Lazin’ On a Sunny Afternoon – Marshall Manning reviews the bar at Higgins Restaurant [Note: this review is only of the bar area. There is a full review of the entire restaurant here.]
Friday was one of those days I don’t have often enough. It was the kind of day I’d have frequently if I ever got lucky enough to win the lottery. It was a clear, nicely warm fall day, still feeling like the end of summer. I had taken the day off work, with nothing particular to do, only to have a relaxing Friday. After washing my car I decided to treat myself to lunch and decided to head to Higgins.
My wife and I have eaten at Higgins a few times, and have had a couple of mediocre meals and also one experience that was probably our worst meal in Portland. Despite that, I keep hearing that I should eat in the bar and try the burger, which seems to be considered one of the best in town. With the top down I headed downtown and I appeared to have luck on my side as I found a spot right in front of the restaurant. Getting a spot in the bar a little after 1:00 wasn’t an issue with most of the lunchtime rush leaving in order to provide me with prime parking spots.
While there were other items on the menu that looked tasty, including the house-cured pastrami sandwich, my mission on this trip was to try the hamburger. After ordering the burger on the rare side of medium rare, I ordered what appeared to be the best by the glass pour for my taste, a 2001 Coriancon Cotes du Rhone. While Higgins has a reputation for having a good wine list, the small selection of by-the-glass wines weren’t inspiring, and like the main list, were mainly focused on wines from California, Oregon, and Washington, with a few European selections thrown in. There aren’t too many bargains on the bottle list, and I think it could show a bit more imagination with the selection, as well as a slightly lower markup.
The Coriancon was a solid wine, a bit plumy and with a light prune when sipped alone, but it matched very well with the burger. The wine was served a little on the warm side (I’ll deal with this in a future column, but most restaurants serve their red wines too warm and their whites too cold), which probably brought these characteristics out more than if the wine had been served at the proper temperature. The patty was about ¾” thick, and was cooked perfectly, nicely browned on the outside, but beautifully pink and almost rare on the inside, just like I had ordered. The burger was dressed simply, with a lightly garlic aioli, cheddar cheese, and onion, tomato and lettuce on the side. I like to really taste the meat on my burgers, so I just added one onion slice. This might be the beefiest tasting burger in town (it’s made from freshly ground Painted Hills sirloin), and the rosemary bun was a nice addition, although it could have been grilled to soften it up a bit. With the nearly rare beef the Cotes du Rhone lost some of its plumy character and the smoky accent in the wine was accented by the burger. This was a pretty nice Cotes du Rhone for $6.50 per glass, and I can recommend it with the tasty burger or other beef selections.
After cruising around enjoying the weather and running a couple of errands, I decided to visit Southpark and check out the bar and wine list. At 3:00 in the afternoon the bar was fairly empty, so there was plenty of room for me to spread the three wine lists out while sipping a glass of the delicious 2004 Chidaine Touraine. There’s a small list that mainly features the 21 by-the-glass selections and the themed wine flights, a large list that includes these items plus the bottle selections, and a third small list available by request for those looking for something really rare and geeky, called the “Vins du Garage” list. While there are some interesting selections on the Garage list, the regular list is enough to satisfy even the hardcore wine geek, and there are lots of interesting wines on the list, as well as some good bargains. Almost all of the 21 by-the-glass selections are available by the half glass, glass, or carafe (the sparkling wines are only available by the glass), and there’s a wide selection of whites and reds from around the world, including some fairly obscure gems like the Chidaine Touraine (Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley), the Edmunds St. John Pink Froid Rose, and the Camille Saves Carte Blanche Brut Champagne.
Not only does Southpark have a very satisfying by-the-glass list, but the bottle list is also interesting, with over 75 wines listed by style. The list does includes some obvious choices for those who want local Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, but also features some delicious German Rieslings, refreshing roses (which match very well with the fritto misto, some of the best fried calamari in town), and wines from Spain, South Africa, Italy, Argentina, Australia, and other wine regions. As with many restaurant lists, some wines are priced higher than others relative to their wholesale or retail prices, but the average seems to be around two times retail, which is fairly standard for Portland. While I’d like to see slightly lower markups across the board here, there are some bargains to be had. It’s tough to make specific recommendations since Southpark changes their wine list almost every week, but the wines from Edmunds St. John, one of California’s best wineries, are all fairly priced and the 2002 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese at $46 is less than twice retail and will make any German wine fan happy.
After the delicious Chidaine, as well as a small taste of a J. Christopher Sauvignon Blanc offered by the bartender, it was time to head home. Even though it was nearing 4:00 on a Friday afternoon, there was no traffic on Barbur and I was able to cruise home with the sun shining on my forehead and a big smile on my face. Unfortunately, I can’t do this every day, unless someone out there has some winning lotto numbers for me. If you do, next time I’ll pay someone else to wash my car. And I’ll treat you to the $145 bottle of 1990 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millenaires Champagne at Southpark.
- Address: 1239 SW Broadway, Portland, 97205
- Phone: (503) 222-9070
- Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30am-12:00am, Sat 4:00pm-12:am
I’ve had a few incredible meals at Higgins as well as a few terrible ones. Now I just eat in the bar. The pastrami is pretty darn good.
I agree about the wine temp. So many times I go to a restaurant and see the bottles standing on a shelf near the kitchen. Never order wine in that case. When I order white I always end up trying to warm it with my hands before I’m done eating.
I’ve had a few good dishes at Higgins, but mostly desserts a few years ago when they had an excellent pastry chef, from what people later told me. Otherwise, most things have always tasted worse than they sounded and they didn’t sound especially good. I consider it one of the more over-rated restaurants and have always suspected that it gets deference due to its politics.
I do like the bar food, though. I think the pastrami sandwich mentioned is good as is the burger. However, I will never get over being served a salad on the side, especially at the price. At least roast some potatoes or something if you don’t have a fryer. I disagree however that it’s an especially beefy burger. I think it’s seasoned heavily and tastes, to me, almost like a Lebanese sausage. It also has a really fine, almost smooth, grind which is a bit odd. Higgins is in my next burger report which will be either this week or next along with Bluehour, Ken’s, Lovely Hula Hands, and Roots. I do love much of the charcuterie at Higgins as well — and the pickled fiddlehead ferns are really good.
Hope I haven’t been hosing your online experience MSG. I’ve been tweaking templates, didn’t think anyone sane would be up this late;)Hope the new theme is more to your liking.
Did you forget I’m in IT? It’s still early.
Marshall Manning says
Extra, I don’t think I’ve ever had a Lebanese sausage, but the burger I had was very beefy. In fact, while I was eating it I was thinking that the taste and texture of the nearly rare inside part of the burger was similar to the carne cruda at Osteria d’Alba, and it seemed to be a coarser grind than what you mentioned. Maybe Higgins’ inconsistency extends to their burger, too (as this seems like a totally different burger)?
Higgins has my favorite burger in town, by a long shot. I agree with ExtraMSG about the salad, though. What a rip!
I also think Higgins is vastly overrated by most. I’ve never had a really great meal there, though I’ve had many at Wildwood and The Heathman.
So, who has a better burger than Higgins? I’ve sort of given up trying, but if someone’s got a suggestion–please–post it!
Food Dude says
I like Cafe Castagna, ExtraMSG has some other suggestions and a big roundup at his site, extramsg.com
I like the burger at Carlyle. Although it’s only available off the bar menu. Painted Hills beef, pancetta, caramelized onions, fontina, and a few other odds and ends on a nicely grilled bun. I should also mention that it comes with some very good french fries (as opposed to salad).
RE: CARLYLE. Lunch also, correct? It’s on my list of places to survey.
I’ve had several really good burgers. Any of these would be worth trying, imo: Cafe Castagna, Ken’s Place, Wildwood, Bluehour, and Gotham.
Places I’m looking to try: Carafe, Carlyle, Heathman, Paley’s, and some others.
To add on burgers (which really is probably unfair to Marshall and this is the last thing I’ll say on burgers since it’s taking over a largley wine-centered post): at this level most of the burgers are pretty good and you’re really just talking about personal preference and the finer points, such as how crusted or smokey the meat is, how well the bun keeps from being soggy, how good the fries are, etc.
Marshall Manning says
No problem with me…I know some of the posts will drift to the food side, too, since I enjoy good food as well as good vino.
Food Dude says
Hey Marshall… I was thinking it would be fun to do a food review together sometime. I’m thinking Genoa;) Game?
Marshall Manning says
Do they have game at Genoa ;-)?
Thanks for the tips. I know the new chef at the Carlyle, but haven’t had a chance to eat there yet (young kids). Maybe I’ll give up on the idea of dinner and go for lunch. Pancetta on a burger … could be great, could bring back memories of Jack in the Box bacon cheeseburgers.
Time to go read extramsg’s burger survey.
Marshall Manning says
We went to dinner at Carlyle with a group of 8 on Saturday night. While the food was very good, it wasn’t any better than other places in Portland, and the tab ended up being $70/per person including tip, as the dishes are fairly expensive. The service was very good, however, and they only charged us corkage on 4 bottles even though we opened more like 8 or 9. It seems like the kind of place where it’s nice to visit on someone else’s dime, but for similar pricing (sometimes less), I’d rather go to Castagna or Paley’s.