NOTE: CARLYLE HAS NOW CLOSED (2/14/2010)
(note: for a bit of background, you may wish to read the previous post)
Carlyle is set where you’d least expect it; smacked down in the middle of the warehouse district under the shadow of the Fremont Bridge. But that is part of its charm; such an unexpected location. The first time I was trying to find it, I kept turning around before I got there, thinking I must have driven too far. Keep going down Thurman, though, and eventually you’ll see the sign on the side of a nice rustic-looking building. On warm summer evenings, a few tables are set out on the sidewalk. Since the district pretty much shuts down at night, this can be a quiet outdoor place to take a break from the rat race. As twilight approaches, long shadows fall across the buildings, the bridge takes on the colors of the sunset, and before you know it, you’ve passed an entire evening.
The inside is smaller than you would expect. There are about eight tables in the long, skinny bar, and another seven or so in the main dining room. If needed a second room can be opened, with about eight more tables. Finally, there is the much vaunted private patio available for a $150 surcharge; a very nice space, though a bit costly. The lighting is perfect, easy to read the menu by, yet flattering to everyone in the room. At times, the noise level can get high, especially if you are in the bar and the dining room is full. The walls are a lovely, understated dark wood with crisp white tablecloths; the contrast works very well. A big mirrored wall on one side of the bar makes the space feel larger than it is. I can see why some feel this is one of the most romantic restaurants in Portland.
There is a long and interesting cocktail menu, average price about $9.00. I’ve only tried a few of the drinks, but thought they needed help, suffering from too many little things floating in them that ended up stuck to teeth and tongue. Infusions would work better, but this is just my personal preference. The wine list has some interesting choices; someone here is passionate about wine. Pricing is very reasonable.
During my visits, the service has been excellent; though sometimes over attentive when things are slow, and under attentive as the restaurant gets busy. The wine sommelier and maitre d’ are excellent, though on one visit our waiter was very green: he did not know the wine list, he forgot dishes, and he brought the wrong dessert.
The sourdough bread that comes with every meal is very good. Tastes just out of the oven, but, as it turns out, it’s from La Brea Bakery in LA, and is finished here. Even better, the basket is kept full, and accompanied by little round balls of good soft salted butter.
The menu is made up of three sections: ‘Small Tastes’, ‘First Plates’, and ‘Principal Dishes’. At this point I’ve had almost everything offered, but for the sake of brevity will only comment on some of them.
The foie gras ‘two ways’ starts the way everything at Carlyle does: beautifully presented. It is house-cured ‘au torchon’, with brioche or pineapple chutney, and seared with brioche and gooseberries. You get two good-sized pieces of foie that look excellent. One displays nice sear marks, both pieces are soft and earthy. They are separated from each other by a small bit of frisée. One comes with wonderful pineapple chutney that pairs well, cutting the fat of the foie gras. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a problem, noticeable from the first bite. The foie has not been de-veined properly, and is a bit stringy. You want a liver with few veins because if they’re not removed adequately they can mar the smooth texture of the finished dish. Try to cut one in half, and you have to fight the strings. Based on taste, it was an excellent way to start the menu, but those little veins made me uninterested in ordering again ($16.00).
Next we have crispy medallion ‘Ris De Veau'; sweetbreads with olive oil, crushed potatoes, bacon and mushrooms, and parsley coulis. These are good – perfectly seared, creamy textured, and full of wonderful flavor; no complaints at all. Once again, the presentation is lovely ($12.00). My second visit, I had Szechuan peppercorn seared Japanese tuna with wasabi aioli and caviar, mango-coconut salad, and tobiko (a crunchy flying fish roe). The presentation was just gorgeous; a beautiful array of medium thin slices of rare tuna in a long line across the plate. Unfortunately the peppercorns made it taste gritty, like unwashed lettuce. When paired with the tuna, the grittiness ruined the texture. The wasabi aioli tasted strongly of mayonnaise and completely overpowered the buttery little tuna. Nice presentation, bad execution ($12.00).
When they say ‘ravioli of milk-fed veal’, they mean that in a singular way. It arrives in a beautiful white bowl; a single, undercooked ravioli sitting in a pool of sauce. If there was any taste to the veal (which, granted, there may not have been, veal not being known to pack a punch), it was obliterated by the sauce, which seemed overly reduced but extremely rich by the addition of foie-melted leeks, rapini and the saltiness of the grana Padano cheese. It reminded me of a really good boeuf bourgeon, but the ravioli was superfluous and tasteless. The sauce was too good to be wasted on one meek ravioli ($13.00). On my next visit, I tried the calamari. The squid was properly cooked, though the pieces were oddly small. The sauces were dead wrong. One based on the French sauce gribiche of mayonnaise, minced herbs and chopped pickles, reminded me of nothing so much as the pickle relish you get at the ballpark – I flashed back to Dodger Stadium. The ingredients were out of proportion, leaving it sweetish, and doing nothing to complement the calamari. The second sauce was just wrong, a vinegary, thin, star anise Thai barbecue; I would have liked the wasabi aioli here ($12.00).
Moving on. I haven’t had clam chowder in ages, but Carlyle does a good job. It’s a New England style with lots of big chunks of clams, and carrots, in a cream base. Bacon gives it lots of depth; it’s an excellent version (cup $4.50, bowl $6.50).
One night I thought a duck confit salad would be good. You get a mix of arugula, frisée and mizuna greens with small slivers of Asian pear, Roquefort and sherry shallot vinaigrette. Perched high on top, looking somewhat incongruous is a ‘crisp duck confit’. To me, the duck was dry and unsalted, completely lacking flavor. This made little sense; by definition, duck confit is made by packing the bird in fat and salt, so it wasn’t a confit, at least not in the classic sense. Once I pared the meat off the bone, which was easy, and mixed it in with the lettuce, it was… okay. Nothing special. It did not sing. The salad underneath was pretty darn good. ($14.00). But it was no way as off-key as…
The butter lettuce. It’s described as “Bittersweet Farms butter lettuce with creamy herb vinaigrette ‘Pierre Dorre’, Sharlynne melon ‘Parisienne’ and crunchy prosciutto ham”. The salad was worse. I would say the inspiration is a slice of cool melon with prosciutto, the soft sweetness of the melon offset by the salty chewiness of the ham. This is not that dish. This dish did not harmonize in any way: the lettuce was very hard to disengage from itself; the hard bits of bacon sat there, the melon balls were little eyes looking the other way, just an awful combination ($9.50). The Caesar was lacking, as well. While as beautiful as a Caesar could ever be, with perfect green hearts of romaine arranged like little boats on the plate, a large amount of lemon had been squeezed over the top, drowning out any other flavors. Seriously, it’s all you could taste. On top was a good amount of micro-planed Grana Padano. I love my micro-plane, but have found that using it on excellent Parmesan is a bad idea; you grate away its complexity and granular quality. Caesar should be Lucullan. This was Atkins. ($9.50)
Equally flawed was the beet salad ‘two ways’. It is described as red, Chiogga (an heirloom variety), and gold beets, roasted and raw with curry créme fraâche and savory praline. Once again it arrives in an incredible presentation, a TINY pile of thinly sliced beets, one side cooked, and one side raw. They didn’t have as much sweetness as others I’ve had around town, and I might have liked it more if I hadn’t have had one of the best beet salads of my life the night before, at Park Kitchen. The streak of curry créme fraâche running down the plate was interesting, though for me it overpowered the other ingredients a bit. The savory praline, but a faint scattering, looked like a dusting of nuts. It was all very pretty to look at, but not particularly good ($8.50)
Let’s jump to the “Principal Dishes”
We’ll start with pan-roasted “rib eye” of milk-fed veal, described as “spring pea and morel risotto, brioche, vegetable mirepoix and sauce Veloute.” Good god, there was nothing good about this dish. The risotto was undercooked with crunchy bits – 5 more minutes would have done wonders. The peas were mealy. The fairly large piece of meat (compared to other dishes) was tough, overcooked, and dry. The meat was rolled into the now-ubiquitous circle, a thick brioche perched on top which soaked up most of the sauce. Unfortunately the bread itself was so thick, there wasn?t enough sauce to infuse much flavor. Just a disaster! I don’t have veal all that often, and if I’m going to, it had better be damn good. After eating this I wanted to adopt a cow in penance ($28.00).
Another in my party ordered the hanger steak; “Painted Hills with sautéed garlic spinach, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, melted onions and duck pate-Roquefort butter”. Sounds amazingly good, but this orchestra played out of tune. First of all, the quantity of meat was less than you would expect for $32.00. Second, the meat was tough and chewy. One level down was a small pile of overcooked, oversalted mushy greens. Finally the whole thing sat in a bed of terribly oversalted mashed potatoes; some of the worst I have ever experienced – they were virtually inedible. Better was the pork tenderloin of “grilled Carlton Farms pork, fig and cherry gastrique, mascarpone-blue cheese polenta blanc, and Chinese 5 spice candied hazelnuts.” This dish was fine, beautifully presented with lots of tiny figs and whatnot scattered about. The sauce, a bit too sweet for my taste, was just okay ($25.00).
Fish tends to be the best choice. On one visit, a special of black striped sea bass was good, if a very small portion, and I liked the pork belly it came with. The flavors worked very well together ($27.00). Carlyle is open for lunch, and one of the standards is grilled halibut. One week it was paired with Dungeness crab-herbed nage (broth), peas, corn, and gathered field greens with goat cheese vinaigrette. It was one of the best halibut preparations I’ve had in ages. The grill not only imparted a lovely pattern, but a wonderful smoky taste. It was moist and perfectly cooked. Large chunks of crab provided a foundation and a terrific counterpoint to the halibut. It came with a small side salad with goat cheese vinaigrette, though I could hardly taste the dressing. Overall though, an absolute hit ($15.00).
Desserts: (Pasty chef is Steven Smith)
Rainier cherry tart with bing cherry bourbon ice cream. Terrific! An absolutely perfect crust cradling brightly flavored cherries. Wow. The ice cream on top was decent too. I’d have this every time ($8.50). Oregon berry trifle – sherry pastry cream, whipped cream cake and toasted almonds. Too much cream, the custard was a bit grainy; a bit too much alcohol in the cake overpowered the more subtle flavors. The berries were amazing; best I’ve had all year, but still, not my favorite dessert ($8.50). The pastry cream in the cannoli was gritty, leaving an unpleasant finish on the palate ($8.50); the apricot tart pastry was nice and caramelized, the fruit was sweet and tart. The basil ice cream, however, wasn’t the best execution, neither sweet nor herby. I had a wonderful version of the same thing tonight here in BC, so I know it is possible to pull off ($8.50). The best of the bunch was the guava semifreddo. It had the tang of guava, and a nice creaminess ($8.50)
The first time I went to Carlyle, the women I was with were laughing at the preponderance of round food. “Can you imagine how many ring molds they have back there?” While everything is beautiful, I am a bit put off when a dish comes as a round ring, piled impossibly high with other ingredients, all of which tremble with the first touch of a fork, and then scatter wildly across the plate. This is presentation geared to impress, and I caught myself wondering if they were going to these great lengths to distract me from the food. I sent Nancy Rommelmann and a couple of friends to see what they thought. After her meal, she said, “As to the presentation: I had to stop myself from laughing when three dishes were put on the table and all were round and stacked. I don’t understand this at all; this is like saying that every painting should be blue, or every song should have a guitar solo; that every short story should take place in an apartment building. We live in a city where we get excellent produce, game, fish, and cheese: why are they all dressed in the same clothing? I don’t trust this sort of methodology. It’s not a food philosophy; it’s relying on a trend (and/or perhaps making it easier for the chef), and a trend that is at least 15 years old. I don’t get it.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m not saying you should not eat at Carlyle. The interior is wonderfully comfortable and clubby, the unexpected location makes it feel like a special find. The service is, for the most part, impeccable. As I’ve noted above, the food can be hit and miss, but if you stick with the fish dishes, I think you’ll be happy. Go here on a special date with someone you want to impress. Stare deeply into her eyes, and if you get a dish that’s a clunker, she will be so distracted by the environment, presentation, and your dark penetrating gaze, she won’t be likely to notice. Even better, go here for lunch, which seems to have a higher percentage of winning dishes.
At the end of the meal, you get a selection of small cookies with the check. Two people with a mid-range bottle of wine will spend about $160-$200 plus tip.