When I was working in the bay area, the chef was always in the kitchen, expediting every plate. It wasn’t much different than the part Gordon Ramsay plays on Hell’s Kitchen. Before service, every sauce was tasted. Every bit of prep was examined. Every dessert was sampled. During service, it was rare that a plate left the kitchen without the chef’s approval. He had a pocket full of tasting spoons, and used them constantly. If a dish didn’t pass muster, he’d give a glare that would frost the grill, and dump it in the garbage. Needless to say, this didn’t happen very often, but no matter how long you had worked at his restaurant, he still tasted every dish, every night.
I think it was in a recent book by Michael Ruhlman he added up all the calories taken in by a major chef over the course of a night. It was some fantastic amount. This is the way it should be. Unfortunately, in Portland, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. It is driving me crazy. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
23 Hoyt: On an early visit, I had spätzle with braised rabbit, chanterelles, leeks, crème fraâche, dill, chives and crispy shallots. Sounds good, was very good. The textures were great, all playing against each other to create a perfect combination that made the dish really interesting. A month later, I had the same dish again. Everything was somewhat mushy, the sauce wasn’t balanced, and I was embarrassed to have recommended it to someone at my table. A few weeks later I was back with a large group, and ordered it again. This time, it lived up to the first experience.
Ten 01: My first few visits concentrated on the bar food. In a word, it was stellar. Perfect little sliders packed with flavor, and pulled pork sandwiches that were some of the best in the city. Six weeks later, I went back. Those perfect sliders would now make perfect hockey pucks. The pulled pork was boring, the buns were burnt, and it took 30 minutes to get the food (not to mention the 15 it took to get our first round of drinks!) Since I had written an earlier post raving about the bar food, I felt like a complete ass.
Park Kitchen: One week I had an amazing meal of grilled sweetbreads, a beet salad, and a perfect dish of pork, cabbage dolmas, and kumquat relish. What really made this dish was the sauce: a thickened blend of spinach juice infused with duck liver. So damn good I wanted to lick the plate. A week later I went back, and ordered exactly the same meal. The first two courses were just fine, but the entrée was a huge disappointment. The pork was a bit overcooked, and the sauce was so thin and watery it didn’t stick to the meat. I was so annoyed I didn’t want to finish the meal, skipped dessert, and went somewhere else; this coming from a guy that loves Park Kitchen.
My point is none of these dishes should ever have made it past the kitchen. Somewhere along the line, they failed, and no one was paying enough attention (or cared enough) to catch it. If the chef isn’t going to be in the house, he’d better make damn sure his sous is on top of it. It’s his reputation at stake! It can also be the reputation of the diner. How many times have you recommended a restaurant to friends, only to be embarrassed because the food was totally different when you went back with them? You look like a fool, and feel like you have to keep apologizing all the way through the meal. Now then, put yourself in my shoes.
I raved about the sliders at Ten 01. Now they are lousy. While working on a review, I’ve been back to 23 Hoyt six(!) times, but can’t make up my mind because things are different every night. I really enjoyed Tabla, but now it has slipped. What if I’d written a glowing review of Park Kitchen based on my one sampling of that dish, but someone else had gone back and had the second version? They would have dismissed me as a talentless hack who knows nothing about food. I can’t say I would blame them. Sometimes I feel there should be a disclaimer at the end of every review, saying, YOUR EXPERIENCE MAY VARY.
More and more restaurants are open seven days a week. I’ve learned to go back Sunday or Monday, because the food is rarely as good as it is the rest of the week. What is going to happen if a national food critic happens to come in on that off day? Recently, a major magazine was in town. They went to a restaurant that should have been a shoo-in as one of the best in Portland. Unfortunately, the chef was off that night, and the food was embarrassing. Needless to say, they didn’t make it into the magazine.
While I’m ranting, I’m going to bring up holiday meals, specifically, Thanksgiving. When I first moved to Portland, I had dinner at Higgins and was served turkey so dry I couldn’t eat it. Wildwood? Ugh. The Heathman? I pushed food around my plate until they finally took it away. The only good Thanksgiving meal I’ve had in a Portland restaurant was at Paley’s Place, and even there it was below Vitaly’s usual standards.
Whatever happened to food being about the art? Has passion for perfection been pushed aside in favor of greed? Is it more important to have four restaurants that crank out money than one good one that gives you a comfortable living and a stellar reputation? Would you rather be a chef that your peers respect for your culinary talents, or who’s latest iteration of his home has been written up in Portland Monthly? Why did you get into this damn business?! Is everyone selling out?
I know Portland isn’t Chicago, or New York. I realize diners here aren’t willing to pony up the kind of money that they do in those cities. I also realize that costs are lower here, and restaurant’s prices have been creeping ever higher. When they first opened, many prices at Ten 01 were in the mid $30 range. Clarklewis recently raised their tasting menu from $38 to $50.00. I don’t mind paying for good food, but I had damn well leave full and happy. Unfortunately, I left their CL and made myself a snack when I got home. Would I order the tasting menu again? Probably not.
This morning I’m walking the dog, and glance over at Willamette Week. They did a great job, with three reviews: Lovely Hula Hands (mixed review), Chapel Pub, and a complete review of Ten 01 by Heidi Yorkshire, titled “Looks: 10, Food: 01”. Clever title, and oh so true. Some choice pullouts:
“Ten 01 could have been a slam-dunk success. Instead, it’s a sad combination of confused ambitions and fumbled execution.”
“What I got at a recent lunch was a tough little nest of cold frisee with no apparent seasoning, a handful of room-temperature bacon bits and an egg fried hard, wedged onto a plate between school-cafeteria roasted beets and shredded raw carrots.”
“… knife-impenetrable tandoori-roasted chicken breast on a risotto of hard little rice pellets, with droopy, oddly sweet kale”
“…black cod topped with Dungeness crab coated in dry-as-dust bread crumbs, on bitter radicchio and fennel, in a puddle of sweet garlic cream sauce. All dishes were a dispiriting symphony in brown, and all were salted beyond edibility.”
I could sit down and write a long review of Ten 01, but what’s the point? My feeling is owners Adam Berger and Michael Rypkema are in over their heads. No one in their right mind opens three restaurants at the same time (If you count that sad little set of tables at the Armory with it’s plastic wrapped sandwiches a restaurant). Kudos to Willamette Week.