5.07 – Note: clarklewis chef Morgan Brownlow has left to pursue other ventures. Since then, the restaurant has been taken over by Bruce Carey and company. The food currently being served may or may not match this review. When they settle on a new chef, this review will be updated
Clarklewis was opened in February 2004 by the same people who own Ripe Family Supper. They chose to move their chef, Morgan Brownlow, from Ripe. Morgan was the former chef de cuisine at Oliveto in the bay area.
The restaurant is on the east side of the river in the industrial area along Water Avenue. The room is dominated by a large open kitchen and grill. On busy nights, it is a sea of orange shirts worn by the kitchen staff, and provides a good floorshow from just about anywhere in the restaurant. The dining room is long, flanked by large roll up doors that afford a nice view to the outside, and can be rolled up on nice afternoons. Since my first review, a great deal of effort has been put into damping sound; it is not as loud as it used to be. The lighting is a little better too, though they still give little penlights to people who are obviously having trouble reading the menu. The bar at the far end has an interesting list of well-prepared cocktails. It is a pleasant place to wait until your table is ready. Overall, I like the space.
Service is generally quite good. The staff is very knowledgeable about the menu, needs are generally anticipated, and food arrives quickly. I’d say not one stumble in all my meals.
If you haven’t been to clarklewis before, the menu takes a little getting used to. It is laid out as Starters, Soup, Pasta, and Stove and Hearth, which makes perfect sense. The prices can be confusing though, as most dishes come in Small, Large, or Family sizes. From the back of the menu:
“we want you to be able to order from this menu with ease and joy. please take note of a few clarklewis differences. first, you can order anything on the menu family style – just indicate how many people at your table want that item, family style. you can also order items as a small portion or large portion… we trust in time this will become perfectly clear and may even be exciting…”
Note: the lack of capital letters is apparently the thing to do if you are cool. I left it alone so I can be cool too. The same goes with the lowercase clarklewis. I think that is supposed to be cute.
As I’ve said before, the food is most important to me. Picture this meal in your mind:
• Fresh, sweet French breakfast radishes, with good sweet cream butter, and a breath of Portuguese sea salt.
• A salad of roasted Bulls Blood beets, roasted until just sweet; thin, juicy slices of blood oranges, slightly tart to offset the beets; crisp watercress, pungent oil-cured olives, and smooth, creamy goat cheese.
• A huge bowl of mussels in a mind-blowing broth of garlic, wild fennel pollen, conserva of chilies in vinegar, and huge, pungent bay laurel leaves; the best I’ve ever had.
• Unctuous fat duck liver, seared, with sweet Medjool dates roasted with acacia honey and sherry vinegar. Acid, sweet, earthy; all the flavors were there
• Homemade tagliarine pasta with Dungeness crab, spicy Calabrian chilies, sautéed garlic, oregano, and a dusting of parsley
• Almost translucent fresh ravioli, filled with Cypress Farms goat cheese, leek cream, and prosciutto san Danielle. The cheese inside was so light it was almost like egg white, yet had the full goat cheese flavor. The leek cream and prosciutto gave perfect creamy/salty counterpoint to the cheese.
• Perfectly crisp red-banded rockfish, pan-roasted, with piquant stewed celery root and leeks, a hint of saffron, and Calabrian chili to round out the flavors. Pair this with pieces of crunchy skin that tastes almost like it was roasted over wood.
• Slow-roasted spit of Sudan Farms lamb, rubbed with chilies, served with crisp potatoes, and sugo
Yes, this was all one meal, split by two people, courtesy of the chef’s menu at clarklewis. It is easy to put your table in their hands and be brought the chef’s favorite dishes for the night, all for a fixed price of $38.00. Each person gets a different item every course, so the more people at the table, the more things you will get to try. The above meal was for two people, and the portion size of each dish was just right, so you walk out completely satisfied, but not feeling like you need to lie down in the car before driving home. This sounds like a pretty good meal, and it was, though there were two resounding thuds: the tagliarine with crab was so overpowered by the chilies I couldn’t even taste the crab, though the texture showed it was there. Secondly, the lamb was stomped on by rosemary, muting all the other flavors. I’ve had worse, and I’ve certainly had better. Still, with so many good dishes, I was generally pleased with the experience.
On another night, the chef’s menu consisted of:
• Radishes, again, served with traditional butter and salt
• Bood oranges with shaved fennel, oil cured olives, and new pressed olive oil
• Fennel salami tossed with young arugula, capers, pickled onions, and ricotta salata
• Farro “alla pilota” – guanciale fried with onions, yellow foot chanterelles, sage, and walnuts
• Tagliatelle egg noodles, ragu of Ford Farm Beef, braised with porcini mushrooms
• Alaskan true cod and Savoy cabbage stewed with onions and sage, porcini red wine sauce
• Spit-roasted pork shoulder rubbed with Dijon, wild fennel, and rosemary.
For this review, I went back five times. Starters tend to be amazing, almost breathtaking in their inventiveness, and pasta is usually sublime. Take the second menu above: the starters were wonderful, a master class in combining flavors and textures, requiring concentration to truly appreciate the various shadows of flavor across each dish. The farro was stunning, with a hearty, nutty, risotto-like quality – I could have eaten an entire bowl. However, I found some of the same problems I did when I originally reviewed clarklewis a year ago. Items from the stove and hearth are a mixed bag at best, sometimes absolute disasters. The tagliatelle was harmed by big pieces of gristle in the meat that threw off what would have been a wonderful, hearty dish right out of Tuscany. It was followed by an overcooked cod, and a very dry pork shoulder that was difficult to cut and had little pork flavor.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the desserts. Last I heard, Naomi was making them herself, but this hasn’t helped, they fail almost every time. A vanilla-caramel panna cotta was draped with blood oranges which ruined the texture of the custard, and overpowered any subtlety ($8.00). The chocolate torte was grainy, though a topping of praline-whipped cream was pretty good ($8.00). Other desserts also fall firmly in the ‘unmemorable’ category. Save some money, just have a cup of coffee, or if you need something sweet after all that food, head across the street to Bakery Bar. They do a much better job.
The wine list has grown quite a bit over the last year, with many good choices to pick from. Markup is about average. I’ve quizzed several of the servers, and found them to be very knowledgeable about the various characteristics. My only issue is that (as is the case in much of Portland) the reds tend to be served too warm.
In spite of the occasional duds, I like clarklewis. It is fun to get the chef’s menu, being surprised with every course and getting to taste lots of different things. You could have a wonderful meal by sticking to starters and pastas, even the fish if you get lucky. More items from recent menus can be seen below.