, thus saving me from having to autograph T-shirts and women's breasts at the event instead of books.
One of the questions I got at the event last night was about which Portland restaurants were most overpriced, overrated, and overhyped. My first answer to the question was that Portland probably has the smallest proportion of such restaurants in the country. Generally speaking, this city's restaurantgoers don't stand for overpriced trendy food that doesn't deliver on its promise, so places like that don't tend to last long.
But just because they're not generally around long doesn't mean that there aren't a few out there at any given point in time. So, as of December 2, 2009, here are (in my humble opinion) the five worst offenders at the moment.
Most over-hyped, underwhelming spots in PDX:
1. Candy (or the "Candy Ultra Lounge," as it's called on the web site). If you're a connoisseur of laughably insufferable pretense, you'll feel like a kid in a candy store here. And how about the greasy-Chinese-takeout-meets-bad-Italian-American fare on the menu? Fancy a "spring mix with an Italian vinaigrette topped with crumbled saltine crackers and raisins"? How about a burger with blue cheese, bacon, and pineapple BBQ sauce? Or "penne pasta with spring mix salad, mandarin oranges, oven-roasted cashews tossed in sesame dressing"?
The most priceless element of Candy might be the "Weekend Dress Code" sign, which decrees, among other things, that you must be a minimum of 26 years old to enter:
The dress code at Candy
My favorite tidbit here is the enforcement of a mandatory preppy frat-boy uniform with the stipulation that shorts must be "khaki or like." Perhaps Candy might also consider requiring all patrons to don South Carolina Gamecocks Lacrosse hats, too — although, to be a bit more lenient, paraphernalia from other SEC athletics programs like Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Tennessee might also be accepted.
2. Jake's. Trying to conceal the fact that it's actually part of the McCormick & Schmick's chain. Okay, so the McCormick & Schmick's chain is based in Portland. But that doesn't make the food at the Jake's branches taste any less chain-industrial. I do appreciate the old-school servers. But they're bringing out overcooked fish, and marking it up to epic proportions.
3. El Gaucho. We write in the Fearless Critic book: "[T]here's a real danger in charging this much for dinner and then naming your restaurant something that rhymes perfectly with 'El Gouge-o.'" $49 for an okay New York strip served with pomp, circumstance, and a staggeringly overpriced wine list? No thanks. Hit up the wonderful butcher-shop-cum-steakhouse Laurelhurst Market — or, hell, even the chain steakhouse, Morton's — for a better value proposition.
4. The Heathman. You should be immediately skeptical of any restaurant that dubs itself "Elegant Fine Dining." Why is this place still so frequently mentioned among the city's top tables? They still trumpet a Beard award they won eight years ago, but this is hardly the same restaurant as that one. It really just looks, feels, and tastes like a standard upscale hotel restaurant, with eggy Sunday brunches and a captive audience of business travelers who would rather just add their meals to the room tab than deal with expensing food from elsewhere. Of course, the Heathman did win a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. But then, I did too — for an imaginary restaurant in Milan called "Osteria L'Intrepido," named after the Fearless Critic book series:
My very own Wine Spectator Award of Excellence
5. Rontom's. You want to salute a place that pours so many local liquors, but the staff's attitude at Rontom's on East Burnside is so standoffish that it has ruined many a patron's evening. Ask for any cocktail whose name doesn't spell out its ingredients (like "gin and tonic"), and you can expect eyerolls, audible sighs, and boatloads of 'tude. Given the combination of hotness and ineptitude amongst this bar staff, it seems like someone's genitalia is playing a key decisionmaking role in the Rontom's HR department.
Runners-up (other overhyped, underwhelming restaurants): Vault Martini Bar, Bluehour, Teardrop Lounge.
Lest I leave on such a negative note, let me add that there are also some trendy restaurants in town that actually do live up to their hyped-up status. I'll pick five of those, too:
1. Park Kitchen. For me, no place better epitomizes what Portland is all about. You hear grumbling about the small portions and high prices, but this is one case in which you get what you pay for: local ingredients, careful preps, amazing cocktails, and a totally unpretentious food-nerd staff. This restaurant is every bit as good as it's cracked up to be.
Salmon terrine at Park Kitchen
2. Beaker & Flask. You might expect, from the fairly pretentious move of not labeling the space from the outside (causing many a would-be customer to drive up and down Sandy, frustrated) or the retro-mod interior, that Beaker & Flask would be more style than substance. But that's not the case. Instead, you can expect spectacular food (#6 in Portland, with a 9.3 rating), and even more spectacular craft cocktails (#1, with a 9.5 rating). Who cares if they're trying pretty hard to be cutting-edge? They really are that cutting-edge.
3. Andina. Sure, the cocktails are too sweet, but Peruvian food is reliable, there's positive energy buzzing through the room, and the lighting will flatter your date (who might drink more of those sugary cocktails since they go down so easily).
Sexy vibe at Andina
4. Beast. Don't call the seat-everyone-at-once thing pretentious. It's actually pure genius: reaching out to open-minded diners and minimizing the kitchen's costs and logistical difficulties so that they can maintain a razor-sharp focus on absolutely everything that comes out of the kitchen. There's not a better restaurant in Portland at the moment. (You'll probably be hearing more from me about Beast before the week is up.)
Pearl crowd at Henry's
5. Henry's 12th Street Tavern. This place is not really about the food, but it's hard to argue with 100 beer taps, however loud the yuppie Pearl crowd might be after sampling from a good percentage of them. And it's even harder to argue with serviceable happy-hour, late-night, and all-day-Sunday specials that are practically given away, like a huge baking dish of mac and cheese for $2, or a personal-sized pizza for $3. Even if the kitchen isn't great, those prices show a lot of Portland spirit, even in the Pearl.
Ridiculously cheap happy hour menu at Henry's
Runners-up (other restaurants that do live up to the hype): MetroVino, DOC, Saucebox, Le Pigeon, Pok Pok, Clyde Common, Ping, Clarklewis, Sel Gris.