Every so often a dish comes along so transcendent that even though you inevitably expect great things from the restaurant the preparation looms as a huge surprise, a boon to everything that precedes and follows. Such was a recent experience at dinner at The Heathman, and it once again reminded me how all the clichés about mundane hotel restaurant food simply melt into thin air and evaporate in that enduringly superb dining room.
I’m not absolutely certain that the dish will linger through the Spring, but for a blissful moment I savored one of the best things I’ve eaten all year: a gorgeously cooked risotto blended with foraged stinging nettles, topped with a single pan-fried sweetbread, and backed by truffle foam.
Anyone who has tried to make risotto knows how difficult it is to stop the cooking of the rice at the precise moment to avoid excessive wetness and excessive dryness. In this case the rice has the precisely correct texture blending crunch and creaminess that makes for a sensation somewhere between silky and explosive. These days it seems as if nettles are everywhere on local menus, and these delectable greens, freshly foraged, lend a spinach-like flavor to the rice. Nettles need to be washed thoroughly and cooked to remove the chemicals that are delivered through the needle-like hairs clustered on stems and leaves, and when properly treated are terrific in soups, stews, even as a substitute for basil in pesto. In the Heathman’s recipe the plant lends the risotto a deep forest green hue, almost as kale might. (For collectors of arcane knowledge, there’s a “Stinging Nettle Eating Championship” in Dorset, England, where contestants complete to see who can down the most leaves in an allotted time. But take your time at the Heathman—there’s no championship for subtle savoring!) The crisped sweetbread set on top of the risotto crackles and yields a great nutty flavor. And the truffle foam, another creaminess into which you can dip the sweetbread or add to the rice for a complementary flavor, lends a taste to the dish that makes the whole thing smack of forest floor and earthy barnyard.
It’s a fine creation from The Heathman’s new executive chef Michael Stanton, who moved to town from several stints in Los Angeles and has taken over from the legendary Philippe Boulot. The latter remains a culinary consultant at the hotel while he plies his trade feeding the pampered and worked-out bodies at the Multnomah Athletic Club. Stanton has been gradually transforming the Heathman’s menus, but the dining room continues as a bastion of local ingredients turned into both classic French and modern American dishes.
– Roger Porter