Review: Paley’s Place – Restaurant of the Year 2010

Escargot Bordelaise with roast marrow bones.
Photo: ©John Valls

I will admit up front that through a series of events over the years I have an emotional tie to Paley’s Place. On my  first evening in 1996, we had barely sat down when the gentleman at the next table caught my eye. “You simply must try our wine,” he said proffering the bottle. “It is our 40th anniversary tonight and we have saved this for years.” He reached over and poured us each a glass of the best Oregon Pinot I had ever tasted, setting the tone for our meal to come.

We started reading the menu only to be stopped by a couple on our left. “The sweetbreads are wonderful! You really should get them… wait… pass us your bread plate.” One of them cut off a small portion and passed it back. Indeed they were very good, crispy and nutty on the outside, warm and buttery on the inside. We spent the entire evening sharing wine between the three tables, passing plates back and forth, and getting to know each other.

Vitaly Paley. Photo: John Valls

On a warm night a few years ago, I spent a lovely evening on the porch drinking a Grenache blanc and eating steak tartare. Another time I was there with my mother. When Kimberly Paley stopped by the table, heard raves about the food and found out my mom was from out-of-town, she had Vitaly drop by the table, and bought us a nightcap. Mom will never forget it. As we left, I marveled at the way Paley’s brings people together. This is a typical experience for me when I go there, a camaraderie between strangers that eating great food brings.

The restaurant is in an old Victorian house on NW 21st street. The dining section is split between two rooms which helps give a feeling of intimacy. The back room can be reserved for private events – it holds 22 people. A bar and bistro with a small seating area fills the space between them. On warm evenings, the heated front porch is a nice place to sit, especially after the bulk of the afternoon traffic has faded. I have to dig to find any complaints, and have only one: the entry is quite small, and it’s awkward to stand there while other parties are seated. I would guess this is why they tell you when you make reservations how long you can have the table – they want to seat the reservations following yours as quickly as possible. While this may put some people off, even with a two-hour meal time some parties seem to linger, and I’ve had to wait while the staff did their best to get a table of guests to clear out.

The safest bet is to reserve in advance. Though you can wander in on off nights and get lucky, on busy nights even the bistro tables may be booked. If you do happen to end up in the bar area, the hamburger which is not served in the main restaurant, is legendary.

Amuse bouché.
Photo: ©John Valls

Over the years I’ve had people tell me they have had aloof or indifferent service here, but this has never been the case for me. However, I think one has to relax and take their time. One of my complaints with many restaurants is that the food comes out of the kitchen too quickly. Order a cocktail, and before half of it is done, your appetizers and wine arrive and you end up rushing and drinking a martini with soup.  This is not the case at Paley’s. The pacing is relaxed, giving plenty of time to converse and enjoy the various courses. The dishes arrive in due time, hot and fresh, without drying out under a heat lamp. Don’t plan to go here and be out the door and on your way to a show in 60 minutes – it’s not that type of restaurant.

Paley’s also has a reputation for being an expensive restaurant. Like anywhere else, a good part of this depends on what you order, but if you resist the urge to get carried away, it’s not difficult to have a really nice meal for under $50. I’m thinking a salad, a half-portion of an entree (many are available in two sizes) and a glass of wine. Even better, go with a friend, add another glass of wine and an appetizer and get out the door for around $65. You’ll get the service, ambiance and the great food – and you’ll be pleasantly full.

The staff has an encyclopedic knowledge of the food, and for good reason. Years ago, not realizing they didn’t open until 5:30, I arrived early to meet a friend for dinner. Kimberly saw me sitting on the porch, and insisted I come in and have a drink. I sat at the bar and watched the staff meeting out of the corner of my eye. She and Vitaly went over every new dish, tasted them, discussed the ingredients and what wines would go best with each course. Then they tasted the new additions to the wine menu. Many restaurants don’t take the time to do this and it shows.

Drinks are well made, with a focus on the classics. Paley’s is known for its signature lemon drop, which is a perfect balance of lemon and sweetness. An old-fashioned was properly made, served in a small glass as it should be, rather than the large tumbler that many places use. The wine list is interesting and has a wide price range for most budgets. A separate higher end list is also available, and the by-the-glass list is interesting and a good match for the menu. Staff is very knowledgeable and ready to give suggestions. Corkage is $25. Six beers are available, but judging by the only average selection, they are not the focus here.

American Kobe steak tartare.
Photo: ©John Valls

Meals begin with an amuse bouche, most recently a fine gazpacho of cucumbers, sherry vinegar, garlic and olive oil . The overall effect was the puckering of the jowls and salivating for more – a wake-up indeed.

The charcuterie plate should not be missed; Paley’s is the best in Portland. One of my favorite things about the selection is you can order each item individually in a “build-your-own” style, or chose between a taste of three, five, or all of the selections. The word “taste” made it seem expensive until we received the plate. The portions are large, easily enough to share between three people, the presentation is terrific, and flavors are a tribute to mother earth.

The braised lamb terrine is rich and flavorful, a mosaic of textures. The same goes for a terrine combining pork tenderloin, chicken liver and porcini. Salmon pastrami is paper-thin, dressed with crème fraîche and wonderful fresh dill on grilled, slightly blackened rye. The crispy edges of the bread gives it a nice texture, though on one evening it was a little blacker than I thought it should be. Prosciutto cotto draped across the plate could remind some of bacon. It’s mild in flavor, smooth and almost creamy, with a dusting of finely chopped hazelnuts giving a wonderful balance to the fat. The chorizo from Chop Butchery is smoky and lightly spiced, yet with a slight floral finish. Pickled vegetables off to one side are interesting and unusual for Portland – beside the norm are green strawberries and rhubarb that taste slightly like anise, but that may have been from commingling with a terrific cardamom-pickled carrot placed next to them. A dark wintry pool of mustard is sweet and savory at the same time, adding color for contrast.

It’s hard for me to skip the American Kobe steak tartare. It always reminds me of lazy Sunday afternoons with my father when I’d sit on the kitchen stool and watch while he prepared it, cutting the meat by hand. Paley’s version is similar: a coarse chop with a slight smoky meaty flavor, served with the traditional accompaniments of toast points, capers, onions and a vivid raw egg. The texture of the toast is a perfect foil to the other ingredients. If you’ve never had this dish before, it’s marvelous; I’ve gotten a lot of friends to try it and no one has regretted the experience. Just mix the ingredients together and dig in.

One cool winter evening, I ordered caramelized onion and bacon soup. It was perfection in a bowl. The broth is another example of one of the best cooking techniques in Portland. It has obviously been skimmed many times during cooking. Could it be they actually go to the effort of making a raft  to make it come out so clear? Making stock is one of the first things a student learns in cooking school. It also seems to be one of the first they forget. This broth is classic – clear and loaded with flavor and a lovely aroma. When the server set the bowl down everyone at the table turned and sniffed the air. If the stock had been any richer it would have taken away from the flavor of the perfectly-sized square chunks of slightly salty bacon and the sweetness of the caramelized onion.

Mussels & fries.
Photo: ©John Valls

Mediterranean blue mussels are served in a large bowl with a simmering buttery broth flavored with white wine. A dash of garlic and parsley or persillade over the top adds color and an extra layer of depth. The bivalves are large and silky, and though not the best I’ve had in Portland, these are a close second. Use the crunchy bread to sop up the leftover broth. The bowl is accompanied by irresistible fries that are fresh and crisp, and an excellent aioli which gets a slight kick from a hint of mustard and garlic.

Paley’s is known for a traditional “escargot a la Bordelaise”, or snails with roasted marrow bones. Bordelaise is a classic French sauce named after the Bordeaux region. It’s rich; made with red wine, marrow, shallots and demi-glace. Vitaly’s version is impeccable: a master class on a plate. When served with rich marrow bones surrounded by garlicky plump escargot and sweet roasted garlic, the combination is robust and earthy. A plate containing crackly grilled brioche, persillade and sea salt is served on the side. Use the little fork to dig the marrow out of the center of the bones, and dip the accompanying brioche in the sauce. Close your eyes and you’ll be transported to France.

The greens on the spinach salad are quite good. Thin little onion rings dot the top giving a nice counter play to the texture of the leaves. My companion raised an eyebrow and said, “this isn’t ranch dressing”. I took a taste. “You mean it’s not bottled ranch dressing. This is fantastic.” She agreed, and devoured the greens. On another night the same salad was available with romaine lettuce. The greens were crisp and bright with a slightly bitter taste. It was as if they had just been picked from the garden and carried to our table. However, in this case, the dressing was a bit runny and somewhat overpowered by the greens.

If I want something simple, I like the ever-present “George’s gathered greens”, an unfussy dressing of lemon and olive oil over a combination of bright, slightly spicy greens ($8). Another favorite is the young romaine salad of small whole leaves, large wide-grained crunchy croutons, Vella oro secco and Caesar dressing. Lemony, garlicky, smooth and creamy – a perfectly balanced mélange, neither under nor over dressed. Vella is a cheese maker; the oro secco is somewhat like a firm, fresh Jack that is aged two years. Going to such effort to find the right cheese pays off. Paired with the other ingredients, it just works.

Poppy seed tuna with chickpea purée.
Photo: ©John Valls

The frisée and spinach salad with shrimp a la plancha is disappointing, with the overall presentation lacking in execution.  The shrimp were sweet, grilled on one side, the radishes crisp, though there were only two tiny slices, and the fennel was tasteless. It felt like something was left out.  I didn’t care for the spinach and frisée combination and the dressing wasn’t distributed as well as it should have been.

Paley’s version of a Maryland soft-shell crab salad is the best I’ve ever had. It’s lightly crisped with a delicate texture, the crab so soft and tender I could easily eat the shells and legs. It stayed crisp and didn’t get soggy and greasy, as is true in many restaurants. The crab is meaty enough to satisfy a craving, offset by fresh and sweet arugula, thinly sliced radishes, new potatoes and sweet onions. It’s an impeccable salad and perfectly executed.

Most of the entrées are available in small or large portions, which is just great; I wish more restaurants did this, as it allows you to try more dishes. Rabbit ravioli is tender, rich and flavorful, stuffed with bits of fresh herbs, local mushrooms, house bacon and spring garlic. It comes floating in a deep pool of light but delicious broth. The bacon adds sumptuous rich explosions as you make your way through the dish, with local mushrooms giving a nice forest taste which is perfect for a cold rainy day. Under the chef’s deft hand the ravioli are light and lovely. They have an almost won-ton mouth feel, showcasing the filling. A quick dip in the broth makes the flavor explode. I can’t complain about anything.

The halibut is simple, allowing the fish to speak for itself. It’s delicious, buttery and cooked to perfection, with a breezy hint of lemon. It lays over a bed of slightly bitter cooked greens. Halibut isn’t something I frequently order, but then it is not normally this good. This is another case where I couldn’t find anything wrong.

Pasta alla chitarra with pork sugo and porcini.
Photo: ©John Valls

Risotto is a crap-shoot in most kitchens. This is because it is usually parboiled, and the cooking is finished when the kitchen gets an order. For that reason, the texture is never quite right: it’s gluey, or the flavors are out of balance. Not so at Paley’s. It’s a glistening, rich dish that looks almost like caviar. The first thing that hits the taste buds is a lovely subtle kiss of crab. Next is the texture; it’s textbook classic – giving slightly to the tooth. The flavors are balanced throughout. Explosive green peas give little bright shots of color and contrasting flavors. The butter carries the crab flavor dancing across the palate. Good Parmesan cheese finishes it off. It is an exceptional effort that lays waste to risotto offerings in most restaurants.

Lots of people are afraid of sweetbreads, but if I convince them to give a try they usually become converts. Not long ago I was at Ten 01 with a friend who thought they were “sweet breads”. I didn’t say a word, and when her order came, I still didn’t tell her exactly what she was eating, which was probably the reason she liked them so much. Back to Paley’s;  I ordered a small portion which consisted of two sweetbreads nestled with a little pile of forest mushrooms, a bit of nutty spätzle and a wonderful kidney-mustard sauce. The sweetbreads were crisp and creamy. Combined with the rich sauce, they came at me in a rush of earthy flavors.  (For the uninitiated, sweet breads are the thymus glands and pancreas).

Finally, the 30-day dry-aged Highland Oak Farm rib-eye. This steak is only served on Saturday’s and only until they run out. The first time I tried one was during my steakhouse roundup, and it blew every other version I had out of the water. I sat there annoying my friends by telling them how good it was every few bites. However, on a second visit the flavor wasn’t quite as good. Lots of people don’t realize, meat is not unlike any other crop and varies, especially in different seasons of the year. Both were good, one happened to be spectacular. The steak is served with salt-roasted fingerling potatoes, mushrooms, peas, young turnips and spicy Hollandaise.

Before I finish moving on to desserts, mention must be made of the sides. The best greens I’ve ever had were at Chez Panisse. These are of similar quality and simple, just as I make them at home: greens, garlic, lemon and olive oil. The beets are inspired, the horseradish cream playing a perfect chord against the sweetness of the vegetable.

Photo: ©John Valls

Pastry Chef Lauren Fortgang is well-known around Portland, and is one of my favorite pastry chefs. The three-layer chocolate cake is served with a side of malted ice cream. It’s heavy on the bittersweet chocolate – almost as dense in flavor as a chocolate bar, but the texture is still light. Dressed simply with caramel sauce and a bit of fruit (most recently cherries) it is quite good.

The strawberry shortcake and lemon-cream is also a winner. We all took bites at about the same time, and the table fell into silence. I dipped my fork into the strawberry purée and took a taste. Spring exploded on my senses. A dip into the lemon cream brought a similar reaction; wonderful perfect lemon flavor, slightly bitter in contrast to the strawberry. It was a perfect tango… or is it a rumba. The shortcake was light as a pillow, reminiscent of sponge cake. The two layers sandwiched with lemon cream were ethereal; it’s one of the better desserts I’ve had in some time. However, on a second visit, the strawberries weren’t quite as good, and it made a big difference, turning a wonderful dessert into an average one. A financier, which is a small French cake wasn’t as successful. The cake itself was great, a slight crust, and an almost sponge cake interior, but the dessert wasn’t at all memorable, because the cake was under-baked, and the accompanying cherries were watery and tasteless. This was disappointing for a restaurant the caliber of Paley’s; it should not have been on the menu that night.

If you aren’t in the mood for something sweet, the cheese selection may catch your interest. You’ll see them lying alluringly under a glass dome as you enter the restaurant. Choose three, or go with the chef’s selection. They always have interesting choices: fifteen to pick from the last time I was in.

Whether you order dessert or not, your meal will end with mignardises, or bite-sized cookies which are always a nice way to end a meal.

A restaurant is like an art piece. The way you are greeted, your dining companions, the smells from the kitchen, feel of the menu in your hands, lighting, music, sounds, service and finally the food. Everything works together to paint a picture in your mind. When problems arise you end up with garage sale painting; when everything goes well you have a beautiful painting – a masterpiece of individual brush strokes that you will remember forever. On a good night, walking in to Paley’s Place can be like walking into a Matisse.

Grade: A

  • Phone: (503) 243-2403
  • Address: 1204 NW 21st Ave, Portland 97209. Map
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 5:30pm to 10:00pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm to 11:00pm, Sun 5:00pm to 10:00pm.
  • Website: Paley’

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. JandJ says

    What a wonderful and well crafted review, and absolutely dead on. In 15+ years of being a regular at Paley’s I have not once been disappointed. They have consistently offered some of the best plates in Portland and their service is always top notch. This restaurant is a real jewel and we’re delighted that it’s right here in Portland.

  2. NP says

    Paley’s Place is somewhere I’ve always wanted to try, but their menu just seems to be too heavy on organ meats and other strange fare (by my standards anyways). But I suppose I’ll have to go and check out that burger and desserts.

    • Adam says

      What would impress you? If the chef served you California condor pate and braised baby seal while doing backflips through flaming hula hoops and reciting Pi to the one hundredth digit?

      • OzziePDX says

        I’d be impressed if I could enjoy a nice dinner and get out of there within three hours. It’s way too much of a production.

  3. Mike says

    It’s on our list of places to give another chance, but our first time the service was so bad it pretty much ruined the meal. I’ll confess that I’m not particularly good at the slow-paced meal (too impatient, I guess), but there was obviously a problem that night. A couple that was seated next to us just as we were getting our entrees was done and gone 10 minutes before we got our check (and they did drinks, appetizers and desert). The food was good, but not enough to overcome the aggravation of being completely ignored for very long stretches of time with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the wait . . . We’ll try again, I suppose.

    • Jill-O says

      My experience there was similar – awful service, good food but nothing great. And I too will go back and try again at some point, but with little disposable income these days, it won’t be soon.

      • germaine says

        Same experience here. I was there for my birthday dinner 4 years ago. Horrible service. Actually non-existent service. Food was not memorable. A few things came out lukewarm, that’s all I remember. I was so disappointed. Having heard so many positive things from friends, I wanted to give it another try. We walked in, expecting a wait but would have been very happy to sit at the bar. The host just said “We’re full”. No offer to wait, no wait time given. Just bad attitude. That was about 2 years ago, and I haven’t felt like giving it another try.

        • FoodGroupie says

          One word.. meh. It’s not a particularly interesting or revelatory place. Not sure what the hoopla is all about.

  4. shawn says

    And another almost-unusable Flash website. Not much better than Mellow Mushroom’s, but I’m sure no one will complain about it since they have better food.

  5. Hank says

    I need to get back there.

    BTW it’s “amuse-bouche”; “bouché” is an adjective meaning blocked or clogged . . .

  6. robert says

    I really like what you have to say, and love who you’re saying it about. Nice work and bravo to the Paley’s.

  7. AAK says

    I was there Tuesday night to celebrate my birthday with my family. It was an absolutely delicious, perfect meal. Despite our rejection of the dessert menu (cake at home!) our waitress overheard there was a birthday at the table and brought out four ‘bites’ of strawberry sorbet and some yummy coconut brittle. That gesture is an excellent example of the attentive, yet informal and casual service at Paley’s.

  8. Heche says

    Wow. The comments are all over. I think paley’s had a period a few years ago where they weren’t as good. Maybe they were distracted with other projects. I went back in April and enjoyed one of the best meals of my life, so if you haven’t been for a long time, give it another try!

  9. says

    I had one entirely forgettable experience there a few years ago and haven’t been back since. I honestly don’t remember a thing about the meal other than it was “sorta alright.” I do know a ton of people who swear by Paley’s though, so I really should give ’em another shot. Maybe I’ll go there for my celebration dinner if/when I get a full-time job… :-/

  10. foodrebel says

    If one doesn’t like his evening at Paley’s, it’s just because they don’t get it and should stick with Red Robin. This restaurant is the absolute in dining in this country. No stupid trends, no froufrou, no BS.
    Just the best provided by a couple who work TOGETHER and care about what they are doing. And love it.
    Thanks, FD. It’s about time an ROY rewards someone who has been doing a great and consistent job for years, instead of the last 3 months flash in the pan!

    • Jill-O says

      Yeah, you’re right I hardly ever eat out. I’m sure I just didn’t get it.

      Thanks for the rec! Red Robin it is – YUM!


    • Hunter says

      Take it easy there rebel. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t think you should. I don’t think any opinion is the “absolute” nor do I think any restaurant is the “absolute”. Glad you enjoy it, I don’t.

    • OzziePDX says

      This guy must be French! Didn’t get it? Amazed how polarized the comments are – I guess a lot of us just don’t know what we are talking about. Food Rebel? don’t be so condesending.

  11. jimster says

    I would guess that in their 15+ years of being open I have eaten/drank there somewhere in the vincinty of 500 times. No restaurant is for everyone as is evident by the comments and that’s fine. Clearly, I love this place. The food is sublime, the ingredients are incredibly well chosen and preparations are interesting without being trendy or ridiculous. They always have a very good bartender as well. If anything, the restaurant has gotten stronger and more polished over the years. I think it is great to have them acknowledged in this way as too often “Restaurant of the Year” means “New Restaurant of the Year.” Glad that you picked them and wrote a thorough and excellent review.

  12. JasonC says

    I like the rationale and have always liked the restaurant too. One thing that is a little different about this review though, IMO, is that it seems to describe the experience of a restaurant from the point of view of a longtime, recognized regular (not recognized as FD, but still recognized) in a way that may not be as applicable to the average diner. Of course the fact that it is so personal and filled with specific memories is part of what makes it such a nice piece of writing.

  13. Frieda Lighthouse says

    So sorry to disagree, Food Dude, but my two experiences there were awful. Felt like my money and time were really wasted. Callous service, bad food (rubbery duck, burned crust on dessert tart). I agree with Jimster, who said “no restaurant is for everyone.” And places have off nights, that’s for sure. But after two tries, I just won’t go back. There are far too many other places that I save my money for.

  14. aprilla says

    I haven’t been to Paley’s place, but it’s top on my list of special occasion eateries. The one comment I’d like to make about the review is quite small indeed – I find that pickled vegetables have become quite common as an accoutrement in Portland. Most often as an addition to a charcuterie plate, you’ll find them anywhere from Tasty and Sons to Kenny and Zukes to Olympic Provisions to Saraveza (that covers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert) just to name a few. Thanks for the fantastic detailed review, I’m excited to choose from all the wonderful recommendations.

    • Food Dude says

      I just meant that I hadn’t seen pickled green strawberries and rhubarb before.

      …beside the norm are green strawberries and rhubarb that taste slightly like anise, but that may have been from commingling with a terrific cardamom-pickled carrot..

  15. restohopper says

    Although a lot of Portland foodies will agree with Food Dude. May I say, that the food has always been an 7-8/10. But my “reservations” (pun intended!) with Paley’s Place have always been that the tables are too close for comfort; the servers/staff always exude “stress” “uptightness” or “snootiness” not sure if it’s because of Kimberly or what, but the atmosphere does not warrant $100+ dining in my book. Hey, but that’s only MY opinion, and I’m entitled to it :))

  16. Jules says

    Wonderful review. Thank you. You almost have me eager to try the tartare. One question: Arugula tasted sweet? It never tastes sweet to me. I’m intrigued. I think I may need new taste buds

  17. Dick Lenahan says

    I’m glad the reviewer liked Paley’s Place so many times.  I was there just once about 10 days ago.  I found the menu OK, but not inspired by anything I saw on it.  I ordered a martini to enjoy prior to dinner with our friends.  The waitress said they used a lemon twist with martinis.  I asked for olives instead (what’s so odd about that?).  She said they had pits, was that all right?  I said sure.  Eventually the bill came and I was surprised to see that they charged me for the olives!  I thought that odd…In all of my many years this is the first time that the olives brought an extra charge on the bill!  The rest of the meal was uninspired…the halibut was good but small (1/2 portion), the pork a little fatty for my taste, and the wine with the meal (I didn’t have any) was also sparce (according to my table mates).  Will I go back?  WHY?  There are soo many other places to try in Portland….

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