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.