Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On extraordinary eating: Sel Gris / Safeway cake

Ever since Daniel Mondok’s shiny bald head graced Willamette Week’s restaurant guide last year, I had been pining to dine in his restaurant, Sel Gris. From its namesake (a grey French sea salt) to its seasonal “bistro” style food – it seemed to be the ideal Portland fine dining experience. It took a while to get there – college students can’t easily afford a meal that easily comes to $50-60 a head (if you’re eating and drinking properly) without tip. And the reservation policy, rare in Portland, makes it near-impossible for the spontaneous Let’s go out to eat trips that most frequently make up my dinners out. I thought about taking my parents there when they were in town, but the small size and super-hip vibe didn’t seem right somehow.

But then, we went. Somehow we were squeezed in (almost) last minute for an early dinner on Saturday, ending up at a table as far away from the open kitchen as possible, delightful nonetheless. Despite its not-much-larger-than-a-closet size, Sel Gris didn’t seem to have a bad table in the house. The sun shone through the ceiling-high windows, reflecting off the steel beams of the interior, making the room almost sparkle.

The buzz of excitement led me to forget not only my camera from my house but also Matt’s camera from the car; however, the small size, close proximity of our neighbors and constant wait staff attention would have made photography uncomfortable. So you’ll have to make due with my words.

We started with the Ris de Veau, veal sweetbreads with “bacon and eggs” – a semi-poached egg encased in batter with bacon bits on the top – and an herb oil. Smaller and daintier than the sweetbreads I ate at Paley’s, these were wonderfully rich when eaten with the runny yolk and fragrant oil. Matt was impressed (he hadn’t had sweetbreads on their own) and was struck by their pungent complexity.

Following the appetizer, I had the soup special – a puree of asparagus and green garlic, poured tableside over sautéed morels and fried onions. While the presentation was beautiful and the body of the soup was deliciously fresh and delicate, I wasn’t sold on the incorporation of the fried onions. The contrast between crunchy and smooth could have been nice, but the soup was so hot that I couldn’t eat it until the onion batter had dissolved into mushy globs at the bottom of the bowl. Next time, perhaps caramelized onions, or simply crispy ones, would be better.

Matt had the asparagus salad with smoked trout, prosciutto, an aioli, and a number of other ingredients. Despite its heavy busy-ness (it probably would have been a better match for a pasta entrée than what Matt actually ordered), the salad was a tasty combination of smokiness and fresh snappy green flavor.

For my entrée, I had the lamb prepared two ways – braised and a quickly grilled rack – served with chickpeas, favas, and a root vegetable puree. The lamb was tender and fragrant, and both methods prepared perfectly. But it was nothing terribly special. Not like Matt’s dish – the duck served with foie gras, artichoke hearts, and peas. Up until this dinner, my duck experience had been limited to bad Chinese restaurants. Overcooked, greasy, stringy. The duck on Saturday, however, was marvelous. Served almost rare, with the crispy, fatty skin on top, it was like slicing into a petit filet, but with the flavor of the best dark poultry meat. Bites containing bits of fat and foie were the best – rich, buttery, satisfying. I am now a duck convert.

And, finally, despite being underwhelmed by the dessert selections, we decided to order the Napoleon. Bright local strawberries were layered between crisp pastry and crème pâtissière for a clean and fresh end to the meal.

The next night (my last in Portland) came with the goal of eating up all the fresh vegetables I had bought the other day when I lost self-control at New Seasons. Matt and I invited Ted and Emmeline over, and we chopped, sliced, and stir-fried our way to dinner. Unfortunately there was no leftover desserts needing to be eaten, and so we scoured the internet for a bakery open late on Sunday nights.

It turns out there is no such place.

Well, at least there is no such place that doesn’t turn into a bar past dinner, and, given Matt’s embarrassingly young age, we were stuck with what seemed like the worst case scenario – Safeway. After fantasizing about Papa Haydn and Piece of Cake, Safeway cakes sound like hell. Artificial, dry, chemically. But they are cakes just the same. Emmeline and I decided to split the “Giant Artisanal Carrot Cake” and Matt and Ted ate some chocolate cherry concoction.

As it turns out, carrot cake is a good choice. Despite the very long list of ingredients, it lacked that grocery-store cake aftertaste and was surprisingly moist and flavorful. Our biggest complaint was the improper ratio of icing to cake, but that is easily remedied with a little self-control. And compared to the boys' dry, flavorless chocolate thing, it was close to great.

Our lesson? Always get the carrot cake.

Sel Gris on Urbanspoon

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