Note: This restaurant now has a new chef. Your experience may vary from mine.
Whenever I sit down to write a review, I ask myself, “What is the restaurant’s goal?” Is it bar food, cocktails, bargain prices, family friendly, eclectic dining, fine dining, or what? Usually this is an easy thing to nail down, but in the case of the Gilt Club, the ambition is somewhat muddled. The cocktails are excellent. As a late night dining option, I can’t think of a better choice in town – where else can you get a full menu of such ambitious entrées at 1:00 in the morning? At the same time, the Gilt Club is open for regular dinner, so I have to take that into account.
Since they are trying to be so many different things, I’ll take them one at a time, beginning with the restaurant itself.
The Gilt Club is downtown at the intersection of NW Broadway and Everett St. Tables are set up on the broad sidewalk, providing a pleasant place for a drink on a warm night. The outside however, gives no clue of what is to come. The restaurant is beautiful in an old-school, clubby kind of way, the space striking – a dramatic, intimate lounge for cocktails. Walking in makes you feel like you’ve joined a private club. The bar to the left of the entry is attached to the dining room, so everyone gets to watch the action in both areas. A large flat screen TV behind a mirror floats over the bartender. When it’s off, you just see the mirror – very cool, it allows people at the bar to watch TV without it really intruding into the restaurant. Circa 60′s light fixtures hang above the bar, with two very dramatic lamps above the dining room. Everything – ceiling, booths, tablecloths, and curtains, is dark red, set off by the warmth of the old wood floor. Lots of big, plush draperies warm the space. The booths are very tall-backed and comfortable. Incongruous brown paper is run over the red linen tablecloths, which seems a bit tacky, but not that noticeable. Candles on the tables provide a bit of light, and my complaint in an earlier review of poor lighting has mostly been fixed; flashlights are no longer necessary. The space has a very comfortable feel, and as the evening passes, the restaurant fills with young, trendy Pearlites. As a matter of fact, it rarely gets crowded before 10pm or so, but later on it gets packed. The owners got a lot of bang for their buck, and I think it is one of the more comfortable spaces in Portland to while away an evening; the quintessential date spot.
Since Gilt Club first opened, a good list of house drinks has been developed. Cocktails are a major focus here, and while I’ve thrown quite a few requests at them, the bartenders have handled each with aplomb. I’ve yet to be disappointed. Everything from old-fashioned drinks to modern twists on the martini has been well executed. Shaker drinks are poured at the table, which bothers me a bit, as those types of concoctions are meant to be poured off immediately. The purpose of the shaking is to mix and chill the ingredients; you don’t want to add water by melting the ice. Still, that is a minor nit, and customers seem to enjoy the tableside service. They have a decent quantity of wines by the glass, as well as an average bottle selection, and a typical Portland beer list.
Service is a mixed bag. I’ve gone in on busy nights and had exceptional service, followed by very slow nights when the same staff seemed to be asleep and uncaring. One thing has always been consistent: the kitchen turns out dishes efficiently, and they arrive at the correct temperature.
I’ve always thought, if you are going to run your own business, you need to come in and experience everything just as if you were the average customer. The way things are presented when you sit down, I wonder if they have done this at the Gilt Club. The two tops are of average size – these days that means there isn’t a lot of room to move around. As you sit, each person is presented with a large mounted menu. A tall cocktail list is stood on its end, followed by the large wine list. I always sit there feeling claustrophobic for a bit, barely able to see the person I’m dining with, and every party of two I’ve watched being seated has immediately laid the menus flat. It’s… dumb; I don’t want them in my face.
The original chef has been replaced by Alan Rutherford, a graduate of Western Culinary Institute, who most recently worked at the Calico Italian Restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Comparing the menus when Gilt Club first opened and the selections today, it doesn’t appear he’s had too much overall influence, though the menu does seem a bit more focused. The choices are mostly comfort food in nature, and tend to be strongly influenced by season. Here’s the October 2006 version:
Kumamoto oysters with a spicy cucumber mignonette $14
Fresh Mediterranean mussels with kabocha squash and Thai green curry $11
Baked goat cheese with seasonal fruit compote and crostini $7
Charred rare sirloin of beef “tartare” and a seared scallop served with preserved lemon guacamole and grilled toast $10
Moroccan spice grilled Tombo tuna with a cucumber-yogurt sauce and a curried couscous salad $11
Dungeness crab salad with avocado and micro greens with a citrus dressing $10
Arugula salad with apples, dates and manchego in a sherry vinaigrette $8
Caesar salad with creamy lemon garlic dressing and baguette croutons $8
Roasted beet salad with walnuts, endive and Oregon bleu cheese tossed with a pear vinaigrette $8
Pommes frites with seasoned salt and mango-red pepper ketchup $4
Soup du jour $4 / $7
Porcini rubbed natural Angus flat iron steak with pommes frites and red wine demi $20
Sage grilled duck breast with an apple cider reduction served with chestnut spaetzle, butternut squash and walnuts $18
Seared sea scallops with aged balsamic vinegar served with chanterelle, leek and mascarpone risotto $22
Braised natural Angus beef short-ribs with celery root puree and caramelized root vegetables $21
Market fresh fish served with cipolline and Yukon Gold potato ravioli, roasted beets and a meyer lemon oil. (Market price)
Grilled venison chops with bing cherry sauce, Brussels sprouts and an apple and sweet potato puree $21
Yukon Gold potato gnocchi with green beans, crispy pancetta, cardoncello mushrooms and roasted shallots in a light tarragon crème – vegetarian upon request $16
Cascade natural Angus burger, caramelized onions, applewood smoked bacon, fontina cheese, roasted garlic aioli and whole grain mustard with pommes frites $12
Overall, the quality of the food has improved significantly since they first opened, though most things still have a way to go to lift them above Portland’s average. Because of their focus on the late night crowd, they have a large selection of first courses that run the gamut of tastes. Most are better than I expected.
The Caesar salad is romaine hearts, dressed with a balanced, though not terribly exciting, lemon garlic dressing. I can understand them toning down the garlic, given its reputation as a date place. You are given a choice as to whether you want anchovies or not; if you do, they come in little mounds scattered throughout. The large thin croutons on top are rather pedestrian, but can be considerably punched up if you smear them with some of your anchovy. Overall, this is a fairly average version ($8.00). An arugula salad with apples, dates and manchego in sherry vinaigrette was excellent, the dates providing great little bursts of flavor. No complaints here ($8.00). Another offering is a roasted beet salad. The beets are thinly sliced with good sweet flavor, the walnuts, endive, and Oregon bleu piled on top. The pear vinaigrette is a bit above the mainstream, making this a good choice. ($8.00)
If you like fries, the pommes frites were quite good, thin shoestring fries, nice and crispy, drenched in salt; quite addictive – I could eat the entire bowl myself. An accompanying mango-red pepper ketchup was overly sweet, and felt gimmicky. It really wasn’t needed, as the fries stood very well on their own. More recently, there was a different dipping sauce with a bit of spice to it, but I didn’t like it much either. Still, get the fries. They are great all by themselves ($4.00).
The Porcini flat iron steak was nothing to write home about, but wasn’t bad either. It was just… fine, well executed but no wow factor. I’d certainly have it again, but unlike Le Pigeon’s version, for example, it’s not something I’d rush to tell friends about ($20.00). Another meat dish, the seasonal venison chops with bing cherry sauce was better. The two chops were cooked exactly as they should be, and arrived piping hot. As I’ve said about venison other places, the farm-raised meat didn’t have a whole lot of flavor (I swear if you put a blindfold on the average Joe and served it to him, he’d think it was steak), but the other ingredients made the plate. I’m not a huge fan of Brussels spouts, but wow, I could eat a bowl of these. They were matched with a good apple and sweet potato purée, and the dish was finished with a Bing cherry sauce, which was an average attempt. Overall, all the components got along just fine without anyone having to raise their voice ($21.00). For those that are more focused on cocktails, a Gilt Club burger is available. The ingredient list is Cascade natural beef, caramelized onions, applewood smoked bacon, fontina cheese, roasted garlic aioli and whole grain mustards. The burger is easily the best late night choice in Portland; moist and flavorful, when matched with the fries and a few cocktails, you’ll feel quite good about life ($12.00).
A few seafood dishes are always available. Recently, three plump scallops, finished with a bit of balsamic, came on a good-sized bed of chanterelle, leek and mascarpone risotto. The scallops were seared just the way they should be, and the risotto was one of the better restaurant versions I’ve had in a long time – perfectly al dente, moist, and loaded with fall flavor ($22.00). The fish dishes can be hit or miss depending on the day. A pan-seared Alaskan halibut with tarragon-French bean salad and hazelnut brown butter, constructed thusly didn’t work at all. Build a raft of cold, al dente green beans. Plop a piece of dry overcooked halibut over the top. Add a dense sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts. End result? The beans fought with the halibut, the nuts fought with the halibut, and the nuts and fish were so dry they kicked the beans’ ass. As far as the tarragon goes, I couldn’t find much in evidence. The whole thing was a disappointment in design and conception ($23.00).
Desserts are hit and miss ($7.00). I tried a pear and bittersweet chocolate tart with pear crème which was average, a better choice of warm gingerbread cake with candied hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream, and finally a caramel apple pastis with cinnamon ice cream, which I found surprisingly well made. The crust was just right, and not at all oily, and the apples had a good balance of spices. There are also a few other desserts, and a selection of sorbets.
To go back to my opening paragraph, depending on what you are looking for, there are different ways to judge the Gilt Club, so I’m going to break it down. As a bar/cocktails with friends/date place, I’d give it a very good score – 3 stars. It’s a warm comfortable space, and the cocktail prices are just right. For a late night food fix, I’d also give it a high score. I can’t think of a better choice at 1:00am. As a regular dinner restaurant, the results are much more mixed, however, if you choose carefully, you can get a good meal in a swank space.
By the way, the owners here seem like they really care. Not only did they ask me to come in, they sent me copies of the menu, and provided the photos used in this story. It makes the review look really nice. I’m surprised other restaurants don’t do the same thing – I’m always happy to include photos.