Review: Equinox

Equinox is one of those places you have to take as a whole, and not judge solely on the food – at least during the summer time. The reason is the patio; big and open, lots of tables, each with its own colorful umbrella, plenty of gas heaters, and warm flagstones under your feet to reflect the heat of the day as the light wanes. It’s darn near a perfect place to relax, and in my opinion, one of the best outdoor dining spaces in Portland. The inside of the restaurant is pretty nice too. One entire side opens up on warm days. There are large skylights, and one wall is mostly glass, though there are a few rather dark spots. A private dining area holds one table – about six people. Overall, I like the interior, though I haven’t seen it on a cold day with the door closed, which could change the dynamics.

According to the Oregonian, chef Desmond Luesley has an interesting resume, including time with “Paul Prudhomme and Le Cirque, an apprenticeship at Maxim’s in Paris and three years as Hugh Hefner’s private chef.”

That being said, any review of a restaurant is the sum of many factors, and Equinox has some negatives that cannot be overlooked in spite of its attractive patio. Let’s start with the service. I don’t have a clue what the problem is, but on the other hand, I don’t think they do either. One moderately busy evening, we waited 15 minutes to make a drink order. Food took a very long time, and then salads and entrees came five minutes apart. No apology, just ‘here you go’ as they were all plopped down. There was barely room on the table. On a Tuesday night a month later, there was a server for every two tables, yet things still moved glacially slow, both from the kitchen and the servers. The patio is a really nice space, but I still don’t want to sit and wait for 15 minutes for them to bring my change. Overall, on four out of four nights, the service had lots of little issues, from food sitting too long on the pass-through, to some tables not being told about daily specials, to drink orders not being taken.

Speaking of drinks, they have quite a long list of specials. Mango Hoopty – Sauza, Cointreau, mango puree with fresh lime juice, was just okay, rather unbalanced ($7.50). The same was true for ‘Back Alley’, a blend of Absolut Vanilla, vanilla liqueur, blackberries, coconut milk . The drink was interesting and smooth, but lacked the balance brought by a good bartender ($8.00). Better was a standard mojito with good fresh mint ($7.00). The quality seems to vary day to day, depending on the bartender.

The menu is a polyglot of dishes, with French, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese influences, sometimes in a single dish. As a fan of the ‘less is more’ way of cooking, this type of preparation scares me, but Equinox pulls it off fairly well. The kitchen is certainly creative, even if the end results don’t exactly soar.

Let’s start with the salads, or “Weeds” as they call them. Here are some recent selections: Borthwick Black n’ Bleu – roasted beets and bleu cheese in mesclun, with a fennel, blood orange vinaigrette ($7), Monnayage e Chévre – pan-seared chévre cakes, with roasted bosc pears over field greens, with lemon-mint vinaigrette ($9), Peninsula Shinseki – shinseki pears, Thai cashews and gorgonzola tossed in field greens, with ojai pixie balsamic vinaigrette ($8.50), Insalata et Equinox – roasted bing cherries, apples and peanuts in spinach and field greens tossed in balsamic lemon vinaigrette ($7.50), Caesar Arrostito – romaine hearts tossed in roasted anchovy and habanero dressing ($6.50), and Otaku Greens tossed in ginger wasabi vinaigrette ($5.50). You can add crispy tofu ($4), grilled chicken ($5), grilled salmon ($7.50), or ‘prosciutto’ shrimp ($7), to any of the choices.

The Caesar varies from night to night, but tends to have too much cheese (which has little flavor). A second time the anchovy was overpowering. Either way, the salad is unremarkable, the habanero not really doing it for me. A salad of seared chévre cakes, pears and field greens is a better choice, the cheese crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, all the flavors working well together in this classic preparation. An Equinox house salad with roasted bing cherries, apples and peanuts in spinach and field greens came drenched in dressing, and again was just okay – nothing special to lift it above the ordinary. Another night, the roasted beets and blue cheese in mixed greens with a fennel, blood-orange vinaigrette was somewhat more interesting, though the combination of flavors was a bit strange. Maybe it’s just me.

There is a selection of at least four pastas. Most recently Weeping Green Monkey – crispy tofu, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and spinach, on rice noodles with mandarin-mint coconut green curry ($11), Risotto e Mais Doux with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted sweet corn, caramelized onions, lemon basil and smoked mozzarella ($12.50), Black Linguine with tandoori shrimp and peppers in coconut cream sauce ($13.50), and Arugula Gnocchi di Parma with roasted onions, in balsamic citrus crema ($11.50). I’ve only tried the Gnocchi, and found it a bit doughy, but simple and fine, with a nice citrus flavor and good balance.

The entrees keep pushing the envelope with choices like Los Tacos De Equinox, stuffed with chipotle garlic mashed potatoes, served over black beans with salsa ($8.50), Summer Pillow puff pastry stuffed with grilled portabello mushrooms, caramelized onions, baby spinach and mascarpone, with roasted sun-dried tomato-vodka rosemary crème ($12), Pomodori Cotti – baked tomatoes stuffed with paiolo, seasonal mushrooms, sweet corn, roasted garlic and provolone, with black peppercorn-duxelle reduction ($13), Lemon Cilantro Pork Loin with creamy polenta and vegetables ($15), Passaro e Piñon – pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with pancetta, spinach, roasted onions, pinenuts and chevre over pimienta negra potatoes, with smoked lemon béchamel sauce (whew!) ($14), Yakima Basin sirloin – oven roasted New York sirloin steak, over parmesan potato puree with cabernet-green peppercorn reduction ($17.50), and Salmone Affumicato del Cedro – cedar-planked seasoned king salmon, over roasted potatoes and spinach, with chilled summer cucumber-mint relish ($18.50). It seems nothing is simple here. I really wanted to try the tacos stuffed with mashed potatoes, but never quite had the courage; maybe next time.

The vegetarian enchiladas special of Enchiladas de Agosto – stuffed with sun-dried, roma tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella, over black beans with roasted tomatillo salsa verde. ($13.50) were good, though a bit sweet. There are two large enchiladas on a plate, surrounded by black beans and lots of melted cheese. One night they were so over-salted, by the time I was finished, my mouth actually burned a bit. Still, I think that was an aberration, and would order them again. Another night there was a Flatiron steak special with a sauce of habanero peach and God knows how many other ingredients that I can’t remember. I ordered it medium-rare, and the steak came in thin slices over potatoes and greens. The sauce was nicely flavored, but the meat unevenly cooked. Some pieces were almost raw, others were overcooked. The side dishes were fine, no complaints there.

The chicken breast was quite good. Crispy moist skin and interesting flavor, though lots of components – pancetta, spinach, roasted onions, pine nuts and chévre; it came on a bed of black pepper mashed potatoes that were good; another entrée I would order again.

The desserts are typical: a cheesecake, a flourless chocolate type thing, and ‘The Mississippi Mud-Kat’. They are all okay, but not great works of art. Just like most moms would make; very comforting.

I’m not going to pan the food at Equinox. They are certainly trying very hard, pushing the envelope of flavors and ideas with the seasonal menu. Political correctness is obviously important to them. Not only did they build the restaurant with recycled materials, but they use renewable energy, use local produce, organic meats, wild seafood, and organic cage-free eggs. The patio is an incredibly nice place to while away brunch or an afternoon over cocktails and food. They just need to spend a lot more attention to detail, tweaking recipes, getting the (many) bugs out of service, and putting a bit more finesse into the cocktails. For a restaurant that has been open as long as they have, these negatives are unacceptable.

  • Phone: 503-460-3333
  • Address: 830 North Shaver St., Portland OR. 97227 Google Map.
  • Hours: Dinner Tues-Sat from 5pm. Sat & Sun Brunch 9am-2pm.
  • Website:EquinoxRestaurantPDX.com

Equinox on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Pamlea says

    I have eaten here 2 times and both times the food was horrendous, and the service was annoyingly poor. I love the patio but what a waste with overpriced less than mediocre food and service. Unfortunate.

  2. nate says

    I went on a cold, dark, winter night a couple years ago and found the atmosphere quite nice. Service was fine but we arrived early on a weekday and were one of only three tables occupied for most of our stay. The only thing I remember from my meal was that all four our table’s entrees came with chard. These were four totally different dishes and yet they were all served with the exact same side. Unsurprisingly, it paired particularly well with only one of the four, acceptably with two others, and not at all with the fourth which, unfortunately, was mine. Since it was so long ago, and the experience so mediocre, I don’t remember what my entree was, simply that it didn’t go at all well with the chard that made it onto all four of our plates. I found this lack of thought or originality stunning, and have not been back.

  3. pdxbrew says

    I’ve been there twice, both times on Valentine’s Day when they offered up a special menu. Not a bad price — they offered a fixed-price dinner of an appetizer, soup/salad, entree, dessert, cocktail, wine and glass of champagne for $92 a couple. Or you could skip the appetizer and cocktail for $78 a couple.

    The food and service were excellent both times, though we selected dishes that had fewer conflicting flavors in it. There were some really memorable dishes — I’m still coveting the pasilla lobster bisque my husband ordered. However, much as I enjoyed it — and I expect we’ll go back next Valentine’s Day as well — we haven’t been there in the meantime, which reflects that there are better places to go in Portland.

  4. Jeff says

    I’m going to be very non-PC and lump a whole category of people together under a narrow stereotype, but I often refer to the service and management that tends to work at the restaurants in the Alberta and Mississippi neighborhoods as “right-brainers”. Creative types that might be slightly less detail-oriented than might be expected for people in the service industry…

  5. Rich says

    I have always gone during the winter when patio was closed. Tables are close together and service was never perfect. The food has always been good. I agree the steak the last time was no close to what I ordered. They did take it back but I had to wait while the rest of the table finished the meals. They did offer a dessert.

  6. Dearborn says

    I liked the service at Equinox … well I did like one server there very much and he was leaving so I don’t know if he has or not. The food was very up and down, good one time, poor the next. One thing about Mississippi restaurants that I wonder about: In the heart of the African American neighborhood there are pretty much no African American servers, restaurant owners, cooks … and practically no customers for that matter. Are there NO applicants from the neighborhood — i.e. “only hipsters need apply”? Appears only white 20-somethings are wanted for virtually every job on that street, including the restaurants. Yes, I live very close to Mississippi and the exception of Polly at Pasta Bangs who brings in homeless kids, I don’t see a lot of hiring diversity.

  7. says

    Hmmm. I’ve never been to Equinox for dinner, but I’m pretty regular there on Saturday and Sunday mornings for brunch. The service at brunch has always been exquisite no matter where I sit, with my water and coffee cups never even getting a chance to get half-empty.

    The food at brunch, though, doesn’t push any envelopes, it’s pretty standard fare you could find at most any brunch place in Portland, with comparable prices. But what puts it over the top for me is the waitstaff have never looked at me, a lone diner, as something scraped off the bottom of their shoe, which has happened at several places in this city.

  8. vj says

    I have eaten dinner there twice, and each time, it’s been comically bad. The service has just been amazingly bad. And I did have the tacos with mashed potatoes — I love the dish, but not there.

    Still, why is there so much bad restaurant service in that block of Mississippi? It seems endemic.

  9. Jill-O says

    I was with vj at one of those bad dinners and if, as FD says, “Equinox is one of those places you have to take as a whole, and not judge solely on the food…” well, then, I still think it’s seriously bad. ;o) I don’t think much of the atmosphere, drinks, food or service…they were all lousy…lousy and confused. The company I was with, however, well, that was excellent.

    And really, Carlyle and Equinox both get 2 stars?! Wow, FD, we have such differing views of restaurants, food and service it is kind of amazing. But hey, such is life, as there are many opinions of many things in this world and I don’t really believe we all have to agree to get along.

  10. Food Dude says

    You know Jill, that’s a very good point. I may have overrated Equinox. On one hand, you expect a lot more for the prices at Carlyle, but on the other hand they do have really good service. Although the interiors are both very different, they are both nice. I’ll give the score some thought today.

    You bring up something that I’ve been thinking about once again. Should reviews have an overall rating? I’ve been planning to start a topic on that tomorrow (once again).

  11. elwoodwiles says

    I’ve eaten at equinox a couple times, and it’s always been a, well…. shall we say, interesting experience. It’s one of those places I want to like, but each visit I’ve liked it less. The service is sometimes bad, and other times it’s even worse. They forget things, bring wrong orders, etc. Also, I’ve had a server there that seemed visibly disorientated, and at one point came to the table and, well… shall we say, babbled for more than five minutes. (another point against, but just a pet peeve, is that the servers often smoke cigarettes on the corner, by the entrance. It’s weird to wave goodbye to my server who’s actively ruining their palate. But, that’s just me.)

    The food is another problem. There is no focus, to say the least. I know fusion was a thing a few years ago, but it kind of melted down and equinox is a exemplar of why. There is no understanding of how to pair flavors, how to present a plate, how to best use ingredients, no understanding of anything at all. The menu reminds me of things I thought sounded good while stoned in college.

    I wouldn’t recommend this place to anyone.

  12. Classic Girl says

    I am reposting this from an earlier conversation, as it should be here… To some extent, I am sticking up for Equinox…

    I live very close and actually really enjoy their ambiance, food (especially for brunch), staff, etc. I always take visitors because (1) the patio is really unbeatable, (2) I love that everything is like nothing you have ever eaten before, and (3) it is not very expensive. But, the other night, I had downright bizarre service from a server that seemed to be overacting and overreacting the entire time. I mean, we spent half the meal scrutinizing her behavior — was it a drug problem? was it acceptable? did she purposely overcharge us? Kind of disappointing, when usually the service there is great – casual, friendly, professional. Also have heard rumors of kitchen staff turnover… and the loss of the stuffed pork chop is really a bummer.

    Oh — and I completely agree about the staff smoking out front. It is weird, and I hate seeing chefs smoke, uniform and all, especially. There is an alley right there. It would really make a more positive impression of the place if the staff at least smoked in the back.

    And the caesar is inconsistent, but consistently disappointing. They used to have a grilled caesar that was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Where did that go?

    As a local, I am going to agree that there is an endemic of bad-ish service in the area. Bold Sky was the worst and has paid the price by going out of business. People are always nice enough at Por Que No (but totally overburdened!), Lorenzo’s, and Albina Press.

  13. Fiona says

    I used to live 3 blocks away and wanted so much to love Equinox. I’m no foodie but I had the worst dinner there I’ve ever had. I’m posting because I’m wondering from all of you in the know, should I have asked for something different or refused to pay for it? I of course never went back and I have to say I’m surprised it’s still open.

  14. Food Dude says

    Okay, after some thought, I’ve decided Jill is right. I lowered the overall score to 1.5 stars. Thanks Jill!

    For me, the most difficult part of any review is coming up with the final rating. I’ve tossed and turned more nights then you might imagine.

  15. Tuna Fish Boy says

    Fiona,

    I have been in your shoes before. A good server will notice if your plate goes uneaten or mostly uneaten and offer to remedy the situtation. If your server is clueless, in as pleasant of tone as possible share that you are “disappointed” with your meal. If they still remain clueless, just make a mental note not to return.

    Only twice have I had such bad experiences that I wrote letters to the owners. In both cases there was no response. But I felt better in venting my frustrations.

    Not paying for your meal is never an option.

  16. vj says

    I think it’s really _just_ that block. I’ve had the sort of service I expect at Por que No, I’ve had decent service at Lovely Hula Hands, I’ve had great service at Muddy’s. And Albino Press (I just had to) is fine. But I tell you, I’ve had amazingly bad service at Gravy and at Pasta Bangs as well as Equinox.

    Jill remembers this better than me, I suspect, but we did actually complain to an owner, who begged us to give them another chance. And I would, if there had been any sort of incentive to do so.

  17. says

    I second everything VJ says, and will add that I have also two fairly terrible meals at Pasta Bangs. Service was awful the first time; I do not exaggerate when I say we waited more than an hour for two plates of pasta, and then, they got my order wrong. Last time, service was excellent, but the food was… how can I say this: I have never before been besieged with as much garlic. The Caesar dressing was so intensely garlicky, it burned; like eating hot chiles. There was also copious amounts of garlic in our entrees, of the sort that, 36 hours later, you still could taste it. (Sorry, that’s gross. But true.) I won’t go back; there’s no reason to. That said, my 16-year-old and her friend like the gnocchi, though agree that most of the stuff is “really garlicky.”

  18. Jason says

    Funny that no-one’s mentioned their ketchup, are they still doing their own? Used to go there often for breakfast, and their house-made ketchup was the best I’ve ever had, fantastic on potatoes.

  19. James says

    I will give you Pasta Bangs isn’t a star, but it isn’t that bad. And the fact that Polly (no, I don’t know her beyond going in there) hires homeless teens (they stay six months, learn how to work in a restaurant and then have a reference so they can get another job) is worth the wait. I mean, come on, complaining about bad service from kids learning a trade is well, just too GWB. (If you didn’t know she did that so you are excused; we need more socially conscious businesses.) Yes the food is average, but not bad. Still, I stop every once in a while and at least have a drink and hope to support her biz. The pasta will do in a pinch.

    Place where I don’t like the service is Lorenzo’s. We even walked out without paying. You order, and they insist you pay later. When it was “later” the line was 15 people deep ordering. We waited and waited and then quit waiting. We left, went for an after dinner drink, came back and paid up and they never even appeared to notice. Our dinner was long in coming and it wasn’t due to the homeless staff like Pasta Bangs. They need to change how they do that.

    Only other service complaint on the street: The cheerful guy at Blue Gardenia. I detest cheerful before I’ve had coffee. That should NOT be allowed.

  20. says

    Well, James, here is where you and I differ. I think it is pretty wonderful that she employs homeless teens (though my waitress last time was neither). But it’s also something of a human mandate that we tend to act in our own self-interest. I was seated at the bar that night, which is maybe 30 steps from the kitchen. I don’t want to wait an hour for pasta with clam sauce, and then be given something else (I frankly can’t recall what). I’m not mad at the waitstaff; it’s just not what I want to do, and even less when I don’t like the food. If you do like the food, I can understand your putting up with the wait and feeling good about Pasta Bangs’ imperative to help these kids. Each to his own.

  21. Apollo says

    Come on. Bad service is bad service. I don’t care if somebody is homeless, high, morbidly obese, pregnant, or just surly. If the service is bad, it should be pointed out to the management so they can do something about it. Do you really think you are doing these homeless kids a favor? If they get away with bad service at Pasta Bangs and get a reference for another job but haven’t learned proper skills how long will they last? They will get to be homeless again really quick.

  22. Classic Girl says

    Oh, I forgot Gravy. Awful in every way. Really… From the wait to the service to the food. I am glad that I have successfully forgotten that the place even exists unless prompted by others.

    Also, I admire Pasta Bangs and would forgive the service, knowing that it was a training situation. However, the food needs to improve to get me back…

  23. says

    I live down the street from Equinox and remember venturing in on like their second night. We had the best time. The service was amazing, the food fresh and the atmosphere inviting. Yes, there was wet paint on the wall, but it was one of the first restaurants in the hood. (Aside – while getting out of the car that night with parent’s-in-law, we immediately heard “I just need a dime bag bitch, just a dime bag.”)
    So, we ventured back to Equinox probably 5-7 times over the next few months. Great breakfasts, great specials, everything was great.
    Then something changed. I don’t know what, but I distinctly remember going in for Breakfast and leaving very disappointed by both the food and service. Since they are in the hood, we tried to give them a few more chances, but every time, the service was what sealed their fate. One morning we arrived for a late breakfast. There was no one in the restaurant and one waitress just told us to grab a table. When a waiter came in, he came over and instructed us to move to a different table “because we need to keep the 4 tops available.” So, the only 2 top in the house was by the door with the constant cold winter wind. No one else came in while we were there.
    Needless to say, we haven’t been back. Bold-Skye had the same type of service and we all saw what happened there. We’ve experienced similar service @ Pasta Bangs, yet they even tell you the wait staff is learning, so we let it slide.
    Service is everything sometimes in my humble opinion

  24. fuyuk says

    It is interesting that the Oregonian lists this guy as having experience with Paul Prudhomme and Le Cirque, maybe through a cook book but certainly not any personal experience. Private chef for Hugh Hefner, again highly unlikely. Employment history is pretty darn checkered to say the least.

  25. James says

    I will say that in these amazing times — yes, I’m a Sixties person who still thinks community is important despite the current atmosphere — we have become an intolerant society and what WE want is always more important than the good of the whole. It is what drives the current administration’s success. I know you want to go and have it perfect and get it now, for under $10. But Apollo is wrong. As a business owner I know that wherever he/she worked the first six months, his/her salary was considered a loss too, it’s the nature of the business. I hire people in my business and virtually every business owner knows that is the rule.

    So Polly trains people. This is a good thing. Don’t go if you don’t want to but if I have time I’ll support them. When did we become such a self centered society? Amazing. Most of us have been fortunate enough not to have to overcome some of the huge obstacles these kids have had to overcome. Perhaps you think they became homeless and unemployable on purpose? Or do you think they grew up in unfit homes and/or ghastly circumstances? Doesn’t matter when your pasta takes 45 minutes, I know, you poor thing. But, by all means don’t go if they are not fast enough for you. Just try, try to cut them a little slack on their service — even Karl Rove might do that. Well, only if it were a photo op. However, perhaps having these kids employed will benefit us all in the long run.

    On the topic of community, I see so many of us every Saturday morning at the Portland Farmer’s Market, buying local because it is important to our community and to us. But then I watch the line at the Starbucks while the local coffee purveyor across the street, with far better coffee imho, is practically empty. Shop local indeed.

    As an aside, why is the coffee at the market so lousy?

  26. Bigfoot says

    My oh my, it is hard starting the morning with such good liberal anger. James I just want to ask if you ever thought that it was fair to the kids in question to expect them to perform at anything other than the same level you would expect of anyone else? IMHO, setting a lower expectation for any person or class is the worst form of condescenion.

    BTW, so Starbucks is global. Show me another coffee purveyor that has purchased as much fair trade coffee, has offered a better than minimum wage for it’s help and offers health insurance to the part-time employee.

  27. Annette says

    We where brought to this restraint by the tempting Bloody Mary’s posted on there web cite and a groupon so it would be a great way to try out the restraint. I called and made a 7:45 reservation upon arriving at the restraint we were greeted by no one. Finally 35 minutes later someone walked by and said your server will be right with you we would have already left but we had purchased a groupon. When she finally came she had no menus, water, or silver wear .I ordered at that time two Bloody Mary’s ciabatta bread and calamari. Still just sitting there 50 minutes into are arrival no water nothing, finally the (warm bread come and calamari she drops it off no drinks not even water and no silver wear. Frustrated I get up and go into the restraint as we were sitting outside to get silver wear and I was told go sit down you r server will be with you at that same time I saw two bloody Mary’s sitting at the bar. Finally she came and brought the silverware not bread cold and calamari like rubber and cold and still no drinks another server walks by and I ask are we going to get our drinks she said your server will be with you. When our server finally brings the drinks ( the drinks which brought us in did not have the bacon on them and were watered down from sitting at he bar for who knows how long and all you could taste was the overabundance of sauce) she Worcestershire asks my I take your dinner order I said no we will take the check she gives us a snubbed look as if we are cheap. By this time I did not want to wait another hour and a half for substandard cold food and the VERY WORST SERVICE I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED IN MY LIFE. I paid the bill, and even left her a $5 tip, when I wanted to leave her nothing, but being in the industry myself, I could not. We will never be back here again. We left and went to the Alibi where it was a full house, but we were served in the first three minutes upon walking through the door, and had the best service in a long while – Thanks Mesha at the Alibi for turning our night around.

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