Lobster pasta

A perfectly irresistible dish: Joe Palmer House’s Lobster Newberg.

Every once in a while, and never often enough, a perfect day comes around. With no set formula, no particular sequence, it’s impossible to create a day like this; if you try, it never feels exactly right. You can plan the events, but  something intangible happens to make a day perfect. Last Saturday was a perfect day.

After weeks of rain, the sun was shining and the weather forecast promised temperatures more in line with July than early May. Awakened by chirping birds through open bedroom windows, we started our day feeling optimistic. A mundane commitment, mulch delivery, was due sometime between 10am and 1pm, but the guys arrived an hour early, freeing up some time for a brisk walk before meeting James and Zandra for our quarterly wine-tasting tour. Joining us were Ken and Michelle, for whom this was a wine-club pickup round. We’d never met Ken and Michelle, but I could  tell by the laughter and they were genial and easy to be around.

Our first stop was Zerba Cellars‘ tiny tasting room on the main strip into Dundee. From there we went to Natalie’s Estate Winery in the foothills of the Chehalem Mountain AVA. And our last stop was De Ponte Cellars, a perennial favorite for the breathtaking views from the patio and, of course, their beautiful wines. Ken and Michelle had brought a small cooler with cheese, salami and crackers, so we ordered a bottle of De Ponte Pinot Noir rosé, and soaked in the still-novel sun. Cheese devoured, wine gone, we purchased the wine we can never seem to leave without, and were on our way to the Joel Palmer House, the culinary shrine to mushrooms in nearby Dayton. Seated at our pleasant patio table, early-evening sun filtering through the trees onto the crisp white tablecloth, we knew we had one of the best tables in the house.

Our meal commenced with an amuse-bouche trio: a delicate prawn, a bite of wild-mushroom risotto, and a taste of Dungeness crab salad.  This fanciful gift was followed by our shared appetizers that started with six delectable Yaquina Bay oysters, one for each of us. (For me, a single oyster evokes elation then disappointment, its fleeting perfection leaving me greedy for more.) But there were other small plates to distract us after the divine briny bite. Next came a beautiful plate of beef tartare, infused with white truffles and served with brioche triangles, the beef tender and silky on the tongue. A generous wedge of three-mushroom tart followed, earthy, dense and flavorful with porcini sauce. The guys ordered wild mushroom soup, and the rest of us dipped in, ooh-ing an aah-ing over the creamy deliciousness.

For entrees, Zandra had butter poached Maine lobster over pasta with a mushroom and white wine cream sauce that caused ripples of entree envy across the table. J also indulged in pasta, a rarity these days, but the offering of morel mushrooms in a creamy truffle sauce over penne triumphed over any lingering willpower. And speaking of lacking willpower, James and I both were unable to resist the over-the-top house specialty, beef stroganoff. The beef, soft and flavorful, recalled the silky tartare from earlier, and the rice reminiscent of the wild-mushroom risotto from the amuse, all bathed in mushroom cream sauce. Luxurious is the first word that comes to mind. Indulgent is the second.

If only to prolong our time on the patio — certainly not because we were still hungry — we ordered dessert: a trio of sorbets. By the end of it all, Zandra declared this her new favorite restaurant, and received no dissent from the rest of us. We will dine at the Joel Palmer House again soon. (Though, I have to say that our alfresco experience probably contributed to our heightened impression. Inside looks pleasant, but the patio is divine on a beautiful day.)

The air still warm long after the sun had set, we drove away happy and sated. In our usual meeting spot where we had left our car, we gathered our wine and said goodnight to our family and our new friends, grateful for the fine camaraderie, a perfect day in our rear-view mirror.

Meriwether's pantry board

A few of our favorite Meriwether’s pantry board choices.

It’s May!

It’s not Monday!

It only rained three times today!

Each of those is a minor victory, and therefore an excuse to celebrate. That, and we were lucky enough to have a gift card for Meriwethers tucked in a drawer, yearning to be used. So use it we did on a recent Tuesday night.

Meriwether’s is one of the first restaurants James and Zandra took us to before we moved to Portland, and since then it’s been the site of more than a couple of birthday celebrations. Something about this place feels like a special-occasion destination. The historic building once marked the entrance to the 1905 World’s Fair and retains an element of rusticity. Dark wood floors, huge stone fireplaces, log ceiling beams and grand windows add drama to the dining room’s elegant farmhouse feel. It’s the kind of place most people would feel comfortable bringing the parents or grandparents for a celebratory meal: well lit, workable noise level, attentive service.

But, really, it’s the food that keeps us coming back. Meriwether’s, like many Portland restaurants, is a farm-to-fork kind of place, but with a twist: It operates its own farm, Skyline Farm, in Northwest Portland, and the menu changes frequently based on the week’s harvest. On more than one occasion, we’ve threatened to make a meal of the pantry-board section and this one was no different. Choose one, three or five items (better go for five — choosing is difficult) and share the glorious small bites. We had the Oregonzola-stuffed dates; light and crispy fried sweetbreads with a smoky chipotle aioli; crab deviled eggs; cauliflower gratin; and anchovy avocado toast. All were delicious, but of the five, the anchovy avocado toast stood out: avocado spread over toasted bread with two fillets of anchovy layered on top. Salty, creamy, two bites of bliss.

Proscuitto and greens pizza

Pizza with prosciutto and greens.

Tempting as it is to order these delicious nibbles all night, we soldier on to the lower half of the menu. A selection of salads is next, followed by pasta and grains, all of which come in small or large sizes, conducive to mixing and matching, depending on your level of curiosity and hunger. Each of us ordered the farmhouse salad with fennel and shaved pecorino cheese: simple, lovely. For entrees, Zandra had a deliciously chewy papardelle with a meaty ragu — gorgeous. The night’s most-unexpected award went to J’s  halibut entree served over Asian stir-fried vegetables with a bit of spice. (Stir fry? At Meriwether’s? Sure, why not.)  James and I both selected from the bar menu. I had the bacon cheese burger with truffle salt fries. The burger was good, if not memorable. Leftover aioli from the sweetbreads made for tasty fry sauce. James ordered the pizza: a large, oblong flatbread mounded with arugula and prosciutto. With enough greens to satiate a hungry goat, it’s likely the least guilt-inducing pizza on earth, and a tasty one at that.

Chalk it up to being a Tuesday night, or that the service on this particular evening was scattered, leaving us sitting longer than we’d planned, but we skipped dessert. No matter, there will always be the next time we have a reason to celebrate.