New Review: SE Portland’s Roman Candle

This is of course, an April Fools joke. I’m so tired of all the stupid words being made up by aging writers in a vain attempt to come across as cool, all the stupidity to make the food scene sound more important than it really is, and the over-the-top hyperbole being used by people who used to be good critics, I couldn’t take it anymore. Not that this will make any difference, but it was a catharsis for me.

Though I have written many reviews over the years, I am a bit out of practice. However, I don’t think this will be much of a problem, as I will channel one of the most commanding Portland food critics. At the same time I want to add my own stamp of creativity so have done all the images as watercolors, though I can’t tell you how difficult it has been to set up an easel, yet stay anonymous.

Roman Candle in Southeast Portland, opened late last year in the space next to the popular Ava Genes restaurant. Now that it has had a chance to settle in, I thought I’d drop by a few times and give you my impressions.

Taking Roman Candle for a spin is more than going out for a breath of fresh air. It’s like you’ve been driving in the car through the rain for a long time, the windows have been up and are a bit fogged, the dog has been panting and is gut-busting from the sweet potato treat that you fed him last night, and you are finally able to pop open the windows and let in some fresh air – the first breath of crackling Spring after a rain-pebbled winter with the windows firmly painted shut.

Coffee and pastry

Coffee and a torata dita pastry

As the restaurant was opened by the coffee mogul Lord Sorenson of Stumptown estate, you would expect the coffee to be good, but here it is taken to a modern new level. Actually, I should explain – It tastes just like the coffee you get in dozens of the excellent coffee houses in the city; it’s the coffee art that will make you realize you’ve stepped into a magical restaurant. When your cup is set before you, a steaming foam heart adorns the top, but wait. The image quickly shifts, transforming into a four-leaf clover held by a tiny trembling hand, before shifting again, becoming an elegant blue heron, slowly rotating to show its tail feathers as it plunges to inhale an errant gaseous bubble – if only the dog could do that! Based on the innovative, pioneering coffee alone, this restaurant is the find of the year.

Just introduced with their latest lunch menu, a brand new farrow salad. Named after handsome chef Joshua McFadden’s fantasy girlfriend Mia Farrow, this may be the best dish in Portland. Its chewy grains and dates dance back and forth across the tongue like two Latin ballroom dancers who are also dating tango lightly across the crumb-strew wood boards of a centuries old Brazilian nightclub, little clouds of warm pepper mist hanging in the spotlights. Pistachios play the part of salty sailors, watching the lurid spectacle, and hoping a dress rides up a bit too far. You know those “Welcome” mats people put on their front porches to keep the filth out? Here a welcome mat of crumbled ricotta rides atop the greens, reminding me of a charging white stallion – clipity clop, clipity clop , or a randy teenager who has snuck in the back door when the bouncer wasn’t looking. Happy whole parsley leaves – not chopped (!), add a leprechaun green Punch & Judy show in the corner, and a slow dip at the end. I ordered the salad for breakfast, but it wasn’t available yet, so I ordered one for lunch. It was so transcendent I ordered another the next day at breakfast, but still it wasn’t on the menu. Yeah, it’s that good. The staff knows who I am; you’d think they’d have made an exception!

Porchetta Sando, beaten Kale Salad

Porchetta Sando, beaten Kale Salad

One stormy afternoon came the exciting surprise of nettles, tasting like spinach from the deep that had been etiolated by watery darkness before being harvested by swarthy brass-helmeted deep-sea divers. Their stinging spines slashed through up-chunked beets nestled in nipple-fresh sheep’s cheese. Salubrious sesame bread crumbs win a crackling Schwarzenegger-like fight for contrast, beating the slashing nettles into quivering submission, the end result, a good salad that I would have again.

Pizza Biancas – cooked in one of the glowing wood-fired pizza ovens which put out so much heat the cook never needs to shave, have been embraced by the lunch lineup. My fav is a yummy white blanca – yes, I know blanca means white, but this is whiter than blanca! It tingles with pickled peppers like your back tingles after the sharp sting of a multi-tentacle whip flicked lovingly across your back by a dominatrix. Grievously, the crackling intriguing indulgent interpretation of potato Bianca, which is often inspirational and impeccable not to mention intensely irresistible, was not among the lunchtime offerings. However, I’d happily return for the pepperoni mottled with high-quality, all-pork Oli Salumeria, a piggish rejoinder made by shaving micro-thin strips from the backs of the animals as they slumber pasture-side, drunk on fermented hazelnuts, blithely unaware of the slight daily peeling of their haunches by equally drunk Italian farmers.

I’m not sure if this is common knowledge, but all of the local food critics know each other, and dine together on a frequent basis. For my third visit, I got everyone together, and after a few too many toasts a bit of hyperbole began to flow from our usually restrained mouths.

Michael Russell, the Oregonian -
Oh happy day! I would not take a knighthood in exchange for one of these sandos! Gather all the Portland critics around, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers!

Karen Brooks, Portland Monthly -
Do you think because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale? I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and another luscious, creamy, crispy, slightly warmed yet toothsome torata dita, shining with a blanca hue such as the pale whiteness that shows under the waistband of a bad boy’s marblesque loincloth!

Chris Onstad, the Portland Mercury -
Some pigeons, Duane, a couple of short-legged hens, a joint of mutton, and any pretty little tiny kickshaws, tell William cook.

Martin Cizmar, Willamette Week -
Drink sir, is a great provoker of three things….nose painting, sleep and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire but takes away the performance. Come sit by me, let’s see if it is true!

Food Dude, PortlandFoodandDrink.com -
These recipes shall the good man teach his son how to make;
And Crispin Crispian bread shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d
We few, we happy few, we band of critics!
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here with us,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That dined with us at at Roman Candle that day.

Roman Candle

Sloppy Giuseppe

We all had headaches the next day.

Now we arrive at the most civilized part of the new lunch menu at Roman Candle – the sandwiches.

The “Sloppy Giuseppe”, named after Sorenson’s piggish brother Guiseppe, is one of my favorites. It’s like sloppy Joe’s, no – a meatball sub, no – a sumptuous synergy of spice-dusted saucy, sweet, smoky, sexy sandwich – a fantasy ménage à trois – bun/meat/bun, or if you would rather, meat/bun/meat ;) The mixture of ground beef and pork, tomato, garlic, chiles and kale is nestled in a warm deep pocket lovingly cut into the bread with a carbon steel blade. It is a new kind of toast concept that reminded me of something my long-dead grandmother would make. This sando is a must buy!

OMG! Try the “Chrissy”, a sassy albacore tuna, avocado, egg, romaine, salsa verde in a trapizzino. I can’t tell you how gob smacked I was by the presentation. Normally a trapizzino is a Roman street food, but at Roman Candle I was surprised by a confidant young woman swinging down from the rustic-beamed wood ceiling on… wait for it – a trapeze, my lunch plate in hand! The tuna has a nice fresh taste, a shimmering stream of good grassy olive oil floats lazily across the plate, little flecks of slightly orange Fijian sea salt drift lazily from pepper rock to pepper rock, like balls in a twenty-five cent pinball machine. Green romaine evokes memories of a Scottish loch, making for a dreamy shoreline.

The kale salad has been pounded into submission by one of the handsome young cooks – I wasn’t sure what he was doing behind the counter when I walked in; frankly it looked rude, but now it was obvious. His leafy greens were well-beaten, tender yet still engorged, with a self-possession you don’t normally find in kale. Once again lovely glistening olive oil makes an appearance, here cradling crunchy little breadcrumbs to its bosom, giving our tongues access to supple contrast in every nibble.

Many of us food critics live a sad existence and find Roman Candle is life-changing. You won’t just walk out full, you’ll walk out with a personality transplant – your friends will notice a new spring in your step, a new sparkle in your eyes, your hair will be blonder, biceps stronger, and you might as well stop somewhere and play the lottery on the way home, because you are bound to win!! As for the rest of you; trust me when I say that you and your loved ones will find the restaurant a satisfying place for a meal.

Grade: B+

3377 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Katie Lowell says

    “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” to quote that one guy.

    Does the parody and foolsiness extend to the actual review parts of the “review”? I went to Roman Candle once, not during pizza bianca hours, and found it nauseating. I can’t even remember what I ate—it was that memorable!—maybe a salad and a something-else. I do remember the snotty servers, the excessive pretentiousness evident on every sign, the bland anywhere-hipsterishness of both the place and most of its patrons. You could be underneath some condos in Austin, Williamsburg, Dumbo, San Francisco, parts of Oakland. Hell, sitting in this place, you could easily imagine yourself underneath some condos in Salem OR (or Mass, for that matter)… maybe in Jacksonville Fla, Beaverton, Mountain View CA, or Everett, Washington. Anyplace with lots of cell phones, laptops, overly sleek retro-2005 furniture and badly placed communal tables.

    For this we’re tearing up Division Street? Bleah.

    But I’ll reserve final judgment ’til I go back for some pizza bianca.

    • says

      From what I’ve tried at Roman Candle, the food has been just fine – a step pretty far above the average Portland coffeehouse/shop. I haven’t tried their pizza – that section was a riff on the awful writing in PoMO’s review. Overall, from what I’ve eaten I’d give it a B+, and will have a real review once I’ve been there a few times.

  2. PDX2FLR says

    First I’d like to thank you FD for the lol moment…. literally. You’ve raised the bar on this ‘review’, well done I say!

    Second in my experience RC has been pretty darn good, good enough for a drive across the river (and brave construction zones) to eat. In the 10-12 times I’ve been there I haven’t encountered Katie’s problem.
    Waitstaff has been friendly and while not ‘life changing’ it’s good food with a creative spin in a nice space.

    I’ve encountered more mamas than computer squatters. Nauseating and hipsters?….. …… Ouch

  3. mczlaw says

    Well done. You have manged to reinvent the review.

    Sorry I was unable to attend the critics’ roundtable. I had to, uh, re-primer the jeep.

    –mcz.

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