A Birthday Beast

March 26, 2011

Charcuterie Plate

Steak tartare + quail egg on toast = two bites of heaven.

Honestly, birthdays are getting a little old. (Pun sort of intended. Not really. They are getting really old.)  I’ll spare you the self-indulgent details. But if mark them I must, what better way than by spending a Saturday evening with some of my favorite people at one of he most lauded restaurants in Portland? The company did not disappoint, nor did our meal at Beast.

James, Zandra, Margaret, J and I shared a communal table with a group of four that seemed content to keep to themselves, which was fine by me. Diners at the other, larger table in the room made acquaintances early, but in the end appeared to interact mostly with those they came with. (I mention this only as a point of solace for anyone uneasy about communal seating, as I, ever the introvert, tend to be.) The setting for dinner is snug, dusky, casual yet refined. The room features whimsical graffiti, a working kitchen that hums with quiet precision and a sizable plating island that seats two, maybe three, lucky diners. A seating, of which there are two nightly Wednesday-Saturday, accommodates perhaps 30. Two brunch seatings on Sunday round out the week.

We opted for the wine pairings, and once all parties had arrived, the feasting began. We commenced with a rich, inky French onion soup, its crouton oozing with Gruyere, paired with a bubbly Brut rose. Next was a colorful palette of charcuterie whose standouts included a silky chicken liver mousse on a crisp leaf lard cracker; toast topped with steak tartare and a delicate quail egg; and a tiny square of sauternes gelee perched on a rich, chilled fois gras bon-bon — a creamy mouthful that might have stood in for dessert. The main course brought a fork-tender braised duck accented by pickled sour cherries and a syrupy duck demi-glace alongside crunchy pink spring radishes with their greens. After that, a refresher: a bright arugula salad slightly wilted under an aged-sherry, bacon, balsamic vinaigrette with shaved Reggiano and tempura-fried lemons. The only jarring moment of the meal came during the cheese course, which included a spunky goat’s milk cheese; a salty, tangy blue; and a wow-invoking German cow’s milk cheese redolent of barnyard. (If you haven’t guessed, the last one was the jarring bit — a conversation stopper and most definitely an acquired taste.) After all that, dessert: spicy, chilled hazelnut cake alongside Armagnac prune frozen mousse.

Beast strikes a balance between rich and bright, sweet and tart, crunch and cream, with generous dashes of whimsy and elegance for good measure. We feel fortunate to have this cozy spot in our neck of the woods, and look forward to many (40-something?) celebratory meals to come.

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Sausage/green pepper and Canadian bacon/onion.

I don’t know when it started —  in Chicago, probably — but somewhere along the line, we adopted the oh-so-original tradition of Friday night pizza. We have made it our quest, wherever we go, to find the best delivery joint: the crust must be thin, crisp, oven-browned; the salads must be big (nothing worse than paying $10 for a paltry tin of dying lettuce and dead shaved carrots).

The quest continues in Portland, but our current favorite is Bandini. I confess to being a skeptic when we first walked by the restaurant on MLK. The place looks cozy and inviting enough, but the menu seems scattershot: appetizers, pastas, salads, sandwiches, desserts and, of course, pizza. A real red-sauce, family-style, kid-in-booster-seats kind of place. But we took the leap and ordered delivery one Friday night last November, and it’s been our go-to Friday-night date ever since. Ordering can be tricky, especially if you are trying to communicate the concept of “easy cheese” or even “light cheese” to the sweet, non-native English-speaker on the phone — but who cares? The pizza arrives lickety-split, and the delivery guy is courteous and friendly.

Pizza crust is delicious, though it never quite achieves the crispness we crave. It has a pretzel quality: Definitely thin, slightly chewy, with a pretzel-style sheen.  I love it. J wishes we could convey the desired well-done effect, and we’ll keep trying. (“When it’s finished, leave it in the oven for an extra 5 minutes.”)

Toppings are fresh and flavorful (we’re talking to you, sausage). Salads are plentiful. (Yeah, the Caesar dressing conspicuously lacks garlic and anchovies, but we won’t complain: The lettuce is fresh and there’s lots of it.)

Bandini: Thank you for being our Friday-night steady. We’ll call you. *Kiss.*

Bacon bourbon jam

The first day of daylight savings was a windy, rainy one, but it’s 6:45pm, the clouds have broken, the sun is still out. We can’t complain. Especially since we spent the day cooking the most amazing meal: pork ribs slow braised in Coca-Cola, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar; collard greens with bacon and sausage and a new member of our immediate family, bourbon bacon jam. Hello, dear. Sit down, you’re just in time for dinner.

I first heard the ingenious words “bacon” and “jam” together when season 6 “Top Chef” contestant Kevin Gillespie made it during a quickfire. Since that brilliant moment, I knew I’d make it at some point. With tonight’s menu, the time was ripe.

I followed the recipe on the blog evilshennanigans.com with minimal deviation. I started by barely crisping bacon in a cast-iron skillet. Reserving a bit of bacon fat, I added one very large sweet onion (sliced) and bit of brown sugar, and caramelized until the onions took on a deep golden brown color. In went the spices: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, chipotle powder and sweet paprika. I added a bit more bourbon than the recipe called for, and caramelized the onions for at least ten minutes after the spices went in — that’s it. After a good two hours on the stove and a quick spin in the food processor, the sticky sweet, salty, spicy jam was ready. The result was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted. Our favorite bite so far: a slice of apple, a piece of blue cheese and a dollop of the jam.

Pork au Coke

March 13, 2011

Pork au Coke

The star of this evening’s meal was a J production. He felt like cooking a barbecue-style Southern meal, and the rib recipe was improvised. First, he marinated pork ribs in a dry  “Memphis rib rub” (in a tin) and a half  cup of kalbi marinade overnight.

Next day, in a large cast iron pan, J caramelized red onions and green cabbage (salt and pepper to taste) in oil till golden. Then he added an 8 oz bottle of Coca-Cola, half a cup of apple cider vinegar, two tablespoons soy sauce, one teaspoon of red pepper flakes and good squeeze of sriracha.

Simmer, simmer, simmer.

Meanwhile, he seared the ribs on a hot grill, then braised ribs in sauce for about four hours. Low and slow.

He removed ribs. Let ’em rest in a warm oven while the sauce reduced until it was a rich, brown cola color. (About an hour.)

Ribs went back into the sauce for a bath. The result: fork tender, tangy, spicy, slightly sweet deliciousness. We served it up with greens and mac and cheese.

This recipe, it’s a keeper.

We won’t deny it: We love going out to eat, and we don’t mind spending money on a nice dinner. We love cooking at home, too, but there is something about the anticipation of an evening out — whether it’s just the two of us, or with family and friends — that imparts a celebratory feeling. Tonight, we met James, Zandra, David and Karen at Wildwood in the Pearl District to celebrate David’s birthday, so the scene was set: delightful company, cool spring evening and a lovely high-end restaurant. David knows wine, we all love to eat and drink, not a picky person in the group. So, it was perfect, right? That we were disappointed came as a surprise.

The menu showcases local, seasonal ingredients, so in early March, we had a plethora of winter vegetables and hearty meats and flavors verging on Mediterranean. Appetizers were the night’s clear winners, in my opinion. Standouts in the starter arena included bright, fresh flavors of roasted parsnip and grapefruit salad with creme fraiche and a drizzle of aromatic truffle oil. And I’ll be honest: I would have kept the buttery pork belly and dungeness crab app to myself if I thought I could get away with it.

Among the six of us, we tried four entrees. Karen and Zandra both had the oven-roasted pork chop, a mammoth cut, nicely cooked, but topped with a preserved tomato sauce that seemed to overpower the dish. James and David ordered lamb which looked promising, but the meat was chewy. (Dare I say gamey? Yes, I dare.) My rib eye filet, the size of a small fist, was nicely browned on the surface, and a lovely medium pink inside, but the flavor was non-existent, and the meat … how could it possibly have been tough? J’s entree of crispy, flavorful duck confit with deliciously caramelized brussels sprouts and pancetta was the only redeeming plate.

First impressions are everything, especially when the competition is so strong. We might give Wildwood another chance, in another season. Maybe.