Monday, September 21, 2009

Unleash the Beast

I had very high expectations. In fact, right before the waiter brought us our first glass of wine, I turned to Andrew – I am quivering in anticipation right now.

You see, Beast is one of the most talked-about Portland restaurants these days. Helmed by Naomi Pomeroy, a Food and Wine Best New Chef this year, the restaurant boasts an exclusively small dining room, with an equally exclusive menu – six meat-centric courses, substitutions politely declined. Everyone dines at a long table during one of two seatings each night. Spots are cherished. I had tried to eat there back at graduation but by the time I called, the place was booked all week. Somehow, this week Andrew had more luck, and at 6:00 Friday, Andrew, his sister, his mother and I finally took our seats.

I was lucky enough to nab a prime spot, facing the open kitchen, where I could watch Pomeroy and her überhip assistants plate our dishes. Speaking of dishes – the six course meal was a fairly traditional progression (minus the fish): soup, charcuterie, an entree, salad, cheese and dessert. Andrew, his mother and I chose the wine pairing option, which while a bit more than I would drink normally, was certainly educational and much more fun than a single bottle.

Our soup was a chilled cream of watercress with a nasturtium chiffonade. Totally refreshing and summery, it seemed a richer version of the spinach soups with which I've been experimenting recently. It's like slurping the best flavors of summer greens. The first wine, a dry and bubbly Bott-Geyl Cremant D'Alsace NV Brut was fine but it seemed chosen more because it was a safe sparkling wine and less that it paired well with the soup.

The charcuterie plate arrived with much fanfare. Pomeroy's foie gras bon bons are becoming famous for much of same reason Gabe Rucker at Le Pigeon succeeds – decadence and a thwarting of Portland's "crunchy" reputation. Besides the bon bon, the plate has salami, pickled beets and carrots, steak tartare with quail egg toast, pork liver and sour cherry pate, a cornichon and mustard, chicken liver mouse with pickled shallots and a micro greens salad. The wine, a Graf Hardegg vom Schloss Riesling, was not particularly memorable other than the fact that I liked it better than most Riesling I've tried. What was memorable, however, was the peanut butter shortbread on which the foie was served. Since the online menu had made no mention of peanuts, I had forgone calling ahead to inform the restaurant of my allergies. I was so embarrassed, then, when I had to ask the server if they could remove it. After a bit of conversation, they re-plated everything and even gave me a new bon bon (not bad for a substitution of sorts). Still, I was a bit too red in the face to enjoy my meats as they should. Everyone else cleaned their plates.

Between courses, we cleansed our palates with a grapefruit-prosecco granita. Just perfect for what it was.

Our entree was a medium-rare lamb loin chop served with a tomato stuffed with veal, Tail and Trotters pork, lamb, bread crumbs and spices. We all assumed that the tomato would be boring, but it truly stole the show. Literally exploding out of the bright tomato shell, each component of the stuffing brought a new meaty layer of flavor and texture, and when eaten alongside the chop, eat bite popped, enhancing the gamey deliciousness of lamb. The wine, a Peillot Mondeuse Bugey VDQS 2006, or "bougie," was nice, but, again, not particularly memorable.

The salad of baby oak leaf lettuces, frisee, sheep's milk cheese, black mission figs and fried Marcona almonds with a sauvignon blanc vinaigrette was stellar. Late summer on a plate. And the wine, a Masson Apremont Savoie Blanc Vielles Vignes Traditionelle 2006, strange on its own, tasted outstanding alongside the almonds – the lingering taste of the nuts brought out a dryness in the otherwise caramelly wine, a depth of flavor unmatched in all other pairings. Makes me want to try pairings at more restaurants.

The cheese plate featured two raw milk cheese (one unpasteurized and hard, the other pasteurized and semi-soft) and a rockin' camembert. All three cheeses has just the right amount of footiness – kind of raunchy, but still enjoyable. They came with local honey and grapes (yum!) as well as anise and fleur de sel shortbread (totally making this at home). The wine, Peillot Altresse Roussette de Bugey (more bougie-ness!) tasted great with everything, but I experienced to revelatory new tastes.

Finally, dessert. Online it said we would have tarte tatin, but it changed by that evening to a dandy plum brown butter spice cake with vanilla ice cream. Certainly comfortable, but nothing special. The wine, Francois Pinon Vouray Cuvee Botrytis 2007 was actually very enjoyable (and I usually hate dessert wines – too sweet – bleck!), surprisingly dry in the mouth, which complemented the sugary cake well.

Final thoughts? All of the food was excellent, and held a level of rustic quasi-refinement for which, in my ideal kitchen, I strive. Yet it was not the best meal of my life, and, besides the almond-wine pairing, contained no new tastes. Not much can compare to the duck noodles at Ping or my first taste of sweetbreads at Paley's, or even the zucchini salad at Chez Panisse. What was new, however, was the family-style/relaxed fine dining approach taken by Pomeroy. While other top Portland restaurants attempt to toe the line between formality and casual hipness, Beast is the first place that actually pulls it off. By serving plated yet rustic food in a small room in which you can watch the chef (certainly not dressed in chef's whites) banter with her staff, and giving diners a chance to toast with complete strangers, Beast fills a space previously unoccupied. The fact that the food didn't totally blow my mind didn't matter so much. I went to bed that night feeling nourished, body and mind.

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